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ONE HUNDRED YEARS A CHURCH IN A THEATRE

Wesley Mission Anniversary

Acts 19:28-34
29th May 2005

The Lyceum Hall was built in 1892 and was a state of the art theatre. It possessed a sliding roof that could be rolled back to allow the hot air to rise out of the building. Very old members can remember a scramble by stewards up to the third balcony to operate the windlass to shut the sliding roof when a passing shower of rain caught the congregation unawares. Dr Frank Rayward could remember preaching to people sitting in church with their umbrellas up to shelter from the rain.

The Lyceum Hall was built of red brick in Queen Anne style with a five storey hotel fronting Pitt St.. It could seat 1,700 and had the largest stage in Australia. In 1906 the wife of the owner, Senora Spencer hand cranked the projector from the dress circle earning the title: “The only cinema lady operator in the world.” Rev W.G. Taylor, the founding Superintendent, had retired and been overseas during the 1890’s. He returned to the Mission in 1898 and despaired at it’s decline. The Mission was then, as it would be for the next 80 years, under constant financial debt. Evening services were held in the Centenary Hall in York St, built in 1888 to celebrate the centenary of Australia. Crowds of 2000 attended. Taylor started a second evening service in the Sydney Opera House and to quote: “The dregs of the street were there — drunks and ne’er do wells, flash girls and larrikins in the pits. In the stalls were many of slightly higher grade. But even the casual observer could see that here was a congregation of non-church goers, No church had been depleted to fill this theatre.” (p78) Wright By 1906 the success of the Mission was obvious from the great crowds that gathered.

75% of the congregation would go to no other church and most of the regulars belonged to “the submerged tenth of the population — the flotsam and jetsam of society.” That year 2,550 attended the Anniversary tea in the Town Hall at which the former Prime Minister, George Reid spoke. Then in Parliament, Centenary Hall was a declared Sydney’s worst fire trap and a new preaching place was needed.

1. LYCEUM HALL PURCHASED.

Rev W.G.Taylor and one of his key supporters, Ebernezer Vickery, MLC, who lived in Waverley since coming to Sydney with his parents in 1843 searched for a suitable property. He was a wealthy Member of Parliament. They inspected the Lyceum but Vickery demurred as the price was too high. But Taylor told Vickery: “Never mind, you’ve got the money and can afford it. This is the chance of a lifetime.” So Vickery bought the theatre seating 2,500, a hall seating 500, and a hotel of 130 rooms, including the land to Castlereagh St and a property which housed a notorious two-up school and two cottages which were brothels. “The Methodist” of 1905 wrote: “The Lyceum was situated in the very centre of the gambling, drinking, unclean district of our great metropolis. To reach that dreadful centre and to purify it for Christ, is a call that knocks loudly at the heart of every lover of this country.” The Mission continued to operate in Centenary Hall as well as the Lyceum Hall for some time. Vickery’s untimely death in England meant he never saw the Pitt and Castlereagh St building built by the Lyceum Trust which bore his name. The property was opened by the Mission in April 1908 and handed over to the Methodist Church in 1915 to celebrate its Centenary. In 1979, I became the last member of the Lyceum Trust.

In 1907 it was renovated and in 1918 a false ceiling was added closing off the top balcony and reducing the seating to 1,300. In the late 1930’s it was remodelled again with indirect lighting, which changed colours as the overture of a film, was played. On Sundays, the screen could be raised into the roof revealing the mock organ pipes and stained-glass windows. In this Lyceum theatre preached all the great Superintendents. At 6am on 25th February 1964 Alan Walker was told the Lyceum was on fire. The fire started by the stage and ran up the curtains and spread through the roof and the old upper balcony. They collapsed into the dress circle and lounge and onto the stalls. The old hotel, then called Lyceum House, was badly damaged as was the rear of the Vickery Mission Settlement that was the headquarters of the Central Methodist Mission.

The worship services moved into the State Theatre. The fire gave the Mission an impetus and brought bigger crowds to the State Theatre than were meeting in the Lyceum. Alan Walker was at his best as he planned a new Lyceum and Wesley Centre. Fortunately only the theatre was damaged and not the Mission’s offices and administration. The Mission found the rest of the church in NSW left the Mission on its own to raise the finances. The new centre would cost $2 million and Alan Walker travelled far and wide appealing for funds, but by the end of Alan’s ministry the debt would still remain at $1 million and as Dr Don Wright writes, “the limited success of the drop-in activities, high lighting, power, air-conditioning and cleaning costs, and the heavier than expected interest burden, meant that the property was a financial burden throughout the 1970s.” (p211) The Walker dream had become a financial nightmare by the late 1970’s.

Faced with crippling debt when I arrived in 1979 I sold the Mission’s Galston property to ease the debt of $1.5 million and raised the lease payments of all tenants including Greater Union Theatres. The idea of rebuilding Wesley Chapel and the Castlereagh St buildings never came to pass because of these financial shortages.

2. THE LYCEUM CHURCH IN A THEATRE.

The courage of Rev W.G.Taylor in making a theatre the centre of the Mission’s worship and gospel preaching was not matched by other leading Methodists who wanted their own proper city church building like the magnificent Wesley Church in Melbourne. Many were ashamed of the Lyceum Hall. At many Conferences there were motions asking the Mission to vacate the theatre and build a proper church. They complained in 1906 about indecent posters displayed outside the theatre and private screenings of prizefights inside. In 1910 Conference held a long inquiry into the screening of films in mission halls. The Central Methodist Mission employed a Censor from 1910 to vet all films, a position that continued until 1988. Our last complaint concerned a scene in a film where a man out camping undressed and got into his sleeping bag wearing nothing but his underpants! The Conferences in 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919 all passed resolutions ensuring the films be absolutely unobjectionable. In 1918 a complaint was made about a poster advertising a very buxom woman described as “The woman God forgot.” In 1923 a 45 page pamphlet was distributed pressing for the banning of all films from the Lyceum. The “Methodist” lamented, “When will Sydney Methodists have their cathedral?” They had to wait until the 1990’s before they had a proper church.

The Lyceum will not be remembered as a live theatre nor a cinema for magic lantern shows and movies, but as The Lyceum Church in a Theatre. For this theatre has functioned more effectively over a hundred years than any other in Australia. No other church has seen more conversions than the Lyceum Church in a Theatre, nor more candidates committed to the ministry. More people each Sunday have attended its services than any other. The one large evening service has been replaced by a number of services morning, afternoon and night and our total average attendance of 2500 people for all Sunday services is still very significant.

3. THE CHRISTIE ORGAN.

Since 1930 the Lyceum Theatre has been known for the Christie Theatre organ. It was named after the founder of the Glyndebourne Opera, Captain John Christie. It was installed to accompany silent movies, but by the time it was installed, the Lyceum became equal first to present talking movies in Australia: Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”. So the Organ was used mainly on Sundays for the Mission. Vera Plowman and Eric Smith were long serving organists. In the Lyceum fire of 1964, the organ survived with only scorch damage to the console. Unfortunately all the percussion instruments were sold in those days. A second fire December 19th 1982, made the organ unusable for 12 months. We sent it to Melbourne to be rebuilt and revoiced, the chamber fully enclosed and a swell added. At my direction, all percussions were restored and the chimes muted, all actions and wiring replaced and provision made for permanent additions of new pipes and percussions. It is now one of the great theatre organs in the nation.

In 1979 I recommended to our Mission Council and Board that we demolish the debt ridden Wesley Centre, the rebuilt Lyceum, and the crumbling Wesley Chapel and Vickery Settlement building and our arcade of shops. We cleared the two acre site and dug down 8 levels for a 400 vehicle car park, constructed a new Wesley Theatre, a new Lyceum Hall, a new and appropriate Wesley Church in traditional church design with stained glass and pipe organ, and a new Wesley Centre three times larger than anything we have ever possessed providing four storeys of Mission office space and parish rooms, kitchen and restaurant, costing $40 million and a new three story four star shopping Arcade linked by air bridges to the major buildings in Pitt and Castlereagh Streets. It was an audacious dream that would cost $320 million in total, and after ten years of planning, negotiation and building we opened it debt free!

In the meantime for three years we would worship in a temporary Wesley Theatre and Wesley Chapel built into the old Plaza Theatre, 600 George St. It would be completely refurbished, carpeted, painted with new office space and restaurant to become a magnificent venue. This temporary home would be refurbished at a cost of $2 million. In 1992, a century after the building of the first Lyceum, another state of the art Wesley Centre, Wesley Theatre, Wesley Church, John Lees Chapel and Lyceum was constructed, but this time, we have no debts! The new Wesley Theatre was specifically designed for tele-casting services, conferences and major corporate functions and is based on the designed of the famous theatre at Ephesus, where St Paul defended the faith to the ordinary people and proclaimed the Gospel. Like Paul, we had to proclaim the Gospel to our generation.

4. WHAT HAS BEEN THE LYCEUM’S MESSAGE?

One message has been consistently proclaimed, and all the Superintendents have proclaimed it powerfully: “A LIVING CHRIST FOR A DYING WORLD.” Jesus Christ alone is the answer to this world’s needs. He alone speaks to the deepest need of the human heart. He alone meets us at our point of despair and give us hope. He alone reaches us in our darkness and turn our sunset into sunrise. No other message. No creed but Christ. No Book but the Bible. No way but love. No hope but God.

Here the Gospel has been preached, weddings celebrated, funerals conducted, missions held, hymns sung, petitions prayed, offerings collected, baptisms performed, ministers welcomed, conferences held, candidates encouraged, faith confirmed and souls saved. Here Governments have been lashed, sin has been condemned, the powerful corrupters of society have been fought and the Devil has been put to flight! For one hundred years this has been sacred ground. I dare say that for the next one hundred years, this will be the home of Wesley Mission. Thanks be to God! We remember our heritage with gratitude. We dedicate ourselves to the future, trusting in Jesus Christ who alone is the way, the truth and the Life.

Nothing is more typical of the past hundred years than I should invite you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour right now. On this site people have been saved every week in either morning or evening services. At this historic moment, I beg you, not to turn from the grace of God, but to received Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour and Lord of your life.

Gordon Moyes

 

Wesley Mission, Sydney.