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Colin L. Macdonald, The Jamie York Letters Revisited.

Colin L. Macdonald, The Jamie York Letters Revisited, Friends of Ferguson Memorial Library, Strawberry Hills NSW, 2003, 193 pages; ISBN 0 949197 88 2

Between January 1963 and December 1965, seventy-three notable letters signed by 'Jamie York' were published in the New South Wales Presbyterian. The identity of the author remained locked in the bosom of the distinguished editor of the Presbyterian, the Reverend Robert MacArthur, until the Friends of the Ferguson Memorial Library published this collected edition of the letters in 2003, with the consent of the Reverend Malcolm Macleod who had written them forty years earlier. Macleod had taken the pseudonym 'Jamie York' from the Sydney cross-streets Jamison and York, where John Dunmore Lang's Scots Church and its successor were built. A full-size statue of the doughty and controversial John Dunmore Lang, the founding Presbyterian minister in Australia, stands on an impressive pedestal near Margaret Street, with its back to the Scots Church: the letters of 'Jamie York' were all addressed to Lang at 'The Pedestal, Wynyard Park'. In addition to the seventy-three letters to Lang, there were also two responses purporting to be from Lang to 'Jamison York Esq.'.

Colin Macdonald has skilfully presented the seventy-five letters on the odd-numbered pages and used the even pages to give some background explanation as well as reprints of letters written in response to the often provocative work of 'Jamie York'. As a result the book is of value in understanding the issues confronting the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales in the early 1960s, when the question of union with Methodists and Congregationalists was in an important planning stage (although the Uniting Church, incorporating a considerable sector of the Presbyterian Church, was not finally created until 1977).

When Malcolm Macleod wrote the 'Jamie York' letters he was in his late forties, the Presbyterian minister at Kiama and a councillor of St Andrew's College (with which Lang had so stormy a relationship). The letters are witty, thought-provoking essays usually based on the skilful development of some of Lang's ideas in conjunction with the concerns of the 1960s, such as state aid to schools, the role of women in church and society, the training of the ministry, denominational cemeteries (opposed by both Lang and Macleod), the perennial question of youth and morality, all within a context of the looming likelihood of church union in all its facets, not least the possibility of bishops-in-presbytery (to whom 'Jamie York' was remarkably tolerant). Macleod, who was very well informed about Lang and the first half-century of the Presbyterian church in the colony, was always forceful, entertaining, cheerfully prejudiced (not least about women's place) and compulsively readable. He himself, like his editor Robert MacArthur, chose to become a Uniting Church minister after 1977: both are still happily active and did a great deal to ensure the punctilious presentation of these collected letters.

Some of the anecdotes, old and new, are treasurable and will no doubt be repeated in many sermons but also in historical lectures and books. The volume is a significant contribution to church history and the social role of the church in the issues of the 1960s. The quality of Macleod's prose is a telling reminder of the value of wit and scholarship as well as faith and insight in the furtherance of religious discussion.

Ian Jack

Senior Fellow

St Andrew's College within the University of Sydney
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Author:Jack, Ian
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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