My former and very brilliant church history professor (when at Knox Theological Hall in the mid 1980s), Peter Matheson, has written a stirring column for the Otago Daily Times. (H/T Anglican Taonga for notice of the article).
Its heading is "Churches Must Rise to the Challenges of the Modern World."
He begins with a description of our sad state:
"It's an interesting experience being a churchgoer these days. We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence.
Countless revelations about sexual misconduct by clergy have shaken public confidence. The accumulation of negative publicity in very recent times has been remarkable: Dilworth School, Gloriavale, Destiny Church’s antics, Arise Church’s leadership woes. The list seems endless, the latest issue being Simon O’Connor lauding the US Supreme Court’s verdict on Roe v Wade.
To any neutral observer it might well seem that the Christian churches stand for utterly regressive social and gender policies and all too often for the scandalous abuse of power.
So it’s been quite a turnaround for us churchgoers. In my student days at Otago the churches were at the forefront of radical action. The first anti-nuclear march in Dunedin was largely church-led."
He ends with some helpful suggestions:
"When talking with my non-Christian friends I often pose the question: where are we to get our values as a post-Christian nation?
The celebration of Matariki highlights a welcome awareness of what matauranga (Maori knowledge) has to offer us. We cannot, however, expect Maoridom to offer solutions to all the problems created by Pakeha: the stubborn indifference of suburbia to environmental meltdown, the worrying addiction of young people to social media
Maybe we need to pause, and think again about the rich resources that the Christian tradition of spirituality, theology and creative action has to offer.
As compassion fatigue looms, the churches’ discipline of daily and communal prayer for others is a crucial corrective.
The tough challenge, for sure, to the churches is to get their house in order, to package their transcendent message to meet the needs of the world of today. Reformata reformanda!"
Can any NZ reader here (or overseas observer) disagree with the thrust of what Peter is saying here, that "We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence"?
To the degree that we have been nudged (or, indeed, nudged ourselves) to the periphery of society, there are definitely elements of (i) we deserve it (because of our failings), and (ii) we are bewildered - on which I offer some reflection in the next paragraph - and some timeout at the periphery could be valuable for sorting ourselves out.
A bewildered NZ church?
When Peter Matheson recalls church leaders at the forefront of (e.g.) anti-nuclear marches, the church in NZ was a simpler network of churches than today: the classic mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic church and some fledgling Pentecostal churches. And there was some good organisation of most of these churches, through the National Council of Churches. Church leaders could speak up and, more or less, profess to speak for the NZ church of God. Today, the NZ church is a varied, diverse bunches of churches, including not only many more Pentecostal churches, but also variants of the classic denominations (e.g. alternative Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches). This makes it harder to say, "I the leader of church X speak for all churches when I say Y." Not least, this is so, because in the expanding array of churches in our nation, there has been a growth in the conservative character of the NZ church, so the chances are remote that where social or political change is desired by society as a whole, then the church here would see itself as at the vanguard of change rather than at the forefront of resistance to change. Notably, during the Covid years, churches here found themselves internally stricken with division over vaccination.
There is one issue on which, just possibly, we are open to taking a lead, resistance to climate change, but this is a big, complex issue, and, apart from general messages about how we ought to resist climate change, coming up with particular initiatives is proving bewilderingly difficult.
How might we rise again?
To be frank, I do not know.
But I like, very much, Peter's final point. In a post-Christian society which emphasises the "Christian" character of our nation by many beautiful acts of compassion, churches still have something to contribute by way of our spiritual treasures so that compassion fatigue is relieved and new vigour is given to the values widely espoused across our communities.
We are not finished yet!
But we will need to work on our relevancy rather than assume it.