St Matthew-in-the-city

Why Weren't We Told

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Selling St Matthew's

At St Matthew-in-the-City, the neo-Gothic Anglican church on the corner of Hobson and Wellesley streets, you'll see life's rich tapestry. Take a recent Pentecost Sunday, when a crowd came to celebrate the occasion nearly 2000 years ago when the Holy Spirit entered the apostles, turning them into polyglots so that they could spread the gospel more efficiently.

At 9.45am, high up in the bell tower four bellringers grabbed a rope each and concentrated hard on their striking. Their numbers were down, which explained the catchy recruitment posters in the vestibule: ?Get your hands on six tonnes of percussion? and ?Make a bong at church?.

Through in the nave, 80 people sat in the pews, only a few in the bloom of youth. Into the service, during his homily, Reverend Ian Lawton swatted at his bosses; he wasn't going to read out a pastoral letter from the Primates (the inevitable snigger came from the rear). It ?sounds so Anglican, so bureaucratic?, said Lawton, particularly bothered by one paragraph in which the bishops carped at same-sex marriages. On a day when we celebrate diversity, said Lawton, ?all we get from the Primates is stock standard piety and conservatism?.

After the final hymn ? the universal Pentecostal favourite Come Down, O Love Divine ? the organist broke into a lengthy improvisation on the music of Vaughan Williams, allowing time to spot the vulgarians: a Korean couple taking snaps of the altar. Down the back of the church, Lawton baptised a baby while some of the congregation had a cuppa.

A seminar on ?Progressive Christianity?, led by Lawton, kicked off at noon. ?What is the point of having three Bible readings every Sunday, many of which, out of context, are nothing more than gibberish?? he asked. Perhaps the dead French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault could provide a way forward for Anglicanism, he suggested. Forty parishioners and a few visitors shared thoughts and a lunch of sausage rolls and French bread and dips (it was a bring-a-plate affair). After two hours, discussion broke off ? the vicar had a wedding. The group decided that St Matthew's would design its own liturgy and submit it to the Synod for approval. ?I'm happy to slowly move forward,? said Lawton, not entirely convincingly, clearly more hare than tortoise.

Later that evening, the Auckland Community Church (ACC), a gay and lesbian inter-denominational group, had a service in St Matthew's, as it has for 23 years. One man waved a copy of the New Zealand Herald about. ?I don't know if you've all seen this and what you think about the selling of the church,? he said. The story that had him riled chronicled St Matthew's popularity as a building for hire, and was headlined ?Party Place: Holy Smoke!? The church, went the story, had recently been used to film a Kit Kat commercial.

After the service, the 17-strong congregation stood around a table on which was laid out tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits and a pile of the queer magazine Express. The hail-fellow-well-met locum vicar Blair Robertson wasn't perturbed by the secular use of St Matthew's: ?It's not as if they allow smoking.? One man, Hector Cumming, was more exercised over theological direction. He hadn't attended a Saint Matthew's morning service since he heard Lawton describe the physical Resurrection as a myth. ?I thought 'I'll myth him',? Cumming said, with the ?lan particular to a handsome man wearing a monogrammed YSL cream cravat. ?The Resurrection is as real to me as my dick.?

And that was Pentecost Sunday. So what's up at St Matthew's? By the looks of it, nothing especially new. The church has always attracted a bouquet garni of parishioners. It has long had a liberal intellectual agenda, teetering on the headland of Anglicanism. Lawton's predecessor, Archdeacon Peter Beck, encouraged heathens indoors. In the 1990s, when he was fundraising for $3.2 million to restore the 1905 Oamaru stone and Burlington slate building, his was the voice on the radio ad: ?There's a place in the city where you can go to hear lunchtime jazz or an a cappella group. Where the Auckland Opera Chorus has performed? You can even catch some contemporary dance or Chinese dance. Or how about a performance of Theatresports? With so much happening there, it's lucky they're also open on Sundays.? Boom boom.

Nor was Beck squeamish about this temporal world. Within a year of arriving at St Matthew's in 1992, he had turned a $60,000 deficit into a $10,000 surplus. He joined the Chamber of Commerce. He let businesses use the church for bashes. He accepted $500,000 from the Lotteries Commission, $450,000 from the casino and, less controversially, $440,000 from the Auckland Savings Bank. He had as his catchphrase: ?Maximise the income from your assets.? And then he left St Matthew's to take up a job with DBM New Zealand Ltd, a firm of employment consultants.

However, precedents aside, discreet disgruntled chat ? an Anglican speciality ? has it that the pace of change at St Matthew's is quickening, too rapidly for some. That Lawton, a 34-year-old, 1.88m Sydneysider with blond highlights, two earrings in one ear and a personal regime which includes the Atkins Diet and frequent visits to the gym, is a little light on ?process?, a little heavy on autocracy. That he knows no boundaries ? that if, as one former parishioner puts it, someone wanted to hire St Matthew's for ?a Bacchanalian orgy, slipping and sliding baby oil all over the floor?, they could.

All of which is not to say that Lawton doesn't have his fans. Lawton is both a priest and a prophet, says parishioner Gavin Rennie, a one-time Catholic seminarian with a Masters of Theology, whose mother, he says, wouldn't be turning in her grave at his Protestant proclivities. ?My mother was a very healthy Catholic,? says Rennie. ?She had the Church in its place.?

In the wider community too, Lawton has appeal. Alannah Currie and her group MAdGE (Mothers Against Genetic Engineering) made Lawton ?Love God of the Month? last year, after he offered St Matthew's as the site for a fundraiser. (Lawton, his wife and three children are Currie's neighbours in Ponsonby.)

Under Lawton there have been developments. The church's stock is running high. There was the $200-a-head dinner for Rosie Horton late last year. There was the wedding reception for Auckland businessman Murray Bolton's daughter, Michelle, in April (following the, ah, marriage ceremony at waterfront bar, Coast). ASB Bank regularly hosts soir?es for loyal clients.

This year, after the Metro Readers' Poll voted the church the second-best place in town to be married, bookings climbed. Inquiries potentially worth $20,000 followed the appearance of the story in the NZ Herald. The church now averages 60 weddings a year at $650 each ($850 if you want bells; $950 if you want the organist). Guests increasingly stay on for wining and dining (at $200 an hour).

Lawton is building a virtual community. People can dial Vodafone 359 for a text service called Prayers 2 U. On Sundays, 400 subscribers receive short prayers from Lawton. Pentecost Sunday's somewhat pantheist offering began: ?May our senses b awakened 2 the presence of God in the patterns of nature; the ebb & flow of life.?

The St Matthew's website is up and running with online blessings ? one for pets, one for gays, one in Maori, one from the Apaches. Lawton reports that he spends an hour a day on pastoral care ? via email. The church now has 1200 subscribers to a weekly online magazine SMACA.

Rebranding is ongoing. ?St Matthew-in-the-City. The soul of our city, in the heart of the city,? was the motto Saatchi & Saatchi worked up when they did pro bono work for Beck. Now, St Matthew touts itself as ?a progressive Anglican church with a heart for the city and an eye to the world?.

One autumn morning, on a day when the horses weren't running, Lawton had an engagement at the Ellerslie Racecourse convention centre. ?I'm trying something new. I hope someone will challenge it,? Lawton said, waiting in the wings to deliver a speech entitled ?Journeying the Margins of the Church? to 250 members of a secular lecture group with eclectic interests (an anatomy professor had spoken on ?The Marvels of the Human Brain? in summer). Lawton had supplied the club president with a one-page autobiography, which she read out to a sea of tweed, cashmere and brooches.

Lawton, she said, grew up in Sydney where his father taught at an Anglican seminary. At school he developed two enduring interests: ?physical fitness and the connection of the ancient biblical worlds with our world?. After school he ?journeyed briefly in the realms of insurance? before attending the seminary and university, where he gained an arts degree with a major in sociology. He took up his post at St Matthew-in-the-City in 2001.

He loves St Matthew; his relationship with the Church, however, is one of ?love/hate?. (No kidding.) He is studying for a Masters in Philosophy, ?tracing the links between patriarchal and hierarchical views of God and sexual and power abuses by clergy?.

The president read on from Lawton's script: ?The Church invites controversy at times, as does its new vicar. However? the Church may die of boredom, but it won't die of controversy.?

Then Lawton was up, with a theatrical flourish. A bell ringer from St Matthew's, John Dunne, preceded Lawton up to the lectern, tolling a bell. Lawton delivered his ?eulogy? to the Church. He gave a potted history, from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century to the present day, quoting Dante, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Woody Allen, getting a few laughs (the most sustained of which was his quote from a school student's essay, ?Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper?), citing the Church's more witless tendencies: its glacial uptake of, for example, the theories of Copernicus in the 16th Century, its marginalisation of the Jesuit Order and its radical social justice programme (aka Liberation Theology) in the 20th Century.

?The cause of death, I suggest, is fear and boredom; fear of the unknown, fear of progress, fear of controversy,? said Lawton. Death had occurred because the Church had ignored enlightened movements. ?The cause of death is boredom, as modern people no longer have interest in an anti-science, anti-progress structure. The Church's God in the sky, the Church's centralised and dogmatic control, is too narrow for globalised citizens. The Church's literalism is too stifling for enquiring post-modern minds,? Lawton said.

But out of the ashes, onwards and upwards, etcetera. ?I'm crazy enough to believe in resurrection,? Lawton said, meaning it, of course, metaphorically. In his Church of the future, God will be recast ?from an unchanging object; an all-powerful, all-knowing God in heaven, to a subject God?. Hierarchy will be ditched. Worship will have a place, but dogma will not.

Forget denominational allegiance. ?There will be less of a focus on joining a club,? said Lawton. Ancient creeds, liturgy and sacraments will be revitalised. Take baptism, for instance. It will become widespread, but only as an affirmation of life. Take marriage. The Church will marry anyone who is up for it, and devise other ceremonies such as blessings of same-sex couples, or ?as I was asked to perform last week, a blessing for a man and a trans-gendered woman?, he said. ?The Church will get with the IT programme,? said Lawton. It will close the sacred and secular divide and open its door to gigs of all kinds.

When question time came around, the crowd put Lawton through his paces. Was not his over-zealous view on same-sex marriage undermining the institution? Doesn't his dream Church already exist in Unitarianism? Where's the mystery, the spiritualism in Lawton's vision; after all, wasn't it Jung who talked about modern man in search of a soul? How did Lawton feel about the Ten Commandments? Lawton gave as good as he got. How do the Ten Commandments help us tackle the curly question of euthanasia, he asked.

The crowd applauded when a woman, who had the force of someone who once sent criminals down for a living, told Lawton to settle. ?Thank you for the challenge but I think you are unduly pessimistic. I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater?? (Later, over a club sandwich, she cheerfully said: ?Good on him. I think it was tongue in cheek.?) On his exit ? bound for Diocesan School and a discussion with 16-year-olds on gender ? a woman detached herself from a party of four: ?We're all inspired. We're coming to St Matthew's,? she said to Lawton.

The quartet would be welcome. St Matthew-in-the-City needs a top-up (to be fair, most churches do; only eight per cent of New Zealanders are regular church-goers and little more than 50 per cent call themselves Christians, according to the latest census figures).

?The central organisation will always judge things on how many people come on Sunday morning and I'm not going to lie to you, it's not increasing,? says Lawton. Although membership at St Matthew's is only slightly down from 228 in 1999 to 221 currently, anecdotal evidence and a head count paint a grimmer picture. In 1999, on an uneventful day in the liturgical calendar, as many as 140 people attended 10am Sunday services. These days it's more like 80.

Graeme Johansen is one who has done a partial bunk after 10 years at St Matthew's. ?The great thing about Anglicanism is that it can spread its wings very wide,? says Johansen. Key word: can. ?The cracks at St Matthew's began to show around the time of the choir affair,? says Johansen, a qualified architect who works as a prison guard at Mt Eden prison, having spent his formative years as a Methodist.

The 20-strong choir and its long-serving master, Neil Shroff, flitted to Epsom's St Andrew's Anglican church a year ago. ?It came down to leadership's lack of understanding and appreciation of music,? says Johansen. There was debate over the choir's repertoire; some lyrics were deemed too hierarchical, too boysie. ?If there's a line 'Dear Lord, the father of mankind', you've got a problem,? Johansen says. ?I felt with the new leadership at St Matthew's that we were actually being dictated to as to what we should believe? that the concepts of God we were brought up on were old fashioned.?

But political correctness and theology aside, Johansen, who remains a member of St Matthew's and who sits on the property committee, worrying that all that rearranging of pews for functions is damaging the wooden floor, concedes that some people weren't that happy with the choir. ?When you actually get into the arts? people show a side of their nature that might be somewhat jealous or envious or showy,? he says.

Shroff, whose day job is a principal at Point View School in Howick, says language wasn't the problem; it should be inclusive, he says. Shroff quit when the fun and games got too much; when Lawton established a committee to review/advise on/vet (Shroff couldn't work out which) the music. Shroff denies he is an arch-conservative. ?Theologically and socially I consider myself a liberal, but I like traditional worship.?

In the past, says Shroff, there was ?a wonderful tension? at St Matthew's between liberal theology and traditional worship. But the present leadership has no truck with liturgy. And controversy is courted for controversy's sake, and pastoral care is being sacrificed. ?St Matthew's has lost the plot,? says Shroff. ?The very thing that we preached ? about being open and liberal and accepting ? has gone. If St Matthew's is not very careful it will end up being a very exclusive place where only if you hold fringe views will you be accepted or welcome.?

The way Lawton tells it, the choir sang hymns that ran counter to his message, ?often singing about a God in the clouds, transcendental stuff, about rising above the concerns of this life?. Does he want a choir? ?I don't mind if there's a choir, but I'm opposed to starting a choir,? he says. ?The amount of energy that it would take to start one would take away from moving forward and it would just be about maintaining very conventional Anglican structures. I don't think that's where St Matthew's is at.?

A year ago Lawton and the St Matthew's Vestry hired Australian Brendan Boughen as a marketing and communications manager; Boughen had done a similar job for the Lutherans. He is as prone to self-examination as Lawton. After reading No Logo, Naomi Klein's book on the downside of multinational globalisation, he wondered, ?Am I and every other Christian ministry worker? simply cogs in the machine of 'Christianity Inc'? Is it not problematic that Christianity is a brand using a torture device as a logo??

?Marketing is often misunderstood as selling,? Boughen says. ?Marketing a progressive church is about matching up our church with people out there looking for more from Christianity? Our mission is really to be an alternative voice to fundamentalism in Auckland, New Zealand and the world generally.?

Boughen has a fair grasp of the enemy. Although his father is a liberal Lutheran pastor, Boughen spent three years as a fundamentalist ??a raving lunatic for Christianity?. He recovered after reading the books of the now retired American Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong, progressive Christianity's pin-up boy.

Spong argues that ?the Church is any life that brings to another the freeing, enhancing presence of God?, campaigns for women's and gay rights, contributes columns on sexuality to the internet sex magazine ? and receives death threats. (Lawton himself was the subject of a vicious, fundamentalist rant in Investigate magazine last year.)

Boughen looks after St Matthew's website, on which he posts, among other materials, his music reviews informed by a belief that ?Christian? music has its limitations. ?I'd say there's more good religious content in something like Marilyn Manson than anything you would find in a Christian bookshop,? he says.

Boughen also compiles the online magazine SMACA ? a rich melange. A recent edition was themed ?Religious Addiction?. Lawton contributed ?Choking on Religion?, an article inspired by author Chuck Palahniuk's book Choke. ?? Palahniuk's narrator ? a sex addict who thinks he was spawned from a stolen remnant of Jesus' foreskin ? blends fact and fantasy in a way not dissimilar to fundamental Christians who 'steal' Jesus to feed their addictions to literalism,? wrote Lawton.

Then there was a feature written by an addict, suffering from an attack of the adjectives: ?I was seated casually in the closed cabin of my Rotoroa Island alcohol and drug counsellor David's office. The aluminium light of afternoon pierced the venetian blinds, striping the pressed lazy air. Dust idled fitfully in the light hot space? My mind seemed stretched like lumpy spaghetti.? The edition's joke section carries a mock-scientific treatise on the difference between sheep and goats.

Boughen writes press releases for St Matthew's events: the Blessing of the Animals service (pooper scoopers a must); a teenage rave; a service led by a Buddhist monk (?There were a few letters to the Bishop about that,? says Boughen, ?about how we'd been unfaithful to, ah, something.?); Lawton's views (pro) on euthanasia.

You would have to say that Boughen and Lawton are certainly making a mark. Lawton has become Auckland's religious pointsman. When a Timaru resident was pilloried for attending the funerals of strangers ? for, funeral directors conjectured, a free meal ? Lawton came to his defence: ?I think that is nice? we have lost some of the community spirit of funerals,? he told the NZ Herald. When Prime Minister Helen Clark deliberately omitted grace from a state banquet for the Queen ? an irrelevant practice in a secular society, thought the PM ? Lawton was quoted as saying, ?I'm happy to back Helen Clark. She has been brave and done well.? Beneath the Sunday Star-Times headline ?Vicar backs prostitutes' fight?, Lawton laid out his stance on the Prostitution Reform Bill.

Not that Lawton's lippiness is an issue for the Anglican hierarchy. ?My view and the bishop's view is that Ian is exercising a creative ministry, reaching out to different sections of the community. Public debate is important in the Church and the clergy has the freedom to express points of view,? says Assistant Bishop of Auckland, Richard Randerson. Besides, Lawton answers to the St Matthew's vestry, by whom he was appointed.

He came direct from the conservative (at least in ecclesiastical terms) Sydney parish of Surry Hills, where things had gone pear-shaped. Parishioners didn't like his liberal views and mounted a campaign to have him ?taken out?, says Lawton. Even after he made it through a theological grilling by his superiors, feelings were such that it was suggested Lawton find himself another post. On the St Matthew's website Lawton has posted an account of the events, under ?Rejection in Hometown? ? a title Lawton takes from a passage in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In July Lawton took a tour of America. He attended his sister's wedding and went looking for ideas among progressive churches, and funds for St Matthew's. Although church finances are in the black, $1 million is needed to move the pint-sized St Thomas' Chapel (part of the chapel that circumnavigated the country in a mission ship until 1932) upstairs from the crypt. The money is unlikely to come from the congregation; donations, says Boughen, fall well short of covering Lawton's wages and the upkeep of the building. That's why the money from church hire is crucial.

Lawton agrees, sort of. ?The money from hireage is secondary and we have to be careful not to present ourselves as a commercial venue. We're a church which is opening up its scope beyond Sunday worship, which is where traditionally the revenue comes from, and therefore the revenue has to be looked at creatively.?

And there are limits to who hires the church, says Lawton. People who openly oppress others, for example, would be spurned. Boughen wouldn't be keen, for say, a bunch of atheists to use the church, although ?we would certainly enter into dialogue with them?. On that Bacchanalian orgy scenario Lawton says, ?That sounds pretty inappropriate.?

Drinking in the church, however, is fine and Lawton can see St Matthew's obtaining a liquor licence one day. Although, ?I acknowledge that alcohol can be a problem for people so we support AA in the building as well,? he says, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous's weekly sessions in St Matthew's crypt. ?It's quite feasible that you could have AA downstairs having a meeting while a party is going on upstairs.?

Such a thing happened in the 1970s. People used to clear away the pews, have a dance and a few sherries at a singles club called All Come Together (ACT) on Wednesday nights. The cover charge was 50 cents, no hireage fees applied. Morris Russell, the vicar of the day, believed that God was present when people cared for each other, a view considered radical at the time.

Peggy Turner, 93, St Matthew's parishioner of 34 years, was a regular. ?We had quite a lot of marriages,? says Turner. ?Everyone was happy, and it wasn't just the sherry,? says Turner's friend Heather Carter, another St Matthew's stalwart.

While twinkle-toed Turner was upstairs, Carter was busy in the crypt, at a two-hour gay and lesbian study group. The first hour was given over to activities ? Carter taught the group how to make bath balls, shirts and crochet. Discussion on sexuality followed in the second hour. One of Carter's keen prot?g?s crocheted during Sunday services, his ball of yarn sometimes rolling down the isle. ?I don't think he was that struck on the sermons,? says Carter.

Turner and Carter remember it all. That it was Reverend John Mullane, vicar from 1979-1990, who drafted legislation allowing women priests in the Anglican Church. That St Matthew's fought the Synod to provide gays and lesbians with a place to openly worship. They were around when the church declared itself nuclear-free and when it was heavily involved in the anti-tour movement in Auckland in 1981. When Nelson Mandela preached at the church in 1996, Carter was on security, checking handbags at the door.

Both Turner and Carter attended Lawton's Pentecost Sunday seminar on progressive Christianity, neither quite sure what they gained from it, both hankering for the days when St Matthew's had a stronger sense of community ? real that is, not virtual. Gavin Rennie, the maverick Catholic, was also there, railing against institutional religion. ?If you stay part of St Matthew's, you'll always know you're alive,? he says. ?It won't be one of those things that put you off to sleep.?

*This article originally appeared in Metro, August 2003

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