Parishioners in shock as Black Springs church gates locked

END OF AN ERA: St Aidan's parishioners gathered outside their church on Sunday for an emotional farewell. The diocese plans to sell the building.
END OF AN ERA: St Aidan's parishioners gathered outside their church on Sunday for an emotional farewell. The diocese plans to sell the building.

PARISHIONERS at Black Springs are reeling from the news their church will be sold by the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst.

The shock decision is reverberating around the small community south of Oberon, where the church gates have been locked and it has been made clear that the decision will not be reversed.

But the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst says the sale is necessary to help pay redress for those who have been abused by lay people and clergy from the parishes and institutions of the diocese.

The matter has been complicated by accusations of people refusing to receive holy communion and of “broken fellowship”.

The Review understands the St Aidan’s Anglican Church, Black Springs congregation was advised by Bishop of Bathurst the Reverend Ian Palmer about the decision to close and sell the church, effective immediately, last Thursday and the gate was locked later that morning. The Review has also been told the Oberon St Barnabas congregation of eight was advised of the decision on November 25. 

A St Aidan's congregation spokesperson said Bishop Palmer had previously stated publicly that no churches would be sold. 

"The congregation of St Aidan’s, drawn from remote rural areas, are frequently more numerous than the ‘main’ church, St Barnabas, in the township of Oberon, which has a population of around 3000,” the spokesperson said.

"Other church properties in the town, if sold, would yield a far greater return than the small tin church of St Aidan’s, with less impact on congregations.

"The building is 126 years old and forms a vital spiritual and social hub for the rural area. Members of the pioneer families who built the church still live in the district.

"The three-acre block on which the church building stands is surrounded on three sides by Forestry, and cannot be rezoned for residential development as it is located outside the proclaimed residential area of the village, in a rural zone, part of the safety buffer between pine forest and residences."

The Review has been told distraught parishioners met for prayer in the rain outside the church’s locked gate on Advent Sunday, December 3. 

"Not all parishioners were able to be contacted to advise them about the closure, and their distress was evident,” the spokesperson said.

Bishop Palmer’s letter (which has been circulated to parishioners) to Reverend Noel Clarke, the transitional priest in the Parish of Oberon, says that in September, Bishop Palmer told the Synod the diocese would need to find $2 million to pay redress to those “abused by lay people and clergy from the parishes and institutions of this diocese”.

The letter goes on to say that it has been brought to Bishop Palmer’s attention that people, “who from time to time attend St Aidan's Black Springs, have refused to receive Holy Communion” from Reverend Clarke and Reverend Dan Henby. 

“In addition, they continue to speak badly of many people, including their Bishop. It is clear that they have broken fellowship,” the letter says.

The letter also mentions gatherings being held at Black Springs that have been described as “Anglican”.

“Using the name ‘Anglican’ to describe a gathering that has not been agreed to by the parish priest is contrary to the Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia,” the letter says. 

In response, the St Aidan’s spokesperson said parishioners “say communion is not obligatory and the bishop has not provided any evidence in intentional action against the ministers”.

"St Aidan's Church building is of little value,” they said. “The Oberon church has considerable and available assets in town worth much more money.

"Sale of the parish rectory, now without a minister, would raise considerably more money than St Aidan's church. The bishop is ignoring more valuable church-owned, commercially attractive buildings in Oberon.

"This edict to shut down the church comes from the bishop eight weeks after he received complaints about the manner in which a service had been conducted from members of the St Aidan's congregation.

"No annual meetings have been held nor audited financial reports presented in the parish for four years since the parish council was stood down.”

The spokesperson said the Black Springs congregation believes the bishop’s claim about private gatherings “is totally misleading, and a furphy to justify his actions”.

“We have all denominations at our gatherings – Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and even some agnostics,” the spokesperson said.

“The gatherings have been held over a period of more than two years, regularly reported in the Oberon Review, and attended by people from across the parish, including St Barnabas.”

Bishop of Bathurst Ian Palmer.

Bishop of Bathurst Ian Palmer.

Letter to the editor from the Bishop

NEXT Friday (December 15, 2017) the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will hand down its final report to the Governor General.

Among many things it will insist that Churches ensure that their places of worship are safe for children and that all workers are screened and trained.

In the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst we do this and will continue to be strict in our implementation of how we make our places safe for children and vulnerable adults.

There will also be scrutiny of how the church responds to the survivors of sexual abuse.

Often the Bishop will meet with the survivor and after listening to their story will apologise for the abuse they have suffered.

In addition, the Diocese has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars (in total) to help these survivors in their recovery.

The only way the Diocese can continue to meet these costs is by selling properties. Recently 10 properties across the Diocese were identified for sale and included among these is St Aidan’s Church, Black Springs.

We appreciate the loss this will be to a few people in the community but St Barnabas in Oberon is continuing its ministry and worshippers are welcome there.

The Rt Rev’d Ian Palmer, Bishop of Bathurst