I have a hidden agenda for this blog. It is to save world Anglicanism from itself. OK. That might be a bit grand, and the Communion certainly does not need any more grandstanders. My downwardly revised agenda, then, is to serve the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. I think my church will be well served by belonging to something bigger than itself; a lively and faithful Anglican Communion meets that need. (So I offer thoughts about healthy sustainable life for the Anglican Communion). Our church will also be well served by growing and developing as a lively and faithful Anglican church. This is something I do not think can be taken for granted. Nor is it something which will sort itself out if we just do what we have always done before. No, we need to think carefully and creatively, and act boldly and biblically if we are to remain alive.
Coming recently to live in the city of Christchurch I have been shocked to find that a number of Methodist churches here have been put up for sale (Riccarton, Merivale, Bryndwr, Burnside, and, just in this week's Harcourts' Blue Book, the Burwood Uniting Church) or have been recently sold (Shirley). These sales go well beyond the occasional church building a denomination finds surplus to requirements from time to time (especially in the ever shifting dynamics of rural demography). No, these are parish churches in flourishing suburbs. These sales are a sharp reminder that a church can embark on the wrong strategy in response to the ever shifting changes in culture and society. As a child, for instance, I cycled many times past a healthy St David's Methodist Church in Burnside. More recently, just over twenty years ago, Shirley Methodist was a thriving neighbouring church to St Stephen's Shirley where I served my curacy. I do not know where Methodism in Christchurch has gone wrong, but my hunch is the general liberal theological embrace of this church in its training for ministry, and in its national leadership over recent decades has not served it well. (Tell me I am wrong?!).
I am conservative in theology by conviction, but I am also pragmatically deeply wary of liberal theology's tendency to diminish strong, lively, congregational life across regions and nations. Oh, yes, here and there in these islands there are lively church communities with a sure and strong commitment to liberal theology. But there are no Anglican or Catholic dioceses or regions for other churches in which liberal theology drives forward strong congregational life. Even in the most liberal of our NZ dioceses 95% of the largest parishes would be conservative in theological outlook. (For avoidance of misunderstanding: I am not dimissing liberal theology per se. I appreciate much learned from liberal theology, it offers insights I continue to be challenged by, and it has a role to play in the overall theological life of the church. But it is not a good theology to implement in the life of the church at parish level).
I believe it is imperative that the Anglican church here takes notice of what has happened to Methodism and resolves not to go the way they have gone.
Yes, there are many challenges facing Western Christianity, including Christianity in these islands; and being conservative is no guarantee of growth and development. But it remains the most fruitful way forward for the church.
There is a deep irony in some of the sales of these Methodist churches. This week the Christchurch Press (14 April, page C10) reports on the sales of some of these churches. The recession is biting deep, so even those churches next to major shopping centres have not sold to property developers. No, in several cases these churches have sold to other churches: Shirley to the World Mission Society Church of God (which seems pretty wacky), Burnside to the New Apostolic Church (not to be confused with the Apostolic Church), and Riccarton to a Korean congregation.
There is some irony here, methinks! Empty Methodist churches, possibly emptied through an over indulgence in liberal theology, are not replaced by some better version of liberal Christianity, nor taken over by other mainstream denominations. No, the new face of Christianity in NZ being expressed in these developments is variously conservative or wacky or populated by a new wave of immigrants. Is that a double failure on liberal theology's part to successfully engage with NZ society in recent decades!?
One more question about the future of our church in these islands: God building his church in NZ seems to have had no great loyalty to Methodists. Do Anglicans have any reason to think God will be any more loyal to us?