Canberra City Uniting Church will celebrate its 90th anniversary on 3 February 2019. Canberra City Uniting Church member, Jenny Rowland, reflects on the congregation reaching this milestone.
How far the small group of Congregationalists who formed the Canberra Congregational Fellowship on 16 January 1929 has come in ninety years. They began with a rich denominational history and over that time have often re-imagined and invented themselves in new ways of being God’s people.
At all times the early Canberra Congregationalists maintained their Congregational identity, even when there were worship space and clergy shortages around World War II. In 1941 the denomination was granted a block of land for a national church on the major thoroughfare of Northbourne Ave, Canberra City. The first building on this site for the Canberra Congregational Church was opened in 1952. The wider denomination contributed to funding an additional building that was opened in 1959 as the Congregational National Memorial Church. These staunch Congregationalists then voted to join the Uniting Church in Australia from its inauguration in 1977.
At Church Union the former Congregationalists joined the Reid and Wattle Park Methodists in a multi-congregation parish at three separate churches. By 1984 there were two churches in the parish, with four formally recognised Uniting Church congregations, including Tongan and Korean ones. Worshippers from other ethnic origins also felt welcome at City Church, early groups being Tamils from Sri Lanka and West Papuans. In 1989 the parish divided, but the Tongan Congregation, renamed the Toe Talatalanoa Congregation by the Tongan Royal Family in 2006, remained linked to the Canberra City Congregation. Ethnic diversity remains a major feature of Canberra City Uniting Church to this day and greatly enriches all members.
Building in the Canberra CBD was proceeding apace by the 1980s, so that the large city block occupied by the church was required to be developed. This initiative became known as the Northbourne Development. There was much liaison between church, government, architects and builders from 1983, as the lease on the site was changed and construction proceeded. The new Canberra City Uniting Church and adjacent office block, Pilgrim House, were opened in 1988, with other office buildings also constructed on the church’s former block of land.
Since that time church members have considered their unique position in Canberra City. Theirs was the closest church to the World Council of Churches’ Assembly in Canberra in 1991. A weekly lunchtime recital series ran at the church for fifteen years. The Northbourne Avenue shopfront became an ecumenical resource centre known as The Wellspring. From 2005 this transformed into the Early Morning Centre to provide breakfast and, over time, an increasing number of valuable services for people in Canberra who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Worship continues in Tongan and in English. Members who prefer more informal services gather as City@Night as part of the Canberra City Congregation. Ministry to students, especially international ones at the nearby Australian National University, has brought new connections with the wider world. Other outreach includes prison, retirement village and mental health ministries. Members engage in advocacy on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers. They express their concerns about the future of the environment. They also walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Forums have been hosted on such themes as the Murray Darling Basin and caring for the earth.
Today Canberra City Uniting Church aspires to be a prophetic church, with its people speaking out in public about justice issues and calling governments, industry and other leaders to the paths of right behaviour. They plan to be a lighthouse church through sharing their resources with other congregations, so that all may work more effectively. They take good account of their church’s past reinventions over its 90 years to date. They know that they will always need to reimagine the future leading of the Spirit as they share in the ministry of Christ.
Image: (L) Canberra City Uniting Church opened in 1988. (R) Congregational National Memorial Church opened in 1959. Photo by W Pedersen 1961, TROVE, National Library of Australia.