Church's world fades like childhood dreams

In a restless search for the heart - and soul - of Dunedin, David Loughrey plunges back in time to the altar of his youth. He finds something strangely precious, lost in the haze of the past and quietly fading from view, in a small suburban church.

It feels like a dream.

You are in surroundings deeply familiar; every window arch, light switch and skirting board is ingrained in your memory.

But you are a foreigner, lost somewhere between childhood and maturity, in the company of strangers who seem, inexplicably, to know you.

They speak a language you once spoke, but which, no matter how hard you concentrate, you no longer understand.

They intone snippets of - what is it - a song lyric?May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Weak sunlight through a stained-glass window catches drifting dust before alighting on a baptismal font.

We print the cross upon thee here, and stamp thee his alone.

You have a ticket, but you feel you are intruding.

On the wall hangs a crucifix; a small, familiar Christ above a pulpit that remains empty, as call demands response.

''Creator, we disfigure your world.''

Lord, have mercy.

''Jesus, our hope, we deprive others of hope.''

Christ, have mercy.

Not a dream; a return to St Michael's Church in Elliot St, Andersons Bay, after four decades, a period in which childhood concepts of goodness and sin have been compromised by the bemusing realities of existence.

Inside, St Michael's is almost unchanged.

The woodstain on the back of each row of pews has been worn bare by thousands upon thousands of hands that have gripped them for support as their owners lowered themselves to kneel in supplication to God.

The floor boards underneath are worn bare by the same number of polished Sunday-best shoes that have jiggled and scuffed their way through Holy Communion.

Polished brass crosses sit where they have always sat, and a stained-glass angel tightly holds a harp as blue shards of glass cascade behind the altar.

But 40 years ago it teemed with life: birth, childhood, joy, sorrow, illness and death all played out within its walls, cloaked in a quiet dignity and reverence.

Children and teenagers in the raiment of the Church filled choir stalls at right angles to the altar.

They took their collars home to clean and starch them every week.

Specials days were observed with sprigs of rosemary, palm fronds, incense and grandeur; there was Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Behind the church a modified Nissen hut, a prefabricated structure designed during World War 1, hosted what seems like hundreds of children for Sunday School, and while there may have been religious instruction, it was quickly taken care of before the more urgent, animal business of childhood took precedence.

But a recent visit for the 10.30am Sunday service found a much quieter suburban church.

Just 11 older parishioners turned up on St Silas' Day, praying for refugees, prisoners and those who are sick or have died, and to take Holy Communion.

Gone were the children and the families; in their place a small and personal service, followed by a cup of tea.

There was a sermon on St Silas, and the importance of ''ordinary Christians'' within the church, who keep the institution going.

There were precious moments of silence for prayer and reflection.

St Michael's - a church approaching its 90th anniversary - is, on any given Sunday, a welcoming house of worship for the traveller from times past.

Its occupants hold something strangely precious in their collective memory.

They hold one part of the memories of thousands shaped on a windy hill in a quiet city.

They continue to observe the rituals that are, for many, lost in time.

And these ordinary Christians may be among the last in this small church.

Numbers fall
In last year's census, 459,771 people identified as Anglicans.

That was 17% fewer than the 2006 census, part of a similar trend for most denominations in many parts of the world.

In Otago the Anglican population declined from 18,510 to 15,741.

For Bishop of Dunedin the Rt Rev Dr Kelvin Wright, the decreasing and ageing congregations, and the future of churches like St Michael's, are ''a question I live with almost every day''.

''The short answer is, I think that some of them have no future.

''I think you look at the age of the congregation and it doesn't take much imagination to think that, give it five years, 10, and they won't be there.''

The future would be in different sorts of congregation, although ''those people have been faithful all their lives and deserve our support and encouragement''.

''But to ask them to make the big changes necessary to appeal to another generation is simply not fair on them.''

 

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