Recasting the 21st-century church

In many ways it was fitting, even symptomatic, that an outline of the crisis which the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin faces was posted in a blog. Times change, as do patterns of worship, the place of organised religion in people's lives, and modes of communication.

Occasionally there are also "acts of God", beloved of the insurance industry's exclusion clauses, and although in this country there have traditionally been protections from seismic trauma through the Earthquake Commission, no-one has any doubt that the events of the last 18 months in Christchurch have severely tested its reserves and those of the domestic insurance sector in general.

One of the results of this is the well-publicised rise in premiums for older buildings, buildings with heritage designations, churches and church halls.

While not laying the diocese's woes exclusively at the insurance industry's door, the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, the Rt Rev Dr Kelvin Wright, has certainly pointed to Christchurch as being a catalyst among the various forces which now require, he says, the church to re-evaluate and restructure.

He also identified a long slow fall in "attendances, numbers of families served, and the real level of giving" over many years; he alluded to the economic crisis having resulted in a fall in diocesan investment income; and the requirement to maintain the diocese's 30 parishes and 60 churches and several halls throughout Otago and Southland.

All its churches had to be inspected for earthquake strengthening at a cost of between $1500 and $4000 each; and insurance premiums had increased by about 60%. As Bishop Wright commented,

"Where is that going to come from ... we've got to ask the hard questions. These people go to church for spiritual and social reasons. They did not sign up to be the custodians of historical buildings."

Bishop Wright is not the only one asking the hard questions.

Established churches are all afflicted by falling attendances and rising costs which challenge their very sustainability. And many long-established businesses operating in older buildings face similar problems.

In a perverse way, as Bishop Wright acknowledges, the crisis could have positive spin-offs for churches. It is forcing them to confront historical trends and their own practices.

The opportunity for change should be grasped as a "once-in-a-lifetime chance" to rebuild the diocese, to reshape "an Anglican church that I think is going to be more authentic".

Part of that authenticity might indeed have less to do with the shape or grandeur of the buildings in which the diocese worships; and rather more to do with how a church sees itself and its role in the 21st century, and how it chooses to project that.

For as the bishop has implicitly acknowledged, while earthquakes and insurance have played their part, the critical matter facing not just the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin but traditional churches all over the country and indeed, worldwide, is the search for enduring relevance.

Some of the newer "charismatic" churches are less constrained by formality and superficially at least might seem more welcoming. Others, which preach more rigorous scripture-based moral interpretations, and require generous and compulsory tithing from their flocks, equally seem able to find audiences.

It is somewhat ironic that as the focus falls on the budgetary crisis facing some churches, others seem ready to expand.

The Destiny Church, for example, is announcing grandiose plans for not just a new church but an entire new "city of God" in south Auckland.

Bishop Wright is to be congratulated for confronting and publicising the problems his diocese faces while there is still some "wiggle room"; and also for the optimistic and positive vision he appears to have for the re-evaluation processes ahead.

These might include a genuine look at worship, the language in which it is conducted and the means by which the community of the church is enjoined, "connected" and enriched.

In today's world, temples to material well-being, in their manifold variations, abound.

The spiritual and the social dimensions are not so well catered for, and it is in this realm that the churches, however they choose to recast themselves, have a critical role to play.

After all, when it comes to the actual buildings, God does not dwell in temples built by human hands.


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