Beecroft-Cheltenham History Group

Churches – Presbyterian

Music was an important part of church life. An anthem was especially composed for the opening of the church in 1909. Mrs Chorley commenced as church organist and a musical Esther was performed by the choir in that same year.  

In contrast to the growth of the church in Beecroft this was not happening elsewhere in the parish where the branch church in Thornleigh discontinued its evening service in 1910. [10] The growth of the congregation in Beecroft allowed it to increase the size of the stipend in 1911 as well as pay off the cost of the building and the purchase of a new organ. A lamp was erected over the entrance gate [11]. In 1917 the building of a hall in Welham Street (now a pre-school) commenced with a view to accommodating the burgeoning youth work. This hall opened in 1918 and a second neighbouring hall was subsequently built to meet the needs of the church. In 1974 the current hall, on the church site, was built and named in memory of Robert Vicars – a great benefactor and active member of the church. Stained glass windows were also installed in the church in memory of Robert and Violet Vicars. This hall was specifically designed with the intent that it be used for music concerts. As is noted elsewhere on this web site this did not eventuate to the extent anticipated due to the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

Originally the main service of the church was held in the evening and a regular morning service was not commenced until 1913.

It was also not until the 1940s that the church owned a manse – again a point of considerable controversy across any church’s history. The earlier Ministers leased or owned their own homes. In 1913 Rev Ogilvie purchased a house on the corner of Copeland Road and York Street. Between 1930 and 1933 he lived in ‘Roseville’ 163 Copeland Road East. [12] To enable the building of a church-owned manse, Mr Robert Vicars donated the land for the first manse (on the corner of Beecroft Road and Welham Street) in 1935 and the house was built in 1941. Subsequently this manse was sold and an existing house was purchased to further consolidate church buildings on the one enlarged site. The current manse was extensively renovated in 2019.

Life at the Presbyterian church for at least its first half century was dominated by local events: of Sunday School, ladies events, flower shows.

Youth work was a particular emphasis of Ogilvie and under his leadership camps, picnics and youth activities flourished. He established a branch of the Presbyterian Ladies College in Beecroft – although the school later changed to become the Anglican school known as Arden. [13]

The Church was hugely impacted by the First World War but not to the same degree by the Depression or the Second World War. Church was continuing to occur and by 1948 the number of communicants had grown to 128. Church organisations continued to grow especially with a well established and strong ladies group and its youth work. However despite growth in numbers (rising to 194 communicant members in 1958) the church was financially struggling in the mid-1950s.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s numbers continued to further steadily grow even further. This can be linked with the work of the Billy Graham Crusades. In particular, these evangelistic outreaches meant that a Senior Bible Class for young adults was first formed in Beecroft.

From a ministry perspective, seeking to address the needs of new families entering the district as a result of the housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s was high on Session’s agenda. This effort to grow the church population based on a growing population in the suburb was repeated in the time of Rev Andrew Williamson from around 2015 when Beecroft was again entering its third housing boom with units and closer development for over 50 year olds burgeoning.

The loss of youth at the end of Sunday School was a significant issue in 1952 – as it was again in the 1990s. The growth of the Ladies Guild and then the PWA were areas of much strength and support. In the 1950s the Church, under the Rev Harold Durbin, first started looking outside of Beecroft to develop in a significant way new areas of activity, as it supported Meals on Wheels and the Marella Mission Farm at Kellyville.  Other activities like Christmas meals for those without a family to go to or even discussion groups that transformed into the Beecroft Forum are the heirs of this tradition. The communion roll reached its largest numbers, approaching 300, at this time.

In 1967 the Presbyterian Church in NSW formally allowed for women to be elders [14] and from the 1970s Beecroft ordained women such as June Astridge and Helen Charlton to this office.

So often the question of women being ordained has been linked in the latter half of the twentieth and into the twenty first centuries with so-called ‘liberalism’ within the Protestant Christianity.  What is understood by ‘liberalism’ can vary according to context but is often defined by how literally the Bible is to be understood. For most of the twentieth century Beecroft was considered to be a ‘liberal’ church. This characterisation is based on a broader perspective of how the Protestant churches in Sydney might be viewed. A recent discussion of how changes in Sydney church history over the last half century or so by church historian Dr M Hutchinson, has moved away from this use of the term ‘liberal’. Instead of talking about the different types of Protestantism using the traditional descriptions of either Bible based or liberal or descriptions of churches as “word centred or experiential in nature” he argues that it might be more helpful in understanding what happened in the churches to refer to the different perspectives of “alternating mobilisations of bonding and … bridging …forms of social capital.” [15] By this, I understand him to be concentrating on either primarily what helps the church members in their inter-relationships consolidate as a cohesive group or to build their cohesiveness though a common effort of building social capital.

In looking at these broad characterisations of Protestant Church life in Sydney generally, from the 1960s onwards one of the consistent and on-going strands to the debate has been the role of women in the church. There are differing views as to whether this debate on the role of women is an illustration of the differing perspectives identified by Dr Hutchison, or the perspectives of Bible (ie the paramountcy of particular verses) versus liberal (ie the Bible should be understood as providing a broader narrative) or instead whether this debate is unrelated to the broader question of characterisation of Protestant Church life. On this last view, in grappling with these times, one historian of this debate (N Mannix) supports the third position and argues that the debate on the role of women in the church at this time should not be viewed as central to other contemporaneous Church events, and instead she seeks to separate the critical debate in the NSW Presbyterian church in 1993 with charges against the Rev Dr Peter Cameron for questioning the infallibility of the Bible (in a talk which also addressed the issue of the role of women) from the concurrent debate on women. She argues that the so-called ‘heresy’ trial cannot be seen as connected, other than by time, with the debate on women but rather based only on inherency of the Bible [16].

By way of contrast, and looking especially at Beecroft and its then Minister, following the 1991 decision of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to close the door for women to enter the Ministry, Rev James Mullan who was the then Minister at Beecroft said (in that same year) “the Bible only becomes the Word of God when its word are read and heard through the ears and eyes of faith.” [17] Later in 1993, Mullan was quoted as saying that the Presbyterian Church was “afflicted with fundamental literalism which was reducing the church to a sect” [18] and on another occasion that Presbyterians had a “calling to convert the political, economic and social life of the nation.” [19] At this point in time, Beecroft was clearly aligned with experiential or bridging mobilisations of the Protestant Church rather than the word centred or bonding. This position was being applied by Mr Mullan when considering the question of the ordination of women or other positions to be adopted by the Church and illustrates how the debate on women might be seen as part of the broader characterisation of what was driving Church life.

This is reflected in the church at Beecroft being seen within the broader Presbyterian church as more liberal, or more interested in social capital, than a number of the other Sydney Presbyterian churches.

What church life should look like was a critical issue that impacted on all Presbyterian churches (including Beecroft) at this time. This was because between 1972 and 1977 there were votes across Australia as to whether Presbyterian Churches would combine with other Protestant Churches to form a single new church or to remain a continuing Presbyterian Church. The then Minister in Beecroft, James Mullan, was staunchly opposed to the proposed union with the Methodist and Congregational Churches and instead even talked of leaving the door open to a possible link with the Anglican Church. [20] Mullan thought that theological conservatism exercised only a ‘minor influence’ in the decision of the NSW Church to stay outside of the union. He did however also remained concerned that the future of the Presbyterian Church outside of union would either be as ‘a latitudinarian, inclusive and socially-concerned church’ or ‘an authoritarian, exclusive and self-regarding sect.’ [21] The congregation at Beecroft had much discussion on these issues and in the end voted to continue as a Presbyterian Church. Amongst other impacts, this did effect the decision-making of the amalgamation of churches within the local area for the new Uniting Church - for which see the entry on this web site for the Uniting Church.

Concurrently with these debates Glenburn, a co-located development for the over 50s was also started in the late 1970s as an important and vital ministry of the church. Ms June Astridge took leave of absence as an elder to allow her time to concentrate on this development. The development of aged care as a critical role of a local church was also reflected in parishes in Gosford, West Wyalong and Chatswood. [22] For Beecroft this was seen as a practical demonstration of how a Christian church should operate.

During the time of ministers Durbin, Mullan and Levine there was a growth in discussion of public theology and social justice. This was demonstrated in individual church members personally funding a range of overseas works and the development of the Beecroft Forum, started by John Piper as a parish discussion group and then grown by Harry and Pat Wallace to be a significant forum for the debate of Christianity and public issues for up to 280 people meeting at Pennant Hills Golf Club to hear, and debate with, leading national and international speakers. Under Rev Paul Cooper, while links were strongly maintained in the form of people involved, any formal links between the Beecroft Presbyterian Church and this activity were severed.

As noted above, a branch church was planted at Cherrybrook and has subsequently grown into a parish in its own right. In 1984 the branch church of Cherrybrook had 51 communicants. [23]

By the 1990s the local primary school had over 56 different nationalities enrolled. Session, chaired by Rev Paul Cooper, made significant changes in seeking to grow services, to be even more inclusive of all peoples whatever their country of origin and have activities that were family focussed. This became particularly evident in the 10.30 service which was more family oriented. Prezzie Bees (for pre-school children and mothers) was formed by Mrs Megan Cooper (who had an extensive career in early childhood education especially with KU Children’s Services) and activities for primary school students in particular blossomed. The 10.30 service grew. Home groups were started and an evening service existed intermittently. The number of paid staff grew to its largest number in the history of the church. Cooper adhered strictly to a biblical approach to ministry that was word centred (while in extra parish activities played a critical role in Presbyterian Social Services and the development of the Presbyterian Theological College) and as such was a clear demarcation between the earlier ministries of Mullan and Levine, in particular.

Amongst the groups growing within the church it is noted that while fellowship for young people and women (under various names and organisational structures) has been a strong feature of the church from its establishment, similarly structured groups for men have not had a similarly successful continuous history. While it is the case that eldership in the church and other areas of leadership have largely been the domain of men, a Men’s League was not established until the 1950s and did not survive for a long period. A new men’s ministry group was formed in 2016 and support for growth in men’s ministry has been one element of the work of Rev Paul Harris as he leads a new strategic vision for the church. Like Cooper and Williamson before him, Harris adheres to a word centred ministry while maintaining active roles in the broader church.

Ministers

1901-1906   W H Drewett

1907-1908   J A R Brotchie

1908-1940   A M Ogilvie

1940-1956   S Watson

1956-1964   H G Durbin

1966-1973   H Perkins

1974 -1987  J Mullan

1987-1997   D Robson

1998-2003   M Levine

2004-2013   P F Cooper

2015-2018   A W Williamson

2019                 P Harris

 [1] M Hutchison Iron in our Blood Ferguson Publications, Sydney, 2001) p8

[2] Cumberland Argus 13 June 1903 page 10

[3] Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 228

[4] Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 230

[5] For extensive biographical details on Rev Brotchie see: P F Cooper “The Goodlet and Smith Brotchie Memorial Stained Glass Windows” unpublished 2 June 2019

[6] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 9 March 1907

[7] Evening News 15 February 1909 p8; T McCaskell One Great Hour (Beecroft, 2000) p14.

[8] Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 230. More information on the Chorley family         is found elsewhere on this web site. Chorley, W

 [9] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 30 October 1925 p3. Thornleigh separated from the parish of Beecroft in 1929: see P F Cooper “The Goodlet and Smith Brotchie Memorial Stained           Glass Windows” unpublished 2 June 2019 footnote 1.

[10] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 17 September 1910 p 8

[11] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 17 September 1910 p 8

[12] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 20 September 1913 p 8; John Sands Ltd Directory 1930-1933 for Beecroft.

[13] For the story of Arden see elsewhere on this web site. Arden

[14] N Mannix “Women’s Ministry” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 155. Mannix                was co-ordinator of women and children’s ministry at Beecroft between 2007 and 2011.

 15] M P Hutchison “The Ghosts of old beliefs: social capital theory and evangelical history” (2019) 2 Lucas 14, 29 at p 42.

 [16] N Mannix “Women’s Ministry” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 159-161

 [17] P Barnes “The Process of Church Union in Australia” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens,                2017) p 18

 [18] The Canberra Times 4 July 1993 p1

 [19] The Canberra Times 12 September 1979 p3

 [20] M Hutchison Iron in our Blood Ferguson Publications, Sydney, 2001) p360

 [21] quoted in P Barnes “The Process of Church Union in Australia” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope             Gardens, 2017)  pp 17-18

 [22] P F Cooper “Presbyterian Social Services” in Paul F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p            169

 [23] Beecroft Presbyterian Communicant Roll 1972-1985

 

 

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