John U’ren, 19th January 1933 – 16th April 2023
“A true Elder in the Radical Discipleship movement. A great support to me and many. I keep thinking since hearing this week that the “House of the Gentle Bunyip” has the founding members back around the kitchen table. That would be a conversation to hear”.(Adrian Greenwood, a Facebook post 21st April 2023)
John U’ren’s funeral service will be at North Ringwood Uniting Church on Friday 28th April at 3pm.
(photo from a post on John Smith’s Facebook page 2016 – what a line-up!)
John U’Ren was one of the founding members of The House of the Gentle Bunyip, an intentional Christian community (1975-1996). John was one of Australia’s most important figures in Christian ministry to young people in the 1970s, and beyond, and through his work at Scripture Union.
John researched the History of Para Church Movements in Australia 1965-89 and onwards (an unpublished manuscript, Uniting Church Centre, Melbourne) and contributed to the publication Ministry in an Urban World: Responding to the City (Acorn Press, ACT, 1991).
John continued to preach occasionally at his home church, North Ringwood Uniting Church.
On John Smith’s Facebook post (see above), he wrote that John U’Ren was a ‘vital tribal advisor’, and continued that ‘The radical return to the Jesus of the Gospels resulted in a deep desire for community, a resistance against materialism, a longing for true spirituality, and a commitment to non-violent resistance to war and nationalism….. though such radical inspired Jesus inspired dissenting is no longer sexy for our culture now, the world (including the Church) needs the teaching and Spirit of Jesus now as much as in the hippie days when so many outside the established religious organisations sought Him and saw him as the bridge over troubled waters’.
Many lives have been touched by John U’Ren’s gentle wisdom and encouragement, his courageous and creative ministry in church and para-church contexts as well as beyond the church, and his commitment to the radical nature of the Christian discipleship as a follower of the Jesus of the Gospels.
The House of the Gentle Bunyip was an ecumenical Christian community that existed from 1975 to 1996 in Clifton Hill, an inner Melbourne suburb. The residence was W. B. Fox’s Villa, an historic farmhouse built in 1867.
The Bunyip was founded in 1975 by Baptist theologian, Athol Gill (5.9.1937-9.3.1992). It came into being in 1975 during the Anzac Day weekend when Athol was teaching on “Discipleship” from the Gospel of St Mark. He announced he was commencing a Christian community to explore and expound the meaning of discipleship. Thirty five, mainly young and single people, agreed to join him. Over the course of the Bunyip’s life 150 adults were part of the community.
Athol was a provocative advocate for the poor and for social justice. He campaigned relentlessly for the church to reflect the teachings of Jesus and for a peaceful and just society. This was evident in his simple lifestyle and through his practical engagement in mission with the poor and marginalised.
The Bunyip drew many of its members from the Baptist and evangelical traditions. Mostly young adults, they perceived deficiencies in their churches and wanted to explore some of the radical implications of the Christian faith in a non-traditional setting. The Bunyip was influenced by socio-political changes in Australian society in the 1970’s, a worldwide movement towards alternative communities (both religious and secular) and the worldwide radical discipleship and Christian community movement (eg House of Freedom in Brisbane, House of the New World in Sydney, House of the Rock in Adelaide, etc).
[Jesus] comes time and again and calls us to follow him, offering a fresh start in the life of discipleship. The options don’t vary, but the choices continue.Athol Gill
The Bunyip sought to respond to a decline within the institutional church evident from the 1960s and, in particular, to Victorian Baptist neglect of Melbourne’s inner city churches. The Bunyip operated as a residential, ecumenical, Christian community embracing a variety of crisis support programs including ministering to the homeless, those suffering from schizophrenia, the sick, the elderly, and the young of Melbourne including children disadvantaged by poorly-resourced inner city schools. Countless people were assisted through its mission programs.
The Bunyip developed educational initiatives for clergy and lay people and sought to reclaim the communal aspects of the Christian faith by introducing its own pattern of corporate worship, community housing, membership agreements and leadership structures.
The Bunyip established centres in Victoria and interstate, and developed links with a range of church and community networks. Over 150 adults and 30 children joined the Bunyip and the average length of stay was a little over four years.
The House of the Gentle Bunyip made a significant contribution to Australian church life by offering a viable alternative to the institutional church. It provided men and women with training, and opportunities for leadership and relevant practical service. It challenged Christians to take seriously the radical implications of the Gospel, especially in the areas of justice, care of the poor and community.M.R.Munro
Many of its members and others influenced by Gill and the Bunyip completed degrees in theology and moved into ordained ministry, denominational leadership and urban or overseas ministry.
The time of preparation for ministry included participation in House of the Gentle Bunyip in Clifton Hill. There we worked and prayed with others as the Community sought to care for people who suffer from schizophrenia. The people of the Bunyip continue to hold a special place in our hearts.Rev Dr Garry Deverell, inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Indigenous Theology at the University of Divinity.
Some community members used their Bunyip experience in community development, welfare work, education and peace-making. Although the Bunyip eventually declined and closed, its legacy continues through Fintry Bank, a supported accommodation program for sufferers of schizophrenia. In the 1990s, the building had fallen into disrepair and was planned to be demolished. In a long-running grass roots community campaign to save the building, Clifton Hill residents picketed the site for over 400 days, ultimately preventing its demolition. In 2008, the building was subsequently re-purposed as supported accommodation for people with schizophrenia with six self-contained units within the old Bunyip building. The units are owned and managed by Melbourne Affordable Housing, a not for profit community agency with a proven track record in managing affordable housing across metropolitan Melbourne. Read more here).
See also John’s contribution to this publication:
Costello, Tim; Riddell, Michael; Gill, Athol; Nichols, Alan; U’ren, John; Duncan, Michael; Corney, Peter;