OPINION | Act of bastardry to sell church land

MORE THAN A CHURCH: The St John's precinct, as a total hilltop package, is a heritage icon of the region, and deserves more than to be carved up and handed to developers.
MORE THAN A CHURCH: The St John's precinct, as a total hilltop package, is a heritage icon of the region, and deserves more than to be carved up and handed to developers.

Might a land swap be a solution to the (self-inflicted) case of vandalism being planned for St John’s Church in Camden?

Perhaps Camden Council could give the Anglican church a site elsewhere, and hand the historic hilltop site to another community group or religion that actually wants to protect the precinct from developers.

For those of you not aware, the Sydney Anglican Diocese has just approved flogging off the green space in between the historic church (1849) and rectory (1859).

As well as being another example of our local fate being dictated by our colonial masters in Sydney, it has caused a storm of online anger – comments ranging from “I am ashamed of my religion” to “short term gain, unable to be undone”.

This hilltop site is not only one of the prettiest corners of Camden, but what the NSW Office of Heritage of Environment calls a “precinct of national significance”. Note the word precinct; it’s more than just individual buildings. It’s a package.

The church wants to sell a big slab of that package so it can erect a modern place of worship on the other side of the church, where they can – in the words one one parishioner – “hold more contemporary services with mod cons like air conditioning”.

Well, what if Camden Council gave the parishioners a new air-conditioned room somewhere to pray in (maybe in its 6000sqm admin centre in Oran Park) and took over the heritage site so it could be protected.

I’ve gotta admit, I’m on the side of the community here.

What’s next? Paying for the upkeep of historic Macarthur Park, up the road, by selling off the bit between the rose garden and cenotaph to McDonald’s? It’s vandalism.

And, as one of the many angry locals stated on the Advertiser’s Facebook page: “How can they need a new church when the old one doesn't get filled up except for some special occasions?”

The Anglican Church, I’m told, was originally gifted the hilltop site by the Macarthur family. So, in the words of another angry resident, the current congregation of St John’s are merely the present “custodians” of the site.

(And, speaking of “custodians”, the Macarthurs took it from the Dharawal people, who had held it for thousands of years before that.)

Some local residents are already vowing that they will be setting up a protest camp on the site if necessary.

One online reader said: “It will be a brave developer who buys this land. I expect they’ll face an almighty battle to get DA approval, but will probably have factored Land and Environment Court costs into their budget.”

St John’s Church seems to be the latest frontline in our battle to retain quality in our under-siege region.

Just because a developer has a religious word in their title doesn't make them holier than thou. It was the Catholic Cemeteries Trust that raided the supposedly-protected Scenic Hills for a new Rookwood cemetery.

Something to ponder…

A couple of decades ago, St Peter’s Anglican School at Campbelltown tried to bulldoze its historic rectory, but lost the fight. Years later, when my good mate, the late, great Stephen Bomford, became the headmaster, he often voiced his delight (and relief) that the rectory had not been bulldozed, and that it was now a proud, much-used landmark of the school.

What happens in 10 years time, when we can barely see St John’s because of a big block of units, or McMansions, and a future church congregation and minister are horrified by what earlier “custodians” had done.

They can’t jump in a time machine – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Are bible experts heritage experts?

Dunno about you, but I’m scratching my head re two statements by the Sydney Anglican Diocese:

“The [land for sale] does not impinge on the heritage precinct.”

What? It’s slap-bang in the middle of the precinct, in between the two key buildings! How can it not impinge.

And who appointed bible experts as heritage experts anyway? A real expert – NSW National Trust president Dr Clive Lucas – says it will impinge. If I have to chose between an educated opinion by someone with no financial stake in the outcome, or the not-so educated option of a church set to profit, I know who I’ll believe.

Dr Lucas makes it clear: “The vacant land is important to the setting of the church – should the church sell the land I believe they would be in some breach of trust in doing that.” Hear, hear.

And then there was:

2.  “The matter was brought to us after an overwhelming vote in favour from the parish.”

Was it a secret ballot? Did the NSW electoral commission oversee it? People online dispute it even happened. “No-one at St John's had a say,” wrote one critic. “There was no vote, it was an arbitrary decision by the leadership and announced at Christmas to wrong foot any opposition.”

Dunno if that’s true, but it doesn’t seem right that the fate of such an important heritage site rests in a handful of parishioners.