A week ago I was alerted to the existence of a "doomsday" letter from +Kelvin Wright, the Bishop of Dunedin, to his Diocese. That letter is now available +Kelvin's blog, Available Light. The contents confirm what has been talked about for many years now, that the Diocese of Dunedin (i.e. the provinces of Otago and Southland), arguably less well heeled with trust income than any other pakeha diocese, and experiencing continuing loss in attendance numbers, is in a decline re "diocesan structure" which may be terminal. Indeed there were rumours, prior to the election of +Kelvin, that the Diocese might have to be amalgamated into the Diocese of Christchurch (which, on a moment's thought is a pretty nutty idea: the vast regions of Otago and Southland would require some kind of full-time archdiaconal if not episcopal position as part of an enlarged diocese and the Christchurch Diocese's reasonable expectation would be that financial support for that would come from Otago and Southland, ergo, no actual financial savings through amalgamation).
+Kelvin has also published a post entitled Responses which sets out some of the creative possibilities beginning to emerge as this situation is responded to now that it has emerged from the shadowy world of rumours and teacup prognostications.
Noting a comment on Facebook last night, that this is actually really exciting news (in the sense that the old clapped out institutional Anglican church has to die in order for the really great and flipping marvellous non-institutional church to emerge with all the freedom and zaniness of a butterfly in flight), I feel I must offer a considered title to this post which acknowledges all possible futures for the Diocese of Dunedin!
However, in my view, since I think all corporate bodies "institutionalise" themselves (and all butterflies have a comparatively short lifespan), I see this news as only exciting if certain changes are made while the body corporate is alive.
In New Zealand we should remember that the resurrected Anglican church in respect of bits and pieces of it which have died is not a new Anglican church but the church of other names, betokening pentecostal, baptist, and other forms of Christianity. A point which impressed itself on me during this past week when I went to a mayoral prayer breakfast for about 100 church leaders, of whom only half a dozen were Anglican - for all the fuss over the cathedral in our city, we could bulldoze it, turn it into a green space, close up all the Anglican churches and leave Christianity in Christchurch alive and very well. But I digress. Back to Dunedin.
What could change in Dunedin Diocese?
On the one hand, some things there do not need to change. As +Kelvin's letter points out, there are several very healthy congregations in the Diocese. It is not as though the Diocese has no current experience of lively, growing churches. It does. There is always the possibility of asking what has led to this life and growth and what might be replicated from it in other places.
On the other hand, some things which could change need a very long, wide and hard look. Recently +Kelvin spoke at a clergy conference in my diocese. I was shocked to hear from him that the decline of the Anglican churches in Southland (which I had known about) is more or less matched by decline in Presbyterian (effectively the "established" church of Otago and Southland), Catholic and Methodist churches. That suggests that in Southland, there is something going on in the fabric of society which is inimical to the progress of the gospel: whatever needs changing down there is not simply about change to the Anglican way of being and doing church. Incidentally, at one level the "hard" part of this possible change concerns a challenge to rural churches which I have not seen or heard being successfully met in any part of NZ: how do we get dairy farmers, sharemilkers and dairy farm workers to church? They work hard, long hours, seven days a week ...
I am sure there are other changes that will come from within the Diocese itself as it gets a radical review going. It is not without hope of changes which will make the Diocese function well, albeit in different ways. One thing I would urge consideration of (and would urge it on any parish or diocese in NZ experiencing financial difficulties) is thinking about how assets could be put to better use. It strikes me that a lot of our "doom and gloom" talk is about how little cash we have, but never about selling some of our assets to improve the cashflow. Take a parish which sits on a million dollars worth of assets which are hardly used timewise while wondering how to pay the stipend and the power bill with a declining congregation. We tend to write the termination of appointment letter before thinking about putting a For Sale sign up! Many of those flourishing pentecostal congregations around NZ rent school halls for the their Sunday services ...
Also, and again, this is a comment for our whole church, reflecting on some conversations going on in our diocese as we get to grips with re-shaping it, we do need to think about our theology.
It is pretty obvious to me that some theologies pay their way (putting it crudely) better than other theologies. Are we being serious as we review our life in these islands if we do not also review what theologies we should be committed to and what theologies we should give a dignified funeral to?