“Where there is no vision the people perish”.
3 July 2022
On the 7th July 1932, ninety years ago next Friday, this church building was opened and dedicated “To the glory of God”. The first hymn that was sung was Psalm 24, “Ye gates, lift up ye heads on high, ye doors that last for aye”. With its rousing tune, St George’s Edinburgh, concluding with its celebratory Alleluias, Psalm 24 represented an uncharacteristic enthusiasm in traditional Presbyterians’ worship. The evocation of the “King of Glory” and the “Lord of hosts, that great in might and strong in battle is”, reflects a militant piety of another age.
July 1932 was the height of the economic depression. These were years of high unemployment, work camps and social deprivation. The Queen Street riots in April 1932 took place while this church was being built. Unemployed workers gathered in their thousands for a meeting in the Auckland Town Hall. The overflow was caught up in a melee with the police. This provoked the breaking of shop front windows and the looting of stores. The navy was brought in to help the police. In what amounted to an overreaction, special constables were enrolled to prevent further violence.
St Lukes was not immune from the financial pain being experienced in the community. The Board of Managers set up an Unemployment Committee to help find jobs for those among its members needing work. In May 1932, the parish faced financial constraints. To help, the minister and the deaconess volunteered to have their salaries reduced by ten per cent. The Managers were reluctant to take this decision and so went to the congregation. An anonymous donor came to the rescue giving a cheque for £100 which put the church finances into a much more satisfactory position.
The decision to build this church in 1931 was an act of faith and commitment. It’s no surprise that when the minister, J.A. Thomson, was asked to suggest wording to be carved on the pulpit, he offered the words from Proverbs (29.18): “Where there is no vision the people perish”.
The vision to build this church arose out of necessity. The first St Luke’s Church was a wooden building, built in 1865 on the corner of Orakei and Remuera Roads as a Congregational Church. The building was bought by St Lukes and transferred to this site in 1875. When the church was repaired in 1923 it was thought that it only had a future life of about ten years. A decision was made in 1928 to set up a New Building Fund Committee. J.W. Ryburn, a member of a family who made a distinguished contribution to St Lukes and to the Presbyterian Church, was appointed convener.
It was estimated in 1928, in the language of an appeal letter, “that the cost of a building, in keeping with the district and site, and worthy of the cause of the Kingdom of God, would not exceed £15,000” (something like one and half million dollars in today’s currency). At that stage the parish only had £3,000 in promises and cash.
What was critical in enabling St Lukes to be built in 1931-32 was the contribution of the two brothers, William and James (later Sir James) Fletcher. They were both members of the congregation and appointed to the Building Committee. As principals of Fletcher Construction, they were also hugely experienced in the building industry.
At no cost to St Lukes, they provided plans of a church built in 1902 in Twechar, close to Kirkintilloch near Glasgow, where William and James Fletcher were born. These plans were secured using the good offices of Alec Davidson, an architect in Glasgow, who was married to a first cousin. Unbeknown to St Lukes, Davidson (no relation by the way) later complained that he did not get paid for his efforts. At their own expense the Fletchers had the plans altered to suit St Lukes.
To the superficial observer, St Lukes appears to be a stone church like its Scottish counterpart. In fact, St Lukes was built of reinforced concrete and brick, faced by Putaruru stone, with plastered interior walls lined to match the stone work. With Napier and its recent earthquake in mind, where William Fletcher was heavily involved in leading the temporary rebuilding and reconstruction, James reassured the Building Committee, that “no church building in New Zealand will offer greater resistance against earthquakes than” St Lukes. Interestingly, in the light of the Christchurch earthquake, that has been re-evaluated and our building is not as strong as once thought.
William and James were critical in arranging the financing of the building. That’s not to take away from the members of the congregation the significant contributions that they made. On one Sunday in October 1928 subscriptions and promises were collected to the value of £1,095. An anonymous donor also promised to give £4,000 in instalments over three years. But with the Depression beginning to bite, and the Auckland branch of Fletcher Construction with very little work underway, James and William Fletcher offered to provide “£5,000 free of interest for 3 years”, later extended to five years. Fletcher Construction, not surprisingly, was awarded the contract and was thereby able to provide work for some of their staff. In November 1931 the foundation stone was laid by Sarah Dingwall, one of two members present at the first communion service held in 1875.
The £5,000 loan was later renegotiated by James and William Fletcher on very favourable terms. They arranged for the congregation to have £1,000 placed on fixed deposit to pay the five and half percent interest on the loan. At the Annual Congregational Meeting in 1932, William and James Fletcher were thanked for their “wonderful all-round help”. The minute noted:
We must not overlook the vision of these two men, and further it should be known that taking all things into consideration, both of them had contributed at least £2,000 each, to the Church and our grateful thanks are due to them.
Without the risk taking and significant help of William and James Fletcher it is unlikely that this church would have been built at that time.
“Where there is no vision the people perish”.
There is no written memorial within these walls to the Fletchers’ contribution to this church. The building itself is their memorial. The communion table, around which we gather, was given by William Fletcher and his wife. The bell which summonses us to worship was given in memory of William Fletcher. These, along with windows, plaques and furniture given by others, are part of the rich tapestry in stone, in glass, in wood which we have inherited.
If these walls could speak, they would echo the hymns, the prayers, the sermons heard within them during the last ninety years. We would hear the noise of children brought for baptism; the promises of women and men committing themselves to each other in marriage; the sounds of sadness as grieving people gather to say farewell to someone who has died. A church is a gathering place, hallowed by what takes place within its walls; sanctified by the aspirations of children, women and men who have sought faith and lived in the conviction that there is a spiritual dimension to life worth pursuing.
This church building represents the simple Presbyterian Scottish values of solidness, strength, and stability. The architectural embellishments were kept to a minimum. The early Gothic plainness of this church reflects the spare approach of Presbyterians to worship. An earlier generation would see our candles today as “popish innovations”!
The spare aesthetics of our Presbyterians ancestors resulted from an overreaction to the use of symbols and embellishments in medieval Catholicism. The preaching of the Word was at the heart of Presbyterian worship. The pulpit and the pew were for them the most important furniture in their churches. In the earlier St Lukes church building, the central pulpit dominated. In this building, the centrality of communion was emphasised by placing a permanent table as the central focal point of the building.
St Lukes was also one of the earlier Presbyterian adopters in New Zealand as far as pipe organs were concerned, overcoming Presbyterian prejudices against instrumental music. The present organ was installed in the first church in 1883, giving a significant place to music in the congregation’s life. The use of stained glass also came into greater acceptance among Presbyterians from the mid-nineteenth century. The window in the front of our church was installed in the old church in 1879 in memory of the first Session Clerk, J.Y. Stevenson, and transferred to the present building. The three windows at the back were dedicated in October 1932. They were given by the Rhodes family in memory of their daughter Edna, who died while on holiday in the United Sates in 1931.
Churches carry the memory of the past on their walls and in their windows. Buildings shape and mould people. People become very attached to buildings as the controversy over the demolition or the rebuilding of the Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch indicated. The changes that have been made in this building, with the introduction of a central aisle, for example, had to be negotiated with great care. We become a part of buildings like this and they become a part of us.
Parish churches, which have been places of gathering and worship for more than a thousand years in England and Scotland, are, however, facing uncertain futures. The decline in church attendance has put churches at risk both there and in our own country. What of the future of St Lukes and its church building? Are we in a time warp, holding on to something that was precious in the past, but which no longer has pull in the present and whose future is uncertain? The use of the church before Covid for concerts gave an alternative use to the once-a-week Sunday services. But Covid has had a disruptive impact on both the church and the Community Centre. The long-term consequences of this only time will reveal. What is our future?
“Where there is no vision the people perish”.
The church building which we celebrate today was built in difficult times and has served this parish well. It stands as a landmark on Remuera Road to those who pass by, of things seen and unseen – solid, strong, stable and spare. We give thanks for those who built this church and those who have maintained it. But as the people who gather in this place, we also need to look to the future, encouraging and supporting those who build for the time to come.
We know that a church is much more than the building where people gather to worship. May we seek to be adventurous in faith, exploring new possibilities:
- bold in our search to be people in the way of Jesus in our day;
- brave in our pursuit of justice and love;
- daring in our hospitality and outreach to others;
- compassionate in our care for one another.
May this place, hallowed by the memories of those who have taken part in its life:
- continue to be a place of inspiration and challenge;
- a place where people can find comfort and reassurance;
- a place where commitments that are made are honoured in lives well lived;
- a place of worship, where the Word and the world meet, and lives are enriched.