This last Christmas, in commemorating Marsden’s 1814 sermon in the Bay of Islands, we marked two centuries of Christian presence in Aotearoa New Zealand.
At Oihi we Anglicans rightly shared the Marsden commemoration with other denominations, old and new, who have journeyed with us in mission here. There is much to give thanks for. But how successful has our own journey of mission really been?
Central to mission is bringing people to faith in Christ. When we fail in this, we begin to fail in the other four marks of Christian mission – nurture in faith, and social service, social transformation, and the care of creation, as understood within the perspective of Christian faith.
The Gospel, brought through the early missionaries, sustained the journey of mission among Maori in spite of Pakeha avarice and abuse of power. It also sustained that journey among Pakeha during this country’s British Imperial period.
But that period is well past. Aotearoa New Zealand is fashioning a new culture. Though Christian faith in some form is still statistically significant, the number and proportion of those without that faith has now risen substantially and rapidly.
What part have we Anglicans played in this national move away from Christian faith? After all, Marsden was Anglican, the Church Missionary Society was Anglican, and, until recently, the Anglican Church has been the largest denomination in a country nominally Christian.
Our Church therefore has carried great responsibility for the transmission of Christian faith. Although not an Evangelical, I give thanks for our Church Missionary Society’s continuing faithful witness to the Gospel, and to the call to spread it, in this land and throughout the world.
Yet like the CMS in 1814, I am less sure about our Church as a whole. Yes, there have been secular factors beyond our control, and yes, other denominations may share responsibility for what has happened. But to what extent have we proud Anglicans been the soft underbelly of the Christian Church in this country?
We are stewards of the Gospel, and like all stewards, we are accountable.
In our Anglican commemorations of 200 years of Christian presence in New Zealand, I have missed any call to collective self-examination and repentance.
We rightly seek to speak unwelcome truths to those in secular power Yet as we enter the third century of Christian mission in this country, do we not need to face, on our knees before God, unwelcome truths about our own collective failures?
So yes, thanksgiving for all we discern of grace-filled witness since 1814 – but surely also a discreet Anglican modicum of repentance – the General Confession as well as the General Thanksgiving. For only then can we be renewed for authentic mission, and face the next century of Christian presence here with hope that is truly Gospel-based.
Lent starts soon. Its first reading, Joel 2:12-18, would be a good place to begin the journey afresh.
Canon Peter Stuart lives in Eastbourne, Wellington.