Celebrating a Sesquicentenary

At the service in Scots Church on Sunday morning 3rd May the union of three South Australian streams of Scottish Presbyterianism to form The Presbyterian Church of South Australia 150 years ago was celebrated. The Rev Norah Norris outlined what happened in 1865 and the Rev Dr Dean Eland, Secretary of the Uniting Church SA Historical Society, spoke on The Legacy of the Presbyterian Union. These two addresses are printed here:

Presbyterian Union
150 years ago, on Wednesday afternoon 10th May 1865, more than 300 people gathered in St Andrews Church in Wakefield Street Adelaide. They didn't quite fill the grand church which seated over 400, but it was a much larger congregation than the usual Church of Scotland Sunday services where the average attendance was about 120.

The Church of Scotland had got off to a slow start in Adelaide. Although the South Australia Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1834, included provision for a Church of England chaplain and a Church of Scotland chaplain (the two official established churches in Britain), and the Church of England chaplain had come in the first fleet and immediately set about ministering to the settlers, the Church of Scotland took another four years to appoint their chaplain. When the Rev'd Robert Haining arrived in 1841 to establish the Church of Scotland he found that his countrymen already had a church, the Scotch Church (Kirk) led by the Rev'd Ralph Drummond, a minister of the United Secession Church, one of the many small dissenting Presbyterian churches that formed in 18th century Scotland. So there were two Scottish Presbyterian churches in the little town of Adelaide that was not quite five years old.

The Scotch Church had erected a church building in Gouger Street. By 1865, the time we're thinking about today, their grand new building in Flinders Street was nearly completed. By then they were known as the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland because many of the small secession churches in Scotland had united in 1847 under that name.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland the Established Church had torn itself in half in the Great Disruption of 1843, when the Free Church of Scotland was formed. Although their issues of spiritual liberty and freedom from state control were not relevant to South Australia, soon new migrants from the Free Church of Scotland and other local sympathisers had sent to Scotland for a minister of the Free Church to establish their church in Adelaide. The Rev'd John Gardner arrived in 1850 and construction of this church began. It was named Chalmers Church in honour of the Rev'd Dr Thomas Chalmers who was the first leader of the Free Church in Scotland.

So now Scottish migrants arriving in Adelaide had a choice of three Scottish Presbyterian Churches, each with its own ministers and each struggling to establish congregations in the suburbs and country regions. The colony was just not big enough for this. Clearly they should be one church. By the 1860s most of the church leaders were convinced of this. A basis of union was drawn up and sent to all congregations in South Australia of the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The result is what we are remembering today.

At that service in St Andrews Church, the Rev'd James Lyall, (United Presbyterian), led the opening worship. The Rev'd John Gardner (Chalmers Free Church) described the negotiations that had taken place and read out the Basis of Union.

It was a good document, not nearly as long as the Basis of Union we had when the Uniting Church in Australia was formed, just five paragraphs. The first said that the designation of the united church was The Presbyterian Church of South Australia. To become an independent and united Presbyterian church, first the ministers in settlement and

representative elders had to form themselves into a Presbytery. Then the effect of that, and what they were celebrating and we are remembering, was the formation of The Presbyterian Church of South Australia.

So Mr Gardner read the Basis of Union. It didn't have to go into detail about doctrine, because basically they all believed the same. So paragraph 2 says that the Word of God, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, is the supreme and authoritative rule of faith and practice. In Presbyterian language, 'The Supreme Standard'. Paragraph 3 refers to what the church called the Subordinate Standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. But because the Westminster documents were finalised in 1648 and the church's thinking had moved on in 200+ years, they added that in adopting these standards the church was "... not to be held as approving anything in them which may be supposed to countenance persecuting or intolerant principles, or to deny or invade the right of private judgment." Then the last two paragraphs of the Basis of Union affirm the church's independence in relation to other churches and the rights of its courts.

Mr Lyall then reported on the Declarations agreeing to the union which had been forwarded from the Sessions (Councils of Elders) of the various congregations and the consent of the Ministers concerned. They then were formally constituted into a Presbytery by prayer and the signing of a Formula. This meant that they were now one Presbyterian Church. They elected the Rev'd John Gardner as the first Moderator. A blessing from Psalm 115 was sung and the new Moderator led them in prayer.

Veteran minister the Rev'd Ralph Drummond, who although retired had worked hard to bring about this union, then ascended the pulpit and preached what was later called "a suitable and impressive discourse". The Rev'd Robert Haining, minister of St Andrews, then presided at a celebration of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion. The Moderator closed the service with praise and prayer.

That evening another celebratory gathering was held, here in Chalmers Church. The Chalmers Church Representative Elder, Mr George Young, was in the chair. The Rev'd Alex Law from Mt Barker led the opening worship. While the ministers of the three city churches had all taken part in the afternoon service, in the evening ministers from suburban and country parishes had their turn. There were a number of addresses and, interestingly, two Moravian missionaries on their way to Coopers Creek were introduced and also spoke.

Next morning the Presbytery held its first business meeting. Mr Lyall was elected Clerk of Presbytery. Eight ministers in settlement and Representative Elders from fifteen charges (parishes) formed the Presbytery. They had achieved union. The Presbyterian Church of South Australia was established.  Rev Norah Norris.

The legacy continues...
The Union of the three Presbyterian traditions that we are celebrating today seems a long way back on the path this congregation has travelled, an achievement of the distant past. While we may feel remote or removed from those who 150 years ago put their own pasts aside and set out in a new partnership we inherit their legacy.

Through Union they were able to build a church that has contributed its own unique insights and style of community life. A church with a distinctive cultural ethos and yet an expression of faith with some critical assumptions and core convictions.

The union of the three Scottish traditions came early compared with the union of the various Methodist branches in January 1900. Much later of course this congregation embraced and affirmed the Basis of Union in 1977 to become part of the UCA.

My first impression is that the first Presbyterians in SA were motivated by practical concerns and understood that they had a common cause in a new land of opportunity. The Province of SA rejected state aid in 1851 and warmly adopted the voluntary principle and understood that there was no place for an established or privileged church.

My proposal, that needs further research, suggests that many of the values of those who were pioneer Presbyterians in SA continue as a legacy or core value in this congregation today. The commitment to support the mission of the wider church which came to include AIM and its successor Frontier Services; financial, moral support and leadership in founding new suburban congregations in the post WW2 years and in enlivening the Uniting Church. You will recall many other ways in which your tradition of social responsibility lives on. Among many other qualities your support for the wider church is expressed through the Urban Mission Network and the financial contribution you make to the Synod's Mission and Service Fund. You are also active in hosting Uniting Church events in a very visible city location and have demonstrated a willingness to take risks and engage with innovative mission programmes.

From the early days Presbyterian lay leaders understood that the principle of separation of church and state did not mean withdrawal from civic life. Here week by week many lay leaders were nurtured and sustained by Scot's pastoral and worship ministry. As they left worship each Sunday and were blessed they understood that their civic and political commitments were an expression of their faith. In this they were generous and committed to the vision of making this city and this State a community of mutual care, a place of welcome, and an opportunity for those from other cultures to begin a new life.

For this legacy we are thankful and we commit ourselves to interpret and discover again how we are being led by the Spirit along a new and creative path into the future that God has for us. Rev Dr Dean Eland, Secretary, UC SA Historical Society

(Left to right) St Andrews Church on Wakefield St (1875), Chalmers (Scots) Church (c. 1865), and Flinders St Presbyterian Church (1870). Photographs from the State Library of South Australia at www.slsa.sa.gov.au

© Scots Church Adelaide  Ph. 08 8223 1505