A brief history
Vine Church started in 2011 when Toby and Liz Neal gathered a group of 16 friends to meet together as a church in one of Sydney’s least religious areas. They begun with the conviction that while inner city people are not interested in religion, Jesus Christ has not stopped being relevant. Since 2011, Vine Church has grown to be a vibrant inner city church known for it’s warm community life and its unique voice in the way it converses with our city about Jesus.
In 2015 Vine Church and St Michael’s merged with a common vision to reach our city with the good news of Jesus. Our current double-barrel name reflects some of the complexity blended families experience when they commit to one another for a common purpose.
A longer history
The history of St Michael’s
St Michael’s has 160 years of history in seeing God at work in Surry Hills. In 2004, the local historian Paul Egan wrote a history of St Michael’s titled, A Task Unfinished from which much of the following history is drawn from.
- St Michael’s is situated on the estate God gave to the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. This people lived here for generations until the arrival of the British settlers. When they did come into contact with these new settlers their lives were tragically decimated by disease—mainly smallpox—and within eighteen months half of their people had died.
- In the period between the gold rushes (1850s) and the depression (1890s) Surry Hills experienced a transformation from a series of villages with 800 homes to an overcrowded residential suburb with 5,300 homes. At this time Surry Hills accounted for 29% of Sydney’s population.1
- St Michael’s began in the late 1830s the way all church begin – as a church plant! The first services were held in the Albion Brewery.2 Following this, the church met at a number of other locations including a school-house and the Darlinghurst Courthouse. In 1854, the church designed by renowned architect Edmund Blacket was built and dedicated as St Michael’s. Originally the church was to seat 450 people, showing the great vision for gospel ministry in such a highly populated area of Sydney.3 Sadly, these plans were later changed due to financial constraints and the smaller building was erected. Nevertheless, as the population of Surry Hills exploded in the last few decades of the 19th century three additional Anglican churches were built (St David’s, St Simon’s, St Jude’s, and St Luke’s Chinese Church).4 With the decline in population density and church-going in the 20th century, each of these three churches were closed, and some of their property was given to St Michael’s.
- One of the most interesting pastors in Surry Hills was R. B. S. Hammond (minister of St David’s, Surry Hills). Hammond was a man of action, whose vigorous program of pastoral care and evangelism made him fruitful in responding to the social issues of Surry Hills’ slums. This densely populated area was a cauldron of crime, drunkenness, and poverty. Children were ill-fed, ill-clothed, without education, and without space to play in. Though Hammond regarded himself primarily as an evangelist, his concern was to minister to the whole person. Thus he preached at thousands of meetings, he made tens of thousands of visits to the poor and sick, he spoke at hundreds of unique open-air meetings and factory services. While the ministry of others in Surry Hills floundered, his ministry flourished. Sunday services, which were just one part of the ministry, saw a ten-fold increase in attendance. The Sunday schools were filled to over-flowing and the success of men’s meetings proved to the rest of Sydney that working class men were not disinterested in the gospel.5 Hammond urged his church to live up to the motto that ‘those who do not go to church are those to whom the Church should go.’
- During the 1940s many men from St Michael’s fought in World War 2. One of these was William Robertson, a man who had taught Sunday School and served on the Parish Council. While attacking Germany as part of a bomber squadron on New Years Day 1944, Robertson was shot down and killed. A memorial window in the church vestry commemorates his life and shows an airplane and Jesus receiving an air-force-man.6
- In the post war years, St Michael’s began a Rugby League team, a cricket team and an annual boxing tournament as an outreach to young men. They gathered many guys and had famous personalities come and speak including Arthur Stace (the Eternity man), Judge Kenneth Street and Joe Jorgenson (Australian Rugby League test captain).
- St Michael’s has always had a dedicated ministry to people living on the margins, and sometime in the late 1980’s, a weekly breakfast was provided every Sunday morning by teams of volunteers. This later became known as Bread of Life, and has provided almost 50,000 meals over the past 25 years.
- During the 1990’s the Rector, Roger Kay begun opening the church and offering coffee and refreshments during Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.7 The following Rector, Francis Chalwell, kept building this ministry and explains, ‘As the only church on the parade route… we want people to come to know that Christ is real, loves them and cares for them.’8
For the past 160 years St Michael’s has been at ‘the centre of — a fashionable, over-populated, slum, ethnic, and currently chic residential, area of Sydney.’9 It has fought the good fight of faith and continues to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only hope for life, salvation and peace with God.
The history of Vine Church
The history Vine Church, on the other hand, is much younger.
When Liz and Toby Neal first started planning to start a new church in Surry Hills, many people were pessimistic and urged them to find an easier place in Sydney — where people were more receptive to the gospel. Liz and Toby believed however that Jesus has not stopped being relevant, the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the church, the Father has not stopped desiring people be saved and the gospel message has not stopped being the power of God to save. It was that conviction that led them to begin a weekly Sunday gathering of 16 friends in November 2010 with the intention of it growing into a church.
As with St Michael’s, the first services were held in a local pub, and then later in in a variety of locations including the Rydges Hotel, the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre, the Paramount Building, Sydney Boys High School, and Crown Street Public School. Over this time Vine Church saw God transform the lives of many people and giving them the life, love and freedom that comes from being connected to Jesus.
Vine Church 1st birthday
1 Paul Egan, A Task Unfinished: St Michael’s Surry Hills – A Short History (Surry Hills: St Michaels’ Church, 2004), 11.
2 Egan, A Task Unfinished, 19.
3 Egan, A Task Unfinished, 27, 31.
4 Egan, A Task Unfinished, chap. 6.
5 Stephen Judd, Sydney Anglicans: A History of the Diocese (Sydney: AIO, 1987), 196.
6 Egan, A Task Unfinished, 97, 100.
7 Egan, A Task Unfinished, 152.
8 Francis Chalwell cited in Joseph Smith, ‘Mardi gras marches into the light’, Sydney Anglicans, March 2, 2006, Cited 10 Mar 2016, Online: http://sydneyanglicans.net/news/emmanuel_at_the_mardi_gras.
9 Egan, A Task Unfinished, 19.