WESLEY CHURCH. 78TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION.
WESLEY CHURCH. 23RD SEPTEMBER 2012. Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.
One of my first experiences with Wesley Mission was preaching at the 94th anniversary of Wesley Central Mission in 1977. I was invited by the then Superintendent Rev Sir Alan Walker to fly to Sydney from my ministry in Melbourne. It was just after the Methodist Church joined with the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches to form the Uniting Church in Australia which occurred in 1977.
I had the previous January 1977 been the guest speaker at a conference for about 100 Methodist ministers and senior staff of the Central Methodist Mission on the principles of Church growth that I had outlined in my book on that theme.
I was a Churches of Christ minister leading a nationally known church development at the Cheltenham Church of Christ, Victoria. We had become rather famous for my book on “How to Grow an Australian Church”, and my lectures on church growth which had been attended by more than 15,000 church leaders. I was 38 at the time and really anxious to think through how churches could become relevant and effective in their ministries in the city.
Alan Walker then invited me to the 94th anniversary, remembering the occasion when Rev W G Taylor took the old Sydney Methodist Church, which had been established in 1812, and in 1884 gave it a new name, Central Methodist Mission with new slogan “A Living Christ for a Dying World.” In the early 1905, the Central Methodist Mission had centred its worshipping activities in the Lyceum Hall, later called the Lyceum Theatre, and the various Superintendents following W G Taylor built up the largest congregation of any denomination in Australia.
The afternoon and evening congregations in the Lyceum Hall developed a core of people who either attended no other church, or else attended their local Methodist Church for the morning Service then came to the Lyceum for the evening service. This core of people who attended no other church, needed a smaller church where they could worship.
It was this desire that had led one of the Superintendents, Rev Rupert Williams, to construct Wesley Chapel to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Central Methodist Mission in 1934. So today is the 78th anniversary of Wesley Church (Chapel) in the 200th year of Wesley Mission life in Sydney.
Now I was originally coming along to preach at the 46th anniversary of this particular Wesley Chapel which is now called Wesley Church and to speak at the afternoon and evening services of Wesley Central Mission Sydney in the Lyceum Theatre.
It was going to be a very busy Sunday. And it started off in Wesley Chapel (which in those days was in Castlereagh Street). For 46 years Wesley Chapel served the members of Wesley Mission’s morning church congregation and was the home of staff communion services for the Central Methodist Mission and the Methodist Church which had their offices built above it.
I was thrilled to be invited to come and speak at this famous Wesley Chapel on Castlereagh Street. I had frequently visited, and on one occasion preached, at Wesley Church Melbourne—a massive large cathedral type church seating 1,500 made out of solid basalt rock, its high spire dominated Melbourne’s northern skyline, and was the Methodist Cathedral. I imagined Wesley Chapel Castlereagh Street, Sydney, to be something similar.
Was I in for a shock! It was small, built inside a series of other buildings, dusty, with little natural light, and possessing an overwhelming smell of damp. What I didn’t recognize was this little Wesley Chapel had endeared itself over the past 46 year to the hearts of Methodists in Sydney.
Later in that same year, 1977, I was appointed Superintendent of Wesley Mission by the Mission Council, the Mission Board, the congregational members, the Presbytery of Sydney and the Synod of the new Uniting Church. I took a year in Melbourne to finish our ministry at the Cheltenham Church of Christ because I wanted to see our new multi-million dollar extensions finally paid off, and to complete some studies in the Uniting Church’s Ormond College at Melbourne University. I was inducted as Superintendent in January 1979.
I then considered positive ways in which I could use this little Chapel. Instead of having one congregation I soon established five congregations in the Chapel, one for each lunch hour of the week, and five on Sundays. As well, we used this Chapel for weddings, funerals, prayer meetings, lectures, bible studies and devotional times for groups and individuals. During the 1980’s, out of it grew two new parishes in the Uniting Church and eleven new congregations, Asian and Pacific, especially the Rotuman congregation. These together totalled over 3,000 persons.
During the 1980’s it became one of the busiest properties owned by the Uniting Church and integral to the total work of Wesley Central Mission, which conducted services of a different kind in the Lyceum Theatre and in the Wesley Chapel simultaneously. At any one occasion we could have more than 1,500 people in worship. However, using the little Chapel in the most positive ways possible didn’t overcome all of its deficiencies. Yet it became the centre of vital ministries under the leadership of four Superintendents.
Wesley Chapel was constructed under the leadership of Rev Rupert Williams, who was then Superintendent during the dreadful days of the Depression. He brought church members and a crowd of the city’s poor to meet in Wesley Chapel and then go to the Fellowship Hall where people would receive bread and soup. In the depression years this was purely a subsistence ministry. But it was the means by which many families kept body and soul together.
In 1938 the work was taken over by the Rev Dr Frank Rayward. Rayward had a passionate love, as did Rupert Williams, for Methodist young people and Methodist youth crowded into Wesley Chapel for their Saturday night functions once a month.
It was here also that many young men assembled prior to marching out to war. At war’s end when peace was declared in the Pacific, Dr Frank Rayward gathered crowds of people in ten consecutive services on the Sunday that peace was declared. Wesley Chapel almost became Frank Rayward’s major Platform because it was here that he became famous for his charming and theatrical wedding services for almost 20 years. Hundreds of people look back to being joined in matrimony through the remarkable wedding services conducted by Dr. Frank Rayward.
In 1958 Rev Dr. Alan Walker became Superintendent and he used the little Chapel much less than his predecessors. He preferred to preach in the Lyceum Theatre and to dust off the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon and turn it into a crusading platform where he would fight devils in all kinds of disguises in the strongest prophetic ministry ever known in this country. He would bring to the community, its commercial and political life, the searching light of the Gospel and at the same time intertwine the Word of God that brought salvation to souls. Dr Walker was a bigger man than Wesley Chapel and so its use declined.
When I arrived at the end of the 1970’s it was only used for a small Sunday morning congregation of less than thirty people, and a Chapel in the City congregation of Thursday. It seemed like its days were coming to an end. They were actually coming to an end very quickly and I was the person who was going to end its life by replacing it with a magnificent new Wesley Church three times the size!
The truth was most Methodists did not want the Wesley Chapel back in 1934. From 1884 there had been a constant battle with those Methodist who felt uncomfortable with John Wesley’s legacy for the poor and of a fighting prophetic witness in the pulpit.
In 1910 the Methodist Conference had a long and searching debate over the Central Methodist Mission’s ministry in a theatre. Many were shocked that we would worship in a theatre. Many people couldn’t accept that Methodists should worship in a picture house that attracted more than 1,000 people at every service including down-and-outs and drunks. It was just not respectable enough! Further, it was second class when compared with the magnificent Wesley Church will its huge spire in Melbourne. The good Methodists of Sydney felt really second class.
During World War One, the soldiers crowded into the theatre. Over 3,000 people at a service readily heard the Superintendent, Rev Dr Samuel Hoban—an army padre—preach strongly on issues of God, King and empire. The Sydney Morning Herald frequently printed his sermons and businessmen often asked each other, “Did you hear Dr Hoban yesterday?” When War ended, Dr Hoban accepted a call to the spectacular Wesley Church Melbourne, where Hoban Chapel commemorates his marvelous ministry to this day.
Yet those men who went to the Methodist Annual Conferences didn’t want a church to worship in a picture house. In 1915 the Methodist Conference voted to acquire a suitable site, to worthily represent Methodism in the state capital and form a denominational rallying centre as the occasion may acquire. They wished the Methodists could have a cathedral like Melbourne’s Wesley Church. That debate was to go on for years.
In 1921 the Methodist paper called “The Methodist” led a sustained attack which lasted over the next 14 years crying out in banner headlines, “When will Sydney Methodists have their Cathedral?” That Melbourne had such a magnificent Methodist Cathedral stuck in the throats of many Sydney Methodists.
But at the end of the 1920’s with the Depression coming along, the Central Methodist Mission had a lot of people, with high demand for food and no money. So the Central Methodist Mission created a beautiful little chapel on the first floor of the Vickery Mission Settlement as a centre for prayer and meditation. That didn’t work because it was too small and out of the way on the first floor.
With the 50th anniversary of the Central Methodist Mission’s commencement coming close, Rev Rupert Williams led the Mission into looking at the conference hall that was situated on Castlereagh Street on the ground floor. He devised a way whereby they could build within this hall a church with fine wood panelling, a pipe organ, stained glass windows lit with artificial light and pews made out of Queensland silky oak. It was quite an experiment and cost the Mission 9,000 pounds. Now the Methodists had a city church looked like a proper church, albeit a very small one. Later on, still inside this church built inside a large hall, a balcony was added to cope with the larger crowds. This balcony covered up the stained glass window memorial to Rev W.G. Taylor and few ever saw it until we placed it 50 years later behind the Baptistry.
The old argument did not die. In 1938 the Methodist conference debated forcing the Mission to remodel the Lyceum Theatre into a 1,200-seat cathedral type church. It was argued, “Some kind of stigma rests upon our church as its centre is located in a talking picture show.” The only change in this argument from the one that was made 25 years earlier was the instead of worshipping in a picture house, it now was a talking picture show. The conference exploded with advertising signs of scantily clad movie stars covering its foyer!
There came an opportunity to really build a cathedral in the heart of the city after the Lyceum theatre had been demolished and gutted by fire in 1964. Again the cry to build a cathedral was raised, but Alan Walker had established the most effective form of city church ministry to be found anywhere in the world and he was determined that a theatre should be built. More than 100 other Central Missions around the world had been patterned on our work here in Sydney. Alan Walker led to the rebuilding of a new Lyceum Theatre, not a Methodist Cathedral like Melbourne had.
This was the Lyceum Theatre I inherited when I was appointed in 1977 and with it, at the back, reached through the laneway made into Wesley Arcade, was Wesley Chapel. The fabric, carpet and seating of the Theatre needed urgent replacing. Everything needed painting. The under-stage area smelt of damp constantly. Wesley Chapel’s wood-work had wood worm and wood rot and he whole development by Dr Walker had not been paid for and it debt stood at one and a quarter million dollars which we did not have and the interest was crippling us especially as there was another quarter of a million dollars which the Mission had loaned to a Trust which could not be repaid.
This was an impossible situation and by the end of 1979 I knew what I had to do; I proposed the redevelopment of the entire city property owned by Uniting Church including the Uniting Church offices, Wesley Chapel and the Lyceum Theatre. I had a vision that we would demolish everything on the site, dig down 8 storeys, that we would built a new 1,000 seat theatre for the performing arts with a huge cinemascope screen, but purpose built with the idea of using it for television production in church worship and in weekly services of Christian evangelism.
Alongside this new Wesley Theatre would be a new Wesley Church, seating over 500 with a floor area three times the size of the old Wesley Chapel. It would be the latest in church design and worthy of the best of city worship. We would build a new Wesley Centre, Lyceum, offices, restaurant, car parking and 40 storeys of office space which would be leased out. It would be for three years, the CBD’s largest building development. In the meanwhile, we would lease another Theatre in George Street, spend over a million dollars on new offices, a new Chapel and restaurant. It involved us in twelve years of intensive work, thousands of meetings, hundreds of plans, and $300 million in expenditure. In the end, we opened it debt free with all of the old debts paid off as well, with 36,000 people attending over thirty official openings. It was an incredible achievement for all involved. For the next two years average total attendances exceeded 2,500 people each week.
What most people did not realize was that at the same time we would build three retirement Villages based on the ones I had developed in Victoria, at a cost of $100 million, and these also would be opened free of debt.
The design of this Wesley Church would be significant because it would be the first new church of any denomination to be built in the city CBD in the past 50 years since Wesley Chapel itself opened. We would take out the huge stained glass windows, have them cleaned and re-leaded and added back into the new church. We would take the pipe organ and replace it with a larger pipe organ. The pews would be taken out and sold except for a number that would go to a new Chapel we were building in Wesley Hospital at Ashfield where we would there shortly dedicate new stained glass windows, created by the daughter of one of our psychiatrists.
In 1992 we dedicated the new Wesley Church for use for church services every day of the week except Saturday. On Sundays it is used by several congregations including morning and afternoon congregations and by people of different racial groups. It is used during the week not only for lunchtime services but for healing services and for staff communion services, for the induction of new ministers, for weddings and funerals. One unusual service we started was the university church which consisted only of university students and which met every Friday night. Wesley Church continues with an outstanding ministry of proclamation to the city and building up people in their faith. It became the busiest church in the City of Sydney.
When I first came to the 46th anniversary of Wesley Chapel in Castlereagh Street in the old Methodist pulpit, I said, “The city church has a specialist ministry. In an earlier generation its role was clear: A strong pulpit voice of faith and warm pastoral care. Today it has the complex task of being a prophetic witness, a place of social service, of community relationships, of placing care into the heart of the community, worship into the world of work, support for every need in a world where selfishness dominates. What a great time for Wesley Chapel to be alive! Great need presents us with great opportunity! Individuals in the city still have their personal needs. Inner city residents, care takers living on the roof of every tall building, young flat dwellers, ethnic subcultures, derelicts in the lanes and streets, homeless youths in squats, aged single people in hostels and lodges, travellers and tourists, and an increasing number of people falling victim to alcohol abuse, gambling, drugs and moral permissiveness—all still need the city church. These people have already written the charter for the city church’s ministry. While they are here our task is clear.
“We must have in the Wesley Church tomorrow:
Evangelistic concern to bring the lost to salvation;
Compassion that the lonely might feel at home;
A family atmosphere that all may feel loved;
Flexible worship hours so that we are open when people are able to attend;
Programs of social action;
Educational groups and spiritual nurture;
Practical support for helping people with meals, accommodation, clothing, counselling, and care;
Leisure activities to enable city people to fill their lungs and to exercise their bodies;
Great preaching to catch the media’s attention and to complete with the Godless headlines of the secular world; and Ministry of such skills that the Word of the Lord will be heard above the noise of electric typewriters, cash registers, computers and the omnipresent piped music”. (1977)
That particular sermon captured the imagination of those present. It wasn’t long after that they would be coming down to Melbourne in groups to visit me and talk to me about becoming Superintendent of a church in the city. The little Wesley Chapel with its rather dowdy and musty appearance which had grown to be so loved by so many people has evolved today into a large Wesley Church with modern lighting and architecture, with the first baptistery to be built in a Uniting Church in Australia. We built interpretation booths where many language translations can take place simultaneously with telephone lines coming in where counsellors could deal with the questions of people who responded to our radio and television preaching—Wesley Church was designed as tomorrow’s church.
I admire the good and loyal church members in these pews today. You are part of a democratic denomination giving many people a voice in church government. There is a spirit of mateship abroad. There is a strong community focus with service ministries to every kind of human need involving an army of staff and volunteers. You are contemporary in your concerns and worship. You are Australian in culture and viewpoint. You are really tomorrow’s church. You are as St Paul wrote:
1 Corinthians 12:12,27 “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many… So that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Happy 78th anniversary Church!