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A broad church that moves with the times?

In the second of a five-part series, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN reflects on the changing role of religion and faith in our lives.

Last week, we summarised Presbyterian Reverand Dr Lloyd Geering’s controversial views in the 1960s that challenged the literal views prevalent at that time about the key conceptual pillars of the Christian church: a creator God who is a person, life after death, the Bible as the word of God, and belief that Jesus is God’s son and was resurrected after he died.

Two other behavioural pillars – moral conduct and devotional practices – were not questioned.

Geering considered the first cluster of pillars to be metaphorical, symbolic concepts rather than literal, objective facts. He prophesised that the Christian church would experience a loss of followers if it didn’t move with the times of scientific understanding and secular thinking. He wanted Christianity to provide people with hope and give them an incentive to live well, even if they no longer could accept a literal interpretation of Christian beliefs.

Instead, Geering created an uproar and was tried for heresy.

Almost 60 years on, the number of people in New Zealand who say they are Christian has halved while the proportion saying they have no religious beliefs has risen from one per cent to 48 per cent [and 56 per cent in South Wairarapa], statistics that appear to support Geering’s prophesy.

The Times-Age approached several people in Wairarapa to canvas the views on this topic in the district, from both ‘the pulpit’ [the clergy] and ‘the pew’ [everyday people]. In today’s feature, we start with the views of Presbyterians and Anglicans.

The Presbyterian church

In response to questions from the Times-Age regarding Lloyd Geering’s views about literal versus metaphorical interpretations of the pillars of the Christian faith, Right Reverend Hamish Galloway, who was Moderator for the Presbyterian church at the time, pointed us to the official statements of the church’s faith.

One of these is 2010’s Kupu Whakapono. This confession of faith includes literal belief in:

God the Father: creator and judge of all the earth.

God the Son: truly human and truly divine and raised from the dead.

God the Holy Spirit: who transforms hearts and minds.

The eventual return of Christ, with a new heaven and earth, where evil and death will be no more, justice and peace will flourish, and we shall forever delight in the glory of God.

Galloway writes: “In reading the official statements of faith, you will see there is divergence between the church’s official statements [both today and 60 years ago] and the personal beliefs stated by Lloyd in 1965.”

The Presbyterian church’s acceptance of contradiction

In contrast, a Presbyterian Minister, Reverend Peter MacKenzie, shared his personal views with the Times-Age.

“I do think that Lloyd Geering’s critique of the church arose from the culture, context, and emotion of the post-war environment. We have [since] become more willing to accept the contradiction of our viewpoints. We can accept creation and evolution. We can accept miracles and laws of nature. The Bible is now seen more as the story of humanity’s search for God rather than God’s word given to humanity. We recognise the humanity of those in the Bible.”

Referring to God, MacKenzie mentions being drawn to an “awe-inspiring, frightening mystery”. It is a view of God as a sense of purpose and order rather than the white-bearded man in the clouds.

Of the resurrection, this Presbyterian agrees with Geering that “science tells us that a body that has been crucified and stabbed cannot live”. He also points out, however, that the biblical narrative says that “the resurrected Jesus was not a normal body. Most in the church will affirm that Jesus is alive in a variety of ways and affirm a resurrection story without delving into the physicality of it.”

Of heaven and hell, MacKenzie refers to heaven as a place of spiritual peace, acceptance, and love, devoid of time and space. The idea of hell has fallen out of favour, he says, and has been replaced by an understanding that hell is a lack of peace due to the torment of guilt and remorse.

And, with respect to eternal life, MacKenzie says that the term originally referred to the survival of the community rather than the individuals within it.

The Presbyterian church appears to be able to accommodate both those with literal and more metaphorical interpretations of the key pillars of Christianity.

Wairarapa’s Anglican church

“I liken the Anglican church to a large room,” says Venerable Pete Watson.

“In the middle is the communion table. You can stand closer or further away from the table. You can find your own corner.”

Watson [currently the Anglican Archdeacon for Wairarapa’s St Matthew’s Parish and the local Trinity Schools], is responding to questions from the Times-Age about whether the key pillars of the Anglican church are literal or symbolic.

“I, and the clergy in general, believe these things to be factual,” he says.

He believes that God is a person who looks like us. That Jesus was a man who represents who God is. The Holy Spirit is God on earth. Souls exist and live on after death.

Eternal life is a life to come when the earth will be renewed.

“I’m right there at the communion table in the middle of the room. But others can find something in our church even if they view these pillars as symbolic rather than factual. They can find peace and a relationship with the divine even if it’s symbolic, even if they’re closer to the walls of ‘the room’ that is our church.”

This is a pragmatic way for this Christian denomination to accommodate all views and beliefs, literal and symbolic.

The Anglican church’s focus on love rather than law

For fans of the TV series The West Wing, you’ll remember the fictional Catholic president of the United States questioning a conservative religious broadcaster about the so-called facts contained in the Bible, and pointing out they would be hard to justify today.

For example: the translation of Leviticus 18:22 from the original Hebrew says that homosexuality is an abomination. Exodus 21:7 sanctions fathers selling off their daughters into slavery, Exodus 35:2 requires people to be put to death if they work on the Sabbath, and Leviticus 19:19 says that people must not plant different crops side by side or wear clothing made with two different threads.

Leviticus and Exodus, of course, are two of the five ‘books of Moses’ from the Jewish Torah, which Christians know as part of the Old Testament. The word Torah means ‘law’ and is heavy on the dos and don’ts. It is literal about how people were meant to live together thousands of years ago.

The New Testament, which is all about Jesus, is more accommodating. “Jesus challenges us to live a better life,” says Watson. “God is knowable. If we walk with Jesus as a friend, he can connect us with God.”

“Living out the Christian faith shouldn’t involve judging each other,” says Reverend Wendy Smyth, Chaplain of St Matthew’s Collegiate School in Masterton. “Jesus’s covenant with us is all about love. Judgement is reserved for the end of time.”

Reverend Steve Thomson is a former farmer turned reverend, police chaplain, and mainstay of the Rural Support Trust. He says that “Jesus sits within us. Jesus brings us meaning and hope. The Bible is a love story of God’s relationship with humanity, not a rule book.” He also says that “hell is the dark life wherever God is not”.

The Times-Age asked Watson why it is that Christianity is the religion that resonates with him. He said that “Jesus is different because he suffered. I think Christianity is the only religion where we have a God who suffered. Today in the world there is a lot of suffering, and we have a God who identifies with us. A God who drew alongside us and became one of us. For me, that’s raw and real.”

Where we’ve come from
and where we’re heading

We’ve come from a time, 60 years ago, when most people in New Zealand said they were Christian. Today, almost half say they have no religion.

Today’s feature has sought insights into modern day Presbyterian and Anglican views and beliefs. We’ve investigated the extent to which these churches accommodate both literal and more symbolic views of the pillars of Christianity. Could the survival of Christianity – and associated messages of living well, having hope, and reducing suffering – depend on it?

For an overview of Geering’s views and his heresy trial, read Geering and God 1965-71: The Heresy Trial that Divided New Zealand.

Angela Yeoman is a features writer for the Times-Age, social researcher, and an author. She has a degree in religious studies. Visit praxeum.org.

Part three of the feature will continue this investigation and will talk with people from other Christian denominations and
a non-specific faith.

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