St James' Church Bicentenary Dinner
Friday, 7 October 2022
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC
Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura
We are here tonight - “Eora Bujeri” - meeting, as that phrase tells us, as “Good People”, with a common purpose and a common passion in a celebration which marks the 203rd Anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of St James, King Street by Governor Macquarie, part of the Church’s five-year period of bicentennial celebration.
Many of you know much of that 200-year history. It is a history not only of a building, although that is significant, but reflects NSW’s early colonial history as well as broader theological, societal and political trends right through the 19th century and into the 20th century. It has been and continues as a place of care for the poor, a spiritual home for the faithful and the not-so-faithful, a place of celebration of births and marriages and of mourning for those who have passed.
Let me capture a few of those aspects of and in the life of St James', King Street.
As we know, when Governor Macquarie and Commissioner Bigge laid a foundation stone on the site of St James on 7 October 1819, it was not for a church but for a courthouse. Macquarie wrote of the proceedings that day that Bigge “expressed himself highly gratified.”
Bigge, appointed as Commissioner of Inquiry, had taken effective control of the colony and soon changed his mind. He directed that the building was to be not a new court complex but the Church we know today.
There is a suggestion that Bigge’s change of mind can be attributed to a little nepotism. As recorded in the history of the Supreme Court’s King Street court complex, Bigge’s brother-in-law and secretary, Mr T H Scott, having been elevated to the position of Archdeacon of Sydney, needed a church in which to officiate. It is said that Bigge decided that the new building would be the perfect edifice for the new Archdeacon.
However, as I’ve already noted, the Foundation Stone was laid in 1819; Scott was not ordained until 1821, the archdeaconry of New South Wales had not been established, and Scott was not appointed archdeacon until October 1824, and then needed some persuasion to take up the position. Bigge was no friend of Macquarie; still, I doubt that anyone would have attributed so much prescience to Commissioner Bigge.
Construction commenced in 1820, using convict labour under the direction of colonial architect Francis Greenway, and thus the building completed Macquarie’s vision of a Church for Sydney Town.
The result is that today, St James’ Georgian architecture is of state and national importance and of world renown. It featured in architectural historian Dan Cruickshank’s 'Around the World in 80 Treasures' as Australia’s contribution to the world’s greatest man-made treasures. And yet, it was nearly lost to posterity, threatened with demolition in the 1940s by the Department of Education, but saved thanks to the advocacy of the National Trust.
A constant in the life of any institution, including a church, is the need for money. In its early years, St James’ main source of revenue was the rental of the church pews to its regular worshippers, one of whom was Edward Smith Hall, newspaper editor, banker and political reformer. Amongst other of his works, he helped form the Benevolent Society of NSW. Bigge's brother-in-law Scott, now installed as archdeacon, clashed with Hall, not, I should add, the first to do so, and ordered he vacate his rented pew. Hall was neither amused nor deterred. He continued to attend Sunday services.
Undeterred, Scott called in the constabulary to board up the pew, securing it with iron bands. Hall in turn took up his editorial pen and attacked the archdeacon. For his troubles, Hall was convicted of the criminal libel of a public official, notoriously the first such conviction in the colony and it was not to be Hall’s last conviction for libel. Hall, however, had the last laugh, sueing Scott for evicting him from his pew and was awarded 25 pounds in damages.
Of baptisms, weddings and funerals there have been many. Edmund Barton, first Prime Minister of Australia, was baptised at St James on 4 July 1849.
In what has been described as a vice-regal wedding, the second in the colony, Nora Robinson, daughter of Sir Hercules Robinson, the 11th Governor of the Colony, married Alexander Finlay on 7 August 1879, generating such excitement that a crowd of some 8-10,000 people gathered outside, again resulting in the police being called.
There were similar scenes for the wedding of Gladys Moncrieff in 1924. Married in the morning, Moncrieff returned to the stage that night to continue performing in what might be seen as an ironic twist in the Merry Widow. As a side note, until 1856, there was some uncertainty as to whether any marriage outside an Anglican church was valid, a position rectified by legislation introduced that year.
Sir John Kerr’s funeral and memorial service was conducted at St James in 1991 as was the funeral of Sir Nick Shehadie in 2018.
In addition to the tolling of the church bells each Wednesday and Sunday, one of the beautiful traditions introduced more recently at funeral services at St James' is the tolling of the bell for each year of a person’s life. The bells themselves have their own history.
In a little remembered part of Sydney’s history, St James' participated in the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932, with a float bearing an almost perfect replica of the church, an excellent photo of which can be found on Trove. The float was one of 42 in the opening parade, another of which was a replica of the HMS Endeavour, the ship on which Captain Cook sailed on his voyage to the Great South Land. To add a personal touch, the mother of parishioner, Michael Miller was one of the young dancing girls at the Opening Ceremony.
And while people and events are interesting and often intriguing, the heart and the constancy of St James' from the beginning has been its mission to the people, especially the people of the city: providing hostel accommodation to soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Second World War; to Sister Freda’s Mission tending to the homeless; to the St James' Ethics Centre; to the choir unsurpassed in the city and to everything before and after and in-between.
And, of course, there is the soon to arrive new organ, which will embellish the great organ tradition of St James’, which commenced with the installation of the first organ in 1827.
As Patron of the Benefactors of St James’, I thank the benefactors and donors who share St James’ vision.