A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
An Affront to Mediority
May 1, 2005
Easter 6 Centennial Sunday 1 Pet 3:13-22 John 14:15-21
This building is an affront to mediocrity. It stands here, representing the beauty of the Gothic tradition, an English transplant, constructed in southern stone, in the midst of an antipodean city.
We, New Zealanders, haven't built many churches like this. They're too costly, when our priority is people. They're too time-consuming, when our time is precious. They're too 'old country' when our theology is increasingly grounded in this country.
This place is an affront to prudence. It is an affront to utilitarianism, and modernism. It is an affront to the belief that buildings don't matter, only what happens within them.
But some things don't happen without an iconic building.
Icons are physical objects. But spiritually they are windows. By looking we see through into the expanse and mystery of God. They stretch and expand our vision. They invite us to imagine the unimaginable.
St Matthew's was built on a ridge with the commercial centre of Auckland on one side and some of the city's poorer housing on the other. Right from the beginning it has had an eclectic and interesting congregation of different social classes. Right from the beginning it was on the edge of two rather different worlds - one of business and one of poverty, one of social prominence and one of agitating for social change. And my predecessors were mostly generous and opinionated characters - with a thespian touch - who related to both sides of the fence but never sat on it.
Indeed while the media and methods have changed over the century the message is remarkably consistent. We offer spiritual hospitality, a holy place - open to all. We engage in, and educate for, social change in a number of areas - currently discrimination against gay and lesbian people, poverty in NZ, and just relationships between Maori and Pakeha. Through our on-line facilities we support and promote progressive ideas about God and life around Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas. Undoubtedly, hopefully, the issues will change, but our commitment to a life-enhancing, justice-centred spiritually won't. Open hospitality both defines us and challenges us.
The reading from John's Gospel, read at the consecration service in 1905, is an interesting one. It is part of a conversation between the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus, and a Samaritan woman with an ambiguous marital history. This is a contentious, and forbidden, dialogue that crossed boundaries of gender, morality, race, and religion. Jesus and the woman were breaking the rules - this woman was considered a heathen, immoral foreigner. Jesus' disciples were shocked when they discovered them.
Grace has little regard for rules. Jesus broke them regularly. Bishops have despaired over our tendency to do likewise! This is not because that we're antinomian. Rather it's because grace leads us into relationship, relationship into passion, and passion into protest. Rules are made to suit people, not people to rules. We are here, a spiritual holy place, to meet, engage with, and inevitably be changed by the so-labelled heathen, immoral, and foreign.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman talked about worship. The Jewish holy site was Mt Zion. The Samaritan holy site was Mt Gerizim. How important are holy sites, honoured traditions, and wonderful buildings? The text says that God is spirit - a life-giving power - that is not constrained by localities, traditions, or buildings. As I said, an interesting text for the consecration of this building 100 years ago!
It was a prophetic text. We have lived into it. The Spirit is bigger than any building or human construct. Grace is more potent than our best managerial brew. The art of following this God is to be open to the unexpected and uncomfortable. It is not an anti-building text, as long as we don't try to shut God up inside.
This place was almost shut down forty years ago. It badly leaked. Bits fell off it - so much so that a wire fence had to be around the exterior. Bishop Gowing told the then vicar, Maurice Russell, that he might have the unhappy experience of seeing St Matthew's demolished. Maurice took this news to the vestry who responded, "Over our dead bodies!" To add insult to injury, the proceeds from the sale would have gone to finance the new cathedral in Parnell. It wasn't however until the 1990s that a full restoration was undertaken, led by the vicar Peter Beck, and wonderfully aided by the City community.
We worship today in a building full of the memories of people and times past, full of stories, spirit, and passion, and full of the hope that the future, though always uncertain, will be not be marked by mediocrity or prudence, but by an engaging, invigorating spirituality. And it will never be boring.