By Andrew Judd
11 February 2022
Ten years ago, my wife and I started attending a church just off “Cowpasture Road”. It was called that, someone eventually explained, because 50 years earlier this busy suburb was exactly that: a cow pasture. It was still a mostly empty field when the bishop started raising funds to purchase a small plot of land.
A generation ago, these Anglicans committed to parish-based ministry and a vision for evangelism and growth, stepped out in faith. Like Abraham buying the field in Machpelah, Joseph buying the fields for Pharaoh, or Jeremiah buying the field in Anathoth, to purchase land for a church where there is not yet visible need is an act of faith. It requires short-term sacrifice and a long-term vision.
It requires no long-term vision at all, however, to recognise existing needs. At our most recent synod I asked the question how many church plants and Authorised Anglican Congregations in this diocese are renting their primary place of worship. I was grateful to the Archbishop for his speedy verbal answer: “seven”.
Seven of our already established church plants and congregations are still without a permanent address. Some of these are years old, and now amongst our biggest congregations. Before the pandemic an estimated 15 per cent of Melbourne Anglicans worshipping on any given Sunday were sitting in a movie theatre rented by one of the City on a Hill congregations.
To these seven congregations, God willing, we will soon add more. I was deeply encouraged to see at the same synod the excellent video presenting some of the church planting projects in the diocese. Of course, almost all of these will be starting out with rented facilities.
To those who wish somebody else had responsibility for their parish maintenance bill, being a renter might sound like an advantage. And sometimes it is. But it also makes it much harder to establish an embodied presence in a community – to communicate that “we are here with you for the long term”. This is one of the reasons why a United Kingdom bishop I know spends his life trying to find buildings for new church plants right from the start.
Practically speaking, being a nomadic congregation means someone must be in constant negotiations with venues. It means your children’s program area is never quite as well set up or safe as you would like. It means sometimes having your Easter services cancelled a week out because a shopping centre decided to do last minute maintenance. It means 30 per cent of live giving each year just to keep the doors open. It means your priest-in-charge lives 45 minutes away because that’s all the stipend covers.
I’ve never heard a church planter complain about any of this, by the way. They’re an odd bunch in my experience – sometimes they seem to relish a challenge.
But the church historian in me worries that – especially in many of the fastest growing parts of our diocese – we are handing nothing down to the next generation that we didn’t inherit from those who went before us. We need something of the vision of those generations past who, decades before my wife and I came along, gave sacrificially to support congregations and ministries they would never meet.
Speaking of our inheritance, in the last ten years in this diocese $69 million has been realised from sale of church properties. Only seven per cent of those funds were spent on new building projects. Almost all of that was small grants for the renovation or redevelopment of existing facilities – the welcome exception being the $1.27 million allocated from those sold churches to help St Matthew’s Mernda (Plentylife) build much-needed facilities for its thriving ministry. I’ll admit it, we’re not quite at Cowpasture Road levels of investment in the far-off future, but it’s something.
The cities of Melbourne and Geelong are rapidly changing. The challenges we face are substantial – but so are the opportunities, and the resources we have been given to meet them. We are stewards of a mind-boggling inheritance. (I don’t just mean the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and our precious Anglican traditions!) We have hundreds of millions of dollars entrusted to us with a single mission: to make the word of God fully known. May the Master be pleased with us when, at the end of all this, we report back how we have invested his talents.
The Reverend Andrew Judd is associate lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College Melbourne.