Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

The beauty of lost causes

Taonga columnist John Bluck takes issue with a new online encyclopedia that dismisses the church as a lost cause.

John Bluck  |  30 Oct 2014

When I consider how my life is spent, it’s a shock to realise how much energy was invested in lost causes.

They didn’t feel lost at the time, of course. All cutting edge, as I firmly believed. But now they’re branded obsolete or irrelevant.

Take rifle shooting. In a country still framed by memories of war, it was a much-admired schoolboy sport. And the army was happy to supply the ranges, trucks and  cheap ammo.

Being a good marksman (no girls allowed back then) didn’t rank with playing for the First Fifteen. But it was respectable and, as the only sport I was any good at, gave me a place to stand on the wobbly scaffold of young manhood.

Now the sport is tarnished (unfairly, I think) by association with the rampant American gun culture and schoolyard massacres.

Then in the course of shooting contests sponsored by the air force, we met up with the Vampire fighter wing at Ohakea. The best marksman got a framed black and white photo of those elegant planes, the same ones they mothballed two decades later.

If we had them still, the government might be sending us to fly and fight in Iraq.

And then there was the ecumenical movement. Even the name has fallen into disuse in New Zealand (church unity is the preferred safer label), and energy for the cause, whatever you call it, is hard to find.

But for my generation, ecumenism was the great hope for shaping the future church and giving the Gospel a contemporary voice – across the whole inhabited earth, no less, as we used to say so confidently.

The Labour Party hasn’t hit the rocks of a lost cause yet, but there are plenty of commentators delighting in shallow water warnings. If the party wants to govern again, it will have to find not only new leadership but a new creed for a new constituency.

And there are even more commentators calling Time Please for mainstream churches, as we like to keep calling ourselves, so fondly.

Te Ara, the newly launched online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, which should have some objectivity about such matters, says “most people were religious until the 1960s.. However, in the 2000’s religious influence was waning.”

There is a whiff of the lost cause about what follows, not least in the way church and religion is classified by Te Ara strictly under the heading of “Social Connection”, and not a mention under “Creative and Intellectual Life”, let alone “Daily Life, Sport and Recreation”.

Spirituality gets even more arbitrary treatment by Te Ara. The topic is addressed as relevant only to Maori, the Women’s Movement and Alternative Healing. How’s that for cultural shrinkage?

However it might be officially categorized, I don’t believe church and religion are lost causes, any more than I believe spirituality is a dying interest. What all this highlights for me is a need to be much smarter in how we market Christian faith and community.

The usual indicators of size, budget and market share are hugely unreliable measures of real value and longevity. And when it comes to St Paul’s list of the things that really count, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious..” these qualities are to be found more often in lost causes than so-called success stories.

When the Christian community becomes a little more confident about its story (especially on the eve of its bicentennial), a little more united (dare I say ecumenical) and a little less factionalised than the Labour Party; and when we are seen to be enjoying ourselves doing what we do, then we’ll help shape Aotearoa for another 200 years and the official encyclopedia may get around to reclassifying us.

Bishop John Bluck lives in Pakiri, Wellsford.