Departed Grandeur

Back in the days when Dunedin was the wealthiest city in the country we built ourselves a Railway station in a style befitting a city of our importance. This grand, heavily ornamented, expensive building in bluestone with limestone accents

was similar in construction and style to many other buildings of the time: the law courts, the banks and commercial buildings. The exterior boasted a tall clock tower,

and the interior was resplendent with mosaic floors and stained glass windows.

As a small boy in Dunedin, I often queued with my family to purchase passage on steam trains to Christchurch or Timaru at the ticket booths that looked like shrines.

For about a hundred years the Railway Station was a temple to progress as it was expressed in the greatest and most powerful technologies known: steam, and then oil. Today technologies have moved elsewhere: out to the airport and into people's garages and onto people's desktops. The trains have stopped running, but the station remains. The ornate building, recently restored, is now home to only one working train: the Taieri Gorge railway, a tourist operation making a daily run up through the Maniatoto. The station has become a photo opportunity, a home for a sports hall of fame and for a good restaurant, and the place where our Saturday morning farmer's market is held. The station has outlived the hopes and the convictions of grandeur that were expressed in it but remains as a beautiful reminder of a bygone age and it's values.

Three of the station's contemporaries in terms of era and values also remain in downtown Dunedin: St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Matthews Church and All Saints Church.

All are within a mile of each other and each is about to begin fundraising to raise the million plus dollars necessary to perform essential maintenance long neglected over the years. As the membership of our diocese dwindles, we, the remnant, are left to restore the spiritual self assertions of our forbears. As someone who has recently helped raise a horse chokingly large wad of cash to restore an antique ecclesiastical building, I wish the respective congregations every blessing on the long but interesting struggle ahead of them. As trustees of these prayers in stone we can't neglect the duty of maintaining them, but even as we follow our unavoidable duty, we need to ask ourselves whether or not the trains have stopped running? Has the spirit moved on, to find expression in places other than these beautiful old buildings?


daniel said…
With peak oil upon us it may not be long before the trains run again. And as consumerism grinds to a halt I often wonder to where the people will (re)turn.
Anonymous said…
A year or two back I found myself wondering if the church is not about God but itself. I recognise the need to define my terms, I use "church" as both people and building (which is no definition at all). Have we Christians been so successfully seduced so that we are about ourselves? God is really nice and we talk about God sometimes, and even Jesus occasionally, but the bottom line of church is meeting our friends in a building we know and like (and think we own), singing songs we like, catching up after not seeing in a week, etc.

I read my own sentence and am not happy with the implied accusation. Of course not all Christians, or all Anglicans, at all times and in all places. I press on:

'Is the church really about itself?' became a worry or wondering that wouldn't go away.

The recent Lambeth / Gafcon dispute did nothing to help my worry. The dispute was, after all, a question of who was fit to exercise leadership in (around we go again) the church.

If I was contacted by any of the parishes you refer to would I contribute? I might. But first I would put hard questions to myself and find satisfactory answers. I would want to be very sure this church building was about God, and getting the Good News about God 'out there'. I am not going to contribute five cents toward someone else's clubhouse.

Before contributing I need to know what that parish values. To do that I would not listen to or read the words of any sermon. I would skip over eloquent prose ending with 'Amen'. To determine what the parish is about I would study the decisions made by that parish in the last, say, five years. And, more important, if I could get at it I would go to some trouble to determine which arguments 'won the day' and created the decision.

Get behind the decisions that are made and especially the criteria for the successful argument, and we know if the church is about God or something else; and worthy of our support.
Bill Schroeder
VenDr said…
I share your concern Bill. The first duty of any organisation is to survive - it's not able to perform its intended function if it doesn't survive - but perhaps we have got so enmeshed in our own survival that surviving is all we do. In terms of opportunities for the Gospel, all these buildings are very strategic assets. The Cathedral has the best commercial site in the city - and soon it will be the only building in the Octagon that is not a bar or cafe. All Saints has a very visible building right on the campus of the University. If these buildings are ruined old derelicts they make a certain statement to the world. If they look well maintained, comfortable and inviting they make another kind of statement.

I know that since we spent some money on St. Johns we have increased the usage of the building enormously - both in terms of ministry that we ourselves are offering and the usage of the facility by community groups. And what is the point of owning a building at all if it is to sit empty most of the week?

From what I've seen of their plans, I know that all the parishes involved see their restoration as a way of increasing the usefulness of their facilities - otherwise it's simply not worth doing.

The question we continue to ask ourselves at St. Johns is whether, despite our very attractive facilities and generally strong attendances, the days of religious observance centred in a set building have passed; how do we make the Gospel a reality to those who see our church building as a nice place for weddings but not much more. Or perhaps, how do we make all that we have - our grounds, halls and church - accessible? How do we use them to minister to those in need of the Word of Life?

And Daniel you're right. Everything becomes redundant in time, even the state of being redundant