I have finally completed the long incubation and given birth to a book on Murray Robertson and Spreydon Baptist, [Against the Odds: Murray Robertson and Spreydon Baptist Church] a church and ministry that have been so foundational for much of what I have done in my own life in ministry and theological teaching, I began in 2009 but a variety of factors meant a much longer journey than anticipated, but it is a much richer and better book for the time (like a good sermon). It was wonderful being able to get it completed to be launched at the 150th Anniversary of Spreydon, now South West, Baptist Church which was a wonderful weekend in itself, meeting up with many old friends including a number from University days when I first came to Spreydon at the end of 1969. A privilege to take part in some of the events and share in an inspiring worship service on the Sunday celebrating the church’s past and anticipating its ongoing journey into the future.
Following this I spent a part of two days at the Baptist Hui (Assembly) in Dunedin, speaking briefly at the Baptist Research Association dinner and Sutherland lecture and again meeting up with a number of significant people from my past – including some in ministry who had been young people in the two Baptist Churches I had pastored and Murray Cottle and Lindsay Jones who were in my year group which began at Baptist Theological College in 1976 and are still going strong. It was also stimulating meeting some new young ministers and students, some of whom knew me through my writing which they were using in their research. As one of my friends said to me “it shows the power of the pen still” to continue to have influence on those beyond who you meet. Motivation to get my head into the next book on my agenda.
A highlight was a serendipitous meeting and good conversation with Craig Vernall the Baptist leader for the past few years. Along with a good number of others he bought a copy of the book (the main reason I was there) and after reading the book on his flights back home sent me the following. “I read your book on the flight back to Tauranga. It was a very inspiring read and captured the heart and story of the Spreydon/Robertson journey so very well. Thanks for writing this book. It records a significant Baptist story. Something we’re not that good at as we often struggle to celebrate what God is doing in our midst.”
Actually I felt that finally completing this book and the time back at Spreydon/South West and the Baptist Hui completed a circle of reconnecting up with Baptist family and heritage which is still a very big part of who I am and for which I am very grateful. While I was doing my doctoral research I was endeavouring to help the church in New Zealand, and Baptist church in particular, understand the difficult context we were in, and surprisingly discovered that if we just continued doing what we were, then the future would be even more challenging. That was not especially well received by many Baptists and is part of how I ended up at Knox and in the Presbyterian Church and felt rather alienated from my Baptist family. Fortunately when my earlier two books came out at the end of 2013 it began a chain of events with being invited to present seminars in various Baptist contexts, including at Carey Baptist College (where I had studied and later been on the board), preaching at the centennial of my home church in Timaru (written on in an earlier post) and now these events. I am experiencing it as a wonderful gift of God’s grace as I enter the final phase of my career.
You can find details of the book and how to purchase it in my publications page.
Over the past few days I have spent a wonderful 6 days in Ireland. First two in Northern Ireland, hosted by Drew Gibson of Union College, exploring the magically beauty of the north coast for a day (Drew was a missionary in Kenya and when he first took some of his friends from there to see it one said “Gibson there’ll be no Irish in heaven.” “Why’s that?” “They’re already in heaven) and another day in Belfast, and the main memorials and signs of “The Troubles”. Illuminating conversations with Drew about how it impacted him and some of his friends who joined the paramilitaries. Then down south and the magical culture and music of Galway, the magical beauty of the countryside and Cliffs of Moher, the history of Limmerick, invasions and battles, and finally Dublin. The magnificent beauty of Irish Celtic culture combined with Christianity through Patrick illustrated so powerfully in the amazing Book of Kells.
Then with it being the centennial of the Easter Uprising of 1916 a lot of historical exhibitions were happening, so I explored all the anguished suffering since the English arrived, particularly from the Tudors on and above all Oliver Cromwell. The crushing of any Irish resistance, the confiscation of lands given to Scots and English settlers, and the execution or slavery, of so many Irish. At this point Catholicism became fused with Irish identity as a point of resistance to the English. Those who stayed were left with a quarter acre of land on which potatoes were the only crop they could grow enough to feed a family. Then the famine and the English did next to nothing in the way of providing any relief, despite the fact that the wealthy landowners made huge profits from exporting the produce of their stolen lands. 2 million Irish left for overseas to get relief and 1 million died at home. If it was not for money sent home from all those who did so well in the USA many more would have died. Genocide really, first from Cromwell and then Victorian England. And then as the Irish spirit began to rise again in the twentieth century and the hope for home rule grew, resistance and division from the Ulster Protestants allied with the British military, more suffering for 100 years. And all this from a Protestant Christian country!!!
The other side of Ireland was all this music and joy of the Irish people expressed where ever you went. You did not need any itunes, live music was everywhere. And the generosity and hospitality was as good as it gets. In the evening I went to a night of Irish music and dancing with a meal and some Guiness. Wonderful, spiritual and we all joined in with great joy. I was struck with this painful 5 centuries of suffering and death and this joyful expression of wonderfully creative music and other arts. It seemed paradoxical. But as I reflected I realised in my own world of music, popular at that, it seemed that great musical creativity came out of suffering, just looking at the second half of the twentieth century.
American country music came out of the hardships of those living in the Appalachians and eking out an existence. Of course many of them were Irish and Scots and brought there music with them. Then black soul and rhythm and blues coming out of the suffering of the blacks in the south. These two came together into rock and roll in the 50s as the Johnny Cash and Ray Charles movies showed. And folk music came out of the hardship of the depression and the dustbowl in the Midwest ending up landing in all the creativity of Bob Dylan. Then to go into my era, the British rock explosion, which picked up from American rock and roll when it became domesticated, came out of those youth raised in the hard times of the north in post war Britain. It was a hard life if you read the biographies of those artists. Of course at the forefront of this were the Beatles and I recall a comment Paul McCartney made in a documentary of the concert he organised in New York post 9/11. He of course grew up in a large Irish Catholic extended family in Liverpool and his father was a band leader, hence his wide musical tastes. But he said how his parent’s generation survived through the depression, war and post war scarcity was largely through coming together and making music. And then the history of those bands for their first four or five years was usually pretty hard, living off scraps. Lennon and McCartney of course both lost their mothers while teenagers, but they along with Dylan were voted the 3 top song writers by a Rolling Stone poll (in the reverse order I have to acknowledge).
I may sound a bit like an oldie now who thinks all the good times have passed, but I wonder if this is why there is often a lack of real creativity in much contemporary music. Perhaps it also explains why the one great band of the latter part of the twenty century was Irish,U2. It has of course wider implications, because most of the moves in contemporary culture and society is to remove suffering from the lives of people (euthanasia being most extreme) and yet the biblical record and theology sees suffering as often having a significant formative and redemptive role in life, something we need to reflect and work on more in our understanding of the fullness of the gospel. Sadly of course some strands of contemporary Christian interpret the gospel as being the removal of suffering in this life. How much of the fullness of life would we lose it that were the case?
Anyway some initial reflections that were running through my mind over my last couple of days here. I would welcome any comment that would help refine and develop my thinking.
The film Bull Durham begins featuring photographs from the collection of Annie Savoy, whose wall serves as a shrine to bygone baseball superheroes. To the background of a gospel melody Annie confesses: “I believe in the church of Baseball. I’ve tried all of the major religions, and most of the minor ones…. I’ve tried ‘em all… And, the only church that truly feeds the soul… is the Church of Baseball.”
For Annie baseball functions like a grand myth that gives meaning and makes sense of life, and having been in the US for the opening of the season have experienced the religious devotion it inspires. One observer writes “The decline of religion as a source of significant meaning in modern industrialized societies has been extravagantly compensated by the rise of popular culture, of which the billion dollar sports mania is the most visible manifestation.” For NZ it is rugby. On the morning of the 2011World Cup final Michael Laws wrote, “rugby is is more than our national sport. It is our religion, our soul”. The rugby section in our newspapers is called “Rugby Heaven.” The lift out after NZ had won began “this is… Rugby Heaven. Thankyou Lord at long last.”
I first reflected on this issue reading an article in the Economist suggesting that if Karl Marx had visited a western society today, instead of Victorian England, he would have declared sport and mass entertainment, not religion, was the opiate of the people.
This topic raises the question, “what is religion?” George Santanya thought of religion as “another world to live in”, having doubtless no idea that what he thought of as religion would for many be displaced in the most immediate and existential sense by sport. For millions, sports certainly do constitute a popular form of religion by shaping their world and sustaining their ways of engaging in it. Paul Tillich defined religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern… which itself contains the answer to the question of meaning.” Again, for many sport is their ultimate concern for which they are willing to “sacrifice any finite concern which is in conflict with it”. Emile Durkheim, defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… which unite us into a single moral community”. In many societies sport now functions to do this more than traditional religions and for us at no time more than the final stages of a rugby world cup.
In the US sport has been identified as a form of ‘civil’ or ‘cultural’ religion by some. Harry Edwards suggests it is “essentially a secular, quasi-religious institution” and Michael Novak that “sport is, somehow, a religion.” He notes the joy of victory often prompts a religious response, for winning generates a feeling that “the gods are on one’s side”. The rituals of sport provide a mythic structure in which participants repeatedly experience death and resurrection providing a sense of transcendence. In the UK Desmond Morris sees soccer sees as a quasi-religion fulfilling powerful social-psychological needs, to be together in significant groups, to voice support and experience catharsis. In 1965 Hans Mol labelled rugby a national religion in NZ, arguing it represented the solidarity of the community against other groups, and in common with traditional religions “emotional commitment, the strict ritual of time and rule, the legends of the past and a stable, orderly context.”
The word ‘religion’, comes from ‘religare’ meaning ‘to bind’. This binding comes about through conflations of ‘ordinary’ and ‘transcendent’ qualities such as order, hope and charisma and reaches its ultimate context in celebration. Followers are transformed into ‘fans’, which comes from fanticus ‘inspired by a deity, frenzied’, from fanus ‘temple’.
Finally to suggest three other ways sport fulfils some religious functions: (1) First is in providing an experience of transcendence or ecstasy. Living in Dunedin there was an enormously transcendent experience for days after the Super 15final, as there was throughout the country in 2011. (2) The high days and holy days of a former society have been transferred from religion to sport. The Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for Americans. For NZ it is the RWC or America’s Cup final. (3) A final way is the idea of pilgrimage, an important part of traditional religions. It is a concept re-emerging today and we experienced it in 2011 with pilgrims from Ireland or elsewhere. For New Zealanders, apart from Gallipoli, no pilgrimage is more sacred than to an overseas RWC.
I initially wrote this for Tui Motu in mid October, wondering whether all these religious experiences would be experienced by New Zealanders on November 1, both here and in London. Wonderfully what was obvious was that we did, and it has continued on for all of this week.
Recently I was involved in the induction of Malcolm Gordon as National Music, Worship and Arts Coordinator with the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, a role he has been doing for some time. This is a new ministry position in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and one which is proving very significant, with wide demands for his time not just in New Zealand but also Australia and Scotland. In discussing with him how he came to this position, and what future ministry might be like for him, it illustrated for me once again what has become a common theme of discussion and conversations recently, particularly among our younger leaders; that our current understanding and model of ministry in the Presbyterian tradition is creaking at the joints and not serving us very well. We are increasingly trying to squeeze the increasingly wide variety of ministries we need into a very narrow box, and for many the fit is increasingly uncomfortable. This was Malcolm’s experience as he tried to fit the calling and gifts he had for ministry into the only real place we have, as minister of word and sacrament in a parish setting. I would like to suggest that we need to undergo a significant re thinking of the theology that underlies our practice of ministry in order to better meet the needs of our context.
Our inherited understanding and form was primarily developed by John Calvin during the Reformation in the context of Christendom, when everyone belonged to the church and was Christian. There ministry took place in the church, and was aimed at ensuring everyone was truly Christian. This was to be done by ensuring the gospel was purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, hence ministers of word and sacrament. On top of that a third element was added, discipline or pastoral care. In looking at the ministry gifts set out in the important text in Ephesians 4, Calvin saw only pastors and teachers as continuing gifts; apostles, prophets and evangelists were temporary gifts needed for the establishment of the church where it did not exist and had since ceased. This understanding served us well during the period of Christendom which in one form or another still existed in western societies till the middle of last century.
However to many of us it seems clear that is now an inadequate understanding for the post-Christendom context we are in today. If the church is to continue playing a vital role in societies like New Zealand where the church is no longer central then its ministry ca not be focussed solely, or even primarily, inside the church. In a world where the church is now marginal, or in some cases absent, we need to find ways of equipping and ordaining those who have apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministries (and may be others also), to enable the ministry of Christ to reach into places and communities where the church is not. We still need those who are gifted as pastors and teachers to serve as ministers of word and sacrament in the church, but these other ministries need to be trained and ordained to serve alongside equally as ministers of the gospel, as the church endeavours to reach into new fields of those who are not yet part of Christ’s church.
Over the past two years I have heard a repeated cry from those who are finding our current model is not serving us well in many of our rural communities, in planting new churches, in many of our ethnic contexts, with young adults and in community or workplace ministries. It is important that we do not just respond pragmatically to make this possible, but do what the Reformers did centuries ago and re examine the scriptures and the tradition of the church in which we stand in the light of the new context we find ourselves in and allow the Spirit to open our eyes to new ways that God might be able to work in our midst and our communities today.
As I preached on the lectionary gospel for the first Sunday after Easter, I was reminded again of how critical it is to keep mission and Spirit together, for our understanding of who we are, and what we are to do, as the church of the risen Christ. John 20.19-23, and in particular the words of Jesus, As the Father has sent me so I am sending you, followed by his action of breathing on them saying Receive the Holy Spirit is, perhaps, the critical text in the development of the terminology missional church, which today is used everywhere and just as commonly misunderstood.
First of all we need to note the use of the word “church”. Unfortunately some of the missional church material actually gives little place to the church. Notice here that Jesus sends and breathes on the gathered community of disciples, not just individuals. In the Old Testament, God called a community of his people through Abraham to be a missional community, a light to the nations, to demonstrate to them what God’s purpose (mission) was; the restoration of all of creation to a condition where once again he could look at it and see “that it was good.” It takes a community to demonstrate that, and so after Israel failed, God’s purpose was to form through Jesus a new community, the church, to take up that calling. God’s mission can only be forwarded through community.
What is that community sent by Christ to do? To continue what Jesus had begun to do, the manifesto which he set out in Luke 4; to bring “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.” It is important to note that the first thing Jesus does after this is to call the disciples and form a community to engage in this mission. This is what the church exists for. It is our calling. We are God’s missionary people, participating in God’s mission in the world.
How do we mere mortals do this? The same way Jesus did, in the power of the Spirit. Jesus waited until he had received the Spirit before commencing his mission and he called on the disciples to wait until they had done likewise before they commenced theirs. Jesus went from the Father in the power of the Spirit and we need to go from Christ in the power of the same Spirit.
A break with any one of these three elements which belong together is problematic. There are those trying to engage in God’s mission as solo individuals, but if God is about “reconciling all things together” then only reconciled communities can give witness to that. There are churches that are all about mission, but have no sense of the empowering action of the Spirit in their midst, and so find themselves unable to confront the powers that hold people and communities captive and oppressed. Many good things happened in the charismatic movement of the 70s and 80s, when it focussed on renewing churches for the sake of mission in the world. In my view, it ran out of steam and dribbled away in the late 80s and 90s when it became internally focussed on those in the church having a good time among themselves, and on the experience and blessing of individuals. So there are other churches with plenty of talk about the Spirit but none of that energy going into mission.
If we are going to be a truly “missional church”, it is critical that we keep church, mission and spirit tightly together with the risen Christ present as our centre.
Timaru Baptist Church Centennial (Wilson Street)
Over Labour weekend I attended the Centennial Celebrations of the church I grew up in, received my earliest teaching about the Christian faith from, was baptised in and felt a call to ministry at. My last time there had been organising and taking part in my mother’s funeral three years ago. I did not know what to expect really: I had noticed the last few times I had gone there were fewer and fewer of those who I remembered having significant inputs into my life so was not expecting a large number of present attenders I knew. Often when I have gone to anniversaries such as this I have been disappointed at how few of my contemporaries showed up.
I was overwhelmed by this. There were 130 out of town registrations and I counted up nearly 100 people I knew reasonably well, of whom only about 25 were current attenders. What was noticeable at photo time was that the 60s group was by far the largest, and I certainly had a great time connecting up with a wide variety of people I have fond memories of, many of whom I had not seen since. People only come back to anniversaries for things they have pleasant memories of (very few of my class mates turned up at the Timaru Boy’s High 125th reunion in 2005 as it was not a happy place for many) and the fact that so many did indicated what a wonderful place it was. The strength of what was happening in the 50s, 60s and 70s was clear in a story telling time on Saturday afternoon when people were asked to talk about someone who had been important for them. Some names were mentioned many times and what was clear was that it had been a place where people had felt nurtured, encouraged and cared for in many ways, but also were taught the basics of being a Christian.
This was certainly so for me, and there were about six older men who were enormously important for me, not only back then, but in encouraging me every time I came back to see my parents in the 40 plus years since. One in particular, Bob Auty, did much of the organising of the weekend and I believe is one of those “saints” to whom ‘so many owe so much’ in their Christian journey, but will never be a headline in the histories of faith. But it reminded me also, as it did many others, that people like this are truly the core of what makes for effective Christian communities rather than star studied preachers or worship leaders. Many of the women who were there also spoke of women who had been the same for them. This reality was reflected on the Sunday evening in which the service involved the baptism of a young person. The minister spontaneously asked how many of those present had been baptised at Wilson St. It looked like well over 80% of those present had, a powerful statement.
One of the joys for me was meeting the minister from my mid-teens and through my university years, Peter Millichamp and his wife Barbara who was very much a part of the ministry. At 82 they are an amazing couple, so fresh and vibrant and keen to serve still (although sadly churches are a bit reluctant to take them on) and Peter’s address as the after dinner speaker on Saturday was a real highlight. I never realised till then that his ministry had really ended with a vote in the church that there should be no charismatic teaching in the church! I thought only Opawa Baptist and the Brethren did that!! In reflecting on the weekend I realised how fortunate I was to have Peter and Barbara at that critical stage of my life, and then when I finally found a church to call home in Christchurch in my third year away, Murray and Marj Robertson. They both preached a wonderful gospel of grace and love and modelled that in the way they treated you – even to a long haired somewhat nonconformist student in whom they both saw something else and gave the opportunities to be involved in ministry, encouragement to pursue and provided wonderful models to build on. For me the highlight was having the opportunity to preach at the evening service back in the church I had first been given the opportunity 45 years ago, and with a number present who would have heard my stumbling effort back then.
You can find my message from John 20.19-23 here: Timaru Baptist Centennial
One final reflection from the weekend was the sadness that comes from the awareness of so many who were part of a very vibrant youth group back then, but who are no longer part of a church or even any longer journeying with Jesus. I have been increasingly aware of this over recent years as I put faces to the figures that feature in much of my work on declining church and religious identification in New Zealand. Talking with people only put more flesh to that reality. One thing that hit me was that I had taken a photo of the group from Wilson Street who were at an Easter Camp in 1966. Of the 30 or more in it, apart from Peter Millichamp, there were only 4 of us at this weekend. When I looked at the photo I realised that most of them were younger than me (I was in the 6th form then), and also in the weekend there were not that many there from the 60s who were younger than me. I have often said that the 60s only arrived in New Zealand in 1964 with the Beatles, and certainly those who were fully socialised as teenagers in the late 60s and early 70s, the period some call the New Zealand 60s, seem to have dropped out of church and faith in even greater numbers than those socialised in the early 60s, or even like me the mid 60s.
Much food for thought, but the stories that were told, and some reflective thought around the people there, has reaffirmed for me again what has been a theme in much of my work, that people are basically socialised into the faith. Of course God does need to be involved with it, as God was deeply for me sometime after I had left Timaru, but it was that nurturing in a faith community that provided the material on which God could work. It emphasises for me again the importance in community, as is emphasised in both the Old and New Testaments, of prioritising the handing down of our tradition to the generations behind us. Nothing (buildings, styles of music, types of leadership, forms of church, debates about sexuality) should be allowed to usurp its place. Likewise in mission our focus needs to be on working with children and youth, as all the research shows that very few people come to a faith decision after their teenage years who have not had some prior exposure to the gospel and to Christian community. Many of us who shared that weekend were privileged to have received that in such a loving grace filled community.
I have just returned from the Presbyterian General Assembly held in Auckland at St Kentigern’s College, interesting for me as it was a geography of significant events in my life. I was the minister at Pakuranga Baptist Church, just across the road from the College, when I resigned from Baptist Ministry, and then for the next three years found “spiritual refuge” for my rather bruised faith in St Columba’s Presbyterian Church, also just across the road, while I taught at MacLean’s College. This was my first real engagement with the Presbyterian Church. Both churches have now moved as the land has been taken over by the expanding Town Centre, but the moderator of this Assembly, Andrew Norton, is the minister of St Columba’s, and it was a joy to meet again Graeme Murray, the minister from the time I spent recovering there.
I have attended many Assemblies, both Baptist and Presbyterian, and I have often felt my soul echoed the words of the prophet Amos, “I cannot stand your assemblies.” However I did not feel that on this occasion, and overall my impression is that it was the best and most significant I have been to in the PCANZ. Not only did it have a much better culture about it but I also believe it took some significant steps in moving us forward. The culture change that Andrew facilitated, both in the way he set it up (having us sitting around tables for one thing), organised the worship and speakers and moderated the business sessions, was part of this. Some significant decisions were also made.
From my perspective, not surprising giving my previous blog, it was wonderful to see a much greater visibility of our bicultural and multicultural character, something commented on by the guest speaker, Steve Taylor, in his closing comments. It was wonderful to see our commitment to being a “cross cultural and multicultural church with a bicultural commitment” passed unanimously. Now it is important for us to engage in the journey of becoming cross-cultural rather than just remaining multicultural. Another very significant decision was that to set up a Mission Enterprise Fund and to commit 10% of the sale of property to this, which will be used to facilitate mission initiatives. Decisions were also made which will enable more easily some of the changes which need to be made in rationalising the number of parishes we have, again an urgent necessity. So for me these kind of decisions, which will enable us to more readily make changes to adapt to the reality of our context and so engage more effectively in God’s mission, left me feeling greatly encouraged.
There were other decisions made with which I did not always agree but such is the nature of a “broad” and therefore diverse church. One of the most significant moments came as the debate on issues of sexuality was to begin and my friend Hamish Galloway passionately stated that after 28 years of debating we need to find a better way of dealing with our diversity and led a walkout which was taken up by about one third of the commissioners. I trust that those who hold passionate and strong positions at both ends of the spectrum take note of what this said.
One final reflection is on the courageous leadership Andrew Norton showed, both in the way he brought changes into the assembly programme and lea and moderated our time together. One of the things he introduced was to have a ministers’ resourcing day the day before. About 200 of our ministers attended and it was an excellent day, both in terms of content and also the chances for ministers to share some of the joys and challenges of their ministry with one another. The afternoon session was on ‘transformational leadership’, and I gave the opening address comparing transactional leadership (‘keeping the ship afloat’) and transformational leadership, arguing that the latter was adequate in settled times but in times of rapid change and challenge the latter is needed. It seems to me that moderators have been expected to act in the former way and have done so. Andrew took the risk of being transformational. That often attracts criticism, but for myself and I know many others, I am pleased he took the risk and helped to bring about significant change. I trust we can build on this as we move forward together.