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2661: Wesley Uniting, Melbourne, Australia
Wesley Uniting, Melbourne (Exterior)
Photo: Adam Carr (Public Domain)
Mystery Worshipper: Shenton.
The church: Wesley Uniting, Melbourne, Australia.
Denomination: Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
The building: The present magnificent bluestone neo-Gothic church (controversial at the time, as Methodists didn't approve of the Gothic style) is the third church building for this congregation. It opened in 1858 and is the work of Joseph Reed, who designed many notable buildings in Melbourne. The church features one of the tallest spires in the city. Renovations have been done over the years, including the addition of a narthex, central aisle and chapel. The galleries on three sides of the nave survive from the original design.
The church: The congregation has from the start been a champion of fair treatment for the aboriginal population, aid for the downtrodden and homeless, educational opportunities for women, and other social issues. The Methodist Central Mission, founded in 1893, is now Wesley Central Mission and is one of the largest non-profit welfare agencies in Melbourne. In fact, the Mission is probably better known to the people of the city than is the church! Wesley Uniting holds services in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as English, and conducts English conversation classes for those learning English as a second language. There are also regularly scheduled organ recitals, and the church is open daily to visitors.
The neighbourhood: This was once the poorest part of Melbourne and was well known for its brothels. The Mission was established largely to provide help for the many underprivileged people of the area. Today, this part of Lonsdale Street is often called Little Athens for the proliferation of Greek restaurants and businesses. It is also very close to Chinatown.
The cast: The Revd Alistair Macrae, minister, led the service and preached. Lessons were read by Margaret Ford and prayers led by Tom Hall.
The date & time: Sunday, 16 February 2014, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Holy Communion Worship Service.

How full was the building?
There were 50 to 55 people in a church seating 500, but since much of the seating is in the galleries (unoccupied), the church did not seem poorly attended.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A young woman greeted me warmly at the door as she handed me a service sheet and hymn book. Up to 15 people shook my hand during the greeting of peace.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Grace and mercy to all from our Lord Jesus Christ."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymn book (Together in Song, used by most denominations in Australia) and service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ played by Geoff Urquhart. This is the oldest pipe organ in Melbourne, having been first installed in a Wesleyan church that preceded this one, on a different site.

Wesley Uniting, Melbourne (Organ)

Did anything distract you?
Very little. I found the organ very loud during the hymns, almost drowning out the congregational singing. There were a few children present, who were not noisy.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was contemporary worship of a fairly formal style. The language was modern, the hymns of high quality and lively, the prayers simple and telling. Relative to other Uniting Church parishes, it was high church (candles, robes, dignified style) as perhaps befits this grand city church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd Alistair Macrae has a friendly, direct manner that seemed to engage the congregation well. He used his microphone very well, which so many preachers in large churches do not.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke on Matthew 5:13-16 ("salt of the earth, light of the world"), mentioning the strengths of the Uniting Church despite its decline in numbers. There are several ways in which Christians can cut through the lack of interest from the secular world: looking for new ways to bless the community, showing greater confidence in sharing our message without Bible-bashing, and being joyful rather than anxious.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I liked the way this service combined formality and directness. The sermon was good if not greatly inspiring, the singing was fine, and the atmosphere very positive, despite the small number in a church that would have been packed in years past.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Very little, I must say. The scripture reader was off-mike and projected poorly, though was still audible, and the organ was over-loud as I say.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A couple spoke to me almost straight away at the back of the church over tea or coffee. They were Malaysian Chinese, and had been coming to Wesley for about five years. They introduced me to some other people, including two elderly women who remembered the famous ministry of the Revd Dr Irving Benson, who had retired in 1967. Dr Benson had championed a program called "Pleasant Sunday Afternoons", where major public figures were invited to speak on current issues.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea or coffee in cardboard cups – quite good – with an iced fruit cake to eat.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The service was quite like that of my regular church (Anglican) in that it was well-conducted and mildly challenging. But I think that services such as this are not very challenging for people not used to this kind of worship, especially young people. It's all too polite, with little real reflection of the world outside. It's a bit cosy – but if it weren't, some of the regulars might stay away, I suppose.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but conscious of a need to change – but how exactly I don't know.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The friendly congregation combined with many echoes of the past: the statue of John Wesley, the plaques, the galleries, some of the hymns.
 
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