Music

“Hasn’t Melbourne Suffered Enough?”: Hillsong Church Has Bought Festival Hall For $23 Million

The Amity Affliction has said they'll never play the venue again.

Festival Hall sold to Hillsong for $23 million

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Australian-founded evangelical church Hillsong has bought struggling Melbourne venue Festival Hall for $23 million, with plans to hold worship events there each Sunday.

In a YouTube video posted by the pentecostal church on Sunday (as first reported by NME, with the cost of the sale confirmed by The Age), Hillsong founder Brian Houston announced that they’ve bought the venue under new company Community Venues Pty Ltd.

State pastors Tim and Nicola Douglass later elaborated on their plans, stating that the hall will undergo massive renovations, and will continue to hold regular music events while being a “house of God on Sundays”.

“The cool thing about purchasing Festival Hall is it’s going to continue to be Festival Hall,” said Tim.

“It has served the people of this city in different events over the years and it’s going to continue to do that. We just get to be the church that purchases it and continues to serve, but also gets to see it be the house of God on Sundays.”

Douglass then says that the church has been in negotiations to buy the venue for 18 months — in 2018, a proposal to redevelop the West Melbourne venue into high-rise apartments was squashed when the building, which opened in 1915, was heritage listed.

The previous owner was dismayed by the blockage, saying the venue was “pummelled” by other, newer concert spaces, and was now far from financially viable. It’s been up for sale since.

“[We] just happened to hear about that it was for sale and started enquiring, thinking that it was a long shot,” Douglass said.  “Now, we’re sitting in a miracle. God can make a way even through impossible circumstances.”

The West Melbourne venue has a  5000+ person capacity, and has held countless local and international acts across the years, including the likes of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Courtney Barnett, Lorde, and Patti Smith.

With the news breaking, the Hall’s event coordinator Tanya Gleeson shared her disappointment on Twitter, writing that “it feels real and sad”. Others online expressed upset over the news, pointing out that there’s “nothing less rock and roll” than an evangelical church owning a venue, and that while the venue was less than perfect, it’s a sad shift.

There’s also a fair amount of anger too, with many arguing that if Hillsong has $23 million to buy a venue that will only operate as a place of worship one day a week, perhaps the church shouldn’t be exempt from paying tax.

The Amity Affliction lead singer Joel Birch said the band would no longer play the venue, as he didn’t want to contribute to Hillsong’s wealth.

On Facebook, Illy said it was a “dream venue” to headline in 2017, and expressed dismay over the sale.

“Same way you don’t see musicians crashing religious buildings, do you mind keeping one of the few (and getting fewer) music venues we have in Melbourne open for us?,”  he wrote.

“If Festival Hall will stop having non-Hillsong events, I propose before they hand over the keys, Melbournians break into the joint (2 at a time, because social distancing) and just like, bang everywhere and whatever other ungodly deeds come to mind. Really dirty up the joint. Hand it over in an absolute state.”

Part (but not all) of the recently scrutiny surrounding Hillsong, and subsequent public backlash, revolves around its founder Houston, who was aware of his father Frank’s sexual abuse of children, but neglected to tell authorities.

This resurfaced into public consciousness last year when Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is ‘close friends’ with Houston, asked the White House to invite Hillsong leader Houston to a private dinner, a request he repeatedly denied making before coming clean this March.

A the time, Houston remained under investigation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The commission investigated why Houston failed to inform the police of allegations that his father, Frank, had sexually assaulted children while in leading roles across various church organisations in Australia and New Zealand during the ’60s and ’70s. In 1999, Frank confessed to Brian he had abused a seven-year-old boy Brent Sengstock, and subsequently resigned with a retirement package.

Last October, Sengstock told The Project he was shocked Morrison had invited Houston to the White House.

“I couldn’t believe the audacity,” he said. “Here’s the prime minister of this country on stage with Brian Houston [who] is currently under investigation by New South Wales police for concealing the crimes of his father, and up there with their arms around each other. I am absolutely lost for words.”