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St Barnabas back on Broadway with a new church for a new generation

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The first church building to be built in inner Sydney in over 100 years was opened last Sunday in Broadway, Sydney.

The brand new church for St Barnabas Anglican Church – or Barney’s as it is affectionately known – has come after its congregation spent six years squatting in a makeshift lecture theatre-come-church at Moore Theological College. The new building is quite an architectural change from a lecture theatre.

St Barnabas’ architects, Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) has gained a reputation for transforming messy sites with bold buildings and master plans. Their Scientia building renewed the UNSW campus, and the new Law Building at Sydney University has refreshed the public spaces on that campus.

In the same way the bold curving shape of the new St Barnabas creates a landmark out of its cramped site. It manages to be contemporary, welcoming and dignified at the same time.

“The entrance atrium is probably my favourite part of the building,” says St Barnabas’ senior minister Mike Paget. “As you stand in there, you feel connected with the street [the bustling Parramatta Road] and also with the congregation. It’s quite fantastic.”

Long-time Barney’s member Rowena Whittle says one of the best qualities of the new building is that it is open and observable.

“Somebody standing on the street in Broadway will be able to look up into the church, through the courtyard and can actually see the congregation in worship. They can see the preacher at the front. And the people in the church can look out onto the street.

“I think that’s symbolic. We want to be a church focused on what’s happening out there. We want the real world to see us. We want to be visible and accountable.”

The cost of the new St Barnabas church building has been estimated at $18 million. Insurance proceeds, grants from Sydney Anglican Diocesan($1.75m and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation ($1m) and a couple of hundred thousand raised through public fundraising events and reaching out to Barney’s alumni has contributed to the building. But the most generous contributors to this project has been the St Barnabas congregation themselves.

“We’re on track to have raised $4 million from our church membership. It’s possibly the largest single amount ever given by an Anglican church congregation,” says Mr Paget.

He says the figure is even more significant when looking at the demographics of the St Barnabas congregation.

“We’ve got just under 500 people in our church at the moment. It’s a church of students and young families. Not many people own their own homes. But God’s generosity has pulled us through.”

While none would call the original St Barnabas church a ‘beautiful’ building, or indeed remarkable, some of its members have made a significant mark in the community. They include Arthur Stace, a reformed alcoholic who became a Christian at St Barnabas and wrote ‘Eternity’ on the streets of Sydney for thirty-seven years (and appeared as the feature on the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the millennium celebrations in 2000).

But it was the Reverend R.B.S Hammond who began the tradition of the St Barnabas church signboard that is, to this day, a fascination of the Sydney media and those in the community.

The tradition of public conversation between the ‘pub across the road’ from St Barnabas and the officiating minister of the time had been going for twenty years before the fire destroyed both the church building and its signboard. The exchanges have been dubbed  ‘the publican and the priest’ by former St Barnabas minister (now Bishop of South Sydney) Robert Forsyth.

The pub – the old Broadway Hotel, now called Broadway Cafe – has been taken over by another publican since the tradition started, but has jumped on the opportunity to start up conversation. Last month, when the new building looked ready, the pub put up a sign saying ‘Welcome back Priest’. When it became clear the congregation was yet to move back in, the sign changed to ‘You’re taking your time Priest’. The new signs have sparked rumours among the secular media that the dialogue is set to pick up where it left off in 2006.

Despite reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph this week that suggest the signboard dialogue is set to continue, Mike Paget is cagey about whether the dialogue will continue now that St Barnabas is back where it belongs.

“Barney’s has always had a signboard,” says Mr Paget. “In fact, in Rev. Hammond’s time it was probably much edgier. He said things in the 1930s like ‘This state has the best politicians that the breweries can buy.’”

He says that the signboard is only one of myriad ways the church can communicate now.

“Barneys has always believed that conversations about spiritual things should happen in the public space. They’re not just private matters. But the signboard isn’t the only way of doing that.”

Mr Paget says there is an understandable sense of nostalgia about the signboard dialogue between the ‘publican and the priest’, but many of the people who remember it have moved on to other parts of Sydney. He has a younger and a different congregation now.

“The fact that Barney’s is back isn’t an indication that the signboard dialogue will come back,” he says.

“Look, we don’t even have a signboard yet, so they’re jumping the gun a little.”

Bishop of South Sydney Robert Forsyth, who as senior minister of St Barnabas from 1983 to 2000 was a major player in signboard conversations, says he couldn’t comment on whether the conversations should continue when Barney’s new signboard goes up.

However, despite what Forsyth called “a burden, thinking of something to say each week”, he said the signboard had an obvious impact in the community.

“Of course it did. [The signboard] was extremely effective in its time. It gave the church a prominence in the city.”


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