Mangrove Mountain, a small community in the NSW Central Coast hinterland, still has a church thanks to a bunch of Christians and atheists who banded together to save the “little white church at Mangrove Mountain.” Their Union church has been rescued from the hands of a Liquidator. Dotted around the country, “Union church” buildings survive mostly in small communities where earlier generations built them because, on their own, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and others could not afford their own buildings.
It’s a typical backcountry church. A corrugated iron roof, timber walls sheeted in PVC cladding that needs replacing, pointed windows and a porch out front.
In 2021, outrage rippled through the Mangrove Mountain community with the news that the church was to be sold. It’s a sad story of expensive misunderstandings.
Sometimes Union Churches survived the colonial era as one congregation. I grew up in one – Burnside Christian Church in the Eastern suburbs of Adelaide, now called Burnside Family Church. It was one of a string of churches pastored by Tom Playford, ancestor of the premier of the same name.
But as local Robert Meggs recounts it, “There were still three congregations using the church up until about 2011. One of those fell by the wayside because its central figure, a charismatic kind of fellow moved away from the area. So that Fellowship stopped meeting and that left two congregations using the church, the Uniting Church and the Anglicans. Then in 2015, they had a falling out. And the Anglicans withdrew. They still meet in a local scout hall. I’m one of the Anglicans, and a few of us are trying to encourage a return of the Anglicans to the Union church. But we are yet to reach consensus in the Anglicans about this. So anyway, that left the Uniting Church as the remaining congregation both worshipping in, and looking after the church. Eventually the Management Committee and the Uniting congregation kind of became one.”
More recently, the Gosford Uniting Church decided to end its sponsorship of the Mangrove Mountain congregation – in common with other local congregations in that denomination. What happened next is a story of a sad and expensive misunderstanding.
“The three local gentlemen” as Meggs describes those who donated the land in 1912, had made themselves the Trustees for the church but had wisely provided for new trustees to be appointed. But in time, that provision, it seems, had been forgotten. A new generation knew not Joseph (Exodus 1:8).
“Now we’re unsure, but it seems the Church Management committee in 2021 were possibly unaware of the existence and primacy of the Beneficial Trust that was “impressed” upon the Mangrove Mountain Union Church property” Meggs recalls. “And so they went ahead and announced to the community that they were selling up and that the proceeds would be applied to another Christian purpose somewhere else, not necessarily in or near Mangrove Mountain, but somewhere else. And the community, as you might imagine, got quite riled up about that.”
“There was a big meeting. And the three people driving this winding up of the Union Church Trustee Association were adamant that they were going to do this. They rejected both financial and non-financial offers of assistance and even rejected a business plan that community representatives put to them. A lot of people went to a lot of trouble to try and convince them that it was still viable to hold the Union Church here in this community and operate it as a Community Church and activity centre.
“Things got “pretty hot” for those three people so they withdrew from engaging with the community, they shut the church, put the Trustee association into voluntary liquidation and appointed a Liquidator.”
That’s when it got expensive. The Liquidator’s fees and legal expenses, not counting what the locals spent convincing the Liquidator to accept that new trustees should be appointed, meant a bill of just under $80,000 was run up.
But last week, a new group, the “Mangrove Mountain Christian Group Incorporated” got the keys to the building, and on Sunday, they held their first church service as the proud Trustee owners of the property. The service is pictured in the lead image in this story. For the past year, they had been casually renting the church from the Liquidator for fortnightly services.
Their name is possibly a misnomer. Because a cross-section of the community has joined together to raise money and save the white church at Mangrove Mountain. “So the group includes people who are passionate about maintaining a Christian presence on the mountain and using the union church for that, but also non-Christians who accept how worthwhile it is to have a Christian presence in their community”, Meggs tells The Other Cheek.
“We have had some very generous donations,” Meggs revealed. “To make up that $80,000, we had raised $20,000 (on top of $50,000 for our legal bills, all paid). We were given $10,000 from the local Country Fair proceeds last year, And we also had a further donation from Central Coast local, John Singleton of $10,000. With still $40,000 to make up. in the last three weeks, they raised $32,000 more from within and outside their community. There still remains $8,000 of short-term borrowing to be paid back.
In time, they plan to separate “church and state” as Meggs puts it, by setting up a local committee to manage the Union Church property and thereby leaving Christian and community groups as the users of the property.
Robert Meggs hopes to get the Anglicans back to the church. Meanwhile, he goes to the local Scout Hall each week to be a good Anglican and also takes part in the fortnightly non-denominational service at the Union Church. The growing band of Christians who gather at the Mangrove Mountain Union Church will be listening to the rain drumming on their iron roof for years to come as they continue singing praises to and glorifying our God in their “little white church”.
Image credit: Robert Meggs. The top image shows a service on September 10 2023.