Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Day

Called South contingent at Oihi, Christmas day. Nothing if not colourful.
On Christmas day our family goes to church. Then we retire home for a lunch of everybody's favourites; a sort of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Kiwi antipasto. Then we open presents before cooking an evening Christmas Dinner. So the routine today went exactly according to schedule except the context was a little unusual.

To go to church we returned to Oihi, travelling across the hills of Northland to arrive around 10 for the 11 am service. We walked down the now familiar path to join the few hundred people who had already gathered. The forecast for the day was rain but the day was mercifully overcast and dry. Behind us a long queue of people walked in a snaking line down the hillside, carrying camp chairs and umbrellas and picnics in bags and boxes and baskets. I joined the other bishops, changed into the convocation robes which had been lent to me by Ross Bay (Mine being the one thing I had forgotten to pack when I left Dunedin)and waited for worship to begin. In the water 20 or so small craft sat at anchor with one or two still arriving.

The service was broadcast on TV One, so timing was exact. On the dot of 11:00 Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Ross Bay welcomed the crowd, by now about 2000 or so strong, in Maori and English. Then followed a simple but powerful service. There were readings from Marsden's journals describing the original event of 200 years ago. The Bible passages  used by Marsden were read and Philip Richardson preached a very good sermon. Samuel Marsden, the great - great - great - eponymous grandson of the original missionary, addressed us briefly. We prayed and sang Christmas carols. I've never much liked the New Zealand carol, Te Harinui (not least for the fact that when most people sing it they mispronounce harinui [great rejoicing] as haranui [great blasphemy]) but today to be singing of the bay and the grassy ground and the summers day as we stood in the very bay, on the very grassy ground on a summer's day, albeit a different one, was quite moving. We finished exactly on schedule at 12:30, a pretty remarkable achievement on behalf of the planners and Jayson Rhodes who was producing.

I was so glad to be there. The hillside was filled with people, most of them Christian of various denominations but a few were not. There were flags flying: tino rangatiratanga, the Yorkshire flag flown by the large contingent of the Marsden family who were there, and, oddly, the Israeli flag. And in it all Jesus was proclaimed.  The mood was gentle, positive, glad, friendly, as you might expect from people who had all travelled to be there, some a very long way indeed, and who were looking forward to the service and a picnic on the grass and maybe a swim in the bay. But there was something else as well.

Everyone at Oihi bay this morning was a pilgrim. All had sacrificed to be there. All had made a difficult journey of some sort. And there was a strong sense of the enormity, of the importance of the occasion. I felt like we were on holy ground. Holy places are sometimes chosen because they are naturally numinous. They are places where the curtain between this world and eternity is somehow thinner than elsewhere. Sometimes though, holy places become holy because they are the sites of repeated hopes and prayers and expectations of many people. Oihi Bay is a spot originally chosen as the site for the first mission for political and practical reasons. But now its significance to the social and spiritual history of our nation is increasingly causing it to be a place of pilgrimage and thus to be the goal of hopeful and prayerful journeys. It is rapidly becoming a very holy place indeed. For me it is an evocative, welcoming, challenging, healing place that sits alongside other more popular sites - Waitangi, Turangawaewae, our cathedrals, for example -and, though long forgotten,  perhaps now is beginning to surpass them.

We didn't stay for a picnic. Clemency, Catherine and I walked up the track to our car. We drove back to Waitangi for hummus and pickles and olives and cheese and delicious bread. We opened presents from each other. We skyped our family. We cooked Christmas dinner, pretty darned successfully if I may say so myself, in the caravan stove. We walked a kilometer or two along the golden sand beach under the pohutakawa trees then watched an episode of Outlander. A Christmas day just like any other, and yet, totally unlike any we had ever experienced before.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Intentions

Lately, as I wander round the birthplace of our nation, and look at the sites once inhabited by those who first bought the Christian Gospel to these shores I have been reading a book by a Buddhist nun. Tenzin Palmo is an Englishwoman, one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Buddhist nun, who spent 12 years in seclusion, living in a cave in the Himalayas. She has authored many books, and Reflections on a Mountain Lake is a collection of her retreat addresses. It is a wise and profound book aimed at giving practical advice on living a Buddhist life in the circumstances in which one might find oneself. As long term readers of this blog know, I have a longstanding interest in Buddhism, fostered by the various members of my family who have chosen that particular spiritual path; but the value of Reflections on a Mountain Lake has been the light it casts on my own Christian walk.

I was greatly helped by Tenzin Palmo's explanation of the doctrine of karma. I hope I'm not putting words in her mouth, but how I now understand it is this:

Every action we take has consequences for our life which extend for years, even decades into the future. So I sit in the library of the University of Canterbury in October 1972. I am meant to be studying but I am distracted by the very beautiful girl from my English class who keeps looking my way and then glancing quickly away when I catch her eye. There is growing between us that sort of tentative, hesitant, exciting knowing which signals that if I was to approach her she might not necessarily reject me. So, late one afternoon while she was away at dinner, and before I left for home, I placed a note on her desk. As a direct consequence of that small action she is seated, 42 years later, eight feet away from me in the caravan in which I am writing this, and one of our three children is seated even closer. Or years after this, I am offered a job by the bishop of another diocese. Neither I nor Clemency want the role. But it is an important position in the church, and I am told that only I (Me! Wow!) can do it. Then, just before Christmas, without properly consulting Clemency I ring the bishop and accept it. The next few years turn out to be a time of difficulty for several members of our little family, with painful consequences which have continued, even to the present day. So these small choices made have led to pathways which we are still following, decades later.

Our whole life, the situation we are living right now, is a direct result of the myriad actions we have taken in our past. Our future as it develops will be a factor of the actions we are taking now. This is karma. There is no way of knowing the effect our actions are going to have on us down the line. Some of our actions will do us good; that is they will move us closer to that great goal which is the intended end of our presence here on this planet. Some of our actions will do us harm; that is they will hinder our growth into the being we are intended to be. At first glance, it might seem that whether our actions will harm or help is all rather arbitrary and just comes down to the luck of the draw. But actually this is not so. What will ultimately decide how our actions play out in our lives is the intentions with which we make the choice to do them.

We can have wholesome or unwholesome intentions. The difference between these can be discerned according to three broad parameters:
1. Is our intention loving or hateful? That is, do we intend benefit or harm to ourselves or others?
2. Is our intention generous or greedy? That is, are we wishing to give to others and enrich them or are we adding to the stockpile of things (pleasures, experiences, objects, power, security, relationships) which we imagine (almost certainly erroneously) will lead to our happiness?
3. Are we acting in wisdom or delusion? Do we really understand ourselves, the world, and our relationship to both these things?

I know I have greatly simplified this, but when our intentions are wholesome - that is, loving, generous and/or wise - they will tend to enhance us and move us further towards our destiny. When our actions are unwholesome -that is, hateful, greedy and/or deluded - they will restrict and damage us and hinder our deep progress. The wages of sin is death, says St. Paul. Yes, precisely. Of course our intentions can be largely unconscious to us, which is why wisdom is perhaps the most important parameter of these three. And of course our lives will be shaped by the intentions of others and by many other factors outside of our own control; but whether the various catastrophes, inevitable as a consequence of having sentience, build us up or destroy us will depend on our attitude to them. And our attitude will be defined, by and large, by our intentions. In the Eastern paradigm the playing out of our intentions extends far beyond our present life, having an influence on the way we will live our next life and the many lives which will follow it. In the Judaeo Christian paradigm, while we might not necessarily subscribe to the idea that we will live more than one life, we agree that our choices and the actions which flow from them will have eternal consequences.

I have found the idea of wholesome and unwholesome intention a useful tool for thinking about my own actions down over the years and about the consequences of those actions. I have also been thinking about tomorrow, Christmas day. I think of the intentions of Mary saying "yes" to the angel Gabriel. I think about the intentions of Jesus to resolutely and fearlessly proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. I think about the intentions of those he faced, and how, despite the great evil inflicted by the powers that be, Jesus' wholesome intentions, and Mary's, prevailed and forwarded the purposes of God.

And as I go back to Oihi tomorrow morning, I will reflect on Marsden's intentions. And Ruatara's. And those of Kendal and Hall and King. And of how mixed they all were, but of how the presence of a thousand diverse people on the beach tomorrow is a sign, to me at least, that they were predominantly wholesome. Good karma. Good news.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Rangihoua Heritage Park

Today was the day the Rangihoua Heritage Park was being opened and the ceremony began at 10:00 am. The new park comprises Oihi Bay and the hill above it. It has a track and very beautifully conceived and executed series of signs, spaced around the park, telling the story of the first missionary settlement in New Zealand. 

We gathered in the foyer of the Copthorne at 8:00 am to pool cars, then set off in convoy 15 minutes later for Oihi Bay. It was longer than I remembered it to be, but after about 50 minutes driving on narrow roads, sometimes sealed and sometimes not, we found a paddock on a hillside to park and a bus to take us the last kilometre up to the new interpretive centre.

There were already a couple of hundred people there, and I realised how badly prepared I was. They had camp chairs and bottles of water and umbrellas. I had a pilgrim's staff, though I had remembered to bring a sunhat. The new interpretive centre, basically a great sweeping roof with three walls set on a hillside and with a wide opening looking down to the valley below it, is called Rore Kahu - Soaring Eagle. Over the next hour or so more people arrived, until, by the time the Governor General and official party were called on just after the official starting time, somewhere around two thousand had gathered.

Clemency, Catherine and I found seats amongst the manuhere. There were a dozen or so speakers all told, none of whom were brief. The sky was slightly overcast and the air heavy and hot. I was glad to be under the marquee. A Pentecostal pastor began the korero, and he set a good tone. Maggie Barrie, minister of conservation and heritage spoke wittily and cleverly and managed a 15 minute talk commemorating the arrival of the first missionaries without once mentioning the church. Quite an achievement. Chris Finlayson, Attorney General and a convinced Catholic gave the best speech of the day by far. He spoke of the various important world events that had occurred in 1814, setting the events of Christmas Day in their global context. He spoke of the positive role of the church in the development of New Zealand's culture and challenged us to be more confident, more assured in what we proclaim. The archbishops (three of ours and one Australian) lead a brief liturgy of blessing, then The Governor General cut the ribbon and we all filed through the interpretive centre, tramping the house in true Maori style.

Then we walked the kilometre or so of track down to the bay. There were a dozen of so yachts moored under the shadow of the pa. A speaker system had been set up and there was a varied program of entertainment: a young kapa haka group, and a young woman with extraordinary guitar skills. I walked up the hillside and stood again on the places where those three little houses had once stood. The sun was by now relentless and the way back up the hill steep. We walked back to the top of the hill, caught the bus to our car, then drove to an excellent lunch at a cafe called The Rusty Tractor in Kerikeri.

So now Oihi Bay is a heritage park, perhaps it will stop being the most important unknown site in our brief history as a nation and take the place it deserves in our national consciousness. It is a truly holy place; a fitting destination for pilgrimage.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Road to Oihi - Waitangi

It's about three hours drive from Orewa to Waitangi. The road is winds up and down and around a series of small hills, through rural service towns and a lot of forests. Us Otago people play spot the kauri, getting points for every one seen, the way other people might do for Christmas trees or garden gnomes. Cloud cover was low, so on some of the higher hills we were driving through it, dark green native bush hazy in the fog. The rain was falling quite heavily when we arrived here around 2:00pm.

A number of Anglicans have gathered for the service tomorrow. Our three archbishops are here, as are a few of our diocesan bishops as well as Archbishop Philip Freier from Melbourne representing the Australian church. I noticed a fairly good contingent of Baptist clergy, and there will be representation from most of the other major denominations. As I write this the sound of rain on the roof is loud and constant. I understand the locals have laid on umbrellas for us.

I could have got to London more quickly than it took to get to Waitangi. Never before have I travelled so far to come to church but I sat at dinner tonight talking to Joy Freier, wife of Archbishop Philip, who has actually come further. The conversation was about the declining strength of the Anglican church in parts of Australia and New Zealand, about the ceaseless interest in and depth of experience of spiritual things in the general community and about the disconnect between these phenomena. At Oihi Bay our nation first began to form itself and that formation had its base in the Christian Gospel. I thought of the struggle of those three little families perched in their tiny white cottages above the swamp, struggling daily to reconcile their own assumed culture, Tikanga Maori, and the faith which had led (or driven?) them across the globe. I thought of how they had succeeded and of how they had so spectacularly failed. With all the vast changes wrought by two centuries, still the issues remain, and responsibility for them, at least in one tiny corner of the vineyard, has been passed to me. Perhaps that's why I'm here, where it all began.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Road to Oihi - Orewa.

I have nothing much to write about today. No great thoughts. No particular insights.

The Arahura was running late this morning. Someone left the lights on and they had to push start it. But we got underway at about 7:00, only half an hour late, and with Cook Strait absolutely dead flat the captain had managed to make up almost all of the lost time by the time we got to Wellington.

Bridget and Scott travelled with us as far as Wellington. We settled into a group of seats conveniently near the play area but Noah saw the stairs, and knew they must lead to somewhere and that the somewhere was no doubt pretty awesome. "Stairs, stairs" he repeated until I carried him up them. So he and I stood alone in the fresh Southerly and took in all the spectacular excellence (Truck! Water! Birdie! Boat!) until the ship began to move and the scene became the most astonishing thing he had seen in his life. His little head rested on mine, cheek to cheek, my eyes looking out beside his and for a few minutes I saw as he was seeing.  This apparently solid enormity on which we stood was gliding away from the trucks and boats and birdies.  Amazing! Jesus told us to become like little children, by which he meant, I think,  doing what Noah taught me to do this morning: let go of all accustomed ways of seeing things and interpreting them in order that we might see them as they actually are. Was it us moving, or was it the land? Good question, Mr. Einstein.

It was a busy trip. Then, at Wellington, Clemency and I drove off alone into a drizzly Horowhenua. We crawled along the clogged two lane road which is the main egress from our capital city til we  cruised ever faster over the hills and through the valleys. I had forgotten how pretty Hunterville is, and Taihape. We stopped at a rural cafe somewhere and then Clemency did a little shopping in Taupo while I sweltered. Jeans? A shirt AND a T shirt? What was I thinking?  A few years in Dunedin and we had forgotten just how much warmer is the climate in the North of the country. We took the shortcut across the Hauraki Plains, avoiding Hamilton, picked up Catherine from Central Auckland and arrived here in Orewa just before 9; about 15 hours after we left last night's stopping place.

We've driven all these roads before but apart from the section through the Waikato none of it is so redolent with memory as yesterday's drive up the South Island. But although it might not always look like Otago, it does look like home. Driving slowly, pulling over sometimes to allow the accumulated queue of traffic behind us to overtake, stopping to look at craft shops or to buy coffee, it all looked new, fresh, green and indescribably beautiful. To see it all again and see it as if for the first time. This was Noah's gift to me' a gift which lasted far after I had reluctantly waved him goodbye; a gift which transformed my whole day.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Road to Oihi - Picton

We got away a little later than planned, 8:45 am instead of 6:00 but there was a lot to do. Packing for instance. Parking the cats. That sort of thing. This week had been pretty busy, what with one thing and another and most of yesterday afternoon was occupied with our annual Christmas party for clergy and families. Clemency, Bridget, Scott Noah and I spent the afternoon in company with these lovely people and got home very late in the afternoon. We were tired. We had plenty of time in the morning. We went to bed.

So this morning we hooked up the caravan, packed a toothbrush and a change of shorts and headed North. It started to rain when we were on the Kilmog, and was sunny again by Timaru. So it alternated, wet and dry all day long. We stopped for coffee in Oamaru and for lunch in Rakaia. We got fuel in Amberley and had a lovely dinner at a quaint restaurant on the Kaikoura coast before arriving here in Picton about 7:45. We'll park up here for the night before boarding the ferry at 6:30 am tomorrow.

This whole journey is along roads so familiar to both of us and so laden with memory that it is a kind of temporal pilgrimage through the shadows and memories of many decades. We travelled through my diocese and then through my first parish, past the house where our children were babies. Then northwards through the town I was born in, and across the Canterbury plains which I have traversed by car and foot and bicycle and train and motorcycle on trips with a thousand intentions. Skirting Christchurch we followed the coast road. It's been a very long time since either of us has driven North along the Kaikoura road, but tracing our route through the familiar little towns, up through the Hunderlees and into the tawny hummocks of Marlborough there were memories at every turn. There was a time when we made that drive many times a year to visit families and to visit each other and to return to work or study. There was the spot where Rob Lepper and I used to fish for paua, sleeping rough in the back of Rob's Hillman van. There was the patch of winding hilly road where I once raced a car on my Suzuki Titan, badly misjudging a corner and careening precariously around it with a comet of sparks showering from the downhill foot peg (The car conceded at that point). There was the little church where Clemency and her friend Sue sheltered from rain when they made their grand tour of the country by motor scooter. There was the rocky coastline and the mountains and the tunnels and the seagulls and the seals. Awesome. Yes, really. And tomorrow the ferry. Last time I was on the ferry was December 1998 when I was driving South to become Vicar of Roslyn.

It is all so rich and deep and lovely, this land and the life God has gifted me. I am so grateful for it all.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Last Leg

Bay of Islands. Shot taken from the same boat that will transport us to Oihi Bay

On Thursday at 6 am we'll be leaving for the Bay of Islands. We're crossing with the caravan on the 6:30 am Ferry from Picton to Wellington on Friday and, on Friday night, we should be in Auckland  where we'll meet Catherine, newly arrived from England. We'll be in Waitangi on Saturday and take part in the service at Oihi Bay on Sunday morning. Then there is the most leisurely lead up to Christmas I will have experienced since 1979, before we are part of the huge gathering at the Marsden Cross on Christmas Day.

This is the last leg of our Diocesan Pilgrimage. In this last fortnightof Advent we will complete by car the journey we made by foot and bicycle way back in Lent. It's important for me to carry Te Harinui to Waitangi and to Oihi Bay.

I am so looking forward to being on the open road with the whole length of the country before me; to see my lovely girl again; to be in the Bay of Islands and to see old and dear friends. More so, I want to be there and carry my diocese to this once in a lifetime celebration; to acknowledge Marsden and Ruatara and the three vulnerable little families, the Kendals, Halls and Kings, who, 200 years ago,  made such an extraordinary act of courage and faith.

But before then there is so much to be done. There is the family Christmas stuff - presents and cards and letters - which I haven't even begun to think about yet. There are some pressing diocesan matters; I'll be spending most of the day at my computer. There is the rest of the years work to be shoehorned into the next five days as well as preparing the house for those who will be here and packing the caravan and planning for an as yet undecided route home.

 We'll meander from Waitangi to Wellington visiting various friends and relatives, cross Cook Straight on New Years Eve, spend some time in Nelson where my sister has lent us her lovely house and then home via the West Coast (?) a week or so into January, to be ready for my first diocesan appointment of the year, in Lawrence on the 11th.

 Stewart Island, March 13 2014

Marsden Cross, our destination for Christmas Day

Friday, 12 December 2014

Stereo

My phone is linked to my car stereo by bluetooth. When I get in and start the car my stored music and podcasts play in a randomly selected private programme which is sort of of a combination National Radio, Concert Radio, AndHow FM, and Classic Hits FM. I'm amazed at how often this seemingly random mix comes up with exactly the right track at exactly the right time. Over the last couple of days, for example it has twice played me David Whyte reading his poem The House of Belonging, which sums up SO exactly where I find myself.

"this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
"

I lie in my bed and listen to the house creaking into life. Down the steep stairs my grandson is calling. Papa? Papa?  I look at him and my own eyes look back. He laughs and I laugh back; this is what we do, he and I. My daughter is cooking an egg for him. I make tea and ask about her day. There is no house like the house of belonging.

The House of Belonging

David Whyte

I awoke
this morning
in the gold light
turning this way
and that

thinking for
a moment
it was one
day
like any other.

But
the veil had gone
from my darkened heart
and
I thought

it must have been the quiet
candlelight
that filled my room,

it must have been the first
easy rhythm
with which I breathed
myself to sleep,

it must have been the prayer
I said speaking to the otherness
of the night.

And
I thought
this is the good day
you could
meet your love,

this is the black day
someone close
to you could die.

This is the day you realize
how easily the thread
is broken
between this world
and the next

and I found myself
sitting up
in the quiet pathway
of light,

the tawny
close grained cedar
burning round
me like fire
and all the angels of this housely
heaven ascending
through the first
roof of light
the sun has made.

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Changes

The prayer of silence, whatever specific form it might take and whatever tradition it is practised in always works from a particular premise: that the truest part of ourselves is found within; and encompassed within that deep part of ourselves is something wiser and older and deeper and better than we are. So I sit in silence. I withdraw from all those things which occupy my everyday life. I try to be as still as possible beside this great well of life and meaning which opens up in the parts of me I am never able to directly observe. When I first started doing this, many, many years ago, I would be engulfed, every time I tried it,  in a sense of peace and wellbeing as I sat beside this deep inner pool; but I have learned to see this experience, attractiveas it is, as a distraction, drawing me away from the pure depths which are my heart's true focus.

Sitting in that place of silence isn't easy. My personality is a complicated web of attitudes and habits and predispositions that don't actually like sitting still for so long, and which conspire to draw me away - back to what they think of as the "real" world, but which I know to be a shadow world of illusion and fantasy and suffering. But with discipline, and by learning a method, it is possible to be still, and, when I do that, something happens. That something isn't conscious and it takes a long time, but as I sit at the edge of the great well of life I am changed. The deep parts of me are healed; old wounds stop weeping and are knit together; long calcified habits and attitudes are dissolved.

I stand up from any session, replace my watch and episcopal ring and glasses and shoes. I pray briefly for myself and for one other person as the Spirit gives guidance. I never feel any different than when I began. But like the tectonic plates shifting beneath a city the great forces which made me and hold me in being are moving. And then, unexpectedly, they shift all at once. It is as though the hard dry parts of me are being soaked and softened. When they have been soaked enough, some of them break away and rise to the surface; they move from my unconscious into my conscious mind and surprise me.

Mostly these things rising to the surface are small and brief. I feel an unexplained descent into tears or laughter, a sudden quick sorrow or anger or obsession as whatever it is briefly passes. Sometimes they are recognisable: I know where they are from and what gave rise to them. Sometimes they are so old and so distorted I have no idea what, or where, or how they arose. And sometimes they are huge. They fill my consciousness and plunge me into unexplained doubts, fears, antagonisms and irrationalities and they take a while to pass. Big or small they are always harbingers of healing. Particularly, they are usually the rising to consciousness of attachments, as these move out of my unconscious mind and away from me forever. None of this is anything to be surprised at or to fear, but it is a reminder that if someone is developing a serious silent practise having a spiritual director who can help with the passage of this inner detritus is essential.

A week or so ago, one of these huge pieces of psychic junk passed from my unconscious, through consciousness and away. A few people were unfortunate enough to know about it. Most didn't. Looking back, I can see that the ennui I felt some months ago with photography and blogging was the foreshadowing of its arrival.

 I had good advice. I watched it go. And awoke this week with a whole slew of longstanding and seriously crippling attachments gone. Last night I lay awake filled with the joy of the healing with which I had been gifted. Filled with gratitude to that great love who is continually calling me into being from that deep still place, beside which I wait, daily, resting in his company.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Sitting Zen

Why do this? Why sit still and watch the thoughts and feelings drift past like the boats on the surface of a stream? It's not easy to find words to explain; to answer the question requires that you do it. But David Whyte has caught something of it; he speaks from another tradition but his words ring true.

SITTING ZEN 
- By David Whyte

After three days of sitting
hard by the window
following grief through
the breath

like a hunter
who has tracked for days
the blood spots
of his injured prey

I came to a lake
where the deer had run
exhausted

refusing to save
its life in the
dark water

and there it fell
to ground
in our mutual
and respectful quiet

pierced
by
the pale diamond
edge of the breath's
listening
presence

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A Fading Voice

I spent the weekend in Central Otago. My caravan was nicely parked in the churchyard of St Andrew's Cromwell, a convenient central point for the various things I had to do. I had a meeting in Queenstown and a lunch in Arrowtown to attend on Friday, and a dinner and service in Cromwell to mark the 140th anniversary of St. Andrew's church. I also had an informal meeting in Ophir, which I'll talk about in a minute.

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.