On Easter Sunday, I was conducting the service at St Andrew’s in Symond Street, and after the Service while we were having a cup of tea, a woman and her son, who were visitors, spoke to me. They were from Serbia, Orthodox Christians, who since arriving in NZ had been attending their local Baptist Church. She asked me why the Scottish flag of St Andrew was being hung on the wall of the Church Hall and what was distinctive about the Presbyterian Church. She wanted to know who we Presbyterians were and where we had come from! Unfortunately, not being a Presbyterian, I think I was not quite the right person to ask! What do you say? WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
There seems to be a great desire these days among many people to rediscover and reconnect with their roots. Every week when I open the local newspaper I see numerous advertisements concerning “Genealogical Get-Togethers!” People coming together to ask questions like: “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” and “Who were my forebears?”
Some years ago Marion and I were doing a Supply at St James’ Union Parish in Greerton. The Leaders Meeting and a group of the Elders were very keen for us to host a weekend event run by Andrew and Margery Dunn on “CELTIC SPIRITUALITY.” As usual I was a bit sceptical. Why on earth would anyone want to re-examine Primitive Christianity in the British Isles prior to the Synod of Whitby in AD 664? As usual my scepticism was ill-founded! The weekend was a great success – folk coming from Churches all over Tauranga to attend! Why I wondered? I guess it’s part of an innate desire to return to our roots! To know where we came from – WHO WE ARE!
Today however, I do believe that in the Traditional Churches as a whole there’s been a steady loss of interest in our roots – an abandonment of long treasured traditions. Who cares today whether they’re Presbyterians or Methodists or Anglicans – or whatever?
And another thing about today is that we are being faced with a proliferation of Independent Christian groups –like Destiny, Abundant Life, Impact, Citepointe, Vineyard, C3, etc Churches with no loyalty or responsibility to any authority beyond themselves.
As we consider our heritage there are two things that I think are important. irstly: I don’t believe we can know who we are if we don’t know where we came from. There is a sense in which we are what our history has made us.
Secondly: We can’t remain where we are; nostalgia for the past is all very well, but we’ve got to move forward, adapting and modifying our traditions to meet the challenges of our time.
Who are we?
Here at St Luke’s, who are we? It’s a good question isn’t it?
Well, we are Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Brethren, Church of Christ, Catholics, Congregationalists, Methodists, Salvationists, Progressives, Quakers, Sea-of-Faith, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists….. WE ARE A DIVERSE LOT!
TODAY IS WESLEY SUNDAY - a celebration of a small part of our combined heritage. World-wide Wesley Day is 24 May – 2 days ago! And today those of us who call ourselves Methodists are remembering; remembering our founding mothers and fathers and singing those stirring traditional old Wesleyan Hymns! Methodists trace their roots back to the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, and the foundation of the Methodist Societies that sprang up in the British Isles during the Industrial Revolution in the 1740’s. On Wesley Sunday we are saying this is who we are and this is where we came from. I certainly wouldn’t want to deify John Wesley – there are certainly some things about his character which are not necessarily admirable. BUT there’s a breadth and a depth to his theology that places him well before his time, some of which still appeals today. His emphasis on God’s Grace, Personal holiness, the Catholic Spirit, Pastoral Care, Human Rights, Social Change – all still have relevance for us today. And his organisational and administrative skills created the Methodist Connexion – which established the Methodist family, a closely knit group of interconnected individuals and congregations.
I must admit I could never have belonged to the Wesley’s Holy Club – I’m not pious or disciplined enough for that! However I do identify strongly with Wesley’s words concerning those in need: “Make me zealous to embrace all occasions that may administer to people’s happiness by assisting the needy, protecting the oppressed, instructing the ignorant, empowering the powerless, exhorting the good and reproving the unjust.”
Let me share another couple of relevant gems: “Slovenliness is no part of religion. No text of Scripture condemns neatness of apparel. (Mr Wesley himself of course was always dapper!) Certainly this is a duty not a sin. Cleanliness is next to Godliness!” And some good advice to preachers: “If you would not murder yourself, take particular care never to preach too loud or too long. Always conclude the service within the hour – then preaching will not harm you.”
In a more serious vein Wesley spoke of the over-arching importance of love in these words: “All is contained in humble, gentle, patient love – every right temper, and then all right words and actions naturally branch out of love.”
How do we answer “Who are we?” Well I guess we can begin by looking back into our History, our Heritage, our Founding Fathers and Mothers. But that is not enough is it? We’ve got to be prepared to re-examine who we are and move forward from there. We live in a different world from Luther, Calvin, Knox and Wesley – even from Billy Graham, George MacLeod, Nicky Gumble and Bill Hybels. Ours is a totally different religious climate. In the 1956 NZ census about 90% of our parents’ generation claimed to be Christian – in the latest census that dropped to 44.3%.
The McCrindle Report on “Faith and Belief in NZ” published in May this year found that while 16% of NZ’ers claimed to be Churchgoers only 9% said they were “active” members. And the top FIVE ISSUES that were identified as being the most likely to prevent non-Christians, who are open to change, from exploring Christianity as a possible life-choice were the Church’s teachings on – homosexuality, Hell and condemnation, suffering, the role of women and miracles and the supernatural. Obviously NONE of these would have been issues for our founding fathers and mothers.
If we are honest we’ve got to admit that today in our secular Western society the Church is generally viewed as irrelevant, judgemental and exclusive, its services are seen as dull and lifeless and its theology is considered outdated and incomprehensible.
While ministering at St James’ Union Parish in Greerton I used to have to attend the bi-monthly meetings of the Tauranga Presbytery. I still remember the May meeting 1999, all those years ago! There was to be no Agenda and we were to look at what we saw as the Presbyterian Church’s future. There was a lot of talk about visioning, strategic planning, training sessions for leaders, evangelising, discipling – and a plethora of programmes of every shape and size! Then towards the end when we were all exhausted Keith Hooker, the Minister at St Peters, got up and shared with us the results of a recent poll taken in the USA among people looking for a church to attend. They were asked what they wanted in a church. They identified TWO things….Acceptance and friendliness. Interesting isn’t it? No interest was shown in denominations, doctrines or theology. What people wanted was to be accepted for who they are. And to be part of a group of genuinely loving caring, friendly people. In this fractured and fearful world where so many people are isolated, ignored, lonely and neglected what have we to offer?
As Mr Wesley so rightly asked: Are we genuinely concerned about the happiness of those about us – assisting the needy, protecting the oppressed, befriending the friendless, empowering the powerless, praising the good and struggling against injustice.