Before I moved to Canberra, people told me about the north/south divide: people north of the lake rarely venture south of the lake, and vice versa). As I was moving from Perth (where people north of the river rarely venture over the river, and vice versa), this was not a new experience for me.
This past weekend, in Canberra, there were joyous celebrations taking place on both sides of the lake. And some people even crossed over the lake to take part in those celebrations!
North of the lake, the Gungahlin Congregation was celebrating 25 years of ministry and mission in the northern-most region of our capital city. The Congregation started as a church plant, beginning from almost nothing—Mark Greenlees arrived in January 1996 to a rented house, one couple willing to work with them, and three partly-completed new housing estates with a population of 12,000, surrounded by paddocks and hillsides.
Over a decade, Mark and his wife Robyn worked with a growing group of dedicated disciples, building a faith community that was in a position then to call a new minister, plan and build a purpose-built church and community complex (opened in 2010), and develop a distinctive identity as an inclusive, community-oriented gathering of people.
Mark Faulkner came to ministry at Gungahlin in 2007. He reflected on this group as “a genuine Christian community, where people of all ages, relationships, cultures and theologies sat side by side, where people were welcoming to the stranger, the hungry, the troubled, the refugee … a community who shared leadership, encouraged ideas, took risks and sought to live out their faith”.
Darren Wright is now in placement with a strong group of lay leaders, sharing the site with a Korean UCA Congregation, looking to harness the energy of the people into engagement with the neighbours that now surround them—households with two working parents, refugees moving into the region, with places of worship for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Bahai, Buddhists, and other faiths.
A group of people which which filled the worship space and foyer (with the requisite social distancing) heard stories from each era in the Congregation’s life, tapped and clapped as the band played and sang worship songs, shared in prayer for the local community and for people beyond, and then shared in fellowship for an extended time after the worship had ended.
It was worth the trip all the way from the southern-most suburb of Canberra, to this northern urban region, for this joyful celebration!
Meanwhile, south of the lake, another celebration was taking place, as the Woden Valley Congregation formally came into existence. Ross Kingham, Co-Chair of the Canberra Region Presbytery, presided as the members of two existing southern Canberra Congregations joyfully and wholeheartedly pledged their commitment to working together as a unified Congregation, seeking to express itself in worship and service in the Woden Valley in ways that are appropriate and relevant for the context.
Two parallel processes had led to this conjunction of Congregations. As Chris Lockley neared his retirement, throughout 2019 and 2020 he worked with the St James Curtin Congregation to explore possibilities for their ministry and mission in that part of Canberra’s inner south in future years.
Janet Kay, Chair of the St James Congregation, notes that “we started meaningful planning conversations early in 2018, after a significant number of people from St James had attended the Pathways conversations and had come back with ideas about what makes a healthy church.” Over time, explorations of these ideas were undertaken with every church in the southern region of Canberra.
At the same time, the South Woden Congregation, which was sharing the ministry leadership of Gary Holdsworth with the Weston Creek Congregation, was exploring their future. Chair of Church Council, Stephen Brand, explains that they wanted to “take a new and dynamic approach to our place in the community and also to seek out a like-minded congregation with which to consider working closely or merging.”
In the best of timing, the two processes converged about a year ago, and—working through all the challenges that COVOD-19 restrictions imposed—the two Congregations each came to a consensus decision about their future together.
Janet Kay observes, “our combined enthusiasm, talents and skills are now available to make something greater than the sum of the two parts.”
Stephen Brand notes, “we were considering a future horizon of 5 to 10 years and not reflecting an immediate terminal ‘decline’. In fact, the congregations [each] remain strong communities of faith with energy and purpose.” So, this is a merger made at a moment of strength, with a clear mutual commitment to a shared future—a most hopeful sign!
Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minster for Congregation Futures, notes that “after vows by the members of the new Congregation and a welcome by Presbytery, there was a gathering coloured pieces of wax from all those present to form a community candle. The worship music filled us with hope of new light streaming in this place as God gathered us in, and we were sent out trusting in God who gives us a future, daring us to go.”
Canberra Region Presbytery is also celebrating the commencement of new ministry leadership in three Congregations—Apelu Tielu at Queanbeyan, Geoff Dornan at Wesley Forrest, and Andrew Jago at North Belconnen. It is exciting to be in the middle of multiple communities of faith where hope for the future and commitment to the present are expressed so strongly!