Sophia’s Spring: An ecofeminist community of the Uniting Church at CERES VIC
The congregation of Fitzroy Uniting Church moved permanently to CERES Environment Park on September 20, 2009. The congregation had to vacate the Fitzroy site at 124 Napier Street due to an inability to maintain the deteriorating buildings. The Fitzroy congregation, with a long social justice, human rights and peace emphasis, has strived to embody and strongly promote a feminist, gay and lesbian affirming, liberationist and widely inclusive theology and practice for at least twenty years. With the increasing awareness of the ecological dangers to our planet and the need to respect animals and the whole Creation, the congregation has embraced and sought to understand eco-feminist theology. The Season of Creation worship resources have been used regularly. We seek to uphold a model of mutual ministry, respect and friendship.
The final move to CERES was the joyful culmination of over twelve years of extensive and exhausting work, firstly involving the exploration of alternative locations before deciding on CERES as a philosophically and program-oriented compatible community. This was followed by painstaking and lengthy negotiations with the wider decision-making mission and financial entities of the Uniting Church in Victoria, and with CERES management on the funding and building arrangements required to achieve a legally and morally sound agreement between our church and CERES.
The Fitzroy congregation became a CERES site member and held irregular Sunday services at CERES from early 2003, sometimes as often as monthly, before the permanent relocation. We also rented an office in another building at CERES. A dedicated, small planning group from the congregation met regularly with the CERES Management Team in finalising the redesign of the CERES Education Centre and other aspects of our growing relationship. The final move came once the main refurbishment of the Educational Centre into a modern, environmentally sustainable, multi-purpose and multi-user building was completed (except for some internal cupboards, still to be made from the large, folding timber doors from inside our church). Reuse of the church’s attractive timber pews and doors for furniture at CERES, and the sale of commemorative candle stands and our old furniture was undertaken inan effort to uphold sustainability principles such as reuse and recycling.
The community considered the appropriate use of buildings, and was excited to pursue an arrangement of partnership in community buildings beyond the church structures. This happened to be outside of the then guidelines regarding the use of proceeds from the sale of our church property, so the community entered into a tenancy arrangement that was within the guidelines while still allowing the community to develop links with groups beyond the church. It is a model based not on ownership of property, but rather on restructuring to continue our focus on people and faith, and of “ministry with” rather than “ministry to” people of the community at CERES and visitors to the site.
The new CERES building sees the congregation having use of the large common meeting space for regular worship and companionship, and dedicated spaces for a resource centre that contains some eco-feminist theological resources, and an office for our minister. The congregation is now discussing a new name for itself.
A vision for the congregation’s ministry at CERES presently encompasses these areas: a dynamic, inclusive, worshipping community; openness to Sophia (the wisdom of God); partnership with CERES, its members groups and others; the future of the planet globally and locally; the peaceable kin-dom; a prophetic ministry of justice; feminist and eco-feminist theology; hospitality; wider church, ecumenical, and interfaith relationships and interpretation and education, offering a Christian perspective to the spirituality that informs CERES, and also seminars and educational resources.
The congregation is presently accessing its agreed allocation of expected sales proceeds for set-up costs and funding a part-time paid minister, with the size of these annual grants reducing over ten years. So the congregation faces the challenge of sustaining its ministry through: continuing voluntary effort, including in organising worship, which has been a long-term feature of the congregation; increasing our financial giving; and building other funding sources and collaborative and imaginative initiatives with other groups and individuals from within CERES, the wider church and more broadly.