More than 125 years ago the Anglican Church at Five Ways began life as a ‘wayside chapel’ of the large, grand and wealthy establishment church in East Sydney (St John’s Darlinghurst). Times have changed. Since those days before Federation there has been a role reversal for residents of the inner east! Unfortunately the church has been slow to recognise and respond to the changes in its neighbourhood. During that time many Christian churches became decidedly middle class. More Christians were living in the suburbs and most Churches sensed they were ‘more at home’ in the suburbs. Inner cities were places of violence, drugs, sex and crime leading some to even wonder if God had abandoned the city?
Fifteen years ago I lived in Forbes Street Darlinghurst and was the pastor at Rough Edges Community Centre at St John’s Darlinghurst. I have witnessed firsthand the disregard for relationship and denial of justice that comprise the ‘sins’ of the city. Whether it is visiting those locked up because of their struggle with mental health or burying those who lost their battle with addiction, the gritty reality of life for so many in the inner city cannot be ignored. The last few decades has also seen a rapid re-gentrification of the city. Perhaps we’ve seen a second wave of gentrification around Five Ways? Too many churches with a suburban focus have not adapted to these changes either. The ABS census data is compulsory reading for pastors like me. Caught betwixt and between the gritty reality of poverty and the glorious real estate of wealth, growing numbers of city residents have abandoned faith in God and/or the Church. Too few churches – except ones like St Johns and the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross – have embodied solidarity with those at the margins of inner city existence.
At Paddington Anglican Church we are called to recover our sense of place. A place in our neighbourhood for God and the life of the spirit. Aboriginal mythology reminds us that it is ‘place that lends meaning to the stories’. Sacred stories, once divorced from their place cannot be properly understood, let alone believed. The physical shape of a city is made up of subtle everyday activities and decisions: how to fence the garden, where to shop, voting in council elections, etc. Many scholars have observed that these issues of place have moved to the very periphery of Western thought. The ramifications are explored in contemporary film and literature that voice a constant theme of humanity lost, without a home, without a sense of direction, without a place. Being dislocated, uprooted, or not belonging are all-too-common experiences for those living in our inner-cities: including both the paupers and the princes!
The genius of place is at the heart of religion is the bold claim of Deborah Bird Rose. The devastating plight of uprooted, dis-placed and stateless people seeking asylum are a vivid example of what happens when people are mis-placed in detention. From our nearest neighbours in Five Ways to those far removed from their home countries, the Christian community of Paddington Anglican is committed to lending sacred meaning to our stories through its enduring commitment to a place called ‘Five Ways’.
At Paddington Anglican Church we believe that place means actual buildings, parks and roads because place is never less than grass and concrete, parks and parking meters, terraces and cafes. We are discovering again how the particular place of Five Ways takes on symbolic meanings because the history of every place affects what it means to those who live, work and shop there. Christian Faith has always understood that place and memory are inextricably linked. Paddington Anglican Church shares in that web of meaning because it has been a place in Five Ways where important words are spoken, where promises are made, vows are exchanged, where new life is celebrated and a life ended is mourned.
For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, the Anglican Church has been – and will continue to be – rooted in the place called ‘Five Ways’ in Paddington.