Christianity in New Zealand: foundations and decline

We came back a few days ago from a family holiday in the Bay of Islands.  My nine year old summed up the trip as “we did too many missionary things”, but it is an area suffused with early New Zealand history, and much of that involved the missionaries and the expansion of the gospel to New Zealand.  Nowhere were the activities of missionaries more interwoven with the political history of modern New Zealand than at Waitangi.

For me, much of the trip involved revisiting places I’d been too before, and the satisfaction of introducing another generation to New Zealand history  There was Christ Church in Russell, where we learned that Charles Darwin was among those who contributed to the cost of erecting the church building.  The simple church near the Stone Store in Kerikeri.  And the Waimate mission station and church,  And the Williams memorial church on the waterfront at Paihia, and the Pakaraka churchyard where Henry Willians and his wife are buried.  There was Pompallier House in Russell, where much of the Catholic mission work in the north was based. And there was my first visit to Oihi, the site where Samuel Marsden conducted the first Christian service on Christmas Day 1814, and where the first mission settlement was established.  It is inspiring history, read against the background of the successful proclamation of the gospel to the Maori in the 19th century.  At the high tide of the evangelical movement –  and mission work more generally –  it was a past one could read of with some pleasure.  The sound had gone out into every land –  now even to New Zealand, the last significant landmass inhabited by humans.

And yet, and yet.   We attended Sunday service at the Anglican church in Paihia.  I’m pretty sure the only people only 60 –  and certainly the only ones under 40  –  were our family visiting from Wellington, and another family visiting from Seattle  It wasn’t a bad service  –  it was Sea Sunday, and we managed some good nautically-themed hymns (to canned music), which seemed fitting in a location where the founders had come by sea from the other end of the earth.  But it was really not much more than a handful of people, and what could only wonder what the future might hold 20 years hence.  At Waimate and Pakaraka, services are held only once every four Sundays, in a rotation with two other locations.  None of the church buildings were large.

Of course, Anglican churches aren’t all there is.  We saw several Baptist churches in our travels, and various independent (Pentecostal?) ones too.  No doubt there were a few Catholic churches around, but they weren’t prominent.  Not one of the church buildings we saw were large. The Bay of Islands area doesn’t have a large population –  and I’m not suggesting the decline of Christianity is any more severe there than in the rest of the country –  but I came away saddened. For all the Christian and missionary history, there was a sense of a receding tide which, before too many more years passed, could leave little of a living faith, and not much more than the tombstones of country churchyards to bear testimony to the power of the living faith that motivated men and women to come from so far away, eke out livings on the margins of a far-away land, all for the proclamation of the gospel.

Over history, the fortunes of the church have waxed and waned in many places. I long for –  and must pray more for –  a revival of faith in New Zealand.  With God nothing is impossible, and we’ve seen revivals in various times and places previously –  even among Maori here in New Zealand.  And yet…..perhaps I’m missing some examples, but I can think of all too many places where the presence of the gospel has been all-but-eliminated (Turkey is only the most prominent example, but increasingly one can think of much of the Middle East as well as most of North Africa) and all too few where the practice of the Christian faith has once waned as much as it has in New Zealand in recent decades, only to revive markedly.  Will the 300th anniversary of that first service at Oihi attract any interest at all?  How will future generations even know what a missionary was, when they learn of Henry Williams’ involvement at Waitangi?

Our hope is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.  But among the many lands that urgently needs the reviving work of the Spirit must be New Zealand.  Does the church sense that urgency?   Most of time, do I?


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Brexit: how did Christians vote?

I’m a regular reader of the UK Anglican weekly, the Church Times.  Several weeks ago I almost fell off my chair when I read a Church Times editorial arguing that it was disgraceful that the EU referendum was being held at all, and even at that late date urging the British government to cancel it.  I guess all those looking for a second referendum now are probably in much the same camp: the public should never have been given a say and if, foolishly, they were they should have to vote again until they get the answer right.

The editorialists were all in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, and rather intolerant of alternative perspectives.  Many of the senior clergy seemed to be of much the same opinion, some almost going as far as to suggest that building the EU was akin to building the kingdom of God, and hence not really an optional view for Christians.  The Anglican blogger Archbishop Cranmer captured it thus:

Theologians are more thoughtful in their expression, but the condemnation is the same. This from Anglican theologian John Milbank:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy. Unfortunately it has duped the working classes, once again to their further ruination.

So, there you have it: “ever closer union” is the Kingdom of God: the Reformation was ruination. Poor Thomas the EU Tank Engine has been thwarted by the evil, bitter, bigoted and greedy UK Fat Controller. It is a supreme act of folly inflicted by simpletons who lacks the wit to grasp the true meaning of Christian catholicity.

The decision having gone, by a small but clear margin, in favour of the UK leaving the EU, I was curious as to how Christians voted.  Lord Ashcroft commissioned a fairly large sample (12000 or so respondents) poll to better understand who had voted for which option.

The question about religion hasn’t had overly much coverage (at least that I’ve seen), but here is the chart, showing the net percentage of respondents favouring Leave for each main religious group.

christians for brexit

There is only a rather limited amount of information here.  After all, among “Christians” there is no denominational breakdown (to test, say, my hypothesis that Anglicans will have favoured Leave more than Catholics did), and the “Christian” self-identification will include those attending daily Communion, as well as those who haven’t darkened the door of a church on Sunday for many decades.  I expect that the average “Christian” will be older than the average “None” (and probably also older than the average Hindu and Muslim).  We know that older voters were more in favour of Leave than younger voters.  So quite probably, respondents’ Christian faith may not have made much difference to their votes at all.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone really –  the nature of the best international governance and trading arrangements for a country don’t strike me as matters on which the gospel, or the tradition of the church, offers that much insight on.

I was also interested in the results from the same survey on which social attitudes were most apparent among Remain and Leave voters respectively.  Here we have Lord Ashcroft’s more polished graphic.

ashcroft poll

Voters’ views on the value of capitalism don’t seem to differ across the Leave and Remain camps.   That is  interesting, and suggests it isn’t primarily economic considerations driving voters on either side.

The other results aren’t too surprising.  They seem to tell a story of, on the one hand, a metropolitan urban liberal mindset which puts relatively little value of traditional culture, and on the other a small-c conservative mindset that values the long-established culture.  One side tends to downplay the local as the basis for rule-setting and governance, reveling in the prospect of an international set of rules and standards (whether for its own sake, or for particular causes respondents care about).  The other is instinctively cautious, conservative about the way of life that has developed over centuries, and somehow sensing that rules are best made, and applied, locally, by those with whom one shares something distinctive.  They are inevitably crude characterisations, but they seem to capture something important.

What I found interesting is that not that many decades ago committed Christians would probably have been found mostly on the “force for ill” side of many of these questions –  social liberalism and feminism in particular.  But I guess what people meant by each of these headings is itself elusive.  Of the whole list, probably the only item that I could confidently say had been mostly a force for good would be Capitalism.  If globalization means more foreign trade, I’m all for it, but if it means international rule-setting at arms-length from elected governments and national courts, then I think it is a force for ill.  In time, any society has a culture –  or it doesn’t survive –  so so-called “multi-culturalism” is mostly a delusion.  Then again, a greater variety of ethnic food isn’t unwelcome –  if hardly a vote-shaping consideration for me.  Recognition of the impact of pollution is certainly welcome –  and clearing up those old London fogs – but “the Green movement” seems mostly a force for ill.

It would be nice to have some cross-tabulations of the results, to be able to see what other factors marked out Christians who voted Remain and Leave (perhaps some are there –  I haven’t got through the full 300 page report), but the data are also a reminder of how variegated attitudes of even churchgoing Christians are these days.  Many now support the ordination of women.  A growing number welcome and celebrate homosexual relationships and even “marriage”.  And for many -even the Pope –  the environment and climate change seem to have become one of those issues no serious Christian can have an alternative view on.

If it were the US we would have much richer data, probably, on degrees of commitment of the “Christian” respondents. Then again, in small and secular New Zealand, we’d probably have no data at all on the faith of the respondents.


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Perhaps this week that heading brings to mind Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and David Cameron.  The UK vote to leave the EU was a momentous, history-changing, event –  at least as important as anything that has happened anywhere in the world in the last decade or so.  For the UK itself, I’ve seen people argue it was the most important event since the end of World War Two, but somehow the end of empire, and perhaps even accession to the EEC in 1973, seem right up there.

But the historymakers I had mind was a particularly awful (as distinct from “awe-full”) song, now sung in our local congregation two weeks in succession.    It is by a group named Delirious, which has me thinking all sorts of uncharitable thoughts, and the words are here.

Peter Carrell’s blog had a link the other day to a nice US column on what has gone wrong with church music.  I’d recommend “Why WOULD anyone sing in church these days”, and much of his argument rings true, but my point today is a slightly different one.

All too often the words we are asked to sing bear little or no relationship to Scripture, or to a faithful retelling of the  character and great acts of God.   The ideas behind the old phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” can be loosely translated as “as we worship, so we believe”.  Our words, and actions, in  worship –  our liturgy, whether formalized or otherwise –  shape what it is that we truly believe.  The responsibility of the Church –  and of individual congregational leaders/”worship leaders” – is then to ensure that the words we use form us rightly.   “Historymakers” not only doesn’t, but it is so detached from reality, and  from the experience of the church and Christians in it,  as to leave anyone who stops to think about what they are being asked to sing wondering about just how grounded the faith they choose to adhere to really is.  We are often accused of believing delusional fairy tales, with faith as some sort of crutch for the inadequate. Sadly, Historymakers helps legitimate that sort of criticism. I’m not ashamed of the gospel, but I’d be deeply embarrassed to expose a thoughtful seeker to this sort of song.

But before taking the song verse by verse, I want to be clear.  I strongly and confidently affirm a belief in a powerful and active God, at work in our world. I’ve never had reason to seriously doubt the broad historicity of the New Testament miracle accounts.  God still works.

But to the song:

Is it true today
That when people pray
Cloudless skies will break
Kings and queens will shake?

Can or could it happen?  Well, yes it could.  But mostly it doesn’t.  Droughts happen, tyrants rule.  Sometimes good and dramatic change happens, but then again we’ve just come out of a century with some of the most murderous regimes in history –  a century in which the good news of the gospel, while receding in the West, has drawn more men and women to God, and to prayer, than ever.  And yet singers are asked to mindlessly repeat

Yes, it’s true
And I believe it

To the next verse

Is it true today
That when people pray
We’ll see dead men rise
And the blind set free?

Can it happen?  Yes, it can.  I’ve even seen a person paralysed for years walk after an evening of prayer –  one of the most stunning memories of my childhood.  But…..there is a great deal of prayer in the world, over many centuries, and miracles of the sort in this verse don’t happen every day (“is it true today”), and perhaps most Christians will never experience or observe such an event.  So what am I affirming if I sing these words?  What sense of the faith we profess am I imparting to my kids if I ask them to stand and sing these words?  It seems a lot like “just make it up as you go along, and it really doesn’t matter if the words bear no relationship to the reality most Christians anywhere have experienced”.  Even in post-Ascension apostolic church, dead men didn’t rise every day.

And then it gets even worse

I’m gonna be
A history maker in this land
I’m gonna be
A speaker of truth to all mankind

Really?  I guess one could, at a considerable stretch, reinterpret it as “every life matters” and every interaction ever person has is part of “history”.  But that clearly isn’t what these authors had in mind.  History here is capital-H history  –  the accounts of great and famous people and their deeds and words, be it Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Mary Slessor, or Boris Johnson.

And for most people it simply isn’t true, whether in their day-to-day lives (work, family, community and political involvements, church).    I worked for 30 years in fairly senior positions in central banks in three countries.  As I look back I can see a few areas where a handful of things I did or said might have made a small difference to the course of what might be recorded as “history” in sufficiently detailed future economic history books.  My wife is a senior government official shaping papers for ministers to take to Cabinet –  she too will make very small marks on history.  I put public commentaries on economic policy matters out each day, partly in the hope that perhaps they might change New Zealand’s economic direction a little.    But this is all pretty small-beer stuff.  And most people in our churches don’t even have those opportunities: they work as nurses, or teachers, or fulltime parents, or shop assistants, or accountants or baristas or whatever.  Many are retired.  Each role shapes the person doing it, and allows them to influence other people to some extent.  But no one seriously thinks of this as “historymaking”.

And as for speaking truth to all mankind?  Few even have the opportunity –  whether in the cause of the gospel or whatever.  Donald Trump to Barack Obama might speak to all mankind –  although not probably gospel truth.  Mother Teresa is her own way may well have.  But it just is not the experience of most Christians –  whether in the early church, in the days of great evangelical strength or now.  Eugene Peterson’s book, titled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” seems to better capture the realistic call to faithful, sometimes costly, discipleship.

The alternative –  encapsulated in the “Historymakers” song –  seems frankly delusional. I guess I understand the point the writers are trying to make: calling us to prayer, and to faith, and expecting that to spill into what happens in our lives and the world. God is living and active.  But it is still delusional.  For anyone who stops to think about it even briefly, it should evoke a “why would anyone take very seriously what else is going on here?”  And for those who don’t stop to think –  perhaps especially young people with a real, but youthful, passion for the gospel – it encourages a degree of hubris and unrealism that sets most of them up for a nasty fall later, or just the slow disillusionment when they finally allow reality to stand alongside the words the church taught them to sing.  Yes, there will be a handful of people in our congregations who may make history, and some too who may have the opportunity to speak truth powerfully to many.  And God will, on occasion, work powerful and visible miracles –  in addition to turning lives around and sustaining people in the long obedience, the walk of lifelong discipleship. But for most of us, the idea of being historymakers is just far detached from reality.

So why do our church leaders still encourage us to sing this stuff?  Why don’t more people do as I finally did this morning –  as someone who loves to sing – and simply sit down quietly.

Growing up Christian in our country isn’t easy these days – perhaps in truth it never was, but I’m sure it is harder now than 40 years when I was the age my kids are now.  I want them to grow up following Christ –  who walked the path of brokenness and death and, in many ways, earthly failure –  with a hardheaded realism, about sin, grace, discipleship and a Kingdom which is now, but which is not yet fully come. I don’t want them deluding themselves about what it means, and has always meant, to be a disciple.  One day they  –  smart young people and willing to ask lots of questions already –  will react against all this pap.  My prayer is that it will be a reaction that takes them deeper into the God who revealed himself in Christ –  moving on from the thin unhealthy fare to rich good food –  but I fear, and pray against, a reaction that says instead “why take seriously a church, and faith, that propogates such nonsense”.


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Poverty, shoes and childhood memories

Child poverty is one of those issues that greatly excites the leadership of many of our churches.  And perhaps understandably so.  No one likes to think of anyone, but children in particular for whom there is no element of personal choice, in poverty.  Of course, what one person means by poverty is quite different from what someone else means, especially in a relatively well-off country like New Zealand.  I’ve occasionally been surprised to see lists of characteristics of people in poverty –  sometimes around heating –  only to say to myself “but I do that. Call me abstemious if you like, but it isn’t a reflection of poverty”.  Footwear is another attention-grabbing aspect of some of the measures of child poverty.

What prompted this post was a story in today’s Herald, “Barefoot walk for good cause”, recounting a fundraising effort being undertaken by a young Wellington woman, “to raise awareness and funds for the thousands of children in Cambodia whose lack of footwear remains a barrier to education”.  She is planning to walk 33 kms barefoot in Wellington –  along the banks of the Hutt River, and then along the cycleway into town.  I know nothing about the Cambodian school system, but it did bring back memories.

Back when I was almost 7 we moved from comfortable genteel Christchurch to the mill town of Kawerau –  my father took up a role as part-time Baptist minister.  I think the town must have been quite a cultural adjustment.  Kawerau then wasn’t the welfare and gang sinkhole it seems to be today.  Instead, it was pretty prosperous place –  high wages for often not-terribly-demanding work in the papers mills established as part of the 1950s (equivalent of) Think Big strategy.  But it certainly wasn’t Christchurch. I don’t think my mother was overly impressed at us moving to wearing Roman sandals (my school uniform in Christchurch included proper closed-toe sandals). But she drew the line at the local custom: barefoot schooling. And so I left home each morning with my sandals on, got to the corner 20 yards away, and took them off, only to put them back on as I got home again in the afternoon.  It was just the way we did things.  I’m pretty sure none of my friends’ parents were poor –  housing was cheap, wages were high.  It didn’t harm our schooling, or induce any sense of lack of well-being. Let alone poverty.  Apart perhaps from church, I doubt we put shoes or sandals on all summer long.

It didn’t necessarily look that way to other people. After a couple of years in Kawerau we went back to Christchurch for a holiday, staying with my grandparents in their large house in the heart of Fendalton.  One morning I went out walking – I must have been 9 or 10 –  doing some sort of circuit of some of the better streets of Fendalton, barefoot.  Imagine my surprise –  bemusement –  at being waylaid by one local matron, very concerned at my lack of footwear, and worried that my parents might not have been able to cloth me adequately.  Somehow I made my excuses –  she probably wasn’t convinced – and got back to my grandparents’ place, where Mum had to explain that not many locals, child or not, walked the streets of Fendalton barefoot.

Which is not to suggest that I’m indifferent to genuine childhood poverty. But I do sometimes wonder about the footwear dimension –  perhaps especially when the real price of footwear is so much lower than it used to be, due to the removal of (most) protection.  33 kilometres is longer than I would walk barefoot these days, but when I go back to the Bay of Plenty on holiday, whole days –  and reasonable length walks –  go by without even a jandal afoot.  Some people –  not me – even go shopping in Whakatane, the local commercial centre, barefoot.  If I don’t follow their example, it brings back happy memories.

Perhaps the issue in Cambodia is uniform requirements.  Whatever the case, I wish the young woman well in her fundraising, but it isn’t the cause for me.

There are, after all, quite some biblical examples of people going barefoot.


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Some thoughts prompted by this morning’s service

(It has been a while since I posted here, but I intend now to be more regular again.

I’ve had a fairly draining week, centred on an unexpected public attack on my conduct by a senior government official (see here, here, and here for the story).  I’m still somewhat annoyed, as I think the comments that person made were without any reasonable foundation.  But, on the other hand, I was challenged in church this morning by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

This particular contretemps has nothing specifically to do with my faith, or that of my attacker, but it is hard to escape the more general applicability of the point Jesus made –  uncomfortable as that might be for me.   I’m not quite sure what it all means practically for me, but it drew me up short.  And, no doubt, rightfully so.

I was less positive in my reaction to an item in the church newsletter.

Police Vetting.  As part of our continuing commitment to the safety of our children and also to comply with new laws, people who work with under 18 year olds are now required to undergo a policy check.  Forms are available from…..and ….

I would simply refuse.  I have absolutely nothing to hide in this area.  But then I have also never felt any sense of having particular gifts or talents that would make me effective in working with children and teenagers.  In that sense there is no hard choice to make in saying “if that is the sort of church you want to run, I won’t be volunteering for anything involving under 18 year olds”.

As it happens, the congregational leaders appear to have misunderstood the Vulnerable Children Act.   Here is an official document providing a guide to the requirements.  As that document points out, the requirement applies only to people employed or engaged by “specified organisations”, and it explains as follows:

1.  Is an organisation a specified organisation? Š

  • Is it any of the State services (section 2 State Sector Act 1988)?; or Š
  • Is it receiving money from a State service to provide regulated services (unless it’s receiving money via individualised funding arrangements)? Š and 
  • Does it employ or engage children’s workers to perform a regulated service?

I can see no basis on which a local church would normally be covered.

My own three children are presumably among those whose “safety” the church wishes to protect.   So this isn’t an abstract issue for me.   But even if one set aside the practical issue –  before they are caught abusing, the people who do these things typically don’t have a criminal past in these areas, and police vetting can do nothing to identify them –  there are more profound issues of principle at stake, even if churches semi-voluntarily apply these sorts of state codes.

Sexual abuse is a terrible thing for the abused (but also for the abuser, and the communities in which these things happen).  I’ve known a few victims of abuse –  fortunately not in a church context.    But we have no basis, in Scripture or church tradition, for elevating sexual abuse above other forms of sin.  We are fortunate that the seriousness of such abuse is now generally recognized.  Other sins somewhat less so –  particularly in the wider community, but even inside the church. It is the sins whose significance we are blind to that have perhaps a great potential to trip up us, and our children.  There are no police vetting checks for pride, covetousness, adultery, lust, or the sheer indifference that enables us and our children to conform too easily to the world, drifting away from the Kingdom, while barely recognizing what is going on.

Perhaps equally important should be the desire to build Christian communities of trust. What do my kids make of the announcement in the newsletter?  Perhaps that adults are (rightly) concerned for their safety?  But perhaps too that abusers and people wanting to harm them lurk everywhere –  the same sort of fearfulness that has parents driving 10 year olds to school, or being unwilling to let them play in the street, or disappear for hours on their own.

We must not be blind to sin, especially our own.  And we do have responsibilities to each other, and to our children.  And so I’m not suggesting that church leaders (as leaders in other voluntary groups) don’t have to be discerning.  Sometimes that might involve declining to accept someone’s offer to participate.  Sometimes it might even require a police check, or reference to official agencies.  But what do we say about our community, and our willingness to trust one another, when we fall so readily about on agencies of the state to do mass screening for us?    Life has risks – walking to school, climbing trees, falling in love, travel, and so on.  We need to build communities, and raise children, to accept (and manage risks) –  perhaps most especially in church, the congregation of the redeemed, where we do (or should) acknowledge each week our own sin, and our need for God’s forgiveness.

It is a fearful thing to cause another to stumble, perhaps especially a child, but there are so many ways we (and others can do it) than simply the latest state reaction to one particular (grevious) sin.

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An impressive articulation of faith

In my household we’ve been following the US presidential election campaigns.  One younger member has been quite taken with Marco Rubio, junior senator from Florida.  We gently tease her about his good looks: as a former political opponent put it “When Marco Rubio speaks, young women swoon, old women faint”.

It hadn’t been entirely clear to me what else Rubio had going for him, other than a hitherto impressive ability to win elections (always helpful for a politician).

Christianity Today’s blogger Ed Stetzer has been running a series “Faith of the Candidates”, and a few days ago posted the first half of an interview with Rubio.  Rubio is Catholic –  born Catholic, although the family took a brief detour into Mormonism when he was child – but also participates in an evangelical church:

My wife really became alive in the Spirit particularly by attending Christ Fellowship at the invitation of our sister. As my family loved attending there—my children certainly do—and she’s so alive in the church that, who was I to disrupt that based on denominational differences?

Rubio goes on to talk about his faith and the differences –  often misunderstanding – between Catholics and Protestants

The fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and most Protestant denominations and evangelicals is the belief that Roman Catholics have that the Word of God is not just the written Word but also the tradition. Oral traditions that were handed down from the early Christians are also part of the Word of God.

It’s a misunderstanding that somehow Catholics believe you can earn salvation. You cannot earn it. It’s a free gift. What Catholics do believe, however, is that true faith bears fruit and that the fruits of that faith are important. If your faith is not bearing fruit then it’s not a true faith.

So it’s not that you can earn your salvation through work. You have to accept that the gift of salvation—which is a free gift offered to all of us by His death and resurrection. But your faith is known by the fruit that it bears and so certainly we are commanded.

Beyond the concept of salvation is the notion that we have an obligation to serve one another and to model Christ’s behavior in serving one another. I think that’s true for all Christianity. It’s why for example, Christ Fellowship, they offer [a] tremendous amount of work in the community and charity. Because it’s the fruit of our faith but it also follows Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor and to care for the less fortunate.

In many ways, by doing that, you’re ministering to Christ directly that when you welcome a stranger, or when you visit the prisoner, or when you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, you are serving Him.

In the US, every candidate seems to have to have some standard lines about faith and his or her own religious background, but Rubio goes beyond that.  In both the paragraphs above and when he talks of the liturgy, there is something real, well-thought-out, and alive about the faith he talks of.

From the imagery of incense and candles, to the organization of the Mass, it’s all about bringing heaven to earth in that one moment in which the body and blood of Christ is actually present, as we believe in the Catholic faith.

I’m not sure whether he has what it takes to be President, perhaps especially this time round when he is still a fairly young man.  But in a country where there is a growing institutional and legal indifference to the free practice of religion, Rubio seems more likely than many to realise, and do something about, the fact that Christian faith and religious practice do not end as one walks out the door of the church on Sunday morning.

And, of course, from a New Zealand perspective, it is stunning to find a leading political figure talking so fluently and deeply about his or her faith –  not simply the practical outworkings, in acts of charity, but in worship, authority and so on.  The US is different of course –  but New Zealand is at the other extreme.   Of course, there have always been churchgoing New Zealand politicians –  and no doubt still are a few (indeed, I think one was a former pastor) – but they are almost invisible.  That isn’t intended primarily as a criticism of the individuals, but rather a reflection on a country (and political environment) that is probably the most secular in the Western world.  Cabinet ministers don’t interview Archbishops and leadership contenders don’t talk openly of life in the Spirit.

In the desert of New Zealand public life, I found Rubio’s articulation of his faith a small refreshing stream.

UPDATE:  Here is part 2 of the interview.


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29 leaders on Christmas

Each year the Herald offers an opportunity for the church leaders of Auckland to publish a meditation or reflection on Christmas.  This year’s appeared yesterday.  It was clearly penned from someone from a liturgical tradition, but is signed by 29 denominational leaders –  from the barely Christian (Seventh Day Adventist), the fairly liberal, through to the Destiny Church and various newer Pentecostal groups, and pretty much everyone in between.

Often I find these messages rather devoid of much distinctively Christian content.  In some ways, this one –  built around the modern Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love – isn’t one of the worst I’ve seen.  Most of what it says, I can nod along to.  But there is that nagging feeling of “so what?” and “on what foundation does all this worthy stuff rest?”.

I presume the reason the church leaders generate these statements each year is, at least in part, evangelistic.  The incarnation certainly was intended that way –  good news. That God himself became fully human, as a baby born in an obscure provincial village, is astonishing enough.  That he came to suffer and die for our sin –  to reconcile us to God – is more staggering still.

Of course, there is something to be said for avoiding technical terms in pieces such as the Herald column.  But not even the concept of sin gets a mention –  the closest is a single mention of “evil”, but by implication that of others or institutions.  There is no sense of the barrier placed between man and God, by our own free choice and acts, which Christ comes to break down.  It isn’t even clear that the distinctly Christian perspective –  God who becomes man – is in the message.

When I worked in an office, I often wondered what  – if anything – about church could interest my colleagues in the gospel.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but in a sense the only inescapable proposition is the claim that our sin separates us from God, and that God acts to break down the wall that divides. Perhaps it is wrong, but we proclaim it as true –  the choice matters, for eternity.  Much else –  all the work in the community for example –  may be outworking of our faith; acts of love and discipleship in response to God’s initiative.  But on its own, it simply can’t seem that persuasive –  after all, lots of pagans do good deeds (fewer perhaps than Christians do, but…).

In our age, the concept of fault, of responsibility, of sin seems uncomfortable.  Perhaps they always were, but that was what serious religion was always about.   Our secular age seems particularly effective in airbrushing out the very concept, but not just from secular life; too often it is barely present even in our churches and their message.

What would have been lost from a forceful proclamation of the incarnation, of sin and the need for grace, in the Herald column?  I hope the answer is not just that they would then struggle to get 29 leaders to agree.

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