St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace has had a rather unusual and even unique beginning, one befitting the name of the first disciple, a man who showed an independent spirit. That has continued, and to some extent, has even become more pronounced in recent times, as I shall now try to show.
My own connection with St Andrew’s, though not of course continuous, covers nearly seventy years. It is 69 years, almost to the day, since I first spoke from this lectern. The church looked different then. In those days the organ filled the apse you see in front of you. In front of it in the centre, and even higher than now, was that pulpit now on the side. Then came the choir and in front of that the communion table.
In 1941 I was appointed to be student assistant for a period of three months to Brian Kilroy, the then minister. My task was to read the lessons each Sunday, conduct services each Sunday morning and evening during his annual holiday and, during the week, pay pastoral visits to as many of the congregation of 300 as I could.
For me it was an excellent period of in-service training. Brian Kilroy was partly paralysed with a stroke and had such poor eyesight that he could not read. He was a first-class preacher. He had a phenomenal memory and prepared his sermons on a Dictaphone. I assisted him in his study nearly every week-day morning. That was when he filled me in on the rather unusual character of St Andrew’s as he saw it, and told me much about his predecessors. He told me that he had agreed to come to St Andrew’s only after he had been assured by the Session that, to use his words, ‘they would give him a free hand’. We need to remember that in those days Sessions contained some of the most powerful men in the community. This one in particular, up until only about twenty years ago, contained some of the leading business men in the city.
It was during my time here that I was first contacted by Jack Somerville, later to become one of St. Andrew’s most influential ministers. (Little did I then know how Jack and I would later be linked together both through St Andrew’s and through Knox College.) Jack asked me if I would look after his then parish of Tapanui to allow him to go overseas as an Army Chaplain. I agreed to do this during 1942, my third year of theological training. Six years later he came to discuss with me whether he should accept the call to St. Andrew’s, partly because he thought I had some knowledge of St Andrew’s and partly because I had recently presented a report to General Assembly which showed that all the inner city parishes were beginning to show decline. Fortunately Jack came to St. Andrew’s in spite of my warning, and under his ministry St Andrew’s experienced its period of greatest strength and national influence in the whole of its history. In the sixties, however, the coming of the motorway took away many of the homes from which it drew its congregation and St. Andrew’s then began to share in the decline already being experienced by all inner city churches.
The decline of St Andrew’s from the once quite full church, twice a Sunday, to what it is now, is due only in a small part to the motorway. As I sit here week by week my mind often turns back to ponder the rapid decline in the churches during the 20th century. The Presbyterian Church of NZ has less than half of the members it had as late as 1970. Why!
During the 20th century the world experienced more cultural and intellectual change than in the previous nineteen centuries. It is as if our understanding of reality has been turned inside out. The Christian culture which pervaded Europe for more than a thousand years looked at the world from inside the Bible. Our forbears viewed reality through biblical spectacles. Indeed, when they drew their maps of the world, they placed the holy city of Jerusalem at the center. It seemed self-evident to all but the fool that the world had been created by God. Time was cut in two- BC and AD – by the coming of Jesus Christ.
Because of the transition to modernity, things are now the other way round; we look at the Bible from the world outside of it. What is more, we can look at Christianity itself from the world outside or what we call the secular world. The word ‘secular’ means the world of here and now. It is a world best understood by modern empirical science. This radical change of perception could not help but subject Christianity to the most serious challenge it has had in its two thousand years of existence.
We may summarise the great variety of response into three categories.
Traditionalists in general, and fundamentalists in particular, refuse to acknowledge that anything of significance has changed. For them it is business as usual. They still look at the world through biblical spectacles and continued to preach the time-honoured Gospel of a God who sent his son to die on a cross that all may be saved. One has only to listen to the TV programme ‘Praise be’ on Sunday morning.
At the other extreme are the secularists who see the church as an outmoded institution. Their attitude to Christianity covers a wide spectrum from outright rejection to a more positive but rather vague acceptance of some of its values. In Europe and Australasia this group has been growing at an accelerating rate..
In between these two extremes there is a third response. These people no longer feel dcomfortable with the Christian tradition in its classical form but believe the secularists are throwing out the baby with the bath water. They accept the secular world for what it is and acknowledge its positive value. However, they continue to draw inspiration from the Christian tradition but claim the freedom to practise their Christian allegiance in new ways – ways that are consistent with modern knowledge.
In recent decades St Andrew’s as a congregation has moved more and more into this last grouping. For example, it mostly sings modern and more appropriate hymns. It showed an independent spirit in declaring itself to be an anti-nuclear church. Under John Murray’s initiative it set up the St. Andrew’s Trust to form a bridge across the growing gulf between the church and secular world. More recently St Andrew’s has become associated with a network of churches affirming what has been called Progressive Christianity.
What is Progressive Christianity? There is no definitive statement of it. If you will excuse the pun, it could be called ‘a work in progress’, for progressive Christianity to be true to itself, it will not only be always on the move but will contain wide diversity within it. As its name suggests, it does not hesitate to draw from the Christian past but it is open-ended, seeks to move on and encourages creative initiative.
To give you an idea of how I see Progressive Christianity, I point you to my book Christianity without God. There are some free copies that those interested can pick up after the service. The three chief features of Progressive Christianity, as I see it, are these:
First, it abandons the traditional image of God as a supernatural being who created the world and continues to control it. It acknowledges that the very concept of God was initially created by the ancient human mind and has undergone a long and varied history since. ‘God’ can now be understood as a symbolic word. In the past it helped us to unify our world and it still refers to the highest values that make a claim upon us. That is why the New Testament says ‘God is love’.
Secondly, Progressive Christianity is more concerned with the historical Jesus of Nazareth than with the Christ mantel with which the early church clothed him. They transformed hum into a divine, superhuman figure that was meaningful in the world as they saw it but is out of place in the way we understand reality today. On the other hand, we can identify with, and listen to, the man Jesus who calls us to love our enemies.
Thirdly, Progressive Christians see Christianity not as a set of beliefs but as a Way of life – a way characterized by love and concern for others. They see the Church, not as a rigid institution, exerting its authority from the top down, but as a fellowship of friends who inspire one another and give one another mutual support and encouragement in walking the Christian Way.
The contrast between traditional Christianity and Progressive Christianity is well illustrated by an event that took place in this church three weeks ago. The St Andrew’s Trust hosted a dialogue between me and the Buddhist teacher, Stephen Batchelor. Noel Cheer introduced us by reference to books we had written. He said, the author of Christianity without God now meets the author of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.
A questioner later asked if this dialogue could have taken place a hundred years ago. To this I replied that a hundred years ago Presbyterians could not even dialogue with Anglicans and Roman Catholics and were sending out missionaries to convert Buddhists and other heathen to Christianity.
It was surprising to find how much in common Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist, and I, a progressive Christian, have in common.
Stephen wrote in his book:
‘Buddhism has become for me a philosophy of action and responsibility. It provides a framework of values, ideas and practices that nurture my ability to create a path of life, to define myself as a person, to act, to take risks, to imagine things differently and to make art’.
But that is exactly how I see Christianity. And whereas Stephen (as he says) ‘prizes Gotama’s teachings free from the matrix of Indian religious thought in which they are entrenched’, I ‘prize the teachings of Jesus free from the supernatural context in which they became increasingly entrenched’.
Perhaps the character of St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace can be summed up in these words – ‘ For us Christianity provides a framework of values, ideas and practices that nurture our ability to create a meaningful path of life and define ourselves as persons’. As we celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, we are reminded that this understanding of Christianity calls for the valour, hidden in the name Andrew, and it requires the creative initiative shown by this very first disciple of Jesus in the glimpses we have of him. That valour and initiative are nurtured by the fellowship we experience here and the support we give to one another, as together we seek to walk the way of Jesus.