A gloomy outlook for New Zealand Anglicans

Late last week there was an announcement that the Christchurch Anglican diocese and the government had reached in-principle agreement on the process that is intended to lead to the rebuild of Christchurch’s Anglican cathedral, which has lain in ruins since the February 2011 earthquake.    New Zealand readers will be aware that most of Christchurch diocese, and the former bishop, appeared to want to demolish the old building, and build something modern and – if less aesthetically appealing and less historically resonant –  more cost-effective.  But central and local government stumped up enough money, with promises of private fundraising and threats of legal action that could have bogged the process down in the courts for years, to persuade Christchurch’s Anglicans to take the rebuild path instead.  They were, more or less, coerced.   According to the investment banker now leading the project –  not, apparently, an Anglican –  neither the cost nor the start date is known, but within a decade the cathedral is expected to be back in use.

I wrote about the impending decision last year, torn between my own liking for something like the old building

So I will be a little sad if the old cathedral is no longer there.  My own tastes run in the direction of the older style of building.  The building was a symbol of the city, and of its English, and Anglican, heritage.   Choral worship, of the sort undertaken in cathedrals great and small, has been one of the glories of our English heritage.  And great cathedrals have typically cost astonishing amounts of money.  A place of great beauty in which to worship is a privilege, and one of ancient lineage in our Judeo-Christian traditions (read the accounts of the temple King Solomon built).

and a stronger sense that (a) government money shouldn’t be going into such things, and (b) the decision should have been, unconstrainedly, that of Christchurch Anglicans.    Should the cathedral reopen I would look forward to occasionally attending services there –  much of my extended family still lives in Christchurch –  but I wonder who else will.

As I noted last year, the church in New Zealand has been in decline for decades, and the Anglicans have been foremost among the “losers”: once dominant in New Zealand religion census statistics they –  like most other strands of the church –  are now small, struggling and, generally, aged minorities.   And like the Anglican movement across the advanced world, they are tearing themselves apart –  most immediately obviously around the issue of homosexuality, and the willingness or otherwise of the church to look favourably on homosexual practice.     Those tensions were easily apparent last year before the decision on the cathedral were made.  They have come into starker contrast in the last few weeks since the General Synod agreed the individual bishops could choose to authorise blessings of homosexual “marriages”.     For many evangelicals, and some evangelical congregrations, this appears to have been the last straw.    And thus last week there was this announcement.

Since GSTHW 2018, some Clergy, Vestries and parishioners here in our Diocese, have been deeply concerned by these changes to the church’s teaching and practice. They consider that these changes depart from the teaching of the Bible and the historic position of the Anglican Church on human sexuality to the point that they have been wrestling with the very painful question of whether to disaffiliate, or not, from the Diocese. It is a matter of conscience and sincere belief that means they feel they can no longer submit to the Constitution and Canons or rules of the province of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

The Meeting:
The four groups were led by the Reverends Jay Behan from St Stephen’s Shirley; James De Costobadie from St John’s Latimer Square; Dave Clancey and Chris Spark from St Saviour’s and St Nicholas’, South Christchurch; and Steve McNabb from St John’s Woolston.

I understand that some of these congregations  –  where the vote to disaffiliate was reported to be overwhelming – are among the largest, and most lively, in the Christchurch diocese.  I had a look at websites of several of them, and was struck by the apparent vigour and range of activities and ministries.   And there are not so many Christchurch Anglicans that I’d have thought they could face losing so many of their energetic people and leaders with any sort of equanimity.   Had the General Synod vote gone the other way, perhaps some congregrations at the liberal end of the spectrum would have considered disaffiliating too.

My own sympathies are with the disaffiliating evangelical congregations –  one reason I went back to a Baptist church a few years ago was that it was only a matter of time until this sort of split happened, whether in Christchurch, Wellington or wherever.  But, for this post, my sympathies aren’t the issue.  It is mostly a case of wondering about the medium-term viability of the husk of the diocese, about to be burdened with a grand (well, by New Zealand standards) old/new cathedral).   What will Christchurch Anglicanism –  and recall that Christchurch was an Anglican foundation –  look like at the opening service for the new cathedral, let alone another decade on?    Perhaps the diocese can cannibalise property assets for a decade or two (or parishes are closed down, assisted by the earthquakes) and probaby institutions like the private schools stand pretty much alone financially anyway.  But who the diocesan Anglicans be?   Globally, liberal Anglicanism doesn’t seem to have been good at reproducing itself, let alone growing.    Why should we suppose that having adopted the latest bit of societal “wisdom”, the effectiveness of those ministries will now change?

Having read the disaffiliation announcement on Saturday, I went to the main morning service at Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral  on Sunday (we were out of town for the weekend.)   And it did nothing to allay my fears and concerns.  The building – something of a melange of styles to say the least –  is quite impressive (again by New Zealand church standards), and the location is superb.   The new or refurbished organ sounded glorious.  But it was hard not to think that it was a congregation on its last legs.    Perhaps there were 100 people there –  on a pleasant sunny winter’s morning –  and there were a handful of children, but the people were almost lost in the size of the building.    The singing was dreadful –  unfamiliar tunes, in some cases dire words, and no good lead from the choir.   None of this is to cast aspersions on anyone’s faith or practice –  done well, it is a style of worship that very much appeals to me –  or the faithfulness of those who were there.  But it was hard not to look ahead 10 or 20 years, and wonder if  –  absent revival –  we’ll be left with a monument and a concert venue, with not much left of the diocese to which the cathedral is seat.   Perhaps the rest of the Auckland diocese is in fine form, and there is no risk of material splits.  But it is difficult not to be downcast, and not to wonder again at the wisdom of going ahead with the extremely expensive rebuild of Christchurch cathedral.  We can only hope, and pray, that in decades to come it is more than just the Christchurch Anglican Memorial concert hall.

The gates of hell won’t prevail against God’s kingdom.  But the same can’t be said for any particular denomination or tradition, in any particular time or place.   It is hard to see better days ahead for the church in New Zealand –  perhaps especially for the established liberal churches (and the New Zealand Catholic diocese probably should be counted among that number). I’m no longer even that optimistic about New Zealand Baptists.  God can make a way where there seems to be no way.  My longing is that He would move to do so here.


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