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Part of the Revolution: St Matthew's and the City

February 15, 2004

Ian Lawton

1 Cor 1:26-29     Luke 6:17-26


Well, what a roller coaster ride the last three years at St Matthew's has been! This is really no surprise in a dramatic building like this and in a church with a long and colorful history. I wouldn't go as far as some who are completely convinced there are ghosts residing on the premises, although of course even ghosts are welcome at St Matthew's.


I have to tell you though, I did get a little spooked here on my first day at work. There was a queue of people wanting to let me know what's what. Amongst my first visitors was a woman who told me that the building had cancer in its fabric, that all who work here get cancer, and that I should get out while I could. That was at 9.05am.


Hot on her heels was the man who told me that legal action was brewing over a choir incident, and that I had better take his side or was I going to burn like all the other spineless priests in this place? That was at 9.15.


There was the woman with face covered who told me that Auckland was the new home to the illuminati, a one world conspiracy of which I was to become a leading opponent. That was at 9.30.


There was the angry young man who arrived with Bible in hand, and asked when I intended to turf the gays out with the dogs where they belonged. That was before 10 o'clock.


There were 15 wedding couples expecting me to meet them then marry them that weekend and half a dozen families wanting baptism for their kids before the day's end.


So I hope you'll understand when I tell you that after walking back home that afternoon, I said to my wife Meg, "Maybe those loony fundamentalists in the church in Sydney aren't so bad after all!"


The first day was to be a taste of life at St Matthew's, always busy and demanding, but with some light moments and with many life changing experiences. Having settled into patterns and established some much needed boundaries on the vicar's role, it turned out to be a most enjoyable three years. For now, I just want to share some of my journey leaving Sydney and being in Auckland, and now contemplating a break out of the Anglican Church after 35 years in it.


The best context is a story some of you have heard, but is worth repeating as it was a defining moment for me. It was an occasion in a meeting of the Sydney Diocesan Synod when I was about 22. I was at the time training for ordination, and not yet a member of the Synod, but went to the meeting for two reasons. 1) It was a special meeting to discuss whether women should be ordained priests and 2) because my dad was to be the speaker in favour of women's ordination, pitted against the now Archbishop of Sydney in a debate.


The general discussion had begun amongst the members who sat in the centre of the packed auditorium. I stood close to the door, jammed hard against the outer onlookers. At a certain point in the debate I felt the presence of someone alongside me. She stood out to me as she clearly had no place in this club with her short cropped hair and suit and tie, and also because there was steam rising off her. She just stood for a moment, then let out a piercing scream which stopped the auditorium dead. Her words lodged in my brain and my psyche that day. She screamed out, "JUST GIVE US A F***ING GO!!"


From within the deafening silence, the club turned as one and looked in my direction, as now the woman had left. After a few awkward moments, they turned back to their notes and the debate resumed as if nothing had happened. In their mind, nothing had happened. She sounded like a nutter, maybe a feminist, possibly a lesbian. After all, this is one of the very much unspoken reasons some people still oppose women's ordination. Women are inherently irrational and unreliable. And yet something almighty had happened, and the inner club would ignore this voice from the edge at its own peril.


I was a young theological student, battling with Calvinism, and toying with liberationism. That day I made a decision. Whatever path my life took in the Church, it would be my choice to remain only ever at the edge of an institution which would just as easily dismiss me as a post modern nutter as the woman in the suit. I would stay there so that I could stand alongside those who the Church will not allow in, give them voice, and walk with the many spirited people who want no more to do with the Church than occasionally glance in from the edges.


I discovered in liberation theology a principle which I carry with me. Economic poverty is not the only form of oppression. Thinking differently, daring to think out loud, daring to expect change, daring to be truly inclusive in such a way as to shatter the whole distinction between sacred and secular, these too lead to marginalization. Having journeyed with this for over a decade, it sits comfortably with me now. It's not cause for martyrdom, the institution is not worth that. On the contrary, it's a place of such freedom and joy that I would want to be no place else.


St Matthew's and churches like it have such an opportunity. You can make up the edge of the Anglican Church here in Auckland and beyond. The irony is that it suits the centre for you to be that. It gives them a diversity of which they can boast, even if they fear the rate of change or the nature of the inclusiveness you pursue.


It suits the centre. It fits with the heritage of this building and its life. It is never more needed in secular Auckland. Some people need to pray in the building. The majority don't. Be St Matthew's for all the city, not just the pious ones. Allow the city to shape St Matthew's. Don't presume to tell the city what's spiritual and what's not.


Its time to get over the Anglican obsession with worship. No-one is doing away with Sunday worship anytime soon, but be realistic about the small numbers of young people in Auckland who need worship these days. Work towards change of the structure, so it's not only Sunday worshippers who have power to change and shape the vision. Enjoy your worship, be free, contextualize what you do. Just don't expect people to come flocking in. The life of St Matthew's has to be so much more than traditional notions of what's sacred.


I had one last listen to the voice mail of the church phones this morning. There was a message from a woman who calmly said she wanted us to know that she thinks holding functions in the church is a sin. There's no doubt that this innovation has pushed boundaries more than any ever in recent times. Yet the good will, the changed perception of the church from young people, young artists and business people has been overwhelming. People are connecting with St Matthew's in new and exciting ways. There will always be a number of people whose piety will make this change uncomfortable, but there are plenty of churches for them. Be bold at the edges of expectation in the interests of those who have no voice in the institution.


Above all else, enjoy the journey. You will have your own roller coaster rides in the future. I wish you well. Martyrs will be no use to anyone. Live out of freedom and imagination.


I consider the new meditation course here on a Sunday morning to be perfect for St Matthew's. It is an excellent foil for the gregarious noisy front St Matthew's must always present. Out of the silence and the stillness will come the joy, the freedom, the imagination for an outrageous belief in revolution. Like the Jesus revolution, it will begin small, and have setbacks but in time it will explode in a tipping point of universal connectedness. It will be disinterested in sectarianism and elitism. It will abhor institutional preoccupation with tradition and process. Rather, out of the belief that all things are connected and sacred, will grow a new spirit of harmony which will save lives and stop wars.


Here in the heart of Auckland is as good a place as any for this revolution to grow roots. I wish you well for the journey.


And as I move to the next stage in my ministry, looking forward, in an election year in the US, to working with a church who have long been pushed to the edge by institutions - after all they would dare to welcome people of diversity - I know many of you wish me well.


I see so many people here this morning who have been important to me. I see wedding couples, and know that this has been part of the revolution. As couples create their own occasion and are not forced to become Anglican to be married here, a small battle is won. I see families I have met through baptisms, and know that this has been part of the revolution. As families create their own moment of affirmation safe that they wont be drowned in paternalism and forced to become Anglican, a small battle is won. I see people that I have met at functions here at the church, and know that this has been part of the revolution. As people respectfully re-imagine the space and ambience of our church, a small battle is won. I see people who have connected through SMACA, and know that this has been part of the revolution. I know that more people will log on to our web site than will gather for worship in any given week, and know that this is part of the revolution. I see people representing community groups who have connected with St Matthew's in some ways and know that this is part of the revolution. I know that people will continue to look to St Matthew's leaders for public comment on behalf of those with no voice, and know that this is part of the revolution.


I thank you the people of St Matthew's for the space you have given me to explore and communicate this vision of revolution. Above all else, this morning, I thank the extended family of St Matthew's for the grace and freedom to recreate myself after coming within an inch of being destroyed by the church in Sydney. For this gift, I will never cease to be appreciative.


Enough from me. Time now for music, more liturgy, some food and farewells, then on with the revolution. We will be friends and co-workers still, just on opposite sides of the globe.


Ian Lawton

Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City (January 2001 - February 2004)

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