From Touchstone Cory Miller writes:
Auckland’s Pitt Street Methodist Church celebrates its 150th birthday this month.
To mark this significant event in the life of one of New Zealand’s cathedrals of Methodism, Cory Miller looks at its past, present and future hopes.
A lot can happen in 150 years. The world lived through two major wars, cars and computers were invented, women got the right to vote, men landed on the moon, the death penalty was abolished and homosexuality legalised. And Auckland grew at a rapid pace from a mere port settlement to a bustling commercial hub.
Amidst all this change Pitt Street Methodist Church has been a constant in the city. The church has served the community since its doors opened on Sunday October 14, 1866. Pitt Street presbyter Rev Lynne Frith says the Methodist community decided to build the church on Pitt Street, near the Karangahape Road intersection, to be closer to where people were living.
Today, while the location for which it was built has changed somewhat, the church remains a haven of spirituality in the city centre. “The city has changed phenomenally in 150 years and it’s changing again,” Lynne says. The once largely residential area has become a mix of retail and apartment buildings that dwarf the church and its once prominent silhouette along the city skyline. Despite this rapid evolution of the streetscape, Pitt Street Church’s façade appears to have changed little.
The same cannot be said of its congregation which has undergone its own transformations as it has tackled different theological and social issues.
These include military duty versus conscientious objection, the Springbok tour, legislation on homosexuality and its place within the church, and the current challenge to keep church theology relevant and attractive.
Lynne says Pitt Street Methodist is generally “open and inquiring” in its theological discussions and is “inclusive and welcoming” to all who seek its fellowship. “It is one of the few churches that welcome the celebration of same gender marriages,” she says. “We openly welcome the celebration of the relationships, we do not just welcome the people.”
While Lynne says the church’s progressive stance has at times put it offside others, both inside and outside the church, it isn’t overt in its attempts to draw people back in. Gone are the days when the minister stood on the front stairs preaching to the public, and it does not have big billboards emblazoned with its theology.
What Pitt Street does provide is a welcome haven for those who seek it, not just on Sunday but throughout the week. “We are concerned about the poverty and marginalisation that we see in the city,” Lynne says. The congregation’s initiatives have included a drop-in centre for women that was based next door to the church for several years, Take-a Break, its work with the Methodist Mission, regular lunches for the area’s homeless and needy, and its work for the Living Wage movement.
Lynne says it was all part of the congregation’s efforts to be seen as an inclusive community. “We work seriously at our life as a congregation’s and being inclusive of the diverse people who worship here.” She says all that is asked of those who come to the church is to be accepting of this “dominant inclusive culture”.
The Next 150 years?
Looking ahead to the next 150 years, Pitt Street presbyter Rev Lynne Frith has many questions.
“I personally think every church and congregation has to pause and consider why it continues in the location in which it is,” Lynne says. “It is important to have a vision and a reason for continuing beyond ‘we’ve always done it’. “We have to find ways of saying who we are in ways that are attractive. It is not about getting more people in the doors, but somehow letting it be known that this is a place where you can be welcomed and be who you are.”