St Andrew’s, South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Andrew’s
Location: South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 January 2020, 8:30am

The building

The church is built of rusticated sandstone in Gothic Revival style. As much of South Brisbane is flood prone, the building was prudently sited at the top of a short steep street. Construction commenced in 1878, with the building in use from the 1880s. It was extended in 1887 with the nave finally completed in 1931-32. Inside, it features a high wooden ceiling especially at the cross-over area. There are some stained glass windows along the nave – all in 1880s style, though the most recent was dedicated after World War II. The building is now heritage listed by the National Trust. Although the roof, and thus the flooring and some of the fittings, were damaged in a localised storm about five years ago, they were fixed drawing on the diocese’s insurance policy.

The church

The 8.30 communion is the more formal of the two Sunday morning services. There is a Sunday school, but it does not operate in school holidays. Among listed mid-week groups and activities of the congregation are three separate Bible studies, a craft group, a playgroup for toddlers, and a group to practice conversational English. They are also starting a group to follow the EQUIP course – instructor-led classes that encourage and promote spiritual growth and application – on biblical message and church doctrine that can lead to a Preliminary Theological Certificate from the famous (very evangelical) Moore College.

The neighborhood

Brisbane is the state capital of Queensland. South Brisbane is a suburb facing the Brisbane central business district across the Brisbane River. From the 1920s to the 1980s it, and the adjacent suburb of West End (also served by St Andrew’s), were low-rent working class suburbs, dominated by light industry and old weatherboard houses on small blocks. (My family lived in one such house.) With post-war migration, these suburbs became multi-ethnic, with substantial populations of Greek, Vietnamese and Aboriginal extraction. The South Bank riverside, directly facing the CBD, featured derelict warehouses left over from the 1880s when ships were much smaller (the active port has long moved downriver) and rendered even more derelict by the Great Brisbane flood of 1973. The area was transformed in 1988, when the derelict waterfront was demolished to make way for a new cultural precinct, with new museum, art gallery, theatre, etc., and an international Expo, the site for which became a much used public park complete with artificial beach. This drove extensive development of new high-rise apartment blocks and trendy restaurants and bars, and consequent demographic change, though some of the old character remains. Other notable nearby attractions include Brisbane’s international cricket ground (the Gabba), Brisbane State High School, and Musgrave Park, which features Brisbane’s main Greek Orthodox church on the other side from St Andrew’s.

The cast

One of the two priests was the celebrant; the other preached. They were assisted by two liturgical assistants.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

About two-thirds full. Most of the empty seating was near the front (surprise!), so we sat there. I counted about 150 present. Although there were several babies and toddlers in a play area laid out at the back of the church (all of whom were brought forward to the communion rail), there was a conspicuous lack of school-age children in the pews. Presumably they and their families go mainly to the ‘informal all age service’ at 10.30.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not on arrival, as we came in late and via a side door. But after the service, yes – see below.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. Standard wooden pew, but with long cushions (two per pew) on top to make it more comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Not observed, as we arrived late.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Sorry, we missed them.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None directly, as all readings and hymns were projected onto a screen. However, some people had a printed order of service with what appeared to be full words, and there were New International Version Bibles in the pews, to which some people referred during the service.

What musical instruments were played?

The hymns were accompanied by a splendid sounding pipe organ, very well played by a young lady, who (it emerged later) was also the church administrative assistant. She also played during communion and at the end of the service. The organ was originally made by JW Walker of London, installed in 1885, and restored and somewhat enlarged three times since.

Did anything distract you?

A latecomer bolder than we were came in via the vestry door and took the long slow walk behind the preacher. She sat herself in the front row without any sign of embarrassment.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The service strictly followed the Anglican liturgy for communion (1978 Australian Prayer Book), but felt to me to be towards the low church (‘evangelical’) end. For example, all the prayers, readings (including the gospel), and sermon were led from an array of simple wooden stands facing the front of the nave. There was no choir at this service, though the website explains that this is because of school holidays. The celebrant popped out from an almost hidden seat near the high altar when it was his turn to speak. It appeared as though both the priests wore nothing more elaborate than a simple white gown, but close inspection showed that they did in fact sport white stoles. The tone of the sermon – strongly biblical but not much related to everyday life – was another indicator, as was the pew sheet heading ‘Knowing Jesus and making him known.’ Communion was explicitly offered for ‘baptised and communicant members of Christian churches professing the apostolic faith.’ The manner of taking communion was noteworthy. Most people filed forward to the altar rail in front of the otherwise unused high altar to be offered the usual individual wafer and communal chalice of wine, but in front of the altar rail was a table with a tray of wee cuppies, presumably of grape juice for those who abstain from alcohol.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

23 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 — The preacher spoke clearly from a well-organised written text. So thoroughly was his text prepared that its key points were projected onto the screen during the sermon. Although this text was based on one of the readings of the day, he managed without effort to bring in the other readings of the day, and some other relevant parts of the Bible, into his theme. He moved forward through his sub-themes without obvious repetition. He kept me thinking rather than dozing, though sometimes my thoughts inspired by his theme went in directions that he did not explore at all (see below).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Justice. He interpreted this as meaning ‘God has no favourites’ – all are welcome to come to the Father and to Jesus, as exemplified by the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, which was one of the readings of the day. Our human idea of justice is that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But as Job asked, why then does this not happen in our earthly lives? This is because a spiritual display of justice is not the same as a human display of justice. As Peter told Cornelius, Jesus has come to judge the living and the dead. Thus, Jesus brings justice through the Holy Spirit, as prophesied by Isaiah 42 (another reading of the day). Judgement requires that there be a day of judgement. Though all this was very biblical as far as it went, it was notable for what was not mentioned. Unaddressed questions like: What constitutes wickedness? How does ‘social justice’ fit in (i.e. addressing systemic rather than individual injustice)? What about the grace of God saving us from being condemned as sinners (a key message of St Paul)?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The many who welcomed us and chatted with interest after the service. People seemed genuinely interested in us and none seemed unduly forceful.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The small car park on church land had large signs reading: ‘Restricted parking. Registered vehicles only.’ So we wondered if we would find notice of a parking fine on the windscreen after the service. Fortunately we were assured later that the restrictions did not apply on Sundays!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

As soon as the service ended, both the man in the pew in front of us and the lady in the pew behind came up to us to greet us and introduce themselves. The lady pointed out that tea was served in the hall outside and invited us there. So too did a sidesman at the main entrance, and one of the ministers who waited below the church steps. Several other people introduced themselves and held conversation over morning tea.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Tea and coffee were served in the air-conditioned hall. The church itself relies on open windows and fans, though this morning was not as hot as it can be in a Brisbane summer. The tea came as a cup of boiling water with a teabag, so not very fancy. However, there was also a table of sandwiches, biscuits, and even mince-fruit pies from which to help oneself, and plenty of seats and tables laid out for sociability.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 — We had been regular worshippers at this church 30 years ago when we lived in the district, and certainly felt personally welcome again, though we felt the churchmanship had changed. However, if we returned to live in the district, we would have a look for a church with more of a social justice focus.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The warm personal welcome.

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