by Geoff Robson

The largest church in the Diocese of Sydney, St Matthias’, Centennial Park has undergone major changes over the past year that have seen the parish embark on a significant rethink of its mission to the city’s eastern suburbs.

Several senior staff have moved on to new positions - including long-time rector Phillip Jensen’s appointment as Dean of Sydney - and only four
congregations remain as part of the church, which at one time had as many as sixteen affiliated congregations.

Many of those ministries have formed links with other Anglican churches in recent months,  while some meet as independent churches now connected
with St Andrew’s Cathedral. Unichurch, meeting on the campus of UNSW, has become a Recognised Church in the Diocese.

“It’s been a time of considerable upheaval for the people of St Matthias’,  especially for those of us who are still there in those four congregations,” said Tony Payne, chairman of the taskforce for the parish’s Sunday morning congregation.

“At the same time, I think there’s a fairly widespread understanding in the church that it’s not that we have somehow lost our purpose or our reason for existing,  but that the mission has just moved on to the next stage.”

A major step in that next stage was the recent appointment of the Rev Warwick de Jersey,  currently assistant minister at Holy Trinity in the Diocese of Adelaide,  as the church’s new rector. Growing up in Sydney’s northern suburbs,  Mr de Jersey attended Moore College and served as a curate at St Michael’s, Wollongong.

Mr de Jersey will commence at St Matthias’ in mid-December. And while he says that he and his family will miss the significant relationships they have made in Adelaide, he is enthusiastic about returning to ministry in Sydney.

“Under God,  the ministry that Phillip Jensen and those around him have been   involved   in   has   brought enormous fruit,  and God has been extraordinarily gracious in what he’s done. To be left a legacy like that to work with - even if it’s only part - is very exciting,” he said.

Mr Payne said it was natural for people to feel some sense of loss after all the changes that had taken place, but said that generally people were coping very well.

“The legacy of great ministry from a number of leaders was that it built up a gospel-hearted church that coped well with changes - even though it has been very hard at times.”

One of the changes has been a new partnership between St Edmund’s, Eastgardens and the ‘Wild Street Christian Church’, a family congregation that had been meeting on the campus of UNSW. While still affiliated with St Matthias’,  Wild St church is now using the facilities of St Edmund’s for its Sunday morning meeting at 10.30, following on from the existing service at 8.30am.

Rod Cocking, pastor of both Wild St and the St Matthias’ Wednesday night meeting,  says the churches have formed an effective partnership for reaching out to all sectors of their local community. Meeting over morning tea every Sunday, the congregations have remained independent but are keen
to encourage one another.

“Bob Silberman [rector of Eastgardens] is a visionary sort of character,” Mr Cocking said. “He’s looked at the area and recognised that it’s quite a big area, and that there’s lots of ministry to be done there.”

Mr Silberman says the ‘aging congregation’ at 8.30 was not as well suited to reach wealthy young families moving into the area.  “I’ve had a longstanding burden for the younger families of the area, but have not been able to really get to them, because I didn’t have anything to draw them to,” he said. “So I see this as a way of reaching out to them.

“We are churches in partnership serving the area because we never wanted to diminish each other’s special ministry focus.”

A similar partnership has been formed between Summer Hill Anglican Church and the Inner West Bible Fellowship, a St Matthias’ congregation since 1998, which is now operating out of St Matthew’s, Ashbury, a part of Summer Hill parish.

The move from Marrickville West Public School to Ashbury has given them a public profile and allowed them to run events such as a school holiday kids’ club and Easter services, he said.

“Our potential mission field has basically doubled. The Inner West Bible Fellowship was a network church. Now, we still have our network, but we also have a presence in the community.”

Mr Sholl believes the shake-up at St Matthias’  has forced all the congregations to rethink their direction and purpose. Indeed he sees the changes as ‘a catalyst for what was an inevitable thing’ with a number of churches becoming more independent. “There have been some hard decisions, but it has helped us to make those decisions now,” he said.

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