Cecil Warren at O'Connor

The Revd Cecil Warren was assistant priest at St John's, Canberra, when chosen by soon-to-retire Bishop Burgmann to be priest-in-charge of a new parochial district of St Philip's, O'Connor. The new district was be carved out of Canberra North Parish. Warren and his wife Doreen moved the short distance to O'Connor in February 1960.

Extracts from A little foolishness: an autobiographical history, by C. A. Warren. Virginia, Qld., Church Archivist Press, 1993, pp. 43ff:


A little foolishness

The parish (as I shall mostly call it, though at this stage having no established place of worship, it was officially a "parochial district") was less encouraging still at closer quarters. It was roughly fan shaped, made up of that part of the Parish of Canberra North to the west of Northbourne Avenue, i.e., about half of Turner, and the whole of O'Connor and Lyneham. The older part, Turner, and much of O'Connor, had been severed from St John's when Canberra North was created; Lyneham and the further parts of O'Connor had developed since 1955 and were still being constructed. While it was compact and about the right size for a parish, it lacked a community focal point and had nothing much to unify it. Indeed, because of its lack of inherent cohesion, early Church thinking had proposed that two worship centres be constructed, one near the O'Connor shops and the other, in or near Lyneham. As the first stage in that strategy, a plan for a hall and chapel complex at O'Connor had been devised in consultation with the architect Robert Warren, and the hall was completed in 1958. It was not much to look at and its roof leaked appallingly. To make matters worse, £8,500 was owing on it, and not being reduced, and a debt for the architect's work on the projected chapel was outstanding.

While the new parish needed careful and sustained visiting, it had certainly not been neglected. It did, however, feel itself to have been the poor relation of the other half of Canberra North, for Ted Buckle, the Rector, recognising the potential of the redundant sandstone railway station at Rockwood Cemetery in Sydney, purchased it, and, with appropriate alterations, had it [p.44] erected at Ainslie, as a church. This was, of course, a master stroke and had attracted a good deal of publicity. By contrast, the hall and chapel complex envisaged for O'Connor was a poor thing. The parish council there had got itself into a corner. Conversations between the council and the architect about the building of the chapel had continued at depth, with the Rector's encouragement, to the end of 1959, but with no likelihood that the parish could afford to build anything. Indeed, the treasurer informed us at my first council meeting that, as the district had increased its overdraft by £l,000 in 1959, he doubted the financial viability of the parish at its existing subsistence level.

In his conversation with the church wardens prior to my appointment, the Bishop had expressed the hope that I would continue to teach, on a limited scale, at St Mark's. The more I saw of the parish, however, the more obvious it was that I must grasp the initiative there and not be deflected. We had to settle into the Rectory and become known; services, formerly arranged within a Canberra North parish roster, had to be reorganised at times that suited the people; and something had to be done, without delay, to break out of the prevailing pessimism. It was good to be able to announce, at the outset, that Dr Evan Burge, a classicist at the ANU and shortly to be ordained, would be coming to us as an honorary deacon. Apart from liturgical assistance that he could offer, Evan had musical gifts which would help to lift the quality of worship. We were promised assistance, too, during school vacations, from George Garnsey, son of the Bishop of Gippsland, then teaching in Sydney, and soon to be ordained.

Like all newer Canberra suburbs, those comprising St Philip's Parochial District were almost entirely made up of young families. I discovered at a later date that of some nine hundred nominal Anglican families, only about twenty were pensioner households. Inevitably, we at St Philip's had a heavy load of religious instruction at Lyneham and Turner Infants' and Primary Schools, and Lyneham High: 28 classes in 1961, 32 in 1962. As they fell in eight periods, the maximum that I could teach was eight, and we looked to a devoted band of lay people to teach the rest. The school year having begun by the time we had settled in, the actual teaching load and [p. 45] responsibility for maintaining the work were already upon me. It was relentless in its demands. Nor was it simply that we had a moral responsibility for using well the opportunity of teaching Christianity to the young people in departmental schools; many teachers felt we were imposing on them if we failed to cover our classes and their goodwill was important in helping us with problems of discipline and in other things.

A second immediate responsibility was hospital visiting. This now meant seeing Anglican patients in the two wards allotted to St Philip's for care, and otherwise ensuring that any of our parishioners elsewhere in the hospital were being visited adequately.

Realising that other pressures besides the recurring demands of Sunday services in the parish hall, R.I. [religious instruction] in schools and hospital visiting would quickly engulf me, I set out to visit door-to-door, day after day, and it had its rewards in the steadily increasing numbers finding their way to church on Sunday. Persistent visiting was stimulated, too, by a decision of the parochial council, at my very first meeting, to seek advice about a parish canvass. It would help to extract us from the financial doldrums and provide continuity when the current stewardship programme expired on 30th June. Before the end of February, and only about a fortnight after we moved in, the Council was addressed by the diocesan Director of Promotion, Bill Brouwer, and agreed to his conducting a canvass in July. He stressed that an up-to-date and accurate parish roll was essential. While many of those on our list were worshippers, or were otherwise known to councillors and could be confirmed at once, many others had to be checked, and as many new families as possible identified and included before the roll was "closed".

The prospect of a canvass in July raised other problems. We could, quite justifiably, approach Anglicans in the parish for support for our regular worship activities, teaching and pastoral care. It would make sense, however, and also help towards a better result, if we could give a clear idea of our church building programme — one building or two, whether the Robert Warren chapel was to be erected, and any alternative proposal. The annual general meeting of the parish had been fixed, prior to my arrival, for 3rd March: was it feasible to begin to clarify these issues then? The way ahead seemed clear to me, so, despite the inevitable sense of haste, I decided to lead on the matter. Using maps from the NCDC [National Capital Development Commission], I spoke about the geography of our area and indicated that, [p. 46] though it was a little further south than one would have wished, and rather tucked away, the St Philip's site, already partly developed, was the best available to us for a single worship centre for the parish. An adequate parish church ought to be erected there for a congregation of around 240 people. The Robert Warren chapel did not meet that requirement, was not easily adaptable and should be scrapped. The minutes of the meeting record that "discussion tended to become lively on these vital subjects" hardly surprising, seeing that I was proposing to end a plan they had been considering for about three years. Out of the heat came a resolution that the council should consider the alternatives, and within a month, bring a recommendation to a special general meeting. After some soul searching, the council duly recommended, a few weeks later, that:

(a) the proposed round church is too small for parish needs;
(b) a larger church of circular design would be costly to build;
(c) the parochial council be authorised to commission an alternative design.

After discussion, the special meeting concurred, and the council resolved, that same night, to write to Robert Warren terminating their association with him.

Fortunately for the parish, John Goldsmith, an architect with the NCDC and a member of the congregation of St John's, indicated his interest in designing and supervising the construction of a church. More fortunately still, he would do it for St Philip's out of love. His initial thoughts, for an A-frame structure, were agreed in principle by the council on 21st May, and began, thereafter, to be widely advertised.

Attention was now directed towards finance the forthcoming canvass, and our need of loan funds to enable the building to proceed. Already, by the end of June, our bank overdraft was slowly being reduced. By August, the parish canvass had been successfully concluded, income was increasing significantly, and the first £250 had been lodged in a church building account. It was time to beard the bank manager: would he consider increasing our total borrowing to £24,000 to be repaid over 16 years? Given the district's record, one can only wonder at the temerity of it, but the earlier pessimism had been dispelled and there seemed no stopping us. When the bank manager demurred, we approached the MLC Insurance Company, which, at that time, had a reputation for assisting projects like ours. Eventually, they indicated that the sum needed for the church would be available, repayable over a lengthy period, and we could proceed with confidence.

[p. 47] It was not only the Rectory household who felt deprived during those first two years by the lack of a church building. The parish hall where Sunday services were held, was commonly used for square-dancing on Saturday evenings, the church furniture being arranged when the entertainment was over. Next morning, the smell of stale tobacco smoke pervaded everything. After Evensong, the furniture was stacked again to make way for the variety of youth activities housed there during the week. Given the paucity of community facilities, one could only be glad that the building had been provided, but until the erection of a church was firmly in our sights, only the committed core of St Philip's parishioners made a consistent effort to worship there, and it was they who were shouldering most of the debt. As the parish's sense of purpose grew, our congregations came to include quite a few for whom churchgoing was unfamiliar. On one occasion as I progressed along the rail with Holy Communion, breaking the wafer audibly as I went, a young lad asked in a stage whisper, "Did he give you a peanut, Mum?" Meanwhile, Evan Burge was doing great things with his choir, enhancing our hymn singing, preparing anthems and more complicated music for major festivals. Doreen was one choir member who greatly appreciated his enthusiasm and skill. It was quite a triumph for Evan, and indeed, for all of us, when the ABC agreed to broadcast "Community Hymn-Singing" from St Philip's for Whitsunday, 1961. With such a core of singers we coped adequately with our sung services, including the Merbecke setting for Holy Communion.

The experience of those years, the lack of a fixed place of worship, and the mammoth overdraft was effort needed to take hold of the debt on the hall and get ourselves to the point of building a church, convinced me, ever after, that, in general, the best strategy in new housing areas is to build the church first. That consolidated the spiritual heart of the parish and gave a foundation for the next phase of a parish programme. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the justification for St Philip's proceeding as it did. A good stab at youth work was made from those premises, and quite a bit of socialising was possible there.

In one important respect, the lack of a church was not as inhibiting as one might have expected. There were many requests for baptism: 44 in 1960, 72 in 1961, and 52 in 1962. As happened in the years at St John's, each request was followed by a night visit when the form of the service and its meaning were talked through with both parents. Not infrequently, one or other parent expressed interest in further instruction, and ultimately, confirmation.

Our home was a typical parish house, with lots of callers, both in person and by telephone. Doreen was kept busy. One afternoon as she weeded the garden at the front of the house one of two children walking past greeted her. As they walked on, the other said, "Is she your Sunday school teacher?" "No," came the reply, "She's the church's mother. 'Er father's the priminister." One could excuse youthful Canberrans for being confused between one sort of minister and another! The spelling I can vouch for: it appeared a few months later, in a scripture work book.

[p. 48] Tenders for the erection of St Philip's were opened in June, 1961, and a final price of £21,600 was agreed between the parish and the successful tenderer. It was a mark of the progress that had been made, that, while holding the overdraft at £7,000, the parochial council still needed to borrow only £17,000 from the MLC. In addition, by the time of the Church's dedication in December, the altar, font, pulpit, altar rail, and all the furniture had been provided and paid for, by memorial donations and special efforts.

Part of the secret of our success to this point, and helping to create a climate for generosity, was the fact that many people were involved in parish life. From the start there were the council members, sidesmen and servers, flower arrangers, hall cleaners, Sunday School and R.I. teachers and youth leaders. In 1960 and afterwards, a group of people, mostly women, undertook catering on quite a large scale, particularly for lodge suppers and occasional weddings. The annual fete, headed by a keen committee, became a major exercise, with scores of new parishioners, among others, being invited to sew or make cakes. (Imagine our delight when, in 1961, a storm in the hour before the fete enabled us to claim rain insurance, and then cleared away. The fete itself, unaffected by the rain, was an unqualified success!) As the church building proceeded, linen was prepared for the altar, kneeling pads were put together, and a generous glazier undertook the glazing of the large windows in the sanctuary and west end. Our 36 pews, pre-cut, came from Anthony Hordern's in Sydney at a cost of £697(!) and were assembled, stained and polished by parishioners inside the unfinished building. Small wonder that many people felt personal pride in what had been accomplished.

Unfortunately, a little work, some of it obvious, remained to be done when Bishop Clements dedicated the building on 16th December. Completion by Christmas, in accordance with the contract, seemed practicable when we fixed the date for the service, and we all wanted to hold our Christmas services there. Delays in supply and inclement weather held things up, however, and it was not till the end of January, 1962, that everything was shipshape. But the incompleteness did not deter the Bishop from declaring St Philip's a parish during the course of the service. In February, I was formally made Rector.

Having the church did not greatly affect my work in the year that followed, but it did allow us to change direction somewhat. Some people whose talents had been subordinated to money raising and the more practical tasks could now concentrate on other things. It was proposed to the annual meeting of 1962 that there now be a concerted approach to the various pastoral and educational opportunities that our suburbs presented to us. This led, in due course, to the establishment of five "commissions" concerned with pastoral care, grounds and buildings, education, youth activities and finance. Each had a lay convenor and a small sub-committee responsible to the parochial council, and parishioners were invited to associate themselves with the commission(s) of their choice. While this structure, of itself, produced no great changes in our overall performance, it maintained the understanding that the parish belonged to, and was the concern of all of us. Moreover, I could get on with my work, confident that ours was not a one-man band.

The coming of television to Canberra in 1962 altered the patterns of Canberra life for people of all ages and made quite fresh demands upon the clergy of the several denominations. […] In my pastoral review at the 1962 annual meeting, I reported that "on normal Sundays we can reasonably expect 200-220 people to attend services, the largest number coming at 8am, and the smallest at 10am." A year later the pattern had changed: "Evensong has been disappointing. The onset of television has made a real impression: I can only hope that as we learn to live with TV we shall be able to build up again this service which offers most opportunity for learning the faith."

Unpaid priestly assistance had been invaluable both to the parish and to me in my years at St Philip's. While George Garnsey was not often available, and left in 1961 to undertake studies at Oxford, Evan Burge was regularly rostered to celebrate and/or assist at morning services. About the middle of 1962, the Reverend Stan Atkinson came, as an honorary deacon, to work with me on a more or less full-time basis. In September, he was priested. The Bishop proposed that Stan come onto St Philip's payroll in 1963, for one year initially, and, to the credit of the council, considering our limited means, they agreed. We certainly had the work for a second priest, and St Philip's, by then, was a good parish for him to gain experience and learn his craft.

I was glad of Stan's appointment for another reason. My time at St Philip's was drawing to a close and he would be able to hold the fort there until my successor was inducted.


In 1962, Warren became a member of the Diocese's Bishop in Council and the full-time minister responsible for the Diocese's 1963 Centenary program. He was succeeded as Rector of St Philip's by the Revd DB Hobson. Warren later became Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.