What an immense privilege for me to be here on this special day and join with so many friends and within the city I call ‘home’.
Preparing for this event has been very emotional for me, recognising the long journey undertaken by so many to arrive at today.
Yes, today is an endpoint in some respects but in the larger canvas of being ‘church’ and being a citizen of this beautiful city, still emerging in its new forms, this is but another significant milestone in the ongoing narrative of this unique plot, or plots, of land nestled between Chester St West and Durham St; as also another significant milestone in the narratives of the faith journey of the people called Methodist drawn together in community for and with each other and the city it stands within; as also another significant milestone for the Methodist Central Mission and its work and witness in the name of compassionate justice, as once again a portion of their vital work returns to this site and is made visible; another significant milestone for the agency and community of CWS giving vital expression to our commitments to our living partners in varying parts of the world in which we give expression to our common humanity.
In The Press of 20 April 1863, an advertisement appeared inviting “Architects and Others” to submit design for a church to be erected on this site. The material to be used was either brick or stone and the total cost wat to be limited to £4500. The Building Committee offered a prize of £50 for the most eligible design, and £25 for the second place. The half-acre section had been bought from Mr. C.C. Bowen who conveyed it to Rev James Buller (the then minister of the High Street Methodist Church) and a tea of laymen for £1,031 in early 1864. The church trustees borrowed £1,200 from a Mr Chapman on mortgage at 12.5%.
The winning design was the work of Messrs Crouch and Wilson of Melbourne. It was for a stone church, and the lowest tender was £8000, am amount deemed to be beyond the resources of the congregation. The Melbourne plan was modified by Mr Samuel C Farr, of Christchurch, whose original design had been placed second in the competition. The building tender of £ 7,200 by Mr McCrosker was accepted, but the final cost was £8,150 because upper and lower schoolrooms were added.
So, the journey progressed throughout 1864 the building proceeded. The Church that first inhabited this sacred space, was officially opened on Christmas Day 1864, with 500 people present at the morning service. The first stone church erected on the Canterbury Plains, designed to accommodate 800 people downstairs at a time when the population of Christchurch was just 6,500. What an audacity of hope.
Amidst a collection of papers, I treasure from my parents is an old drama script of my father’s one in which he and his elder sister had played acting roles in at one of the large Sunday School Anniversary events held at Durham St Methodist Church – as they were of the time, the church and galleries filled to overflowing.
The script describes with some romanticized licence in dramatic form, the arrival of some of the first Methodists to the settlement of Christchurch.
The drama – more recently enacted at the celebratory events Durham St Methodist Church held in 2014, marking the 150th Church Anniversary, bears witness to the memory of Methodist settler Mrs Annie Quaife (this key role brought alive so proficiently by Dorothy Drew) and the holding of the first Methodist Sunday School class in the very rudimentary Quaife whare in Hagley Park. Significantly the Methodist tents and then whares’s – on the opposite side of the Park to the more gentile Anglican upper class of settlers who had complained so often on board the settler ship Cressey as to the noisiness of singing and the rank enthusiasm of the lower class Methodist non conformists – amongst whom were my mother’s forebears!
Later both the Sunday School classes and the Class Meetings moved from whare to kitchen table to the visioning and building of the first Methodist Churches of the Canterbury region – all of which have either been rebuilt or substantially repaired after the serious damage in the earthquake events of 2010 and 2011 or destroyed.
Those feisty Methodist settlers, products of the Methodist revivals in key parts of Britain and Wales, a people unafraid or embarrassed in their vital engagement of being about the task of living and expressing the essence of their Christian faith. They were a community proud to be acknowledged as ‘dissenters’ and most at home with a manner of being church in the more nomadic mode of a people movement gathering in any manner of places, as needs saw fit at the time.
Such audacity of faith, imbued and riven by hope, an enactment in deed of what they passionately believed. They held to a set of values, which was nothing less than that overarching Wesleyan focus of personal and social holiness – personal and social transformation for and within the very contexts they were located. Word and deed must never be separated and they maintained a discipline expressed in their small group meetings – the ‘class meetings’ – often around the kitchen tables in each other’s dwellings where they held each other to account for their personal and moral actions/commitments as a lived expression of the faith they were called to enact.
For them as part of a movement of the people called Methodist – their mission was that based on the biblical witness of the prophets – as church – to do nothing less than ‘stay in the city, and seek its welfare – its shalom in all the transformative fullness of this vision and concept, rather than withdraw into a separate enclave, stay – dwell – and discern actively the Spirit of God at work in the stories, concerns, joys and hopes of the whole human family.
As well as being a call to personal transformation – what John Wesley termed as personal holiness, the biblical witness also anticipates the very redemption of social structures and institutions, and calls their rulers to account accordingly.
In the text of Jeremiah read today – uprooted from their homeland and the holy city of Jerusalem, and subjected to the alien-nation-state of Babylon, the people of Israel are faced with a dilemma: how far should they assimilate? Should they withdraw from the surrounding society in order to maintain a purity of cultural identity; or can they participate in the everyday routines of life around them?
Anyone who has been forced to leave their original home for economic, political or other reasons, or who feels their own neighbourhood has taken a turn for the worse, may experience a similar sense of exile and be tempted to resist or retreat into an enclave of like-minded people – those who look like them, or believe like them.
This is what the prophets and diviners amongst the Jews in Babylon were advising, seemingly preaching resistance to assimilate and encouraging the people to fashion their lives around the “dreams” of restoration and eventual return.
We may ask, what is so wrong with that? Surely it is the way a truly faithful people will maintain their authentic identity under threat.
Is that not the way to keep the flame of desire for liberation alive, in a passion to dwell once more in a place where true faith and old ways will be upheld without compromise?
What stake can the righteous sojourner possibly have in the customs and institutions of the ‘heathen’?
Surely anything else represents a form of collusion, a capitulation to the powers that be; a resignation to the inevitability of captivity and the heresies of ‘heathens’ and non-believers?
But the prophet’s advice is to build, settle, marry, and work on behalf of the well-being of their new home. Jeremiah’s counsel is to cultivate faithfulness in exile, and to trust the purposes of god, whose plans for the community will be fulfilled in God’s own good time.
It means developing the habits of resilience, and discovering the virtues of the ‘alien city’ on its own terms, within the rhythms of its own daily life, and above all not to overlook the riches of the present for the sake of some (imagined) greener pastures.
Are the daily tasks of dwelling, planting and sowing, raising families, and making a living not the same the world over? Do we not all have a common stake in building, increasing, and flourishing; goals that are more easily achieved and sustained when they are shared in the name of our common humanity?
Who knows, – well Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region knows all too well, when the time comes to rebuild a homeland, – from earthquake, from the terror all too recent of naked hatred and the dreadfully violent taking of life.
Who knows – for it has happened – and here we are today – in this place – on this land.
It is just possible that the experiences of captivity and exile will have generated a deeper wisdom – including, possibly, a greater compassion toward the sojourners in one’s own midst and a more judicious understanding of the common good – than the years of banishments and dispossession had not intervened.
So despite their status as migrant in Babylon, the people of Israel are instructed to remain where they are to “seek the welfare of the city” within the routine tasks and “everyday faithfulness” of dwelling, planting and sowing, raising families and making a living.”
Here we are gathered today, in this beautiful new centre, skilfully and lovingly dreamed of, planned for and built, as an expression of faithfulness and commitment in continuity with those in whose footsteps and stories we draw meaning from, to do nothing less than – ‘seeking the welfare of the city, its land, it rivers, its sea, it’s very created form, and that of its inhabitants – diverse and multifaceted – not of just one dominant faith or creed – but brothers and sisters with whim we are bound in common humanity. We seek each other’s welfare because we are indeed called to be our ‘brother and sisters keepers’ as also that of brother and sister creation.
Some 9 years ago – come this April – saw me addressing a gathering in the ‘Goodbye Blue Monday’ ‘pub’, located in the heart of inner city Christchurch, as part of a regular gathering held at this location, named ‘Theology on Tap.’ I had been asked, as the newly arrived appointed Minister of the then Durham St Methodist Church.
Discussion was lively as I addressed the focus asked of me – “Faith in the City” – ‘Growing Healthy Communities’. At the heart of our discussion was the question – what makes for a good city, what makes a city flourish, and most importantly for whom?
I ended my formal input acknowledging the pivotal work of the Australian urban planner Leonie Sandercock, who, in acknowledging the place of the city – claims that cities are essentially “spaces of meaning: places where human values are embodied in material culture.” Her vision of a “good city” especially so of 21st Century cities is encapsulated in the dream of cosmopolis: “cities in which there is acceptance of, connection with, and respect and space for ‘the stranger’, the possibility of working together on matters of common destiny and forging new hybrid cultures and urban projects and ways of living.”
And so may it be that in all the activities and services and the very manner of human interactions that take place within and without this newly created Aldersgate Centre – we are driven by nothing less than that of seeking the welfare of the city and its inhabitants – seeking the fullness of shalom in all the transformative fullness of its personal and societal dimensions.
May we do so with audacious and passionate commitment for we stand in continuity with those who first sought the ‘welfare of the city’ from this very site.