OPINION | Church attempt to justify land sale falls flat

UNHAPPY VOICES: Resident Kay Scarlett (main photo) was one of many critics, including new resident Laura (top), Edwina Macarthur-Stanham, campaigner Phil Peters (top) and John Wrigley of Camden Historical Society.
UNHAPPY VOICES: Resident Kay Scarlett (main photo) was one of many critics, including new resident Laura (top), Edwina Macarthur-Stanham, campaigner Phil Peters (top) and John Wrigley of Camden Historical Society.

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HAVE you ever tried nailing jelly to a tree?

I admit, I felt like I had on Sunday after attending the packed public meeting at Camden’s historic St John’s Anglican Church.

Things were very hard to pin down, with many conflicting claims. It was essentially a big Q&A session over the (very controversial) proposal to sell part of the church’s hilltop heritage precinct to raise money for a new ‘Hillsong-style’ building, as one critic described it.

But, somehow, I have more questions in my head after the Q&A, and others told me the same thing. Far too many mixed messages.

Don't get me wrong, the parishioners were very welcoming, even offering tea and cake, and it was all very polite and civilised.

But people were repeatedly told, re their concerns (from car parking to future building impacts), that it would be for future developers or the council to deal with. Uh, oh.

I don't doubt for a second the integrity of St John’s parishioners, but one thing I have learned over the decades is that developers can lie, and councils can stuff up. Big time. (Ask historic Blair Athol House, now hidden away behind McMansions,  despite what we all were promised beforehand).

Unfortunately, my own question at the Q&A – essentially, “What if you’re wrong, and an ugly block of units goes up next to the church, how do you undo what’s done?” – wasn’t answered.

Other things also feel a bit wobbly:

1. Right from the start, we were told by church voices that the land sell-off had the full support of the Macarthur family (who donated the original church site). Well, I spoke to well-known artist Annette Macarthur-Onslow last week and she is not supportive of a land sale. And, Edwina Macarthur-Stanham of Camden Park House attended the Q&A and called it ‘a very bad thing for Camden’. What’s the story?

2. We were assured by the church that the land for sale ‘does not impinge on the heritage precinct’. But it’s bang in the middle of the heritage precinct! Right in between the 1840s church and 1850s rectory. NSW National Trust president Dr Clive Lucas says it will impinge. I’ll trust him.

3. We were repeatedly told at the Q&A that the existing 1840s church will continue to be used for services, but then were also told repeatedly how unsuitable the church is for services, from wheelchair access to the expense of upkeep, hence why it can't be used, and hence the need for a new church. Hmmm.

4. We were repeatedly told the Camden church needs to expand to cope with the massive population boom. But Camden township itself is surrounded by a flood plain and can't grow anymore. The real boom area is Narellan/Oran Park where there are already Anglican churches. If the plan is for people to bypass these two churches, and travel to St John’s, I’d suggest it would be to enjoy the charm of the historic church – not to watch a block of units going up beside it.

5. One of the church youth leaders earned loud groans when he told the Q&A session that ‘young people really don’t care about heritage.’ MC John Ryan then warned the media (me) that that quote should not be taken to mean that young people did not care about heritage. Like I said, mixed messages.

6. But what really confounded me was the repeated assertions that the church was an important site for all of Camden. It was even suggested by some that Camden community should provide the millions of dollars needed that the Anglican Church won’t provide. But then it was pointed out by church leaders that only parishioners get a final vote.

So, non-parishioners who care about heritage don’t get a vote, but parishioners – some of whom ‘don’t care’ about it – do get a vote.

Amid the mixed mesages, I think that means the fate of a heritage treasure of Macarthur is being decided by a handful of people who are placing their faith in developers and councillors.

What could possibly go wrong?

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