Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Notes on my visit to Carmel Welsh Presbyterian Church, Sebastopol, Victoria, Australia

I had a lovely walk through small-town Oz to the ancient-by-Aussie-white-person standards lovely old bluestone block church building—built in 1865. I came in a little late just as they were greeting one another. I was delightedly overwhelmed as person after person came up to me to introduce themselves, wish me good morning, and shake hands. They were using a karaoke machine to stream lyrics to a television set on a tall stand at the front so folks could sing along to praise songs. The regular organist was out sick, so the gray haired pastor, Bob Gray, played with gusto as everyone sang. There was a mixture of modern praise songs and seriously old-school hymns. I love singing and knew all the hymns from growing up in another old-school church, so I sang out, though I was slightly shocked at some of the lyrics.

Hanging from the rafters near the front was a Welsh flag—a gorgeous red dragon on a white and green background. There’s a fascinating Wales/Australia/Philippines connection here. The church was founded by the Welsh mining community hereabouts during the Aussie gold rush. They’re proud to bits about this, having last Sunday had their 150th anniversary celebration with some 200 people in attendance. Today there were about 30 in attendance. There were various mentions of connection to the Philippines, and several of those in attendance were from there. In the bulletin there were top quality eggs on offer, $3/dozen, from Brenda, with all proceeds going to feed malnourished children in the Philippine city of Salamanca, the home village of Jun, Ailyn, and Ivy--all church members. This same Jun came up to me in the very back row during service to introduce himself and welcome me. A bit later, during the offering, 68 year-old Reverend Bob himself came back and asked all our names, giving Megan a gracious if perhaps slightly forward kiss on the cheek. A bit later, Bob welcomed the five of us by name from the pulpit in the most gracious, delightful, countrified way, acknowledging as Megan had told him that she had ancestors who attended this church in the late 19th/early 20th century. He seemed truly delighted to have us.

The church was focused on temperance—a fascinating experience for me, as I grew up in a teetotalling church, and never drank a drop ‘til the age of 26, when my much freer Anglican-raised Australian wife brought me to a pub for the first time, during our courtship in Italy! =). There was bragging about the church having been at the cutting edge of temperance in Oz for nearly 100 years. “How far ahead of their time were they, standing up against drinking and gambling—ahead of us in this modern Victoria that we live in where you can’t walk down the street in Melbourne without getting bashed by some drunk”, said Reverend Gray from the pulpit (more on which later). A lady who didn’t look a day over 50 proclaimed “I’ve got a card at home that I signed in 1941 that I would never drink—and I’ve never drunk!”

The sermon was drawn from Exodus 33, with myriad other proof texts thrown in. There were three points, all answering the question “How can we know God?”: 1. Faith in his word. 2. Focusing on his way. 3. Full surrender to him. I found the sermon to be an endless series of delightfully shocking quotations. It was almost as if a caricature of fundamentalism had come alive and was standing before us. I include a few below, with my favourite bits bolded.

  • “Moses knew that knowing God is tied up with national security. We have divorced, of course, state and church, in our so called democracy, and we do this of course at our eternal peril”
  • “We live in this evolutionary age that says there is no god. You can’t get a book on plants and animals today that doesn’t mention evolution. Been around for millions of years—rubbish—no wonder our children don’t know God. Even those who claim to be Christians don’t want to stand on the truth of God’s words and tell these evolutionists they’re wrong. Any medical doctor will tell you that Monkey blood has no comparison with human blood! The Bible says very clearly the life of the body is in the blood.”
  • “My guilt and shame--Jesus took it all on Calvary. Exactly what are we without him?: the heart of man is desperately wicked. That heart needs to be broken. We need to be focused not on saving the planet, but on saving souls.”
  • “365 Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the New Testament. Many of the Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled today. ‘There shall be wars and rumours of wars.’ II Peter 3 talks about meltdowns in nuclear reactors! The time for Christ to return is growing very close. The book of Revelation warns of 666 on forehead/hand. They’re practicing on animals at this moment. That’s why councils are insisting on dogs getting these implants. They’re preparing so they can do it to humans next.
  • (Finally, in reference to the wine and bread for Communion, and just in case any stray Roman Catholics were in the building) “At no point do these elements become anything other than what they are: bread and wine.

After the service, Reverend Gray came and talked with us a bit. I gently mockingly told him we were from Melbourne, and (referring to his quote above about Melbourne and drunks) that we were regularly accosted by drunks in the street. He replied by sharing with us a story. When he was 13 years of age (that is, in 1956) his father, an engineer, was bicycling home from work and was hit by a drunk driver, leading to many years of back problems and back pain as well as (according to Bob) an aneurism which eventually killed him. Since then he’s had “no truck” with alcohol nor with those who do have truck with it. I expressed sympathy for Bob and his father, though his story leads me to conclusions about driving and drinking rather than about alcohol generally.

After that, we all retired to the church hall for tea, coffee, and cake. I got to see the small but growing church library, and met and talked for a bit with Peter and Gracie and their lovely family of three girls—about my own girls’ age. Peter gave the children’s sermon during the service, using (seriously old-school) a felt board! He told the story of Zaccheus, whose name he pronounced, much to my delight “ZAK key us”, which is rather different from the “zak KEY us” which I learned as a child. Peter recently finished his bachelor of ministry at Bible College, and works for a company which provides assistance devices such as wheel chairs. He wants a full time ministry position, and I think it would be lovely if he became minister at Carmel Welsh when Reverend Gray retires. His telling of the story of ZAK-key-us was connective, almost post-modern, delightful, funny, and he had all the adults and all the children, who had gone up front to sit and listen, raptly listening—in the palm of his hand. During the service Peter told everyone about the small library, which is his project, and asked folks to donate books, as apparently there is no theological library anywhere in Ballarat for those interested in studying more deeply. Hurrah for education and opening minds!


  1. Lovely post darling - I love the perspective you bring to my life...