St David’s Closure’

Posted: July 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘St David’s Closure’

Today’s address is conditioned by both sad events and events that are timeless, part of history and hugely significant in terms of creative events. I want in a short, few words introduce a reflection rather than make one. And I do this because your refection is more important or just as important as mine.

When a passionate person interested in saving the 1827 built Church building from demolition called St David’s building a Cathedral, I think they erred as much as they endeared what took place in that building. What they did was to expose the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. And let’s be clear here, this is not unknown today because even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings as a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds is not unknown. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation. This is perhaps too harsh a claim to make but in Presbyterian ecclesiology maybe not so.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture, to have 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 many will remember the strong opposition to Church Union in New Zealand 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. One might even say that to do so is to elevate the Presbytery to be the corporate Bishop as opposed to the assembly of teaching and ruling eldership who value the collective polity.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over many years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence of their losing control of their building or to make a point of congregational elitism and control. They have been saying it defence of the place a Presbyterian Congregation has within the society. For them the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious meet in practice rather than a place of institutional hierarchy. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction all take place at once. In the past livestock was traded in many ancient Cathedrals, it is true that they, were places of commerce and civic interaction. In St David’s historical world as a significant Congregation, 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 is perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation. In this way perhaps it was a role akin to the Cathedral of the Roman and Episcopal tradition created by Presbyterians who were of a differing approach to power and influence.

Throughout its life St David’s people, and its Ministers and Elders have served many purposes in the civic life of Auckland city and even the country as well as the life of the church. As the assembled gave time expertise and energy to the work of the General Assembly they changed the world. 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 theological praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not all the buildings are part of St David’s heritage. Again, in a sense more so because of their use rather than their existence. Maybe that’s why they are in need of repair today.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case, Auckland would have been different without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer without St David’s, not only for its contribution to the growing of the city but also for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street livers, addiction sufferers, and the homeless. Through its longstanding hosting of and support for organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non, and its commitment to prisoner’s aid, refugees, asylum seekers, men’s anger 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 Ecclesiological Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has over many years offered New Zealand society, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. It has played its part in all levels of the church by hosting and providing support for its deliberation and action. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about the place of religion in life, welcoming those who can slip in and slip out without obligation. Just ask any family about their connection with St David’s and one will find a marriage, a funeral or a bible class connection. It has also 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. Too judgmental. 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 that values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Some have suggested that this maintained 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, as well as a willingness to explore, non-theistic, non-doctrinal ecclesiology. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way with integrity. 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 literalism has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clublike, familial church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness. Yes, it has meant that St David’s is not a touchy feely sort of place but it has preferred and given respect to honesty, faithfulness and integrity.

Sadly, what has been a downside of the heritage building focus in recent years as energy has been consumed it has resulted in a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – a distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, along with the growth of intolerance and an added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world. In short it has taken away energy that could have been directed at people.

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 of course 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 the source of St David’s dilemma. As a result of the growth of suburbs Its traditional member has been largely a 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 Civic 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 has brought us to today 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 the change that closure brings.

The first thing to recognise is that closure of St David’s began in the 1960s, at the very peak of its growth. And that there have been many reasons for that change. One very recent change was the closure of the brick building. Not in its closure but rather in the loss of communal anonymity that has been part of St David’s strength. The gathering community became more familial and possibly seen to be less inclusive as a result, the other was a rise in the levels of intolerance. Since the building closure conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has always been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. The issue is in the level of that conflict and its effect on an increasingly fragile community.

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 fact, many of these issues were not addressed but rather shelved for later. They have come to rest now.

In St David’s case it could be said that in recent times the pressure to meet heritage values, and economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church survival strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and dare, I say it a logical option.

However, despite the closure of the congregation the question remains as to St David’s value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing place within the Presbytery. It may be that the closure is and was the best approach for the future and that will be discovered if and when human community and 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 as a public social construct or as a congregation as an ever -growing mass expression of community. Congregational fragility has been further exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions faced might be; do congregations have to be of a certain size tied to an economic model? Do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific and is there a single cultural definition of mission? These questions have been debated for many years without resolution which begs the question as to whether they need resolution?

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. I for one shall treasure the opportunity my call to be a Minister of St David’s congregation gave me to make the best out of life until I no longer can. Thank you.

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