Thursday, 15 March 2012

Buildings

Buildings have been the overwhelming motif of year so far. Putting them up. Caring for them. Insuring them. Thinking about knocking them down. The problem we have in the Diocese of Dunedin is  a larger number of unreinforced masonry buildings than any other diocese in the country and a decreasing pool of people willing and able to look after them all. Although we weren't directly affected by earthquakes in the past year, we have, like everyone else in the country, been affected by the consequences of Christchurch's disaster in the form of increased insurance premiums and the prospect of seismic strengthening. Our insurers, EIG Ansvar, pulled out of the New Zealand Insurance market at the end of last year and now, nearly four months later, we are still in negotiation with brokers concerning what we are to do next. Over the past few months I have learned more about insurance than I ever really wanted to know, and I won't bore you with it all here other than to state the obvious: we are going to pay a lot more for a lot less from this point on.  We are legally obligated to insure some of our buildings (for example schools and hospitals) and our own statutes require us to insure the rest, at least in the meantime. As far as strengthening goes, it costs a lot to have an engineer take a look and tell us what needs to be done, and then a lot more to actually do it.

Our congregations are many, widely scattered and sometimes very small. Few if any of the members of our diocese were attracted to our church by the prospect of becoming custodians of heritage real estate, but having become part of a group meeting in some interesting pieces of old architecture, most have, up until now, borne their responsibilities diligently.  Over the past many years our buildings have been, for the large part, lovingly and fastidiously maintained. But now faced with the costs involved in strenghtening and insuring, some congregations are starting to blanch. They are asking, quite justifiably, whether these lovely old hunks of stone are really worth the trouble. In real terms, the costs of maintenance and refurbishing is completely beyond the resources of some of  our parishes.

There is no easy way ahead. The building in our care are often valued by communities far wider than our own. They are subject to interest from the Historic Places Trust  and various local bodies. Demolition is not an option, and given the by laws of some regions of our diocese, sale is not practicable either.

It is not all bad news of course. The debate about buildings has caused a much deeper and more wide ranging discussion about the Church: what is it apart from its places of worship? What are we called to be and do? I have been greatly heartened by the consensus that has emerged in every single place where this discussion has been held; that, the Church is a gathering of people, not a pile of bricks, and that we must not allow the issue of where we meet to distract us from the real business of living and proclaiming the Gospel. We are not about to abandon our historic places of worship but neither will we allow their concerns to destroy us.

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Lenten Pilgrimage

A week or two ago I listened to a talk given by Judy Ringland-Stewart about her daily prayer walks. Every day she takes an hour or so to follow a path from the house she shares with John and their children, though the forest, along the beaches and up to the summits of  the Otago Peninsula. These daily walks are a kind of pilgrimage; an engagement with her surroundings as places of wonder and beauty in their own right but also as an encounter with God. There was a sense of passion and integrity and connection about what she was saying that made me immediately think of two things.

Firstly I thought of my own almost daily walks on the same peninsula, albeit on the other side of the harbour. Clemency and I walk whenever we can for all the usual reasons: for the companionship of a shared activity for an hour or so;  for fitness and postponing the inevitable consequences of aging; for the sheer enjoyment of  this ancient, weathered, once was volcano; (the photo at the top of  this post  - and indeed, the one at the top of this blog - was taken on just such a walk). And there is the incidental purpose of preparing ourselves for a return to Spain and the Camino Santiago later in the year.

More significantly, I thought of one of my favourite books: Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard is one of the finest living writers of prose in the English , and one of the joys of this book - and her many others- is in the encounter with the  language superbly handled. But it was her subject matter than Judy brought to my mind.  Written in the very early 70s a still young Dillard describes her daily walks from her home at Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She shows and she eloquently voices an awareness which is uncommon and which is the basis of all artistry and, I think, all spirituality. She captures the natural world around her and reflects on its meaning as she encounters its common, ever present, beauty and savagery. And somehow it is the savagery which is the most demanding and the most demanding of interpretation. It is easy enough to feel a sense of the divine when traversing beautiful landscapes, or when standing on top of glorious mountains or when watching the creation of new life. But walk long enough in the wild world and watch carefully enough and mother nature can seem more like the wicked witch than like snow white.

In a famous passage early in the book, for example, she describes a frog being killed by a giant water bug, and moves from there to a reflection on the presence of a loving creator in a seemingly harsh and dangerous world. She quotes from the Koran a passage in the prophet asks whether we think the Creator made the world in jest? Life is in earnest and asks of us disturbing questions. I admire the fact that Dillard offers no glib answers, but lives with the ambiguity of the world around her as it shapes and changes her.

Which is the stance of the Lenten journey, I suppose. Our daily Lenten pilgrimage is an engagement with the world that lies around us at every hand; and in particular it is an engagement with the unavoidable fact of  life's harshness. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7)  As all pilgrimages reinforce to us, the journey is difficult. Our engagement now is painful and at times uncertain, even as we live in the hope and promise of the coming resurrection.