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By George Davis in All Sorts

should the Methodist Church of NZ increase its public profile?

I have been increasingly concerned that the Methodist Church of New Zealand / Te Hāhi Weteriana o Aotearoa seems to have lost direction. Apart from directions spelt out in the monthly journal “Touchstone” there seems to be a lack of public profile for the Church. Once, particularly in the early twentieth century Methodist leaders regularly spoke with authority on a number of domestic and overseas issues of concern. Indeed, the Methodist Church was seen as a leader in addressing matters of interest and concern to the NZ public – poor housing, unhealthy sanitation, the treatment of the unemployed, the rise of overseas conflicts, even internal and harmful policies in overseas countries, etc. It had a strong public profile. Where is its voice now?
There is one notable exception – that of the leadership by Laura Black of the Dunedin Methodist Mission – she is doing sterling work and regularly and intelligently speaks her mind on issues of public importance. However, the Church itself seems to be missing a strong, if any voice on civic and national issues.
Let me take you back to the heyday of Methodist public pronouncements between the 1930s Depression and the 1950s. Weekly, in local newspapers service topics and the attending clergy and lay preachers would be advertised. Articles appeared on numbers attending nationally, sometimes accompanied by projections on how the attendance might be in 10 or 20 years; marriage announcements and detailed descriptions of marriages were read with interest. The opening of new facilities such as the Methodist Theological College in Auckland was given great space; the provisions of Annual Methodist Conference; congratulations for Methodist students passing degrees were commonplace items. Details of special Christmas services; the relay by wireless of the Trinity Methodist Services from Wellington South; full reports of quarterly meetings; sales of goods on a regular basis, sometimes at Harvest Festival time, with a list of charities which benefitted, all of which was part of the annual busy year for congregations. This appeared to reflect a much more cohesive society than exists today. It was a New Zealand society bound by common goals developed from getting through two world wars, a major depression and the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.
Further afield interest was attracted by the post war UN General Assembly held in the Central Hall of the Methodist church Conference in London. Methodism reached to the heart of a war-torn Europe and assisted in securing peace and locating the missing. There were jobs to do. There were charities in need of support – the Methodist church world-wide stood ready, sleeves rolled up, and ready to help. There were special commemoration services for NZ Olympic athlete and doctor J E (Jack) Lovelock who had tragically died falling in a New York subway station. Meanwhile local Dunedin congregations were playing their part in supporting the annual Baptist mile and a half harrier race that started at the St. Clair Methodist Church.
In the 1950s there was regular publicity on preaching places in the city. There were 14 churches in the Dunedin Methodist circuit. Debates on God and Science resounded in the Octagon Methodist Central Mission (Slade Lounge and Octagon Theatre). Military service was debated in the press, with weight attached to the Methodist view, and the local churches were making provision for additional accommodation at Otago University in a hostel for married students.
Reports were printed on the difficulties created by apartheid legislation in South Africa. One much publicised case was of a Catholic priest who married a local white man to a Cape Coloured woman. The officiating priest was fined £10!! Reactions to the story were swift. There also were calls for a public enquiry on capital and corporal punishment, one article being signed by the President of the Methodist Church of NZ. In 1950 the ODT ran a piece headed ‘Evangelise or Perish – Warning to Methodists’ the journalist had detected a sense of slackening in the church’s leadership.
What has changed since 1950? It seemed a busy place back then – but probably apart from the wars and the Depression much the same as today. Listing happenings like the above tends to create an impression of everything happening at once – but the list is compressed, it has a kaleidoscope effect, that is, it is all bundled together. Did the church become involved post 1950 to the present? Yes, in different matters – the South African rugby tour of 1981, and the adjustments to Aotearoa /New Zealand society coming from the Treaty of Waitangi Commission deliberations, acceptance of sexual differences instead of discrimination based on sexual preference. Recognition of structural, systemic problems within the society have been addressed by the NZ Methodist Church but it seems without the leadership evident before 1950.
Probably, only an old person could write this. However, this is not the pining of a 78 year old fogey for the past. It is a recommendation for some soul-searching. It is an appeal for obvious, and if you like, transparent leadership in the Methodist Church of New Zealand / Te Hāhi Weteriana. Unless it happens, the present shrinkage of the national church will simply continue.
George Davis, 17 August 2021