Lead kindly light, Paul Morris

Sunday Best: How the Church Shaped New Zealand and New Zealand Shaped the Church
Peter Lineham
Massey University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9780994140777

Saints and Stirrers: Christianity, Conflict and Peacemaking in New Zealand, 1814-1945
Geoffrey Troughton (ed)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776561643

A leading scholar recently referring to the burgeoning interest in Yiddish language and literature waggishly commented that there is nothing like terminal decline to spark renewed interest at the universities. As we await the results of the 2018 New Zealand census, it looks likely that the total of all those who identify with the different Christian churches will be re-confirmed as a certain and diminishing minority, and that the numbers of those who report “no religion” will have risen yet again, especially among the young. How different from a few decades ago, when more than eight out of 10 declared themselves Christian, and only a tiny percentage did not identify with religion at all. How did this transition occur? What happened? What has been lost? The story of the radical decline of “Christianity” in this country and the contemporary meanings of these Christian legacies have yet to be fully told or understood.

Peter Lineham, doyen of New Zealand’s religious historians and our national authority on what those in the mainstream churches call sectarianism, has published a strange and wonderful book that reflects his lifelong scholarly interests and his position as one of the country’s leading religious bibliophiles. His initial stated intention in this 460-page tome is to focus “on the neglected role played by the church in society”, however very soon he circumscribes this laudable, but overly wide, project by excluding what he intends not to do. This list includes: religion and the state; politics and religion; decreasing church members; “church activist campaigns”; increasing multiculturalism within the churches; Māori churches, or Māori within the churches. 

So what does he intend to do, having seemingly excluded what promise to be the potentially most interesting and difficult issues? He observes, “All the factors mentioned above are legitimately part of church history, but my concern is about what church people believed, and the way in which their churches cohered and touched their lives and their communities. The ambitious hope of this book is to unlock their largely forgotten story”. This is the story of “the culture of New Zealand church life” or the “life and community” of “the world that was lost”, and “the argument of this book is that understanding religious culture is highly desirable for our understanding of New Zealand society and culture as a whole.” The focus is thus mainly on Pākehā churches and at the local level. 

This programme highlights a particular worriment for the overall project. Even at the religious high point in the 1890s, when Christian identification was near universal, only 30-40 per cent of New Zealanders regularly attended churches. In other words, Lineham’s “church people” were always outnumbered, with the result that, by the early 20th century, as he puts it, the “sacred [was] in a secular climate”. So his attention is directed to a minority in terms of the whole population, with a particular focus on those in the major churches; but he does also include the much smaller “sectarian” churches with their greater participation rates, and well-patronised institutions, such as the Sunday schools. The significance of these percentages in terms of influence is not always evident in the text. This minority, however, allows for “New Zealand society” beyond the churches and generates the space for his chronicling of mutual impact. 

In an introduction, 11 substantive chapters and a brief conclusion, Lineham explores: Christian calendars, church building and architecture; worship; music and liturgies; “clergy culture”; beliefs; finances; church society; gender; children and youth; and status. He meticulously illustrates these social practices through little-known photographs, school journals, autobiographies, church publications, liturgies, letters and newspapers. He offers evocative vignettes of New Zealand church social life from early settlement until the 1960s with an unprecedented richness and detail. Many readers will nostalgically recognise their religious lives and those of their parents and grandparents. At times, there are almost too many details, as if Lineham were reluctant to leave anything out. 

This is a highly idiosyncratic work replete with surprising details, aesthetic and theological judgements, and the occasional naughty Brethren-boy snide asides, largely directed at the Anglicans or the Catholics. For example, the absence of church steeples is attributed to our prevailing winds. Lineham has a very low opinion of most New Zealand churches (“just occasionally the architecture was distinctive”, most were simply “formulaic” and “of little interest”) and claims that “for many Anglicans the erection of the building was more important than attending it”. However, he also examines the work of cross-denominational architects and rightly notes that churches were committed to overly optimistic, competitive, aspirational building programmes leading to new denominational churches and often equally empty rivals nearby. He explains this in terms of a repeated fantasy among church leaders that, if only they raised funds and increased pew capacity, the “masses will come”. It might have been helpful here to refer to Robin Gill’s 1989 book, Competing Convictions, where this phenomenon in Britain is explained as part of an account of the decline of the churches that has salience here, too. The tracing of the developments in internal church architecture, including the positioning of lectern, altar and font as a reflection of changing theological views on fashions in worship, is insightfully explained, as is the way in which Māori and Pacific themes were incorporated in stained glass and adornments. The recent decision by Christchurch City Council confirms Lineham’s view that public support for rebuilding the Anglican cathedral may have much less to do with the “resonance of sacred space” and much more to do with “iconic landmarks previously significant for the city’s identity”.

The discussion on gender ranges from head-covering to the more recent restructuring of gender codes and the debates on greater inclusivity of congregants and clergy. The lengthy chapter on class and status traces the role of the churches in social advancement and makes the case for the greater utility of “status” over “class” in New Zealand. While reference is made to the influence of developments overseas in “parent” churches (clergy training, liturgical and theological changes, worship styles and architecture), the narrative that Lineham advances is one of growing cross-denominational similarities over time across many of the New Zealand churches. For example, “such distinctive services slowly declined as churches became more like each other in their pattern of life”. 

While this is presented as a work of social history, it is framed in a theological way. Empirically, there are a plurality of Christian churches in New Zealand with diverse histories, theologies and practices, but the “Church”, as in the book’s subtitle, capitalised and in the singular, is a theological rather than historical category. This usage throughout the study (for example, “when Christianity reached New Zealand”) repeatedly presupposes a unity where there is, in fact, only diversity. Under the rubric of the “Church”, this diversity obscures an array of nevertheless intriguing practices. Diversity is reduced to shades of the same, and the significant and ongoing tensions between churches themselves (Catholic schools were denied government funding until 1975) are consequently downplayed. This text works so well only because of the very denominational diversity of the churches. The assumption of a “Church” distorts the evidence offered and generates apparent paradoxes and complications that fade away as soon as the theologian gives way to the historian. 

Sunday Best ends with a somewhat abrupt six-page conclusion (“All Change”). Here, there is a eulogy for a lost world that never quite was, but whose disappearance still demands explanation. There is a brief account of “secularisation” as a cultural process. The case for the influence of a transitioning “Christianity” could have been more strongly made by using Charles Taylor’s understanding of the “secular”. There is also reference to the notion of “social capital”; the more recent analyses of cultural and spiritual capital might have been utilised here. Lineham understands denominations without an established church to be a factor in the dissipation of the cultural influence of the churches. He emphasises the reduction in general levels of insecurity and a little worryingly writes that “unless or until this sense of security is overturned, the demand for religion is bound to weaken”. 

But what has been lost? Lineham is right to highlight a “church formality that reflected general middle-class culture” as part of the weakening of “civil society”, in terms of participation and community. He concludes by insisting that “cultures of faith” are “not just antiquarian practices”, but that these “customs carry values, and this book is a search for them”, focusing “on religion as a form of culture which nurtured and cocooned believers” and that “is necessarily side-lined in today’s world”.

Sunday Best is a great if fragmented read, too dense for a textbook, and at times thin on explanatory value, but a rigorous and heartfelt lament for what was a way of life for many New Zealanders and a set of values that were an integral part of New Zealand’s widely shared culture. 

Lineham also features in a new collection, Saints and Stirrers, as the author of two of the 11 chapters by nine male social historians. Geoffrey Troughton, the editor, seeks to recover a neglected strand of New Zealand Christian history, beyond the “conchies” and the Quakers. The project is rightly and carefully couched in a tentative fashion, which suggests a tendency consciously constructed from, and reflecting, very diverse theologies, personalities and situations. Its importance is both in terms of the retrieval of lost trajectories and as a basis for accounting for latter peaceful developments in New Zealand. The “saints” of the title are Christians (Māori and Pākehā) who acknowledge Jesus as their saviour, and the “stirrers” are those among the saints who were opposed to war and violence, and promoted peace-making according to their understanding of the model of Christ. Lineham’s first essay traces the role of “peace” in the missionary movements of the 1830s within the broader and often contradictory context of European settlement, emphasising the European missionaries’ appreciation that their missionary successes were dependent upon peace. His second essay focuses on sects and war and explores the little-known theologies of the Christadelphians, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Plymouth Brethren and a range of even less well known groups of dissenters and contentious objectors. Distinguishing between opposition to war and violence, pacifism and peace-making per se, and its Christian forms is problematic, as David Tombs’s apologetic piece on Archibald Baxter demonstrates. This important collection of essays ranges from Marsden in 1814 to 1945 and highlights, as the centenary period of WWI comes to a close, alternative Christian traditions to that of militaristic nationalism. While the numbers of New Zealanders who identify with the Christian churches decline, the scholarly appreciation of these traditions integral to our history grows ever stronger. 

Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Religion, Review
Search the archive
Search by category