By Barbara Peddie

You’ll be wondering – perhaps – why the first reading wasn’t, as it usually is, from the Hebrew Scriptures. Except that it was, in a way. It’s a midrash, a story about a story in the scripture, told by Marc Gellman, a Jewish scholar and rabbi, as a means to begin a discussion around how we relate to it now.  This is a day for telling stories, and I decided to tell another story. You may remember that, a few weeks ago, we had a visitor who said she wanted to tell us something about our history. I don’t think that’s exactly what she was about, and I don’t think either that she knew very much at all about the history, but that’s beside the point. I decided I’d tell you something about the story of how my life is connected with this place, because my personal connection does go back about 80 years. (Warwick knows all of this)

My family’s connection goes back even further to the late 1890’s. My great-grandfather on my Mother’s side was the first President of the first united Methodist Church of NZ and was also an assistant minister here. (The union of 1898 involved 3 of the 4 biggest Methodist movements in the country at that time; the 4th large one – the Primitive Methodists – came in in 1913 with an agreement that lay ministries would be recognised. That’s why we have a President and a Vice -President, one ordained, one lay and it doesn’t matter which way round.)

My story starts in the time of the stone church on the corner – like this space – and next to the church the gravel carpark, the hall with some smaller rooms attached, and a caretaker’s house. My father dropped me off to Sunday School as he set out on his rounds (he was a GP). The small ones met in one of the back rooms where we had blackboards and small tables, and a “black boy” money box for the collection pennies; the bigger children met in the hall. We all spent the first few moments on a Sunday in the main church, for the children’s talk and a hymn and then we went out. Dozens of us. The Bible Class stayed in – they’d already had their hour before the service.  We, the children, had no idea what went on in the big building, and once every three months there’d be an even longer wait before the adults reappeared. The mysterious Communion Service would be happening. That pattern would be happening in the same way all round the city during the 40’s and 50’s. All the church officials and all the ministers were males. Why would it ever change?

But of course it did. I went on through Sunday School and Bible Class and Confirmation Classes, and around us the city was changing. Shops began to be open at the weekend, first on Saturdays (so you no longer went down to Brighton for Saturday shopping!) and then on Sundays. Sports activities happened more and more on Sundays. Weekend family life changed and Sunday Schools got smaller and smaller. This congregation got smaller.

I walked out of the Bible Class one day when the leader made some comments that I thought were judgmental and unkind, but I didn’t have the courage to say why I left (and no one actually ever asked!) For a few years I floated between Quakers and Anglicans (mostly Anglican in my years in England, because of the music) but came back here in the 70’s by way of our unofficial evening services.

All through those times membership dropped – not just in our church of course. One of our significant losses came when the University moved out of the central city, and around the same time, some families moved from this central church to neighbourhood congregations. But of course, nationwide we’re now a much more secular society.

In the sixties, the first Aldersgate Centre was built (though we kept the hall), It was a centennial project and it was used to make connections with the communities outside the church. Church members were involved in these activities in different ways – in my case it was the evenings in the cafeteria. Then came a really big change – which took almost as many years as the post-earthquake shift to establish. The Methodist Mission in Cambridge Terrace and its church congregation united with the Durham St congregation – a union between one group with a Primitive Methodist tradition (Cambridge Terrace) and a Wesleyan tradition (this one). Some people left. But the union meant that the Superintendent of the Mission also became one of the Presbyters of the Church, so for a while we had two Presbyters.

This church has had many shifts in how it ministers to congregation and community. In my lifetime we’ve had the original one presbyter/one congregation. We’ve had team ministry with Mission Superintendent and Parish minister and with teams of up to 5 both ordained and lay. We’ve poached a couple of Anglicans. We’ve had StreeTs ministry. The way we used our buildings changed over and over again. The hall became the CMM foodbank.

For most of my time with this place there’s been a strong focus on issues of justice. There was the Springbok rugby tour, and some of us went on the protest marches, supported by the minister. (Some families left the church.) The presbyter and most of the congregation supported the homosexual law reform. (A few more members left.)  I don’t recall anyone walking out when we had the anti-nuclear marches.  Around this time we made a few changes to the layout of the church – we put a window in the back wall (so that we were connected visually with the city) and took out some of the pews – especially in the back corner so that there was a space for children to come and go as they pleased. (And they did.) Some people got crotchety about losing their seats – but no-one left at that time. Incidentally, we had to go through lengthy discussions with the Historic Places Trust about what we could and could not do with the “Category One” building.

Then, when I was one of the parish stewards, we appointed David Bromell as our Presbyter – the first openly gay minister that any denomination in Aotearoa had, and I can tell you that the repercussions went on for years. There were some toxic Conferences and bitter arguments up and down the country, and there was a split in Te Haahi Weteriana, the Methodist Church of NZ. But I need to tell you that hardly anyone walked out of this congregation then or at any time since because of our decision to walk this path.

And then – the earthquake. And so the journey started over again, and here we are. The church is always changing.

Well, what’s so surprising about that, you may say. There’ll always be changes. In our environment; in our communities; in our lives; in our churches. Yes indeed. But the really important thing is how do we work with the changes. And when I look back at the story of this faith community, I can see that we did work with the changes. One of the most significant things is that we never focussed just on continuation of our life as an existing community. There was always an outward focus. The changes we made to the buildings took into account the needs of the inner city. Pre-quake there were a lot of old, cheap rentals in the central city and a lot of people living alone and struggling. So the first Aldersgate had workshops like the handcraft for intellectually or physically disabled; like cooking classed for elderly widowers who had never cooked for themselves; like soup and sausage free meals on winter evenings; like badminton and bowls for those in the student hostels as well as ourselves. And fun fundraising events when we needed improvements to the church interior, and quiet music playing in the chapel so that busy people could come and relax in a quiet space for a while. And since the earthquake, in this very different central city we still look outward to ways of connecting with the new city community.

Let’s go back to the beginning – the very beginning. Our first story. There was nothing. No cosmos. No time. Nothing. And then there was – something. We still don’t know how, or why, or where it will end. It’s still expanding. Stars and galaxies are born and die, and every question we answer simply raises new questions. There’s something about human nature that always wants answers and so we make and tell the stories. But we always seem to need to go a little further and turn the stories into documentaries. We want permanence. We want facts. Above all, we want security. My cat wants security. Whenever I move anything around in the house he has to check it out. It’s not right!

Too often we go another step further and want to be the ones with the only right answers. I had a distant cousin back in England who did his very best to put me on the right path. All those diagrams and photos of fossils – God created them all at the same time to test our faith. That was his belief – his faith. He was a good, kind, loving, caring man, but he needed to hang on to the words he read in the only book he trusted.

Bu always there will be changes. Our small planet has been through many cycles of change but our species has no memory of the early shifts. Back in the years when I was a child, we could tell ourselves that yes, the sun will die – sometime. But we didn’t need to worry about that, because it would be an unimaginably long time before it happened. Now many of the changes are terrifying – particularly since we are responsible for the speed of change.

Marc Gellman was right to remind us that we are partners with God in creation. The Creator’s work is not finished in our space; our work is not finished. Next Sunday we’ll be doing the ‘Church Life Survey’. Take time during the week to think about the life of this community and where to next. And may God be with us in our thinking and in our dreaming.

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