I'm a freelance writer living on Sydney's north shore. I like tea, books and pop music. If I can combine these into a single activity I'm a happy man.
Published February 14th 2012
Perhaps due to our convict, non-conformist beginnings Australia has always been very much a secular society. As such, the idea of churches as important cultural and historical artefacts has never really caught on in Australia. Can you name a famous Australian church? Exactly. No Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame for us. However as these famous sites demonstrate, churches are more than just houses of religion and by exploring some of our beautiful Sydney churches you can uncover all sorts of Australian history you won't find at Bondi Beach or climbing the Harbour Bridge.
Christ Church sits perched upon a hill in Lavender Bay on Sydney's lower North Shore. A French Gothic sandstone building it dates from the 1800s when in a terribly English fashion the Honourable Francis Lord donated some of his land to the Anglican Church for the construction of a building for the church-less congregation. Then in a terribly Australian fashion, the church held a competition to see who could design the best church. The victor was Benjamin Backhouse and work began in 1870. In a sign of just how far this area has come over the years, the sandstone for the building was all quarried on site. The fact that today's swish Lavender Bay was once a common quarry is incongruous to say the least. The church was dedicated and opened for worship in 1872.
What I find most fascinating about the church is the social history that floats around its walls. History here isn't about the bigwigs but about the average person who went to church on a Sunday and whose only link to the present is a forgotten name on a memorial brass. Little facts give glimpses into a long vanished society, like the fact that the floor was built on a slope to improve visibility. Why? Because it was built in an era when ladies wore hats to church, big hats, and anyone seated behind them wouldn't have been able to see a thing. And that there are two narrow side aisles instead of one wide central aisle, to encourage the congregation to sit together in the middle of the church instead of avoiding each other. And how the first bride to be married in the church wore a "white satin dress, trimmed with Maltese lace and a tulle veil" (On Solid Rock, by Rev Ross McDonald, 2010).
Architecturally there are several points of interest. Keep an eye out for the jagged stones protruding from the wall in the south west corner. These are the remnants of an attempt to build a tower on the church. Despite offers of cash from parishioners, the churchwardens felt unable to shoulder the debt and the tower was abandoned.
The font is important as it was designed by Conrad Martens, friend of Charles Darwin and the official artist on HMS Beagle during its famous journey to South America. Poignantly, the font was designed in memory of Conrad's daughter who died young in 1870.
Stained glass aficionados will enjoy the four memorial windows in the building. The window behind the altar is arguably the most delightful part of the church, in no small part due to the sparse beauty of the white washed walls of the chancel and the soaring beamed roof.
Even if you aren't interested in churches or history, a visit to Christ Church is worth it for the view alone. Perched up higher than the surrounding buildings, the grounds offer a postcard perfect view over Sydney Harbour. Indeed, the church stages an annual New Year's Eve party in the grounds for the congregation to watch the fireworks. Not a bad incentive to start going to church.
As beautiful as the views are, there is more to Sydney than an attractive Harbour. Step inside the church, take a moment to soak up the peace and quiet and spend some time with the ancestors. You might just be glad you did.
Christ Church is a short walk from both North Sydney and Milsons Point train stations. Bus 230 runs from both stations and stops outside the church. Services are held every Sunday at 10am and 6pm. To view the interior at any other time, contact the rectory next to the church.