Yesterday I visit an auction in the rural wilds of Australia. Six kilometres from the paved highway, and across numerous cattle grids, we drove on a dirt road beside a bucolic setting of gum trees perched on the banks of a barely running creek, until we came to the tiny red brick building that once had been the Tantawangalo church. An auction was to take place of all the furniture in the church, and early next year the building itself was to be sold. I went with a musician friend who’d been raised on a dairy farm less than three miles from the church, he was hoping to buy a pew.
Inside the church a somewhat forlorn spectacle greeted us. Several people were lounging about waiting for the auction to begin. We noticed that most of the pews already had post-it notes attached to them and had been sold, we were told, to local families that had long been attendees and were the last remaining people from the congregation. All that was left for auction was a few benches, an ornate kerosene lamp, and a harmonium. People grumbled that they had driven a long way for an auction whose outcome was already (somewhat) pre-determined.
We went to look at the harmonium, and my friend sat on the hard bench, pedalled on the foot-pedals, pulled out some stops, and managed to get a few melancholy chords from the ancient beast. The somewhat disconcerting sound reminded me of ancient churches filled to the brim where the congregation would lustily sing “O God our help in ages past” or some such hymn – it was a mournful last cry from the history of the place and made me feel sad. I was witnessing not only the passing of a church and its contents but the transition in rural Australia from one generation to the next. There was no-one in the church under fifty, I would have guessed, and many were well past seventy.
Everything sold very quickly. My friend purchased a bench. The hanging kerosene lamps fetched a price in excess of its real value but (no doubt) below its sentimental value. Everything was done in twenty minutes. I walked outside feeling depressed and somewhat glum. A small graveyard sat on a gentle rise above the church and its inhabitant surveyed the river valley through which we had earlier passed. A peaceful and lovely last resting spot would soon no longer have the church attached and I couldn’t bring myself to join the other people in a last look at the gravestones.
The scene I had witnessed at Tantawangalo was being repeated all over rural Australia, and even in some of the larger towns. Church attendances were falling, and those who still went to Sunday service were growing old and approaching senility. The current crop of youth no longer seemed to attend their local church. The financial base upon which the church depended for its meagre income was drying up. The farms of the faithful were barely sustainable with the big supermarket chains screwing the farmers over the prices they could raise for their produce.
We drove away with the bench my friend had purchased and we wondered about the harmonium. We had looked at it carefully and noted that it had been manufactured in New Jersey, USA. The church was over a hundred years old, and I wondered at the journey the instrument must have made so long ago across the United States to a port on the Pacific Coast. Then across the mightiest ocean in the world to Sydney, and from thence for many days by cart through the hills to the tiny village of Tantawangalo and its small flock of earnest Christians.
Many of the early congregations would have been sung to their final resting place to the sound of the harmonium and the voices of their loved ones. Carried from the church to the graveyard on the shoulders of local dairy and sheep farmers who had first settled in the Candello Valley some hundred and fifty years ago. The valley remained, the rivers and streams still ran in their courses, but the butter mill was long since gone, and the temples the locals had erected to worship their God were being sold.
There is a span to each of our lives. Buildings have a ‘life expectancy’ too. Fine churches, constructed properly and designed well, can survive for several hundred years, but they cannot (like us) live alone. Without people the church has no congregation, and without a congregation to support the building, then needs be, the ‘temple will crumble’. We cannot live alone, and neither can the church, and as we drove to my friend’s house in silence I remembered a saying my grandmother often repeated when I was a boy. “Don’t bother God and he wont bother you”. Like my grandmother, those days, it seems, are long gone.