St David’s

Posted: November 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

St David’s

When a passionate person interested in saving the Church building from demolition, not that such an act was even discussed by the congregation with any certainty; called St David’s building a Cathedral they exposed the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. Even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings is a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture a Presbyterian Cathedral is an oxy-moron at least and an anathema to the founders of The Presbyterian Church at worst. Remember, a Cathedral is reliant on it having a Cathedra or a Bishops Chair, and remember the strong opposition to Church Union due to the desire for Bishops. In calling St David’s a Cathedral one could argue that ecclesiological sensitivity and heritage is in danger of suffering from expediency.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over the last five or so years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence or to make a point of elitism. They have been saying it because the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious met in practice. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction takes place. Livestock was traded there in many ancient cases, In St David’s historical world Corporate Board members and directors and CEOs rubbed shoulders and discussed the world, tested the morality of their economic and management strategies. Community met there and shared values were developed, people played there, people socialized there. In St David’s world the entrepreneur the social developer, the civic minded, the university academic, the medical professional, the legal professional, the construction industry leaders were all represented and gathered as congregation to talk sing, discuss and play together. The development of the City of Auckland in perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation.

Through St David’s, people in its history has served many purposes in the civic life of this city and even the country as well as the life of the church. While town commerce and livestock trading may not have taken place in its buildings, civic ceremonial events were held and they have reflected history and culture in a degree heightened by the longstanding role and power which the church has exercised in previous centuries. St David’s has acted like a cathedral and has had space and resources to sponsor and encourage the arts, be it in music, paintings, poetry prose or sculpture as well as theological exploration and the art of praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not the very buildings are part of St David’s heritage. More so because of their use rather than their existence.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street drinkers, drug addicts, the homeless, through its longstanding hosting of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non,  Men’s Group and its very effective opportunity Shop St David’s has acted like a Cathedral in many ways sometimes in its Presbyterianism, more effectively than some Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has offered New Zealand society in recent years, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about religion, who can slip in and slip out without obligation. It has been a resort for those who flee from their churches if they have become too evangelical or too conservative, too charismatic, too ‘jolly’, too predictable and arrogant. St David’s has been like a cathedral perhaps as a place that in its offering of anonymity seems a safer space than a local church or chapel. St David’s has maintained a degree of a classic Presbyterian way of worship which is measured, ordered, and yet open to innovation of thought. It has sought to offer intelligent and thought-provoking liturgies, sermons, and music which values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish has also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Until recently the parish has called Ministers of note in the wider church that some have suggested maintains an elitism while truth be told, there has been a strong commitment to scholastic rigor and well-read leadership as a way of encouraging a pragmatic practicing faith response. There have been recent examples of contemporary issues where its pragmatism has enabled diversity of opinion to be valued, such as the acceptance of openly gay leadership and acceptance of same sex marriage. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the doctrinal, creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way. It has in recent years been a part of the global movement named Progressive Christianity in its traditional commitment, often unstated, to open, enquiring theology, that enables those who may sit light to the doctrinal claims of Christianity but find in a thinking faith and in both music and art a sense of otherworldliness and self-critique akin to a traditional faith. A commitment to theopoetics as opposed to theology has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clubby, chummy church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness.

What has been a downside of the recent heritage building focus of energy has been a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, and added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world.

St David’s despite the perceptions imposed upon it has always valued a society where those on the margins are brought into the centre. This is not exclusive to St David’s as many churches are engaged in this calling but City Churches like St David’s have always had a pivotal role to play, thanks to their somewhat privileged and traditionally well-resourced position. And here is perhaps is the source of St David’s dilemma. Its traditional member has been a largely white, middle class, middle to older aged congregation, coming in from the wealthier suburbs, with choristers, teachers, elders and leaders often drawn from the city’s private schools, serving a transient local populace and in recent decades an increasingly multi-cultural urban population. To its credit there has been a reaching out across the city but somehow attending a service does seem to be somewhat out of kilter with contemporary life. Many obviously enjoy the pomp of and ceremony provided by the Cathedral model. The processions provided within the anonymity of a larger gathering provide this sense of being part of a larger community and this is borne out by the decline in attendance as the congregation reduces in number as well as in St David’s when the congregation moved away from worship in the brick building. Another example of this might be the decline in ethnic congregational connections, projects and foci of language ministries, while well supported, failed when less anonymity was available. The loss of cultural norms due to the smallness of gathering was detrimental to growth.

So, change is upon us. But what is this change to be and what facilitates it and resources it? The professed desire of St David’s has always been to better serve the urban mix of people in this city and it has been by a wider participation in the needs of the city and there are a number of suggested causes as to why St David’s now faces closure.

One is the closure of the brick building and the loss of communal anonymity that has been its strength does seem to have affected the gathering. It has become more familial and less inclusive as a result, and there are claims of abuse of privilege and bullying of people in leadership. Conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. Throughout its history there have been conflicts of thought and interest that have been resolved both arbitrarily and otherwise, such as which side of the Newton Gully to locate the parish, where to build the new church, how much to pay for the organ that some of the congregation wanted to bring back from the dissident group?

How much to pay for the new church building, what to do about the leaking walls, roof and Oamaru Stone around the windows. How to use the manse at the back of the church, Where the office should be and so on. All logical debates within communities one could say but also the logical outcome of a community under siege from difference. In St David’s case it could be said that the pressure to meet heritage values, economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and logical option. The question remains as to its value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing option. It may be the closure is and was the best one for the future and that will be discovered if human spirituality needs it.

The issue of the future is perhaps even more complex than we think as our traditional form of Christendom has been shown to be no longer an effective vehicle for the sharing and exploration of Spiritualty on a public social construct of an unlimited mass scale, that Congregational fragility has been exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions; do congregations have to be of a certain size, do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific or is there a single definition of mission, have been debated for many years without resolution and do they need resolution is raised as a result of experiments.

Maybe St David’s is once again leading the way? Maybe once again the pragmatism of St David’s is asking the questions about the future of the Christian faith, is Christendom the only mode of being? Is it time to learn from the past and specifically from the days of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth? It is time to put aside the theological isms and remember the power of his example that enabled the living through of an empires demise, a religion’s evolution and a worlds social, economic and political transformation with a certain hope of not just renewal, but a new life of unprecedented outcome.

Maybe it’s time to see the closure not as a sad ending but as a significant opportunity for the new thing. In other words, take out the choir pews but don’t disband the choir. Keep it alongside all your other ideas for music making. Maybe the desire of The Friends Trust or of a potential purchaser to create a performance art centre is worth doing. St David’s people gave much energy to the creation of a learning centre but maybe theopoetics is the way to go. Don’t blame anything on the way things are done but rather be far more creative liturgically than you have been, on all fronts. Use inclusive language, interfaith language and concepts, consider the hundreds of ‘progressive’ hymns and songs which are intelligent, thought provoking and challenging to your theological assumptions. Dare to have as many experimental and different experiences of worship as you possibly can. Be a seedbed of innovation.  Invite discussion that courts controversy and encourage questioning debate. Resist ever being a cloning purveyor of any idea. And above all create a unique place of learning, hope, compassion and commitment to the vision of Jesus for the transformation of his world. Amen.

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