Our say | Heritage-listed icon belongs to us all, not just those who sit in its pews

MORE THAN JUST A CHURCH, IT'S A PRECINCT: Our region is under siege and rapidly losing the landscape that once defined it...but some of our most historic sites should be sacred...such as Camden's hilltop church.
MORE THAN JUST A CHURCH, IT'S A PRECINCT: Our region is under siege and rapidly losing the landscape that once defined it...but some of our most historic sites should be sacred...such as Camden's hilltop church.

In 1840, the colonial press reported on plans for a church at Camden, to be built on “the greatest elevation of the adjacent hills...the situation for which will be highly picturesque and commanding.”

It always has been.

St John’s Church is perhaps the town’s most famous building. An important symbol for everyone, not just the Anglican parishioners.

My own Camden ancestors (who came from the Scottish Highlands in 1838) were Presbyterian and never attended services there, but the church became a scenic symbol of home for them.

Indeed, the whole hilltop setting is important.

Tellingly, the NSW Heritage registry doesn’t speak of the church, alone, but the church “precinct”...that includes the Rectory (1859) and church hall (1906), together with the cemetery “in a rural landscaped environment”. But not for long.

Today’s Anglican church custodians want to sell a big slab of that precinct, in between the church and rectory, to be developed.

Not surprisingly, it’s a controversial move.

But surprisingly, the only vote that matters re this local icon is the church congregation itself. Not neighbours, not historians, not heritage architects, not community groups, not upset members of the Macarthur family (which originally donated the land). Only people who sit in the pews on Sunday.

Why? Sydney Opera House, for example, is also a heritage-listed icon of its corner of NSW. It means something special to people who have never watched an opera in their lives.

If a developer wanted to buy the Opera House forecourt to develop, I’m sure the decision wouldn’t be left just to the resident performers (such as Bell Shakespeare or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) to decide.

But the fate of a heritage-listed icon of Macarthur is left to a handful of people who sit inside it each Sunday...but, ironically, don’t want to. The whole point of the land sale to developers is to get money to build a brand new church next to the old one (so the heritage precinct will be assailed from two sides, not just one).

And the existing church would only be used for weddings or special events. 

As Sydney’s sprawl swallows Camden and Wollondilly all we can do is hope these areas learn from Campbelltown’s mistakes. (Maybe St John’s parishioners can take a bus trip to Blair Athol House before their vote?)

Maybe St John’s parishioners can take a bus trip to Blair Athol before they cast their vote about selling adjoining land to a developer?

At the big forum the community had with the church last year, the argument was used that the new church was needed to cater to the rising population.

But Camden is surrounded by a floodplain, meaning most new development is in the wider Narellan area which has several Anglican churches (ie Narellan, Oran Park and Harrington Park).

So, is St John’s parish aware of a secret state government plan to open up Camden’s flood plain to housing, or bring high-rise tower blocks to the town?

Or, is St John’s with its big new church planning to draw members away from neighbouring Anglican churches?

The only answer to that question I recall getting at the forum was that worshippers in Narellan might prefer to come across to St John’s...because of it’s beautiful historic church and its beautiful heritage precinct.

The same very two things they either don’t want to use, or want to sell to a developer.

And that, apparently, makes sense.