Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away

Heathen though I may be, I was very saddened to hear recently that Sydney's St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Broadway went up in flames in the early hours of May 10. It was an unprepossessing little church overshadowed by large modern buildings, but perhaps that was half of its charm.

I used to have a job in Bay Street, just off Broadway, and every morning on the way to work I would see a spiritual message posted on St Barnabas's noticeboard, which was always wittily responded to in turn on a sign outside the hotel on the other side of Broadway. The riposte was composed by Arthur Elliott, the hotel's publican.

Usually the pub's rejoinder was corny, but always a bit naughty and cheeky, and the decades-old tradition must have put a twinkle in the eye of both the publican and the parson every week when they changed their signs. It was a much-loved part of Sydney culture for saint and sinner alike. The sign at St Barny's when it burned to the ground was "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away". I can't report what the corresponding sign said at the pub that day.

The church was 148 years old, and was the place of conversion of a person whose cultural impact on the life of Sydney was without parallel -- it was the little building in which Mr Eternity was converted to Christianity.

Mr Etenity
Mr Eternity (Arthur Stace, born February 9, 1885) had been a methylated spirits-drinking, hopeless alcoholic and derelict in the streets of Sydney, when he was converted to Christianity at about 46 years of age. He had returned from World War One shell-shocked and soon became a scout for brothels, a petty criminal, and a 'cockatoo' (lookout) for two-up schools (illegal gambling rooms where the Australian game of two-up is played).

Just after his conversion to Christianity at St Barnabas's, Stace heard the evangelist John Ridley at the Burton Street Baptist Church preach about a man who was converted in Scotland through 'Eternity' being written on a footpath. Ridley cried out "Oh for someone to write Eternity on the footpaths of Sydney!" Arthur Stace said to himself, "Here is something I can do for God." He did so, writing the word in the pre-dawn with yellow chalk in perfect Copperplate italic script on footpaths half a million times over nearly four decades.

As a child, many was the time I saw 'Eternity' written on the footpaths of Sydney. On January 1, 2000, the worldwide telecast of 'millennium' celebrations showed the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a city's tribute to one of its treasured eccentrics.

Arthur Stace passed into Eternity on July 30, 1967, aged 83. People and church buildings come and go, but Eternity ... that's something different.

St Barnabas fire: new message to be posted :: Rob Forsyth on St Barnabas

Who was St Barnabas? (in the Book of Days)

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