Here we go again with another fine and historic church for sale, this time in the country. Holy Trinity, Taradale, in central Victoria, is not on the scale of the splendid Melbourne town church of St Alban's, Armadale, which I wrote about when it was threatened in October last year, but is of considerable quality and in a position of such prominence that the usual result of a church sale - turning it into "Divine Pizzas" or someone's house - will amount to a very public announcement that Christianity, or at least its Anglican branch, has shut up shop in that part of the world.

Holy Trinity is certainly a highly visible church. Anyone driving along the Calder Highway or taking the train cannot fail to notice it. It sits atop a steep little hill like a coronet on a dowager's head. Its most notable feature is a sham belfry with a traceried window that gives the church the appearance of a Georgian Gothick chapel in the park of an eighteenth-century country house - an Irish country house I have for some reason always imagined.

This attractive little building with its pretty buttressed and stuccoed exterior was completed in 1859 to a design by architect and surveyor Thomas Turner. It has well-made internal fittings, some good stained glass and, unusually for a small church, a gallery at the west end.

Taradale is a tiny township, and like most small country communities has declined in population in the last fifty years, though this has to some extent been offset by weekend residents. Until five years ago, when it closed, Holy Trinity had a service once a month and a small congregation. The front of the building has now become unsafe and is screened off, though only "some" restoration is said to be needed, which ought not to be financially prohibitive even for the present owners.

Most church sales in Australia are of Anglican or Uniting churches, these being the two denominations declining most steeply in numbers. History and demography have decreed that these are also the denominations with some of the architecturally best churches. But if the people who live around it won't go to their local Anglican or Uniting church, then being the finest architecture in the world is not enough to keep the building open and in repair. So many churches are now ill attended that one understands that sales will be inevitable.

But there ought to be sales and sales. An indifferent 1960s brick church that looks the same as a community hall of the era will be no loss if turned to some other use or pulled down. But the sale and subsequent conversion of a fine and historic church - a building that is obviously a church - for a purpose alien to the architecture and nature of the building is invariably a disaster. Fittings are destroyed or disappear, interiors are mutilated, the outside is disfigured with extra windows and skylights and, if the conversion is to a commercial purpose, unsuitable signs, sometimes in neon, are clapped onto the facade.

Holy Trinity falls decisively into the category of fine and prominent churches that should not be sold, unless for a purpose in sympathy with the building such as use by another denomination (the fortunate fate of St Alban's). If no other denomination is forthcoming what else can be done?  In the case of Holy Trinity the best answer is nothing. The Anglican Church is asking only $260,000 for the building and its 0.8 hectares of land on two titles. At that price it's hardly worth selling. Holy Trinity should be kept. It could be used for occasional services in connection with local anniversaries or commemorations of historical events. It could be used for concerts, or art exhibitions. It would be ideal for weddings, especially if part of the site were sold and the money used for a building suitable for receptions. Holy Trinity could then be promoted as a wedding church. Why should secular celebrants corner a market that could give new life to many an attractive yet under-used church? With a little imagination and pastoral sensitivity churches such as Holy Trinity have the potential to offer brides and grooms a better alternative to the banality of so many civil wedding ceremonies.

Church authorities have often justified the sale of redundant churches on the grounds that the Church has more pressing tasks than to be a custodian of historic buildings. But historic buildings are a trust. Previous generations of churchgoers paid for them and kept on paying to keep them going and the Church has no right to abandon them and cash in on the proceeds.

Those previous generations also realised that a fine church has a missionary function. Its existence is a statement that the church is there, in the community, even for non-attenders. That statement is made to everyone who sees it, so that the outside of the building is doing its job even when the inside is sparsely attended.

28 February 2013

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