Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Views of a past world – Barool, Treefield and Highcliffe

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 10 June 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here. The column provides a personal perspective. For those that are interested, in Sunday Essay - church, state and social change in Australia I looked in more detail at Kenneth Dempsey's work, along with two other books.

It’s Sunday morning and I am looking at a blank monitor. I have just completed a major blog post – around 3,800 words – looking at three books relevant to New England’s history. I am again written out, but I have a column deadline to meet.

At school and at University it would have been incomprehensible to me that I would voluntarily write the equivalent of a major essay just for my own satisfaction. It would have seemed even stranger that I would then write some more to meet a print deadline.

Yesterday I was sitting on the train and suddenly realized that it had arrived at my stop and was about to leave again. I hastily shovelled my book into my overloaded briefcase and got off.

The book I was reading was Kenneth Dempsey’s Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town.

The book looks at the Barool circuit of the Methodist Church from 1905 to mid 1967. In addition to Barool, the circuit includes Treefield, a farming area near a former gold field. Not far away is the educational centre of Highcliffe, apparently located on the coast.

Ken Dempsey changed the names, but it’s all pretty well recognisable.

Gran came from Treefield, she married Fah in the Treefield Methodist Church, she and her sisters went to Sunday School in Treefield when staying with their grandparents.

At Treefield Mum and one of her sisters apparently fell in the mud while wearing their pristine white Sunday School dresses. Fell? Mmm. Somehow I don’t quite believe this!

Ken’s book actually made me quite uncomfortable. After all, the laity he is talking about includes many members of my own family on Gran’s side, while I went to the Methodist Sunday School in Highcliffe and was a member first of the Order of Knights and then of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at the end of the period covered by the book.

I am far more sympathetic to the Barool laity now than I was when I first read this book all those years ago.

Under first James and then Richard Udy, the Armidale Methodist Church and especially the MYF was a source of new ideas. University and town young people mixed in a very special way that combined new and old.

I was seen as a bit of a radical. I still remember Mrs Udy worrying about my apparent friendship with a girl, let’s call her Jenny. She felt that Jenny would be better suited to Bob.

Now Mrs Udy was right, but what she did not know was that Bob and Jenny were in fact going out. When I picked Jenny up every Wednesday to take her to University I was not only providing her with a lift, but was also acting as a decoy to confuse those who wanted to match make! Bob and Jenny did marry, and I still have the jumper she knitted for me as thanks, although it is now very worn.

It is hard looking back to capture the strength of the religious views I held at the time.

The Vietnam War had begun, conscription had been introduced, and I had to decide what to do. I was opposed to military service on religious grounds. Given this, I felt that I should refuse even to register.

Richard Udy helped me work though the issues. We finally decided that I should register as a CO, but also offer to serve in a missionary role for two years should I be called up. I wasn’t, and the issue went away as I became caught up in the new world of Canberra.

There was a price to pay later, however.

In 1972 I decided to run for Country Party pre-selection for Armidale. My previous views on military service and the Vietnam War became a major issue, and I spent the second half of the pre-selection campaign fighting on this single issue. I clawed back to almost win pre-selection, but it was very hard.

I said that I was far more sympathetic now to the Barool laity than I was when I first read the book.

I think that this is because I have come to understand their positions and concerns far more clearly than I did in those days when everything seemed so black and white, so clear cut.

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