Reality Bites: what use is the priest in contemporary New Zealand?

Image: Annie Theby on Unsplash

Many of us live in a world without recourse to a god who bounces in and out of history at will or on demand. We have to take it straight, with no hope of eventual paradise.  And salvation, if indeed the notion of salvation is desirable to yearn after, does not come as a gift-wrapped sacrificial act, instead it’s more likely to rely on the spasmodic energy of a few, pitching in erratically to pursue the idea of a more just and peaceful world.

The specter of a literal salvific God and the utterance of what we have come to know as the great commission, haunt Christianity, or more particularly those people who find themselves moving further and further from the centre of the institutional church. Proclaiming the word is all very well if you happen to see this kind of theology as an answer to the world’s problems, or indeed any kind of answer at all; or if you see that it might be necessary to have people believe and adhere to one religious story over and above another.

Alternatively, if you have dispensed with the theistic God, you might think the world is how it is because humanity has repetitively made it so. Theology then becomes a wonderful tool we have developed for thinking through the human story, within the context of this earth, identifying what is of most meaning to us, and constructing a set of principles to live by that reflects this process and our subsequent understandings. Following this path forces us to think again about our religious constructions, words, and concepts like Church and priest, and to be prepared to reimagine them in our contemporary context.

If you were walking past this row of cafes, you’d never know Origin was about more than drinking and eating. Not much bigger than a large living room or small shop, Origin is longer than it is wide, its length accentuated by the wooden bar running the length of the room. This glistening shelf offers an invitation to lean, in the proprietary, overblown way we do when we are timid, heart racing, afraid of making connections and sure no-one will ever notice us, let alone want to talk.

Part way down the room a woman laughs at something the bartender has said as the wine is deftly poured, the glass moved in reach of her hand. She crosses her legs, hooking one stiletto shod foot on the rung of the high stool. Her other shoe is idly flicked on and off as she again becomes engrossed in her book.

Towards the back, the room opens into a larger gathering space dominated by a large oval table.  Around the table a group of four are engrossed in robust discussion, so engaged with each other they are all but oblivious to their surroundings. Veer a little to the right and you step out into the courtyard. An elegant, inviting space. Paved in the alfresco style and bordered by raised gardens, lush with lavender that fills the air with a delicate perfume. At night, flames from wall sconces light the space, their warmth intensifying the fragrance.

Inexorably, all eyes are drawn to the centre of the courtyard, where water bubbles gently in the bowl of an ornate birdbath. It appears ancient, like something you might find in the ruin of a Roman temple. Heavy, solid, it shouts permanence, continuation.

Warmed with brilliant sunshine in summer and shielded from the worst excesses of winter weather; this courtyard plays host to celebrations of new babies, relationships, or a job promotion. Often it is just somewhere to sit, poring over the newspaper, soaking up the coffee and the atmosphere. 

Tragedies are marked here too.  Deaths, divorces, and separations that need words, warmth, and ritual as much as the celebrations do. Origin is a gathering place for locals, some who call in regularly, others who come by once a year to remember Anzac Day, and perhaps Christmas. Others you will only see at funerals.

Sylvia Duncan is the one to ask about all this. That woman has a phenomenal memory for the people and stories that enliven the rites performed here. She knows who’s connected to whom and who it was who used to live with that Allan Taylor before he found himself and moved in with Miriam Collin’s boy. Sylvia can tell you a baby’s lineage quicker than a Google search and, as well, she knows where that baby is now and how famous, or infamous, they’ve become.

On a busy Friday night, you can squeeze about a 100, maybe 120 in the place, that’s including the courtyard. There’s often music and parties have been known to spontaneously break out. Of course, there’s football on Sky; but just as often there’s a writer reading from their latest book, or the jazz group from the local high school fundraising for their next overseas competition.

Maryanne Selby, former wife of Judge Selby, not that that ought to be of any consequence (I mention it only because Tom, the judge, is a regular here too and it does pay to be aware of who has been attached to whom); anyway, Maryanne and a few of her friends run a hot topics evening. Most everything is discussed; the latest was how to implement the new prostitution law without guilt. There were some innovative suggestions, as you would expect from a group who has already traversed the ground from tips for gay parenting to recycling as an act of compassion.

Some Sunday evenings, there’s a story telling group. Ordinary people telling stories of their lives, recognizing the differences and similarities between each one, while connecting their own to the web of human tales that somehow hold time and space together.

Then there are the bartenders, wrapped around with those long black aprons, the new kind of café uniform we’ve come to recognise as heralding warmth, service, and hospitality. They pour the wine, pick up glasses, serve food, and manage those who’ve had a bit too much to drink. On balance, more times than not, they remember names, events, and stories that have been told before and will be heard again.

These bartenders know how important story telling is; they see it as one of the ways humans signify their belonging, or their dislocation. They also know how difficult it is for many of us to feel, for more than brief, fragmented moments that we belong anywhere.

Theologically educated, informed on current issues, and committed to ongoing spiritual development, these bartenders are the new religious. Some of them are priests; others have no institutional mark on them. Whatever their allegiance, all are believers in the sacrament of everyday life. Knowing that the sacred is found, not necessarily in grand religious gestures played out at the altar of the Eucharistic theatre, instead in the day to day lives of ordinary men and women as they drink and eat together.

These new religious facilitate the daily rituals of gathering with food and wine. As part of this, they know who is sick, whose marriage is on the rocks, and whose kids have just been busted for possession. Senses attuned to the stories; they offer brief comments, adept in the art of the casual intervention that encourages, challenges, and points to moments of hope.

Origin is another way of being Church, a sacred space where radical hospitality is on offer and reality can bite in the ongoing stories of people who visit a lot, a little, or hardly ever.

Previously, the institutional church and in particular the clergy, were keepers of the truth, charged with bringing others into the believers’ fold. There was a sense that the more we added to the flock, the better off we would be. Success equaled numbers and vigorous growth. To a certain extent that view continues today. Vicars talk of being subtly driven by the need to bring more people in to keep their parish afloat. Evangelists preach of a revival, which literally means, more people who believe what we believe, or think we believe, it not being absolutely clear what we are meant to believe anymore, or, if the person next to us believes the same thing anyway. 

Things have changed. Belief in God is not the simplistic thing it was once held to be.  Indeed, God, a word, concept, subject, object, verb, or whatever, is now up for spirited debate and possible resuscitation quite outside the control of the institutional church. What is terrifying is the possibility that the institution, with its back against the wall, might get over excited and want to take charge of the process. Militant, it used to be called, having too many answers to questions of belief and not enough doubt; sure it holds the truth and is intent on everyone else believing it too.

These days I see a changing role and mission for the Church and its clergy, which is driven out of some of my own experience. Growing up in the 1950s I was most influenced by two significant life factors. The first was being adopted in the Pakeha system, which effectively cuts children off from their birth parents; this system ensures that we understand much about belonging, simply because we have such trouble knowing that we do.

This uncertainty was powerfully reinforced for me by a second factor, being raised in a home where the Bible was seen as the inerrant word of God. You could believe and be saved or face the unpleasant consequences of turning your back on Jesus, who, judging by the picture on our dining room wall, seemed to be perpetually knocking on shut doors. You were either in or out, there was no middle ground.

Like others who are uncertain of their fit, I spend my life wandering the borders, never quite sure where I belong or even if it’s a possibility. Sometimes though, I recognise the need to stake a claim to belonging, which is how I come to be standing here marking out my place around the edges of the institutional church. This is an intentional position, from where I can skate up and down on the boundaries, so blurring them that it becomes impossible for anyone to hold a sustainable position about what or whom is in or out.

After a life-enhancing theological education, courtesy of the Anglican Church, I find myself sitting with the group who delight in the godstuff, seeing it as a necessary human construction, most often done through language and story, requiring reinvention for each person and place. To me, the theological enterprise is not a religious add on, instead it is an integral function of society, necessary for the spiritual development of all people. 

Throughout my theological training I was influenced by the model of French worker-priests, who, in the 1930s and 40s, moved out of religious houses and churches to live and work with ‘the people’. For some it meant taking on political struggles, for others, it was being surprised when engaging in relationships they thought were beyond them.

One of the great learnings that we have from these courageous men is their realisation that the good news, the yearning for justice, peace, truth, and love, is pre-existent in the wider community, way ahead of their best efforts to give their own version away. ‘What use is a priest or religious?’, they might have asked themselves, as it slowly dawned that being-with, must be about joining in the daily round of ordinary living until it becomes inseparable from oneself. It’s about belonging.

Belonging must be a given for humanity. There must be no question that all of us have a place here. Consequently, the good news ought not to be about making a dividing line between who’s in or out, instead it has to be a way of living expectantly, knowing that if we keep at it, justice and love will break out, sometimes, for small moments, in inconsequential places.

As the worker-priests found, much of the world is already striving towards these ideals, without calling themselves Christian or even thinking they are part of a religious enterprise. And where once the clergy would have believed themselves to be the keepers of the one true word, the only story, and holding the responsibility for keeping it afloat, the new-religious, in the tradition of worker-priests, have a different perspective.

For them, the Christian story is one story, or set of stories, among many. These stories are powerful descriptors of human nature, delving into the wanderings of families and clans, kings and queens, the good and  the downright wicked; they show the struggle of humanity to imagine how a more just and loving world could come about. Put another way, it’s the great celluloid of humanity, with a cast of billions, where everyone has a role adding their unique splash of colour as the frames evolve across the screen of time.

So, instead of being holders and purveyors of the word, the new-religious have a role in firstly, encouraging the voices of ordinary people to be heard through their stories; then in recognizing and naming the good news in the stories of others. Pointing it out, encouraging the good news amongst our communities, and describing it in ways that people can understand (all people, that is, not just those who are part of gathered institutional church communities).

The new religious are engaged in freeing us up from the psychological torment of wondering whether or not we belong, by encouraging the development of our sacred stories through active participation in ordinary life, here, now and wherever we find ourselves.

Miranda smiled. She could hear the laughter of the courtyard crowd but had missed the point of the amusement. They must have him down pat, she thought, reaching out to straighten the glasses, an espresso machine hissing gently beside her.

Steve Wadsworth had been an unusual chap. Not that interested in being part of anything too social. He’d preferred to watch from the sidelines, regularly. Most nights you could find him at Origin. With something to eat and a couple of glasses of merlot, Steven would be willing to talk. Not great big significant conversations, more a bit of a natter about the football, or what those Ryan kids were up to this week.

Brendan Ryan was his favourite. It didn’t matter what Brendan did, Steve would be eager to hear, smiling and nodding even when Brendan had given his brother a bash, which was something he did quite often. ‘Chip off the old block’, Steve muttered one day when Miranda had described the latest antic. ‘Old block?’ Miranda wondered, eyebrows raised slightly, and head tilted to the side. ‘Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter’, stuttered Steven downing his coffee and making ready to leave.

Once the tumour had taken the strength out of Steve’s legs, Brendan was with him every day after school. Right on the dot of five, he would show up at Origin to let the others know how it was with Steve that day. On football days, Brendan’s mum would go; no explanation to anyone about why they were there or what their relationship was to Steve.

Last Monday, Brendan arrived early, tears forging silvery tracks down his cheeks.  ‘Steve’s gone’, he whispered, shoulders heaving as Andrew stepped out from behind the bar, gently maneuvering him to an outside table. It had been quite a week, what with the story finally coming out about who belonged to who and why it had all been a secret for so long.

Sylvia Duncan must have known but kept it to herself mused Miranda as she turned to greet the first mourners peeling off the back of the crowd while Andrew finished the blessing. ‘There’ll be an empty space here now’, blustered Dave Toomey, never one for wasting words. He sniffed loudly, wiping his reddened nose vigorously with a pristine white handkerchief before lifting his eyes to meet Miranda’s gaze. ‘He’ll be missed.’  ‘Mmm’, murmured Miranda, her mind flooded with memories of an unusual man and his story, which would, by the simple act of remembering, and by its repeated telling in varying combinations, become woven into the life of the Origin community.

Community is a word of theatrical proportions with operatic overtones, used pompously, as it often is, to describe any gathering or collection of people that is meant to have some significance. Building communities, preferably healthy and safe ones, is an ideal valued by contemporary New Zealand society and long promoted by the Church in a variety of ways.

You would think, to hear some people talk, that community was something they created from defunct scraps of human existence, instead of noticing that community exists in and of itself without ever needing to be dreamt up anew. Sometimes though, communities can look like lifeless bundles, a deflated version of our dreams for a successful life. But, like individuals, communities need encouragement and recognition of the pre-existent life within them, in order to emerge in ways we can understand.

In a way, belief in a community is what makes it all work. Communities operate well, or not, in part, because of our belief in them at an intimate level; the level that ensures we have our heart in them. Put another way, we become a participant in some way or another, we belong. You don’t belong until you are prepared to believe you do. No-one can make you, or alternatively shut you out. People often have a regular round of gatherings, our lives dotted with favourite places and spaces. On a larger scale, communities already know about gathering, choosing the time and place. Sometimes its ad hoc, often because of a tragedy or a triumph; others times, like Anzac Day, there’s regularity to the gathering.

In some ways, through the collection of our gatherings, we are all responding to the rhythm of life in much the same way that the Church has developed a liturgical year.  However, when individuals and communities gather, they have made the decision about what is of most meaning and how and when they will gather. Sadly, the institutional church, which has a history and an understanding of gathering to mark meaning, is often absent in contemporary community rituals.

Take, for instance, Wigs on the Water. It’s a bold, colourful celebration of diversity where for at least one day a year, drag queens get to strut their stuff, in the daylight at the Viaduct Basin, the most public and high-profile spot in Auckland. As I sat in the brilliant sunshine, soaking up the entertainment and the atmosphere along with thousands of Aucklanders, I desperately wanted prayers and blessings to be offered as part of this ritual of belonging.

My emotions ricocheted between anger and despair as I wondered at the huge gap that has appeared between institutional Christianity and ordinary New Zealanders; a gap that leaves us all wanting. Some people talk of church communities as being like an exclusive club, associated with, but apart from the day to day living of most of our population. A sharp dividing line is drawn between the sacred and the secular.

We might well ask then, at ordination, does the Church ordain people for the whole community, or does the institution only ordain people for the service of those gathered within a Christian framework? The current predominant Anglican model of gathered parish, within the ambit of the great commission, ensures that the ordained are trapped into serving the gathered and worrying about mission to the rest.

This is the context that drives me to struggle with the understanding of what a worker-priest could be these days. In some ways, it’s an aimless process, not knowing exactly what I’m doing, other than hanging about in bars and cafes. Sometimes I take my book, order up a chardonnay and just exist in the space. Other times, a conversation will begin across the bar or with the person sitting next to me. It’s not long before we ask each other what we do. I answer that one honestly and once people get over the surprise that their preconceived ideas of what a god person might look are outdated, many are eager to talk about deep things; what is of significant meaning to them. Most are willing to venture questions about the godstuff, careful to preface their input with a declaration that they have dropped institutional religion, but they still think there is something about living that could be called spirit, or wholeness, or even integration.

This feckless meandering of mine is teaching me about being and presence even if, sometimes, the longest conversation I have is ordering the wine. In a way, I’m a disinterested connector, with no interest in persuading my bar companion of any position or view, but being open to conversation, should it arise, about things that matter, when I’m in a situation that, if you can see what I mean, doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Some recent New Zealand writing describes the spiritual dimension of the self as a prime determinant of health, throwing health promotion, or the maintenance of wellness, right into the lap of the Church, should it decide to notice. It’s suggested that there are four literary themes, which encapsulate the concept of spirituality. These are relationships, connectedness, meaning, and beliefs, or clarity of purpose.[i] Relationships are to be had with the self, others, external spiritual forces, and the natural word. Our health is seen to rely on the degree of our connectedness within those relationships. Our individual understanding of life, our meaning, tends to be determined by our relationships, especially when the concept of hope is apparent through all of us working together for the betterment of the system.

The development of these three foundational life building blocks, enable us to construct a personal belief system which provides a structure for rationalization of life purpose and experience, in effect, the lens through which we see, understand, and react. This describing of spirituality is all about a way of being, finding a place to stand, a place with meaning, and a sense of belonging. It is about the development of spirituality that leads to the well being of individuals and community. Interestingly, it throws a bridge over the troubled waters between a church rich in tradition, learning, ritual and understanding of human spirituality and New Zealanders who have quite reasonably walked away from that tradition when its expression has been out of step with out context.

‘Are you ready for the students tomorrow?’ asked Miranda replacing the magazines on the rack at the front of the bar. ‘I’m never ready for their disbelief’, muttered Andrew wandering out to the door. Miranda chewed her bottom lip in an effort to hold back from pointing out how dismissive Andrew had been when he was on placement here.  Quickly, he turned to face her with an embarrassed look on his face. ‘I s’pose I was pretty awful as a student’, he said, starting to laugh. ‘Andrew, you were horrendous, wanting to talk about god all the time’, groaned Miranda. ‘The best thing that happened to you was meeting Steve and he wouldn’t let you talk about anything other than the football.’  ‘He’s going to be missed,’ said Andrew with a wry smile, ‘best contextual theology teacher I know.’

We are awash in a sea of literature and thought that either predicts the demise, or the imminent renewal, of the institutional church. I see this uncertainty, the tenuous connection with its own existence, as a positive state for the Church. Being too sure of itself has, historically, led to a pattern of domination over others and their thoughts. More recently, what looks like rejection by the majority in our part of the world, has brought on an overwhelming timidity, which turns us in on ourselves constantly preoccupied with fixing the internal workings of our structure instead of retaining a vision for the future.

The vision for a new world order, for the reconstruction of society that take the poor and the meek seriously and which tries to limit the worst acquisitiveness of humanity lives on and is not reliant on theology which divides and conquers. Nor does it need a Church that insists on carrying out its story telling separate and apart from the wider community.

Once we dreamed of a heaven where all would be well, with a saviour god triumphant over all that life might demand of us. But stories, as we have come to understand, can be taken in many ways; it rather depends on where you hear it from and what our context is, which can lead to something of a muddle if the stories are held out to be the literal truth.

The Judeo-Christian stories were great stories for their time and they still have a place in the ongoing reconstruction of our world. But they need to be told in the context of ordinary day to day living, intertwined with the ongoing stories of Moana and Jason and Emily and Karl and Sue and Dipak, and added to by the coming generations.

Miranda turned to look out across the road.  ‘Did I tell you Sylvia Duncan has bought a space for her ashes in the remembrance wall?’
‘Really, what side?’
‘What do you think?  She was quick to point out that a view of the sea for eternity wouldn’t do for her “thank you dear”.  Sylvia wants a view of our front door to keep up with who’s doing what to whom!’
‘It’s ok, isn’t it?’ Andrew said, turning towards Miranda.
‘Ok?’ she enquired.
‘To be church this way.’
‘More than ok mate.  Times have changed,’ she murmured, reaching round to undo her apron, ‘it’s about belonging.’
‘Belonging, with?’
‘Yeah, it means you’re there when the reality bites.’

In the same way that indigenous cultures, sometimes on the edge of extinction, have reclaimed their stories, language and heritage, Christianity has a reclamation job on its hands. Teetering on the brink of irrelevance, the survival and reinterpretation of this rich tradition and its stories of living may only be achieved by remembering and acting, not as though we have the mortgage on community, but as though we already belong to communities containing the pre-existent good news.

Humanity, despite all our whizz bang technology, remains much the same as always.  We arrive in this earth, rootless and aimless, our life’s work to make some sense of it.  And it’s in the moments of revelation when we get a glimpse of our interconnectedness with the earth and everything around us that the realisation of our fragility makes us most vulnerable. Once, attending to that vulnerability included conversations with a god person. Nowadays, most Kiwis are hard pressed to know what a god person is, let alone intentionally instigate a conversation with one.

From where I sit, contemporary society still has a place for the priest, or as I’m starting to call it, the new-religious. A person who has a continuing understanding of theology, senses attuned to encouraging the stories around them, adept in the art of the casual intervention that encourages, challenges and points to emerging moments of hope. 

However, tending the altar during the weekly recitation of the Eucharistic story is not going to make the new-religious available to most Kiwis who are all engaged, somehow or another in trying to make sense of their spirituality. The institutional church and its clergy face some tough choices. Do we continue shuffling utensils at the altar until extinction, or are we prepared to undertake, what is commonly termed, a paradigm shift; a complex shifting of gears and windows so that the way we view the world, and our place in it, is changed beyond recognition?

Origin, where the new religious tend the bar and not the altar, is another way to be Church in contemporary New Zealand.  Dare we try it?

[i] Kieren Faull and Michael Hills, ‘The role of the spiritual dimension of the self as the prime determinant of health’ (unpublished paper, Department of Psychology, University of Waikato, 2003).

Reality Bites began life as an assignment for a Theology of Church course during my time at the University of Auckland and St John’s Theological College.  The task was to offer a distinctly different way of being church. Nearly 20 years later it’s interesting to find many of the themes still resonate with me, although I’m careful not to literalise the story. The original assignment was later substantially rewritten and published in:
thinking outside the square: church in middle earth
Edited by Ree Bodde & Hugh Kempster
St Columba’s Press & Journeyings
Auckland 2003

6 Replies to “Reality Bites: what use is the priest in contemporary New Zealand?”

    1. Thanks Louise. Well, Origin is as real as the Garden of Eden or Narnia. You won’t find it on a map but I found it within. Who knows where it might pop up next!

  1. Once again. You have more than outdone yourself. Brilliant piece, rich deep, and complex yet incredibly real and present. Thanks, Sandy! I always love your writing, this time you truly took me deeply into your amazing vision with the realistic presentation of life lived.

    I will be sharing. Hope it’s okay.

    1. Share away. And thanks for the feedback.
      It’s such an old piece but when I pulled it out to use at a workshop, I realised it wasn’t on the website.
      Then I started to think about what still resonated. Strange how these things work.
      As a result, there is more to come.

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