Flickering and Fading: St John's Presbyterian Church, Herbert, North Otago. Fifty years ago its pews were full. Today it stands as a mute and largely empty memorial to the Christian nation New Zealand used to be. Photo by Don Donovan.
NEW ZEALAND is no longer a Christian nation. The results of the 2013 Census confirm the steep decline in the Christian religion since 1996. Seventeen years ago 63.8 percent of New Zealanders belonged to the Christian faith. The latest census results put that figure at 44.5 percent.
Christians may snatch a scrap of solace from the fact that those unequivocally declaring themselves to have “No Religion” represent an even smaller minority (37 percent) of the New Zealand population. But nothing can hide the fact that the Christian religious tradition which has underpinned our nation’s culture since colonisation, is rapidly diminishing. Indeed, if the rate of decline of the past 17 years is repeated over the next 17, then by 2030 barely a quarter of Kiwis will still call themselves Christians.
Does it matter? Should we be worried, or relieved, that we Kiwis are an altogether more secular and sceptical bunch than the Americans – two-thirds of whom reject Darwin’s theory of evolution in favour of ancestors fashioned by the Almighty out of dust and clay?
Is it not more reassuring to know that nearly 40 percent of us remain unmoved by religious belief, than to contemplate a religious establishment so strong that within the living memory of most New Zealanders it wielded a power sufficient to sway governments and outlaw “sin”?
I am certainly glad that a dour and embittered Protestantism no longer holds sway over much of suburban New Zealand. And I rejoice that generations of young working-class girls and boys are no longer expected to make sense of their urban neighbourhoods through an incense-laden fog of saintly superstition and clerical bigotry.
I am proud to be part of that vast generation, the Baby Boomers, who dared to call the religious establishment to account for its sins. Not religious sins, you understand, but for the moral crimes born of unchallenged authority and heartless hierarchy. For the lies that were told; the cruelties inflicted; the young souls twisted by sectarian hatred; the old souls unredeemed by Christian love.
Right by human right we pillaged the Christian establishment: the right to contraception; the right to abortion; the right to love a member of the same sex (and, eventually, to marry them) the right to express oneself sexually without religious condemnation or secular punishment; and, finally, that most important of all human rights: the right to seek for the meaning and purpose of human existence on our own terms, and using the whole of the natural universe as our bible.
And yet, in perusing the Census data, I have also experienced an uneasy feeling of loss: of slowly drifting away from familiar shores.
In my mind’s eye, running like a family video, are memories of the past, of my childhood, flickering and fading. Of a little limestone church in Herbert, North Otago. Of the farming families and their children, all wearing their Sunday best. Of the low murmur of the organ; voices raised in song; and simple New Testament sermons about love and forgiveness.
I recall my years at Sunday School and learning the Bible’s many stories: Moses and the burning bush; David vanquishing Goliath; Daniel in the lions’ den; Jacob wrestling with the angel; Joseph and his coat of many colours. And, every December, I remember, the familiar stories and carols of Christmas. Mary and Joseph and their long journey to Bethlehem. The Magi and their search for the one foretold, Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”. The shepherds keeping watch in the fields by night. The Heavenly Host singing “Glory to God in the Highest!”
I remember them all, and that little community, glowing through the lengthening summer shadows with peace and goodwill.
And I ask myself, as we sail away from all those little churches, those devout congregations, those simple sermons of love and redemption: “Quo vadis?”
I ask it of myself; of my family and friends; of my entire and beloved country, New Zealand:
“Quo vadis? Whither goest thou?”
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 December 2013.