‘A Bit Ambitious…’: a History of Ashburton Baptist Church
Dr Roslyn Otzen is a former member of ABC. Here is a presentation, entitled " 'A Bit Ambitious...': a History of Ashburton Baptist Church", that she recently made to the Baptist Historical Society.
I have titled this talk 'A Bit Ambitious...'. It was Peter Stockman who used the phrase to describe the new church building Ashburton built in 1959. But it seems to fit well with several other aspects of the Church's life, and indeed, my account of it. I will look at three themes which have interested me greatly in the history of the Ashburton Baptist Church.
The first is the place of women in leadership in the Church.
When I began my research, no one at Ashburton was aware that one of the most significant of the founders was a woman, Mary Maria Upton. She had been a member at Collins Street Baptist Church, before transferring her membership to Camberwell in 1918, having moved from South Yarra to Glen Iris. She was absolutely critical in Ashburton's tenuous early years, was one of the three of the first committee, carrying out much of the negotiation with the Home Mission. She played a key part in what IP Abbott always referred to as 'The Cause', from 1930. She held the church together providing the needed 'social glue' as you can hear in the Minute of February 1932. Mrs Upton had accommodated a replacement minister in her own home, 19 Fuller Avenue, when Mr McKittrick was on holiday.
It was moved...that the Committee place on record its appreciation of the excellent service rendered by Mrs Upton to the Cause during the visit of Rev TR Coleman. Carried by acclamation. Mrs Upton's service consisted in hospitality for the whole seven weeks of Mr Coleman's stay, in organising the two social meetings held, in paying for advertisements and numerous other helpful and kindly acts known only to those immediately concerned and to our Divine Master.'
Following the official constituting of the Church in 1934, she was immediately elected as a Deacon, along with Norman Sibley, Isaac Abbott, Hazel Munday and Louis Keogh. It had been decided that the Diaconate should consist of three men and two women. No impediment was raised by anyone about this decision, and the two women took their place. Mrs Upton continued her leadership in the Church; it was she who organised the catering for those who built the Church almost in a day.Part of the Minute of Appreciation for Mrs Upton, on her sudden death in 1935, reads:
Her house was always open for prayer or business meetings. Her hospitality to visiting preachers and others was without limit. Her car was always available when required for Church Service. Whatever special work of any kind needed to be done she was ready to undertake.
It is not too much to say that without her energy, generosity and devotion the cause would have died in its infancy.
She was spared to see the Church formed, the building erected and the work established before God called her to higher service.
A special memorial plaque was placed in the church in her memory, as far as I know, one of only two so honoured. Alas, the plaque did not make the transition to the new church building in 1959.
It would be good to think that there was a steady arc of progress in the position of women in leadership at Ashburton from this promising start, but when Mrs Upton died in 1935, she was not replaced by a woman, and nor was Mrs Munday when she retired from the Diaconate in 1941, although she had been successfully re-elected during her time on the Diaconate. The Rev Walter Eddy, pastor from 1935 to 1938, was more inclined to the idea of Deaconesses, by which was meant a body of women quite separate from the governing Diaconate. As Rev and Mrs Eddy were frail and in their 70s, the Deaconesses, unnamed, no doubt helped him with pastoral visitation and care. Formal training for women in exercising pastoral care was initiated in 1946 at the instigation of the Victorian Baptist Women's Association, but there is no evidence that the Ashburton women underwent training or were ever formally appointed and paid.
In the Pastorate of Rev HA Horsfall from 1938 to 1951, there is no evidence of the existence of Deaconesses. The separation of men's and women's roles was very clearly marked, as never before, in the widespread reversal of the public presence and contributions of women during the War. Women, through their fortnightly 'Bright Hour' meetings, set themselves tasks such as raising funds for the purchase of the Y Street block, while the Deacons concentrated on fund-raising for the kindergarten extension at the rear of the church. As well, along with the women of the church, Mrs Horsfall and her daughters were vigorous in their activities in support of those needing care.
When Rev Ray Taylor accepted the pastorate in 1951, he was active in re-organising the running of the church, influenced, as were many in the 1950s, by the advanced organisational structures of the USA Southern Baptists. He urged the formal appointment of a group of Deaconesses in 1953. Not surprisingly they were all wives of the Church's office holders, the Deacons: Mesdames O (Winsome) Abbott, IP (Rose) Abbott, N (Lilian) Sibley, C (Barbara) Nicholls, A (Clare) Edmonds, R (Marjorie) Fraser and R (Ruth)Taylor. (Women were always referred to by their husbands initial, not their own.)
In the May AGM 1958, after the departure of Rev Taylor, the Deacons deferred the election of Deaconesses 'until arrival of Rev P. Stockman'. It is not clear why this was decided. It could have been that the group was so closely tied to the minister that it had no autonomy without him; or it could have meant that the members had no real commitment to this structure, although they wanted to check with the incoming minister first to see what he wanted. At his first Deacon's meeting in in June 1958, it was moved and passed 'that the election of deaconesses lapse' and that there be a 'panel of hostesses in place of Deaconesses'. This seems to show the real position: the women in the church were given responsibility for organising social occasions, catering, and looking after the flowers and furnishings, and the elaborate title of 'Deaconess' was both inaccurate and suggested a power they did not have.
It was not until 1970 that the place of women in church leadership again emerged as an issue. Vanda and Rev David Jackson had joined the Church in 1965, coming from deep traditions of Baptists polity in England, especially the power of the Church members meeting together to make decisions on all Church matters. Vanda was nominated to the Diaconate. Her nomination was immediately opposed by member Ern Streckfuss who, in a polite but firm letter, stated that the Bible made it quite clear that women should not lead in church, and that he could not accept communion served by a woman. Although Mrs Jackson withdrew her nomination rather than cause division in the Church, Rev Ron Ham and the Deacons set the issue for general discussion at a Church Meeting in April 1971. Rev Tom Keyte was invited to speak in favour of women leaders, and did so powerfully, and with reference to the scriptures. Although thereafter, most members generally assented to the idea of women being Deacons, no one challenged the status quo immediately by putting a woman forward. Vanda Jackson instead was elected to the Union Planning Council. Interestingly, it was in 1965 that the first genuinely shared leadership by men and women engaged in Church activity, the Community Service Committee, was formed. Here was ample evidence of the worth of a shared leadership, running as a current underneath the theological position regarding women Deacons.
Then in 1973, Gwenda Brant was elected to the Diaconate. There had been a thirty year gap between women Deacons, but the Church in 1973 had no idea of this, and thought Gwenda's election was a path-finding innovation. Women have since found their place on the Diaconate and on all boards and committees associated with the Church, taking their turn as leaders. They are yet to appoint a woman as Pastor, but there is no impediment to doing so.
The Church founders had been 'a bit ambitious' in appointing women Deacons and it took another four decades for their act to be vindicated. Rev Ron Ham, in a note sent to the Nicholls family on the death of Barbara, wrote, 'Barbara revealed in the way she did things how wrong the Church had been through all the years to deny women their role.' Barbara had founded the Girls' Life Brigade in Australia, at Ashburton.
A second theme is the way the Church dealt with its young people during the feminist and youth 'revolutions' of the 1960s and 1970s.
Young people in the 1940s and 1950s followed the path laid down for them by their parents and Church community. The first group were baptised together in 1945 – seven young people. The Church made space for the young men by designating them 'Stewards' – they did lots of odd jobs around the church, like revarnishing the seats, and ushered people to their seats on Sundays. Much later, some, like John Every, found a place on the Diaconate, as the older Deacons began to see the wisdom of encouraging their development in church governance, and saw the value of their closeness to the needs of the young people. There were no formal positions created for the young women, but they were Christian Endeavourers, and older unmarried young women, Beryl Chant, Pam Homan and Joan Maslen became Sunday School teachers. The group were the foundation members of the Boy's Brigade (1940), the Girls' Gym (1947) and the Girls' Life Brigade (1953), and became their first home-grown officers.
By the 1960s, young people were starting careers, or, for the first time in their families' history, attending University. Although feminism and the wider social revolution around it mostly had little impact on their activities, the claim to independence in thinking and action did. They gave a great deal more thought to their spiritual development, and various Bible classes, camps, Belgrave Heights Conventions, University SCMs etc attracted them. Peter Stockman was pivotal in encouraging their searches, being himself a University student and avid reader. These young people thus moved out of their enclosed church community into a much wider social and mental world. They questioned more actively the tenets of the faith. They were also involved with many other organisations outside the Church. The end result was a vigorous and challenging young adult community, but the downside was that they did not slot into the existing expectations that they would inherit the leadership of the children's and young peoples' groups. The officers so carefully groomed in the Boys' and Girls' Life Brigades held the Captaincies for a year or two and then resigned. They did not see the role as a permanent commitment but as a passing task. The same happened with Sunday School teachers and Christian Endeavour leaders. The circumstances of their lives carried them out of their community into different places. Some married and moved away; others followed careers to other parts. Some simply decided, at a time when young people were asserting their rights to have their own views, that this sort of service was not for them. This did not mean they had lost their faith. But diligent service which tied one down to weekly preparation and attendance, year after year, was not attractive or possible, any more. They were no longer dutiful.
What young people were doing and becoming was to an extent hidden from the general congregation. Occasionally, though, they revealed themselves. Early in Rev Ron Ham's pastorate, In July 1967, the Christian Endeavourers deeply offended some members for their conduct of a service, to which they had invited non-believing friends. Jack Madder wrote to the Deacons :
I am convinced that jazz bands (or whatever the modern term is) blaring out worldly tunes on a Sunday evening are very much out of place on Church property; and when associated with well-loved hymns, merely produce a situation which is hypocritical; and "Revues" which introduce scenes and dialogue which, even to the unregenerate mind are indecent; or "Hymns of Faith and Doubt" in which our Heavenly Father is portrayed in characture [sic], are all activities which call down the Divine wrath upon our fellowship and demand that those in responsible positions set about prayerfully putting our house in order. Until there is evidence that this is being done I am forced to with-hold all financial support from the Church. "Don't let the world squeeze you into it's [sic] mould" Rom. 12:2 (Phillips).'
In response to his comments, the Deacons wrote firmly that the Intermediate Endeavourers wanted to attract young people who rarely hear the Gospel. They worked hard to advertise the service and who took part ...did so with dignity and effectiveness and gave a clear presentation of the Gospel. Disapproval of modern music [and a preference] for traditional hymns is largely a matter of taste and it is obvious that in this the young people will differ from their elders.
Even the Salvation Army's music making was once controversial, '...and for many years there was strong opposition to the introduction of the organ into church services.'
Later, in their August 1967 meeting, the Deacons considered the whole matter.
It was believed that the young people acted in good faith with a genuine desire to reach out to other young people. It is recognised that some aspects of the evening turned out a little differently and that in the future every endeavour will be made to carefully look at all aspects of any venture of this kind. 'Songs of Faith and Doubt'. It was felt that it should be explained that the songs used at the Easter breakfast were presented with an explanation of their content to help the Young People to thoughtfully discuss them. [I should say here that some Church members were terrified of any material that might express doubt about Christian truths, fearful that questioning was the thin edge of a godless wedge.] Having found however, that there has been some subsequent discussion of their use on this occasion, very careful thought will be given in the future before using material of this nature.
After full discussion it was moved and agreed that we express concern that the work among our Young People has lacked adequate direction and a careful survey of possible leadership from among our own membership leads us to endorse the principle of the appointment of a Youth Leader for approximately two years under terms to be decided.
Rev Terry Falla was to be that man, to assist Ron Ham. The YP proceeded without incident for his term as Associate Pastor in charge of youth over the next two years.
The young people were still under the firm control of the Diaconate, requiring permission for their activities, and this increasingly became a problem. The Deacons, to do them credit, attempted to keep up with the growing independence of thought and action of their youth. Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles came to Melbourne, and Ashburton young people too loved their music and were influenced by their behaviour. But the modestly longer hair of the Beatles was as nothing compared to the outrageous fashions to come, during the Vietnam-tainted 1970s. Ashburton girls wore mini-skirts of extreme shortness; boys wore long hair and sideboards, flared trousers, and satin shirts without ties, and even jewellery. Photos of the YP in the '50s and the '70s show a shocking contrast. And the youth of the 1970s all went out to functions where they could do the Twist and other forms of free dancing, a far cry from the Foxtrot, or indeed any dance suitable for a good Baptist young person at all. Rev Ron Ham managed the leadership of this group with sensitivity and some anxiousness, but he trusted their hearts and minds.
The Deacons did their best: when approached at the end of 1971 for permission for the youth night to include a square dance, they acceded.
This matter was fully discussed as to the advisability of introducing this feature and the possible repercussions from Church members. The Secretary [Arthur Edmonds] expressed his concern that this type [of dancing] may be innocuous by itself, pressure would ultimately come for a more sophisticated style of dancing. Although there were reservations expressed by others, approval was given... but that the dancing be included within the program for the night, not especially promoted. Further approval would be dependent upon the result of this experiment.
What a change was this! It was nothing compared to what came next.
The Young People came up with a plan to evangelise Ashburton's disconnected and purposeless unbelieving youth: they would create a Friday night 'Coffee House' in the church hall, bring in modern usually Christian bands, and work with the youth who were attracted to attend. This was an incredibly bold strategy. It was more than a bit ambitious.
Members were concerned about this on a number of levels: what if it backfired and the Christian young people lost their faith? Wasn't this a dangerous thing to do – to invite uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable youth into the very heart of the Church? There was a conflict between the sense of the Church as holding a line, safely barricaded in its buildings and beliefs, and the bold risk-taking of their Christian young people in bringing the world into the sanctuary, to actually evangelise in Ashburton, going forward in faith. Wasn't that what the Church was supposed to be doing – and yet...? There was the double bind: could the Ashburton young people control this potentially chaotic situation they were creating? and, who was controlling the young people themselves?
The Coffee House was driven by Andrew Jackson and his peers, and was supported by his father Rev David Jackson, who acted as a sort of protective shield between the young people and their elders. He reported on the venture to the Deacons in May 1972; his son put together information about the proposed Coffee House to go to a Church Meeting. It was explained that young people just wanted to 'hang out' together, and that there was nowhere in Ashburton where they could safely do that. The Deacons decided to take the plunge, allowing a trial period. The Coffee House, cleverly named 'Innpact', opened on 13 October 1972. No one, except the Ashburton youth team, could have imagined what happened next.
By November, Innpact 'had opened five times with a high level of team attendance and enthusiasm. Attendance ranged from 20 to 100 with encouraging indications of bridges of friendship being established.' The Deacons agreed to recommend its continuance to a Church Meeting. This would entail the moving of the Boys' Brigade meeting, held prior to the Coffee House, to another night, to allow preparation of the space – a huge step, privileging the possibilities of the Coffee House over this long-existing but now very small group. There was objection to this which eventually resolved. One should note here that these reliable long-time groups, the Boys' Brigade and the Girls' Life Brigade, were becoming smaller and smaller; the GLB had fallen from 45 to about 12 in 1973. Leaders were becoming impossible to find. Young people were looking for something more modern.
There were many details to be sorted out: a phone in the Centre was needed in case of emergency; in a decision which now fills us with horror, the Church petitioned the Camberwell City Council to 'allow visitors to smoke on one night each week' in the Church hall. In his letter seeking this exemption, Arthur Edmonds described the event:
The interior for the night has a modern décor, soft lights, soft music, cushions for floor seating, etc. Light refreshments are served such as coffee, raisin toast, etc., and a suggested donation is accepted. The main purpose is that, by conversation and contact, a bridge of friendship is being established. ...8 to 11 p.m. ...It may be mentioned that the adults serve in the kitchen, but otherwise are unobtrusively in the background in case of trouble. ...The [No Smoking] signs are disregarded and ... it appears that unless permission is freely given a large percentage will cease to come.
Permission was given.
At this point, Rev Ron Ham accepted a call to Central Sydney Baptist Church, an appointment he took up in March 1973. Rev Keith Wilson, then at Claremont Baptist Church in Western Australia, took up the pastorate at Ashburton in December. In the leadership hiatus Gwenda Brant took her place as a Deacon, and the Coffee House experiment continued. It proved as difficult to manage as some had predicted. Reporting to the Deacons on 8 June 1973,
Rev David Jackson advised that two complaints were received from Church neighbours in connection with noise and incidents in the car park on Friday evenings. ...mention of this had been made in the local Progress Press and that Mr Jackson had spoken to ...Progress [Press] emphasising that the Coffee House influence on the young people attending is increasing ...we did not like the noise in the Car park, but cannot take responsibility for behaviour in a public area. (8 June 1973)
Rev Jackson gave an explanation of the Coffee House efforts and reviewed it objectively, stressing that in this area of work a great deal of patience and expertise was required to obtain the best results. (13 July 1973)
Letters of complaint from members were received; the Innpact team ran an all-night 'Thonathon' without asking permission of the Deacons; a parent of an attendee required sensitive handling.
The Innpact Team planned training sessions for 30, under canvas at Cathedral Mountain and it was here that Rev Keith Wilson met them for the first time. He was astounded at the carelessness and lack of organisation of the young people. 'Although arrangements had been made with the Pastor to have a morning & evening session with the Campers, the haphazard conduct of the camp resulted in one session only of 30 minutes in the evening with no opportunity of a positive Christian challenge. Considered more orderly control a real necessity.' That this relaxed approach was the chosen mode of the group, who sought the bonding and development of ideas that occurred informally, rather than through the structured encounters of old, was not understood. These were independent young adults, but Rev Wilson had expected that they would be led by older adults who would control and direct their behaviour.
For the first time, Ashburton had called a Pastor who was not able to accept the place the Church had brought itself to. His social views were probably quite appropriate for his previous Church: but the tolerance and trust, albeit with reservations, and the quiet and wise support of Revs Ham and Jackson and other members, had put Ashburton into a different zone with its young people, and Keith Wilson was horrified. His aversion gave strength to members who also found the young peoples' activities too hard to take.
Meanwhile the Coffee House itself had problems, in that the views of two of its key leaders, Greg Fildes and Gavin Byrt had diverged, and needed to be reconciled, as Ron Humphrey reported to the Deacons. Neighbours were complaining at the presence of 'undesirables' hanging about in the car park after the Coffee House had closed. The Pastor reiterated his experience at the Camp and 'observed antipathy to the local church and a desire for association with bodies such as Gods House & Bike groups at the expense of loyalty to the home Church. It was suggested that the re-institution of a Youth Cabinet to be concerned with the overall work among the Youth would be a right move...'. Peter Brant, the Pastor and Ron Humphrey were to explore this. The study/prayer time for the team just prior to the opening of the Coffee House each Friday was 'well accepted', and Gavin Byrt and Rev Jackson planned an Easter Camp, with Alma and Deon Widdicombe as House Parents. Rev Wilson wanted more controls than this. 'Pastor requested that a camp programme be drawn up and adhered to with specific objectives and allotments of free time.' There was a strong preference for one leader to be appointed, rather than continue the shared leadership of the close-knit team, a model which Wilson clearly did not trust. It would certainly be easier to influence one person than a whole team.
Rev Wilson suggested the creation of another youth activity for those not interested in the Coffee House, and a Saturday night program was begun. Undoubtedly, there were young people who were not comfortable with the Coffee House, but this proposal again encouraged people to see the Coffee House as 'the other' rather than as an effective ministry of the Church, of which they were all a part. To counter this, Greg Fildes was elected to the Diaconate, in an effort to bring the thinking and voice of the young people into the Diaconate directly. He reported in July 1974 that 25 had attended the new Saturday night program and 60 were at church on Sunday evening. Dr Leeding had met with Colin Carter, Gavin Byrt and Rev Jackson to discuss Innpact, and he reported to the Deacons that 'a little time would be required to assess their training needs. Also noticed that the Coffee House system seems to be developing into a sub-culture'. One could equally argue that the Coffee House was being forced into the position of a sub-culture. Greg agreed that attempts to connect it into the Church 'had not been greatly successful', and that Dr Leeding seemed to be moving to 'some clarification of objectives such as its composition and association with the church'. The Innpact team tried to organise a 'private' camp, outside the Church's authority – a clear response to the pressure of their situation, thus, underlining to its opponents, the need for a higher Youth Cabinet to pull them into line. 'Control' was the word and ambition of those unhappy with the Innpact team.
The abandonment of the expected responsibilities of the young people was underlined by Geoff Churcher, Chair of the Church School Program, who lamented that 'many young people are leaving its teaching staff through lack of commitment.' This was not the experience of the Innpact Team: in October 1974, the 'Pastor reported that a cohesive core group has now become identified and sees this as a matter for rejoicing.' Dr Leeding asked for support from the men to patrol the outside of the hall on Friday nights. This became the most serious issue of the following months. There was 'acute annoyance' from neighbours which have 'occasioned warnings by the Police'.
The decision was made to close Innpact in December and January. It is clear from Deacons' discussions at their November meeting, that those in favour and those against the Coffee House were still at odds – comments such as 'our responsibility to the neighbourhood', what is the definition of 'riot'?, 'control of the Centre is vested in the Church meeting', 'weighing up the credits and debits of the whole operation' litter the Minutes. Concern was expressed about hidden alcohol, and the permission to smoke. But the closure over the holiday period provided breathing space and a cooling off period for all.
The Coffee House resumed in 1975, and ran reasonably smoothly. The worst was over. When the highly-respected Ron Camier indicated he wished to plan a private camp for the Innpact team, the Deacons applauded the request. In May, more 'stability and reliability' was seen to exist in all youth activities. At the end of 1975, Innpact celebrated its third birthday – a major triumph, given the turmoil of 1974. The threat of major division in the Church had been handled in such a way that it had not occurred. When Keith Wilson's Pastorate came to an end in early 1977, Innpact had reached a natural end and was phasing out, Innclusion was phasing in, and concern about co-ordination of youth activities was still a difficulty. In other words, everything was going along normally. Ashburton certainly had been 'a bit ambitious...' and had nearly undone itself.
The last theme I will follow briefly, is the theology of the Church, up to the mid-1970s.
The Church when first established in 1934 was a standard Baptist Church, theologically: that is to say, while it was not fundamentalist, it was nonetheless theologically conservative and evangelical. Worship was quite unadorned (although Manley tells us that some Baptist churches at this time actually sang the Gloria and Te Deum in Latin). IP Abbott in particular was alert to the faintest sniff of fundamentalism from his seat in the front pew. Early pastors were students, and one even a layman in AE Gallop. Then followed two churchmen in their last pastorates. Eddy was un exceptionable and Horsfall was amiable and sound. Rev Ray Taylor was the first 'modern' ordained pastor, and was much impressed with the example of the Southern Baptist Churches in the USA, introducing their stewardship and finance model, and working to an All-Age Sunday School.
The call to the young Rev Peter Stockman was Ashburton's first call not directed by the Home Mission. Stockman and his successor Rev Ron Ham revolutionised Ashburton's theological understanding, and did so with the full acceptance of the people.
Peter grew up with an extreme fundamentalist father. When called to the ministry, he thought about studying at the Melbourne Bible Institute, the 'Holy Grail of evangelicals', as he describes it, until persuaded by Rev Horace Jeffs to apply to the Baptist College. Here he became a voracious reader of theology, especially the work of twentieth century theologians, and his fundamentalist beliefs were profoundly challenged. He was appointed to the new Wodonga Baptist Church: Ashburton was only his second pastorate. He had tried to start a Bachelor of Arts course while in Wodonga, and was reading, reading, reading.
The Deacons and members at Ashburton encouraged Peter in his pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding, and fully endorsed his continuing studies at the University. From the pulpit, hell and thunder disappeared, and a thinking Christianity appeared. The voices of the great modern theologians Tillich and Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer were heard as often as not. As a visible sign of this intellectual and spiritual change of direction, the Church presented Peter with a 'Geneva Gown' – the familiar black academic gown of the University. He preached wearing this gown, something which would have been regarded as an intellectual frippery a decade before. He also adopted the white neckband known as the 'dog collar', the first minister of the Church to do so. When he completed his Arts degree, the Church provided the academic hood for his graduation. From as early as September 1958, the Deacons were keen that the church be part of the network of esteemed churches whose services were broadcast on the radio. Peter Stockman's thoughtful and challenging sermons were certainly thought to be fit for wider hearing.
Ashburton Baptists were in fact a self-selected group. They were upwardly mobile in their professions and society: Ollwyn Abbott and Bunny Carter headed huge departments of major banks, and Stan Hillman was a top executive with Coles. They came from solid Baptist Churches, to live in a new 'leafy suburb'. They educated their children well and delighted in their attainments, especially as many earned places at the University of Melbourne. The early experience of church-going at Ashburton was humble: the little wooden church offered no aesthetic experience or comfort. The new church, built on Y Street, relegated the old building to the back yard. The first 'controversy' of Peter Stockman's ministry was about decoration in the new church.
A plain wooden cross was proposed, to be placed above the baptistery.
To a significant number of individuals, this was absolutely unacceptable. Baptists valued the primacy of the Word, and the centrality of the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion. An elegant pulpit, and a plain table and chairs, were welcome. The placement of the baptistery in a prominent central position in the main section of the sanctuary was ideal. But the placement of a cross above it was a step too far for many: ornate decoration which the founding Baptists abhorred as an unnecessary distraction, and was to be found in abundance in Roman Catholic churches, could lead to diverting one's focus from the Truth, and even result in worship of the image, and not of God. This was a serious theological issue, and the cross was opposed by several members.
A special Members' Meeting to discuss and decide the matter, the decision to be made by secret ballot, was called for 27 May 1959, and a quorum of 30 members were set. On the day, many spoke for and against the motion that 'a suitable wooden cross be placed on the west wall of the church building above the baptistery': Bill Stewart, IP Abbott, Bill Cook, Gordon Burrowes, Graeme Sibley, Arthur Edmonds, Max Tyler, Don Whitfield, Ollwyn Abbott, Gay Richardson, Ken Edmonds and Bruce Sibley all contributed. The discussion was closed by John Every, and the vote taken. There were 25 in favour and 10 against.
Peter Stockman recalls this electric moment.
IP [Abbott] was not enamoured of the idea of having the cross. Bruce Sibley pushed to have it, with John Every, and we had a debate. It was one of the great glory moments of this church and both sides had prepared carefully. Old IP spoke historically, and was still fighting the Puritan wars of the 17th century! Eventually the vote was taken and that was the end of the question. Then, when the church was built, IP donated a stand to hold the Bible that stood on the Communion table, a beautiful lectern of bronze leaves. It was the most ornate object in the church. Once the Church meeting had spoken, IP was 100% behind the decision as coming from God. That was the highlight of my churchmanship anywhere.
The same arguments applied when it was discovered that some roundels of stained glass were to break the blandness of the front windows of the church, but the argument having been lost with the matter of the cross, these decorations were quietly accepted.
At the same time as Peter was taking the train to Uni for his lectures and tutorials, so were most of the older youth group of the Church. This was a remarkable time for the children of the Church. Most were the first in their family to dream of, much less take up, tertiary education. Peter later recalled he did his best pastoral work with the young people in the University cafeteria. His voracious appetite for learning and for spiritual deepening was matched by the young people. There was an explosion in spiritual and intellectual growth for them all. As Peter says, 'Most of them are still in the Church. That to me is the greatest thing of all.' Many of us are here for this lecture today.
Although the Church had given its full support to the Billy Graham Crusade in 1959, Ashburton came to resist the theological influence of the Southern Baptists, even while taking lessons about church organisation and financial management from them. What was first seen in the Southern Baptists as a wonderfully simple and unwavering certainty of belief requiring only total acceptance, eventually came to seem an over-simplification and a denial of the individual's responsibility for a personal and thinking growth in faith. Both these views, at each end of a spectrum, were well-rehearsed in Baptist Victoria. Indeed, at times it was the central point of contention about what the Baptist Theological College was required to do for ordinands, although its foundation Principal Dr Whitley was clearly an intellectual, and chosen because of this. In selecting and supporting Peter Stockman, the Ashburton Church declared its place at the intellectual end of this tradition. The link with the College remained close, with Ollwyn Abbott the Treasurer from 1951 to 1971, then President until 1991. The Church strongly supported the fund raising required to build Whitley College in Royal Parade, opened in 1965, committing in 1960 to £1500, paid over three years.
In 1963, a NSW group of Baptists worked to bring out a number of Southern Baptist preachers from Missouri in 1964. Peter was corresponding with his friend Ron Ham, who was studying in Missouri at the time, and Ron was uneasy about the men who were planning to come to Australia. Ron quietly suggested that Peter arrange some alternate activity for the Ashburton Church at the time of the proposed visit. Peter and the Deacons followed this advice, and arranged for a White and Coleman Mission to be held at the Church, making it impossible for Ashburton to take part in the Missouri visit. Ros Brereton (Otzen) recalls the one visit to the Ashburton pulpit of a Missouri preacher, finding his message quite out of kilter with the spiritual landscape of the Church at the time, light on substance and unduly emotive. The man explained to Peter that he had not had any theological training at all, but had founded his church because the spirit had called him. This was no longer sufficient for Ashburton.
In Rev Ron Ham, the great transformation towards a liberal and thinking theology continued. He accepted the call to Ashburton because of the work Peter Stockman had done with the people. Ron, too, had come from a modest educational background to savour learning and study. He had been sent to Missouri for the Clifford Fellowship to learn about Baptist Student Unions in Colleges, had returned there to complete his Arts degree, and had moved on to Union Seminary in New York to complete his Masters in Theology. Paul Tillich was still teaching and he heard Niebuhr preach. He fitted Ashburton perfectly. Ron continued to nurture in the young people the freedom to think and decide, and developed a trust in them. We have seen how they remained in the Church but tried their own form of modern evangelism with the Coffee House. This was possible because of the trust and encouragement of Ron and the Church. When a minister of an entirely different stamp, in Keith Wilson, followed Ron, it was the cutting edge actions of the youth that were most alien to him, as we have seen.
I will end my brief survey there, although much more can and will be said.
To finish: a few thoughts on writing a history of a local church.
Most historians of local churches are themselves closely associated with the church. The result is often an intimate portrait of the Church - its pastors, people, and buildings. As I have pretensions to being 'a Real Historian', the task of writing a history of the Ashburton Church was perhaps more difficult, because I wish, and am expected, to do it 'properly'. I have spent many hours trying to work out what that might look like.
In any church's life, things happen, people come and go, as do buildings. Organising these nicely is the easy bit. Clearly, the external context is important. What was the wider community, indeed Australia and the world, doing at the same time things were happening in the church, and how does the church reflect this? This means a wider reading program, which for me includes Geoffery Blainey's A History of Camberwell (1964) and frequent consultation with other general histories in my library; Wikipedia (for example, for an excellent biography of Billy Graham); the great Baptist historians Wilkin, Brown, Manning, Munro and of course, Manley, plus judicious dipping into the national & Victorian Witnesses; the many histories of other Baptist Churches, often in fine papers given to the Historical Society – Janice Newham on Crossway has been particular insightful – and the useful collection in Whitley library.
Then come Minutes (if preserved) – thankfully, Ashburton is in good shape here – and various programs and memorabilia, photos, financial statements etc. There are interviews, with all living pastors, some quite hard to track down: these are ongoing. Relatives of past pastors who are still in the church, or contactable, have been very helpful. Then there are interviews with people from different eras about their experience of the church in their day – no shortage of these! – and interviews with current members. In fact, in the interview department, the problem is there are far too many people to interview, and the process is very long (finding contact details, contacting, finding a time, a place, re-scheduling, recording, transcribing, sending back for corrections, settling on a final version). The real problem here is there are always many people thinking they or others must be interviewed, but all too little time to cover the large numbers involved. I have not been one to ask others to do interviews for me. Is it worth interviewing very old, ill and failing people, who although still alive, have wavering memories? Does one do it simply out of respect?
The next issue is being personally involved through my own family and membership for much of the history of the Church, and thus bringing my own judgements and experiences into play, often made when I was young and less careful. Do I trust myself? Do I trust the similar views of my many friends, those I grew up with, many still deeply attached to the Church. Ken Edmonds? the Carters? Does my own preference for a certain type of theology or church leadership mar my approach to those which are different?
I have not constructed my writing around Pastorates, either. This is usual in such histories, but I found there were events and developments which did not always coincide with the comings and goings of pastors. I have a strong leaning towards exploring the histories of families within the church, many of them lasting over almost all of Ashburton's pastorates, and whose members were powerful actors on the Ashburton stage. Immediately, the Abbotts and the Edmonds come to mind. Many of these significant families are intermarried with other Ashburton families and also into the wider Baptist community. Thus my history is punctuated by family biographies, where one can see the family whole, rather than as a line here and there, dotted throughout the chapters. Here, the connection to the wider world through the history of a working life as well as a church life, provides a stronger perspective about the church and its place in the world.
There are plenty of challenges to forming a history of a local church.