Image: Inside Paddington Uniting Church, Sydney. Credit: James Healy.
Hanging in Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney is a contemporary painting by Rosemary Valadon in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, sits with her dead son in her arms. Mary stares directly at viewers and bares her breasts to them in this moment of immense grief to show the continuum of her love and care for her son. She carried him in her womb, breastfed him, raised him into manhood and is now grieving. Through all that change her love and the desire to nurture has been constant.
Many find the art work challenging and some people seeking to get married in the church have asked for the painting to be taken down. But being challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can take us to new levels of understanding.
One of the things I love about the Paddington Uniting Church community is that it is prepared to consider new understandings of faith and God. This often means stepping outside of the general understanding of these matters in the wider church.
I often compare Valadon’s painting with two 1940s stained glass windows in the church which depict imagery derived from the Crusades in the Middle Ages. One window is titled The Reward and depicts Christ himself placing a crown on the head of a ‘knightly pilgrim’. A church document from the time says the window illustrates ‘the achievement wrought by the spirit of sacrifice in the overcoming of evil’.
It’s clear that the windows are more about promoting the values of fortitude and perseverance than promoting the actual Crusades. However, it’s fair to say that no church would be built now in Australia with a reference to the Crusades, rightly associated with religious extremism.
I’ve often wondered at the journey that this church has been on to move from crusader knights in glass to a picture so intimately showing Mary’s love for Jesus. For this congregation, pushing the boundaries into new territory is not a new thing.
Jim Bishop became the minister at Paddington Presbyterian Church in 1962 (which united with Paddington Methodist Church and Woollahra Congregational Church in 1965 to form Paddington Uniting Church). He said there was a massive change in thinking in churches in the 1960s.
“Previously many ministers were focused on delivering a set sermon to anyone who turned up on Sunday,” he said.
“The new theology in the 60s was about taking church out into the community. That’s what many of us in ministry in inner Sydney at that time tried to do.”
Jim and Isobel worked in this endeavour with Harry Roberts from Paddington Methodist Church and other inner city churches in finding new ways to engage local people.
Jim and his wife, Isobel , said their congregation was eager to embrace new ways of doing things.
The couple formed connections with a wide range of people and groups in Paddington, including those not usually associated with churches. For example, they befriended many artists moving into what was a very working class suburb. The relationships they formed with the artists was strong enough that when Paddington painter, Owen Tooth, died in Morocco, his friends asked if a memorial service could be held for him in Paddington Uniting Church.
It was all about not being afraid to make new connections using new ideas and new terminology. Because of this, the conversation was often open-ended.
“It was important for the church to do things that weren’t about a line you wanted people to follow,” Jim said.
Jim and Isobel moved on to other work in 1972 but the change continued. In 1974, Paddington Uniting Church welcomed a gay congregation that had asked to meet inside the church. It was a controversial move but the beginnings of a relationship with the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bi and Queer) community in Sydney that has continued to develop.
In 2011, Ben Gilmour joined Paddington Uniting as our minister and in doing so became one of the first openly gay ministers appointed to a major Christian denomination in Sydney. Paddington Uniting Church is very much a place that welcomes and affirms people regardless of their sexual orientation.
It has been a big journey between these different points on the timeline but the constant has been a congregation that is interested in walking down untrodden paths. While tradition is an important part of any spiritual path, it should not blind us to understandings sitting just outside of our experience – and comfort zones. As humans we never hold all the answers in our heads. That’s why we’re meant to keep exploring uncharted territory.
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