By Mark Brolly
12 March 2022
Two Anglican parishes on opposite sides of Port Phillip Bay have turned to the ancient Christian devotional aid of labyrinths to help people respond to 21st century challenges.
St Andrew’s Rye, on the Mornington Peninsula, and St Stephen’s Belmont in Geelong are using labyrinths as a means of mission by inviting the wider community into their church grounds after two years in which the pandemic has forced churches to close.
In Christian tradition, labyrinths have been a means for the faithful to focus on God as being at the centre of creation and all life.
Perhaps the most famous one, in Chartres Cathedral in France, was completed in the early 13th century and remains there today. But some labyrinths are installed in cathedrals and churches and then removed.
St Andrew’s vicar the Reverend Nick Wallace said the church had created a new labyrinth on the site of a previous one as part of its Mission Action Plan, to try and further its parish’s presence in the life of the community.
A labyrinth ministry will be available to minister to anyone who wants to walk the labyrinth as a spiritual journey towards God. But it will be open access for the public, so the church may never meet many of the people that walk it.
“We’re hoping that the labyrinth will be a focus towards God,” Mr Wallace said.
“It could be that 80 per cent of the people walk that labyrinth and we would never know it because it’s open access to the public.
“Before COVID, we could leave all our churches open and people could come in and light a candle and say a private prayer. COVID destroyed all that … but this is something on the back of COVID – out in the fresh air, people don’t need to QR or sign in, they can go and walk that labyrinth at their leisure.”
Mr Wallace said the labyrinth was an unthreatening activity for people who had not been to church for a long time, or had never been.
“We who go to church, it’s quite a natural thing for us but for [some] people to get up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to go to church today, I haven’t been for 40 or 50 years’, that is an enormous step for people to do that and it can be very intimidating,” he said.
“But with this labyrinth it will be open access. We will have an information board … and a large bronze plaque right at the heart of the labyrinth with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.”
As part of its outreach, St Andrew’s already provides 160 breakfasts every Thursday, mostly for students and staff at the local primary school. It plans to introduce café church and Mainly Music this year, as well as a harvest celebration in the spring.
Mr Wallace said while Sorrento and Portsea were playgrounds for the very rich, the Peninsula had a lot of invisible poverty, particularly closer to Rye and Rosebud.
“We can be foxed by the seaside, ‘Oh, beautiful Sorrento and Rye’, but there’s a lot of issues here,” he said.
Mr Wallace said women in abusive relationships would often have to leave home suddenly, and sometimes took their kids to the foreshore. He said a growing number of people were living in tents and caravans among the trees on the foreshore in Rye, some with mental health issues as well as family breakdowns.
“We’re in touch with groups who support those people and we’re doing our best to support those groups as well,” Mr Wallace said.
“It’s tough times for the church at the moment and we’ve got to up our game a bit, in fact quite a bit.”
Space to reflect, pray
In Belmont, St Stephen’s priest-in-charge the Reverend Shirley Littras said the parish had built the labyrinth only recently, as well as having created a meditation garden in the grounds of the church.
She said with COVID-19 and the Ukraine war, many people in the community were needing a space to sit and pray.
“Because of the pandemic, we opened up the front garden to people going by and said they’re welcome to come in and sit and pray,” she said.
“With COVID and everything that’s going on in Ukraine, so many people in our community are just needing this space.”
Ms Littras said teachers at the nearby primary school had used the garden to do reading with students, while a parishioner living near the church had told her that people were walking the labyrinth every time she passed by.
The church has also started a monthly healing service, led by assistant priest the Reverend Elizabeth Bufton.
“The pandemic has really hit the community,” Ms Littras said.
“I’ve had people ringing up the parish asking for prayer about the pandemic and as often has been said, the church has been placed here for such a time as this. If we don’t grab the opportunity to really use the plant as best as you can, then [we’re] missing out.
“For the parish, I hope it starts to break down barriers, make people feel like it’s safe and open and start a pathway [from the church] towards people. It’s provided a space for people to come and just be and provide a place of healing for those in need.”
In Rye, Mr Wallace said Bishop Paul Barker would dedicate the labyrinth on 6 April and commission a labyrinth ministry team on the same day.