The dinner at St. Andrews and the service the next day were a lot of fun. Upper Clutha Parish is in good heart right now, with an exceptionally capable vicar, an exciting project (the Wanaka Community House) well on the way, and a great sense of optimism and growth. The Cromwell congregation is filled with interesting people doing unusual things and boy, do they know how to cook. The little stone church might be deemed an earthquake risk, but it sits as robustly on its footings under the trees as it has done for 1.4 centuries and if it feels threatened it doesn't let on.
The meeting in Ophir was to discuss the future of another solid little stone church, St. Michael's Clyde. St. Michael's is lovely. It also sits under trees with about a half acre of mown grass surrounding it and a little stone wall separating it from the nearby street. It looks out over the Clutha River to the hillside beyond. This beautiful little place of worship lacks only one thing: a congregation. And there's the problem it shares with much of the rural church in Otago and Southland.
It was built in the late 19th Century when churchgoing was at its peak in New Zealand. Back then about 30% of the population attended and it was expected that this state of affairs would continue. Churches were built to reflect the ideals of the age and to provide for future expansion. Now, with attendance nationally about a third of what it was then, many of these little monuments to optimism lie empty and neglected. The decline in church attendance hasn't been uniform; it has been steepest in rural areas because of the astonishing shifts in the social structure of our countryside which have passed largely unremarked by those of us who live in cities - ie most of us.
As our rural economy has shifted from sheep farming and mixed cropping to dairying, viticulture, horticulture and tourism the numbers of people living in rural areas has increased markedly but their patterns of settlement have shifted. Many of the towns which once supported rural churches have declined, sometimes to the point of extinction, while service towns - Queenstown, Winton, Cromwell etc - have grown. The established families have often cashed up and moved out and been replaced with people who have a different relationship to the land and to the local community. Many of the organisations which were the backbone of rural life - Federated Farmers, Women's Institute, The Masonic Lodge, the Mainline Churches - struggle to gain members from amongst the newcomers. Traditional patterns of support and relationship have simply evaporated. As well, the shift in values and understanding which have had such a huge effect on church attendance in the rest of the country have wrought havoc in the rural areas. In many places our churches have held firm against the tide of decline, but while their numbers have been stable, they have not added many, if any, younger members. Congregations have been made up largely of people from the prewar generations, and these have all grown old together, to the point which we have reached right now, where all at the same time many have died or moved into retirement villages in the cities. This demographic factor is the sole reason for our diocese's 12.5% decline in attendances over the past 12 months.Those who do remain are often, through age and infirmity, unable to carry out the work of maintaining these old buildings.
People don't join the church to become curators of historic buildings. But in many of our rural parishes they find themselves, reluctantly, putting more and more resources into doing just that. And so, the people of the Dunstan Parish recently petitioned me for permission to sell St. Michael's, which I gave them. Hence the meeting. The trouble is, St. Michael's is so beautiful. It is so well set on its little plot of land, so peaceful, so solid. It has a columbarium; that is, a place for the internment of ashes. It is unbearable to think of it becoming a private house, or a cafe or being demolished to make way for an apartment block. But how do we retain it when, in truth, it is of no further use to the Anglican Parish? St. Michael's encapsulates the dilemma faced by our diocese in about a dozen places, right now. This pattern is also being repeated in the Presbyterian and Catholic churches. It has already disposed of the rural Methodist church. The holy spaces are set to go, many of them, simultaneously. And I don't know what we can do about that.
In the cities the church is also declining but more slowly, and the pattern is masked because it isn't consistent. The percentage of us attending worship decreases every census, but some churches grow, sometimes dramatically so. While there are encouraging signs of real mission and growth they are rare; what is more usual is that the decreasing pool of Christians moves about amongst the churches, making particular churches lively and buoyant while they are enjoying their period in the sun. But while we compete for the flock in the towns and imagine that the latest ecclesiastical tricks by which we have favoured ourselves in the competition have somehow been blessed by the Holy Spirit, most of us are missing the catastrophe happening in our own backyard: namely that in the next decade, perhaps even the next 5 years, any form of Christian presence is disappearing from large tracts of the New Zealand landscape. What is to be done? Well certainly the fads which gain temporary traction in urban areas aren't going to make any difference. The continuing vibrancy of congregations like St. Andrew's Cromwell demonstrate that with the right leadership and the right sort of care it is possible to preserve and even grow rural churches, but it is precarious.
So what will we do with St. Michael's Clyde? There are some very intelligent, faithful and imaginative people putting a lot of energy into that question right now. But I can tell you what we won't do. We won't keep it and expect a tiny group of faithful elderly people to maintain it and hold services in it a couple of times a month.