21 September 2021
Weaving together the threads
Weaving Together the Threads
In the movie Whale Rider the central character, Pai asks her grandfather Koro, where did we come from? Koro shows her the end of the rope he is using to try and start his reluctant outboard motor. What do you see? Koro asks Pai. Lots of little bits or rope all twisted together Pai answers. Koro replies, evoking the mythical whale ancestor Paikea: Weave together the threads of Paikea so our line remains strong.
At a time of anniversary like this we have a chance to look back, to see the threads that have been woven together over the last one hundred and fifty years and formed this parish and its people. In our society, apart from the family, I can't think of any other organisation quite like a parish that embraces people from the cradle to the grave. For centuries parishes have been central to the great ritual stages of life, birth, marriage, and death.
To celebrate 150 years in the history of a parish in New Zealand is still a unique milestone. This parish is second only to St Andrew's in Auckland in the Presbyterian Church in the northern half of the North Island. It's amongst the first ten Presbyterian parishes in the whole country. The early threads of this parish go back to Ireland and Scotland in particular.
After several false starts, the church in Auckland came under the dynamic leadership of the Apostle of Northern Presbyterianism, the Rev'd David Bruce. As minister of St Andrew?s Church from 1853, he was responsible more than anyone else ?for planting the Presbyterian Church north of the Waitaki River?.
Before there was an officially constituted parish in South Auckland, services were already being held at West Tamaki, Otahuhu and Howick. It?s of interest to note, given the union between the Congregational Church and Presbyterians in 1969, that the first Presbyterian services in this area in the early period were led by the Congregational minister of Auckland, along with David Bruce from the Free Church, and John Inglis from the Reformed Church. Cooperation between likeminded Christians was often fostered in the early pioneering environment. David Bruce reported, that There has been sermon in that place [Otahuhu] once a fortnight on Sabbath evening, and on every occasion there has been a good attendance. He was longing for assistance, writing, that I have been attempting to do the work of three men. But this cannot last long, and I am already beginning to feel myself physically unfit for the variety and extent of the labour that circumstances impose on me.
In 1849 Thomas Macky wrote to his brother John, The Irish Presbyterians would like to have a Minister of their own country. The Presbyterian Church of Ireland in 1854 sent John Macky to take charge of the Tamaki district an area of over 100 square miles. Three of John's brothers were already living in this area. Along with his wife and five children, John's father, mother and sister accompanied him. The four fencible settlements at Onehunga, Tamaki, Howick and Otahuhu, erected to defend Auckland, had a large number of Irish pensioner soldiers. Macky became one of New Zealand's best loved and most honoured ministers. Something of the esteem in which he was held is seen in the way in which in 1862 he became the first moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand at its founding Assembly.
The Presbyterian esteem for learning was seen from the beginning of the parish. The first school was opened in 1856. The church was responsible for schools in Otahuhu, Tamaki and Howick until 1877 when they were taken under the government. Christian education was part of the curriculum, with the Shorter Catechism one of the subjects. While very much of its time with its question and answer approach, it introduced children to the major themes of Reformed theology: What is the chief end of man?? - ?The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Presbyterians with their strong sense of God's sovereignty and belief in God's providence made excellent pioneers. Macky noted, Every family in my diocese is now supplied with this invaluable catechism, and all the children able to read are beginning it; and, in addition to my instruction, family catechising by the parents is a duty now pretty generally recognised and attended to.
The 1877 Education Act decreed state primary education to be free, compulsory and secular. A consequence of that was the growth of the Sunday school movement. One of the threads woven into this parish?s history was the devoted volunteer service of women and men, in the words of the old baptism service, to bring up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The Bible Class became a vigorous arm of the church training young people in leadership, a recruiting ground for ministers and missionaries. Its Camps and Conferences in particular became something of a marriage market.
While the church is valued by those who are part of its life, outsiders sometimes accuse the church of being filled with kill-joys, wowsers and preoccupied with money. While caricatures often have some reality, people can to easily allow church resolutions to colour their conclusions. John Macky's father was described as a courtly gentleman, fearless, dominating, deeply religious. But he could also unblushingly in the presence of the churchgoers, compliment his son, on a damn?d fine sermon. Jessie Macky, a daughter-in-law of the minister, was known for her wit and sense of humour. Her husband Samuel underwent an operation for a cataract. Well, Sam, how are you, Jessie asked on her first visit. Jessie, I've been in hell for two days, Sam replied. Jessie responded, Good gracious Sam, tell us all about it.?
Pioneering ministry required a lot of time in the saddle. Macky wrote in 1855, that Beside Otahuhu [meaning Papatoetoe] I preach every Sabbath either in Onehunga, Panmure, or Howick, and will make more distant excursions during the week where I can. One Anglican bishop wrote that the first lesson for the colonial clergymen was that he must learn to ride. He advised intending ministers to learn the mode of shoeing a horse, the equivalent today of learning how to do basic repairs on your motorcar. "Jack", the horse given to John Macky by his brother, served him faithfully for twenty-seven years, particularly as increasing blindness overtook Macky.
Often parish histories are divided into chapters according to the different ministers who have served in them. Each minister brings their own distinctive gifts, which are woven, into the rope of faith. But ministers come, and ministers go. It?s the lay people who provide the strong continuing threads in a parish. Without their financial support, their attendance at worship and involvement in the variety of organisations that cluster around parishes there would be no congregating, no gathering of the people of God within a parish. This parish was fortunate from the beginning. Thomas Baird, in whose store shed the first service was held 150 years ago yesterday, gifted land for the building of a church. S.C. Baird added an acre for a burial ground and later three more acres for the erection of a manse.
St John's is among the few Presbyterian churches in New Zealand to have its own cemetery. It?s a reminder of the way in which parishes in their European origin embraced the whole of their community in life and in death. The threads of the past, memorialised in stone, often have connection with living descendants. A great-granddaughter of John and Rebecca Macky, who is a member of the church I attend, told me that I couldn't miss her forbears' grave. I came and wandered around your cemetery finding not only the grave of your founding minister and his wife, but also his parents, brothers and sisters, children and his son-in-law, D.J. Steele, who became the second minister of this parish. Koro tells Pai, Weave together the threads so our line remains strong. For those of us with European ancestry, a cemetery is like a turangawaewae - a place where we can stand among our ancestors who have gone before us. A parish is our spiritual turangawaewae - where we stand in the long line of ancestors of the faith weaving our thread into the rope of faith. A church building becomes a house of memories, hallowed by sacred associations. The names on the roll of honour for the First and Second World War are poignant reminders of people who one lived in this place. These memorials, for many family members, became the substitute for a headstone in some far off land.
For a hundred years the elders who led this parish were all male. I haven't gone through your minute books but I suspect that the session minutes, like others I know, reflect the everyday routine parish business as well as elements of pastoral oversight. In Scotland in the nineteenth century there seemed to be a fascination in session minutes with sins of the flesh. "Exnuptial fornication" figured prominently among the reasons why people were suspended from communion. In New Zealand the discipline which the kirk session in Scotland applied was much harder to enforce. People just left the church and went to another denomination or to no church at all.
Henry Cleary, editor of the Roman Catholic weekly the Tablet, hardly a friend of Presbyterians, in 1898 noted the tendency Presbyterians had for disagreement, recalling the story
Of the Argyleshire elder who, when asked how his local kirk was getting on, replied: Aweel, we had four hundred members. Then we had a division, and there were only two hundred left. Next, we had a disruption, an' only ten were left. Then we had a heresy trial, an' noo there?s only me an' ma Bither Duncan; an' I hae great doots o' Duncan's orthodoxy.
John Dickson, the early historian of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand recorded about this parish:
In few congregations have there been such heated and protracted differences of opinion regarding the choices of a church site and the dimensions of the church building, and in few instances have such differences been attended with more lamentable results. Two parties have existed from the beginning, and on many an occasion have tried their strength. One desired to erect a commodious church in the village of Otahuhu. The other less hopeful contended for a modest edifice at a place two miles away.
He goes on to tell how a small miserable structure was erected. It quickly proved too small. There was another tussle over the church site and the church?s dimension and the schoolhouse was increased. A few years later after another grand struggle and house-to house canvass, the majority decided to erect another church. While anniversaries are a time of celebration, they also give us an opportunity to ask ourselves, are we any better at decision making than those who have gone before us.
One of the great strengths of Presbyterianism, despite the disagreements it could generate, was its eldership and lay involvement. We took longer than most churches, however, to recognise, the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. Another notable minister of this parish, who also served as moderator of the General Assembly, was Dr Ian Fraser. It was during his time as minister here that he convened the very significant Assembly Committee on the position of women in the church. In 1949 his report pointed to the increasing feeling of injustice resulting from the exclusion of women from session, presbytery, and Assembly. Dr Fraser took an educative approach. In 1950 he focused on the New Testament teaching on the role of women and the place of women in other Churches, concluding that our Church takes a more rigid view than any other denomination except Brethren. It was as though the women's thread was invisible in the church when it came to issues of leadership, even although it was clear that the church depended greatly on women's contribution. In 1955 the Assembly finally agreed that women could be elders. It's notable that in 1957, of the first three women elders who attended a General Assembly, one, Mrs E.M. Webb came from Papatotoe.
While the story of ministers figure prominently in parish histories, accounts of the contribution of the minister?s wife are much harder to find. This strand of the parish rope has been vital. Often acting as an unpaid assistant, the minister's wife in bygone times offered hospitality, gave leadership in women's groups and Sunday school, and was in the vulnerable position of being under critical scrutiny of everyone. Rebecca Macky it's said,
Actively supported her husband in his Ministry and travelled around the large parish with him. She was obviously aware of practical home health remedies, the recycling of children's clothing and general family matters. She took a keen interest in what people were doing and was not hesitant in giving an opinion on subjects of concern to her.
It wasn't until 1965 that the Presbyterian Church ordained its first woman minister. Through Margery Dwerryhouse as a deaconess in Otara (a daughter church of this parish), Gladys Stiles as an assistant minister, Zoe Hampton as a lay assistant, and your current minister, this parish has given recognition and affirmation to women in ministry. (In brackets I note that many years ago Gladys taught me in Sunday school, while Margaret Anne had me as a teacher at St John's College.) That's a reminder that the threads woven into the life of this parish are woven also into the life of people beyond this place.
Public worship Sunday by Sunday is the glue which holds together the life of a parish. But the parish also has a public face through the men and women who day by day live out their discipleship in the world. Your centenary history had the title, A Century of Witness. That witness has taken many forms. As well as the many activities within the parish people have been involved in witness beyond it. The Dingwall Home and Friendship House, to mention just two examples, are places where people from this parish have given lively expression to their faith.
How do you begin to measure the impact which a parish has on the life of people? How do you calculate the influence of what happens on Sunday on what people do on Monday and the rest of the week in their work, their family, their recreation? This anniversary is rightly an opportunity, as Ecclesiasticus reminds us, to praise illustrious men [and women], our ancestors in their successive generations. The threads of faith that have been woven in this place consist though of much more than ministers and elders and the "illustrious". Organists and choir members, church cleaners and flower arrangers, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, and many more have contributed to the witness of this parish. The lives of all of you present here tonight have been touched in some way by the life and witness of the people of St John's and St Philip. Tonight we give thanks for the rich contribution made by the members of this parish over the last 150 years.
In this post-modern world, the local parish can seem as outdated as the corner grocer's store, the horse as a mode of transport, or amateurism at the Olympics. The ravages of social disruption, the rise of a culture which questions authority, institutional loyalties and community life, have all contributed to the decline of church membership and the parish as an institution of significance. Despite the impact of theses forces, over which we have little control, the need for faithful Christian witness is as strong as ever. How that witness is expressed in ways that are relevant to today and for tomorrow is the ongoing challenge you face as you build on the legacy of those who have gone before.
As you go into your future as a parish may these words be a blessing for you:
Weave the threads of faith together,
Thanking God for the past;
Go with God into the future,
Weaving threads of love that last.
Rev Dr Allan Davidson
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