In the fourth of a five-part series, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN reflects on the changing role of religion and faith in our lives.
The Times-Age has been investigating whether maintaining a literal approach to the pillars of the Christian religion has been responsible [at least in part] for a drop-off over the past 60 years in the number of people identifying as Christian.
The four key conceptual pillars of the Christian church relate to a creator God who is a person, life after death, the Bible as the word of God, and belief that a special person, Jesus, is God’s son and was resurrected after he died. Two other behavioural pillars are moral conduct and devotional practices.
Back in 1965, Reverend Dr Lloyd Geering queried the literal nature of the conceptual pillars and was tried for heresy for his troubles. He prophesised, however, that not moving with the times and not supporting more metaphorical views of these pillars could result in the church becoming less relevant to ‘the pew’ [everyday people]. He was searching for ways in which people could find hope and an incentive to live a good life even if they no longer agreed with literal interpretations of Christianity.
Since then, the number of New Zealanders identifying as Christian has halved, while those saying they have no faith or religious beliefs has risen from one per cent to 48 per cent, or even higher as in some Wairarapa regions.
Based on contributions to this series from both ‘the pulpit’ [clergy] and the pew, it appears that symbolic or metaphorical views of the key pillars of Christianity can exist for the pews – at least in some Christian denominations – but this same flexibility is less possible for their pulpits. As a result, everyday people do not always see their views reflected in their clergy, which may have contributed to falling numbers.
And as fewer families bring up their children within the context of Christianity, the opportunities diminish for future generations to be exposed to Christian beliefs, whether literal or metaphorical.
In today’s feature, we focus on the Anglican church, because it attracts the largest proportion of Christian worshippers in Wairarapa. We look at how a handful of people came to be part of a church, as well as the opportunities today for young people to do so.
Anglican paths and journeys
In part, the prevalence of Anglicanism in Wairarapa is due to the three Anglican-based Trinity Schools in the region, which have helped maintain the number of followers over time.
Reverend Thomson, Venerable Watson, and Reverend Wendy Smyth all found a home in the Anglican church, coming to it on different paths.
Previously, Thomson experienced hell. He was a Wairarapa farmer, not then part of the church, and he struggled with expectations, isolation, depression, and despair. Today, in his late 60s, having taken God into his heart and trained as a priest, he walks alongside his rural community because “my God has asked me to”.
Watson grew up in an Anglican Christian home near London in the UK and spent a year doing missionary work in Zambia, aged only 24. It was there that he met the woman who was to become his wife. After training at London’s Bible College, Watson and his family moved to New Zealand in 2007 and he’s worked in Wairarapa for the past four years.
“I am a person through which the truth is expressed,” Watson says. “To me, that is what a preacher is.”
Referring to himself as an “accidental Anglican,” because he was brought up Anglican and his first job as a youth worker was in the Anglican church, Watson says he has stayed in the Anglican church because “it’s a global family, has structure and accountability, and is an anchor to the past in a world where there is not much to ground us. This does.”
Both Watson and Thomson agree that faith is a personal experience, while religion is a community experience. Both accept that a divine being watches over humanity and that there is a divine plan for people.
Smyth came to the Anglican Church after initially experiencing an Open Brethren upbringing and church in Carterton. From there, she found a home in a Baptist church and then various independent churches. Mostly recently, Smyth found a home in the Olive Tree in Petone, in which she was ordained as a pastor. With graduate and post-graduate qualifications in education, educational psychology, and special education, Smyth spent 10 years working in the discipline of Resource Teaching of Behaviour and Learning.
“I then knew I needed to take time off to sit and listen to God about my next vocation.”
What God had in mind for Smyth was to become ordained in the Anglican church, and to be offered [and accept] the roles of religious education teacher and chaplain at St Matthews College in Masterton.
A burning fascination for Smyth is the role of prophets from the Old and New Testaments as well as today, and how they came to be prophets. She’s doing a Master of Theology on this topic.
“In the Old Testament, God always called audibly to prophets; he spoke to them and gave them the job of bringing people back into covenant with God,” she says.
“Now that we have the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is accessible to everyone so everyone can hear the word of God. That could mean that prophets may no longer be needed. But because people are still being chosen by God to speak to people, it may be that their role has simply changed.”
God comes to Smyth in dreams and tells her to help people. She says “for God, we are with him all the time. He has a relationship with us.” Conceptually, Smyth agrees that by having a reciprocal relationship with God we can lessen the suffering of ourselves and others. And then we can tell people about that.
For the increasing number of young people who are not part of a family affiliated with a religion, the potential to explore religious concepts can be limited. Smyth, as St Matthews’ religious education teacher, is in the perfect position to help with that.
Leaning into talking
The students at St Matthews can choose to take religious studies under the curriculum’s social studies area of learning.
It is all about empathising with people across faiths, and understanding what it means to be human. The curriculum covers five ‘big ideas’ such as, for example, that identities can be influenced by religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.
An enquiry-based approach is taken. “My classes first spend time ‘finding out/te kimi’,” Smyth says. “The students ask each other questions and work out which ones are the most useful.” She gestures to the walls of her class, where questions are arranged.
“Next, they spend time ‘sorting out/te whakariterite’. They research and interview each other and record it on video. And then they do ‘sharing/tiritahi’ as they explain their learnings to key people from the church and the school.”
The walls are plastered with posters, books, and surveys. Videos and PowerPoints are on their laptops. Methods of enquiry and new ideas are embedded.
“Some of the students are not religious but choose to take the course as a way of learning about humanity,” Smyth says.
“This course explores the complexity of people and their connections to each other and to the sacred.” Ultimately, Smyth wants to share with others the potential to remedy suffering.
Once the students have a firm grounding in Anglicanism – St Matthews is an Anglican-based Trinity School, after all – they are encouraged to consider other religions too.
it means to be human
Today’s feature has explored the paths taken by several people as they’ve taken the Anglican church into their lives. It has also canvassed options for young people today to learn about Christianity and other religions, and to gain an understanding of what it means to be human and to suffer.
For an overview of Geering’s views and the 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.
Tune in next week for the fifth and final part in this series about religion and faith.