A Venerable New Church

A lecture commemorating the founding of St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Presbyterian Church in Wellington, New Zealand

By Lloyd Geering
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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 3
May – June 2017
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Today we celebrate 175 years of St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace. Founded in 1840, St. Andrew’s was the first Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, and it has also been distinctive in that it began as an outpost of Presbytery of Edinburgh and remained so for some thirty years before it became part of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

How the world has changed in 175 years! For our forebears in 1840, the Christian view of the world and of human history seemed wholly assured. Only a fool would then have said, “There is no God.” Heaven and Hell were very real places. Jesus Christ was the Saviour of all humankind. The Gospel, as expounded in the 1647 Westminster Confession, was still beyond question. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross to save us from our sins.

All Christians shared this conviction and it gave them the confidence to launch out upon the greatest century of Christian expansion, for it was around 1800 that the great missionary societies were founded. They were so energetic that by 1900 they had adopted as their slogan, “The evangelisation of the world in this generation.” This in turn gave rise after 1940 to the Ecumenical movement. Many of us then hoped it would not be long before there was one great global church.

How different it all is today! The outreach to the whole world, once known as Foreign Missions, has ground to a halt and gone into reverse. The Ecumenical movement has died out altogether. Looking back we can now see that what up to almost 1900 was rightly called Christendom has been disintegrating. The death knell came with the two World Wars, for the first was fought wholly and the second mainly by Christian nations.

During the twentieth century, church attendance declined rapidly. In 1900 the churches were still full, for at least half the people attended on a given Sunday, and youth involvement was strong because the Presbyterian Bible Class Movement was particularly influential. But by 2000 only 8% attended church, and most of them were over 50, for young people were almost completely absent. As a result, many churches have closed, while most others have quite small congregations.

Why is this so? To find reasons we must go back at least to the nineteenth century to discover issues that were not given sufficient attention at the time and to perceive the irony that in the century of greatest worldwide Christian expansion we also find the seeds of the subsequent decay of Christian orthodoxy.

  1. The commonly held view of the cosmos was undergoing radical change. From Galileo to Einstein the traditional (and biblical) three-decker universe, with Earth sandwiched between Heaven and Hell, was gradually losing its power to convince. Even Pope John Paul II had to agree that “Heaven is not a place but a state of mind.” The Biblical story of origins, including its concept of the universe, was replaced by the new story of the space-time universe expanding and evolving ever since the Big Bang over thirteen billion years ago.
  2. Darwin showed us that all life has evolved very slowly over billions of years by natural selection. Far from being half-animal, half-angel, and made in the image of God, we humans are earth creatures who live and die like all the others. And yet many Christians, particularly in the United States, still appeal to the Bible and flatly refuse to accept this new knowledge.
  3. The attempt to defend traditional beliefs on biblical grounds is no longer valid. The nineteenth-century revolution in biblical scholarship showed that the Bible was not the eternal Word of God, but a collection of humanly written books whose authors were just as fallible as ourselves, for along with the wisdom we inherit from them are signs of both their prejudices and their ignorance.

As a result of these three factors, traditional Christianity is now sadly outdated. A major reason is that life after death is no longer universally expected. Notice how the funeral service has changed in the course of the century. In 1900 it was still regarded as a send-off to the next world, highlighted by the “sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life.” By 2000 it was likely to be the celebration of a worthy life that had come to an end, and the service often led by a lay person.

Moreover, the mental image of God as a supernatural but personal being who cares for us like a father and to whom we can appeal in our prayers was beginning to lose persuasive power. That kind of God no longer comported with our mental picture of the universe. By 1960 even theologians were speaking of the ‘Death of God’.

How did the church respond to these radical changes? A few in the church, especially those in theological academies, tried to respond positively. They became the liberals and were quite influential between about 1880 and 1940. Even so, the majority in the pews did not keep up with what the liberals were saying; they either were not told or simply shut their eyes to what was happening around them, held on to orthodox Christian beliefs, and thus may be called the traditionalists. From 1915 onward the hardline conservatives among them began to fight back and reject all liberal thought, including the new biblical scholarship. They became known as the fundamentalists.

In 1925 Kirsopp Lake, a biblical scholar of international fame, wrote a book, The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow, in which he said that the denominations into which the Christian church had become divided no longer represented the real divisions among Christians. The real differences, he said, cut right across the denominations, and he classified them into three groups.

  • First there were the experimentalists, among whom he numbered himself. These were Christians who were trying to reconcile their Christian experience with the rapidly expanding body of new knowledge and revise their beliefs accordingly.
  • Second were the traditionalists. They sympathised with the experimentalists, but believing they had gone too far, sought to preserve more of the traditional beliefs and practices.
  • Third were the fundamentalists, who believed the Bible to be inerrantly true and therefore rejected any change.

Then Lake made an amazing prophecy. He said that in the long run the experimentalists would be pushed out of the church, and then the traditionalists would under pressure slide back into the fundamentalist camp. The church would shrink from left to right with the fundamentalists finally triumphant.

That is exactly what has happened in New Zealand and to varying degrees elsewhere. The Presbyterian Church has not only shrunk in numbers, being about one-third the size it was fifty years ago, but it has become much more conservative. In the last twenty years, for example, Knox College Theological Hall has been replaced by the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. This provides practical training for mission but no longer promotes theological enquiry as it used to. My teacher, John Dickie, defined theology as “Christian experience thinking itself out and relating itself to all other knowledge.” Apparently our national church has found that too tall an order and is content to proclaim the traditional doctrines.

St. Andrew’s has lived through these changes and tried to respond to them. It too has declined in numbers, but it has tried to remain in the liberal wing of the church. That is why we recently identified ourselves with what has been called Progressive Christianity. You could say we are among Kirsopp Lake’s experimentalists. We continue to draw spiritual sustenance from our Christian past, but in a way that is consistent with our general knowledge as citizens of the twenty-first century. Many of us are members of St. Andrew’s because here we are free to have our own thoughts and are not constrained by traditional doctrines.

This does not mean we all think alike. We happily allow others the freedom we seek for ourselves. I imagine there is a great variety of Christian belief among us, though to be sure I can speak only for myself.

How do I understand God, after the ‘death’ of the God traditionally conceived as the Heavenly Father? For me ‘God’ is a symbolic term and not the name of a supernatural being. It gathers up all of the supreme values that I feel bound to respond to: honesty, justice, compassion, love, fair play. Even the Bible hints at this when it says, “God is love.”

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For me God is not the Creator who fashioned the world in six days or set off the Big Bang. God is not a personal being who creates or acts on the world. God is the process of creativity itself, an activity that permeates the expanding universe, that impels the onward march of life, that is present in us and enables us to be creative.

And of course just as God is present in each of us, God was in Jesus of Nazareth; but that does not make Jesus the only Son of God and Saviour of the world. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and prophet, and a man of his time. Because we live two thousand years later we know a great deal more about the world than he did. Yet we can still learn much from him about how to live our daily lives. Have we managed to love our enemies yet?

As a gathering of his followers, we at St. Andrew’s are committed to assist one another to do just that, along with practising the many other ethical insights that he left us in his short life.

I believe that as citizens of the twenty-first century secular world we must abandon the outmoded supernatural structure that has too long constrained us. But unlike the militant atheists and secularists of our time, we must be grateful for our cultural past and bear witness to the values we have inherited from those who have gone before.

What we do here on Sundays used to be called worship. It still is if you go back to the etymology of the word: ‘worthship’. We participate in a ceremony or drama which expresses what we deem to be of great worth to us.

The Sunday Service is also called the liturgy, a word derived from the Greek meaning ‘the actions of the people’ because it describes the way we recharge our spiritual batteries so that we can play our part in God’s work by participating in the creativity that permeates the universe. Here too we celebrate our togetherness. But we need to create new and even more appropriate forms of liturgy to express this.

I have just finished reading a new book by Don Cupitt, a radical and creative Christian thinker who has more than once spoken in this church. He calls it Creative Faith and finds two modern examples of the creative principle in Nelson Mandela, the inspiring founder of the new South Africa, and Martin Luther King Jr., the American anti-segregation leader. Cupitt takes up King’s now famous phrase, “I have a dream,” and strikingly says, “Jesus had a dream— he called it the Kingdom of God.”

Our life together here at St. Andrew’s is a work of creativity. It is promoting the dream that Jesus spoke of as the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a work in progress. May that work long continue and bear much fruit! 4R

Photo of Lloyd Geering

Lloyd Geering was Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington until his retirement in 1984. He is the author of many books, including Reimagining God (2014).

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