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New Zealand diocese: ‘We are not dead, and we do not intend to die’

03 March 2023

Dunedin diocese continues to function ten years after being close to financial collapse


A service in a dog-trials hut in Garston, on the South Island

A service in a dog-trials hut in Garston, on the South Island

A DECADE ago, the Bishop of the smallest diocese in New Zealand wrote a frank letter to his clergy, warning them that the diocese was on brink of financial collapse.

The Bishop, Dr Kelvin Wright, told clergy in the diocese of Dunedin, on the South Island, that, despite drastic cuts to the budget and staffing, rising insurance costs from earthquakes had added to growing financial pressures, which were likely to result in parishes “ceasing to exist”, and the merger of the bishop or diocese with neighbouring Christchurch. The diocese was at the “point of collapse” he warned (News, 15 June 2012).

Yet, a decade on, the diocese continues to function, although Dr Wright has retired, and a new diocesan bishop has taken his place. And, although times remain challenging, new faith communities are emerging even as church buildings continue to close and be sold. “We are not dead, and we are not intending to die,” said Dr Steven Benford, who took over as diocesan bishop five years ago.

Dr Benford was a priest in the diocese of London, just two years into his first incumbency, when he was asked to consider becoming the Bishop of Dunedin. Described to him as a diocese in a difficult state, with problematic decisions ahead of it, it did not, at first, sound very appealing. But he was born in New Zealand, and, as his wife, Lorraine, was from Dunedin, he accepted.

Although the number of worshippers has continued to decline, owing to ageing populations, there have been new shoots of growth, alongside the closure of some churches. The diocese has continued to embrace technologies adopted in lockdown, and a Bishop’s Companion programme has begun, which pairs up people in the diocese for support and conversations about belief and faith; and twice each day the Bishop now meets people online to say the daily offices.

“We try to be a people who pray, read the Bible, and live out the risen life of Christ. We continue to have concerns about building maintenance, and attendance is dropping. But, however huge the problems, we believe God is bigger than them,” Dr Benford said.

Challenges have continued, such as a fire which caused major damage to St Paul’s Cathedral. Work is under way to repair the damage, but the cathedral community has continued to grow, Dr Benford said, despite the building’s being encased in scaffolding.

Between 1200 and 1500 people now worship in the diocese each week, although figures are not precise, as they are not collected in the same way as in the Church of England. The diocese has 18 clergy on stipends — a small increase from a decade ago. Some are ministering to new communities not shaped by traditional parish boundaries, such as a group for those who have been damaged by church, who do not want to worship in a church building; or another community for people coping with mental ill-health.

There has been a significant drop in the number of church buildings in the past ten years, from 60 to about 50 now. Unlike the Church of England, church buildings in Dunedin — although often more than a century old — remain attractive propositions for new owners, passing easily into private or business use.

“There is quite a good market for old churches, and we are able to sell them,” Dr Benford said. “One we sold at auction was bought by the Muslim community, and it was turned into a mosque. They handed back the cross to us. We didn’t know who had bought the building until afterwards.”

DIOCESE OF DUNEDINA service on a lake beach, in Dunedin, where the Revd Barbara Walker was commissioned as the second Rural Chaplain (both are non-stipendiary)

The closure of churches has been difficult, particularly for those who can remember helping to fund and build the church decades before, Dr Benford said. “Being able to let go of a building is very painful for some people, but we need to hold these places with open hands, not tight fists.

“It is very sad when a church closes, and someone’s faith closes with it. I try to say to people to go beyond that: we are not a building. Some of the people in small communities even remember funding the church building — I met an elderly man recently who had funded the church that was now having to close. I was very glad to see he was still worshipping in the church community.

“Here, something a hundred years old may be listed and have a past, but, in some places where buildings can’t be maintained, something new has to be put up in its place. Our most historic church needs a new roof, and we have been told it needs a replacement cedar roof, and that is thousands and thousands of pounds, and we can’t do it.

“We are recognising that change can happen: you cannot pickle things in aspic, you have to get on and go with the change. When you get older as person you have to lose things, perhaps good knees or good eyesight, and, as a church, we have to lose things, too.”

There are no targets set out for the diocese to close further buildings to try and cut costs, he says. “I don’t have a figure of how many churches need to close, as long as we are a people who pray, read the Bible, and live out the risen life of Christ that is our foundation, rather than the need to get people in.”

He sees a way forward in the shared use of some buildings, and refers to the example of a small rural community, Middlemarch, which has a Roman Catholic church building, a Presbyterian church, and an Anglican building. Neither the Anglican nor Roman Catholic churches now hold regular services.

“Last Christmas, the RC vicar-general and I held a service in the Presbyterian church, and many in the community came,” Dr Benford said. “We need to be proclaiming Christ, not proclaiming Anglicanism or Catholicism.”

His own career has been shaped by a dual vocation to ministry and medicine. For nearly 30 years, he worked as a medical doctor, specialising in anaesthetics, and spent several years working in southern New Zealand as a GP. His first years in ministry were spent part-time, alongside his work as a doctor, and he believes that the Church needs to allow more of this “hybrid” model of employment.

As a doctor, he could forge deep connections quickly in the community — connections, he said, that took clergy much longer to build. He has hope for the next decade and beyond for the Anglican church in Dunedin.

Asked to describe what the near future will look like, he said: “The Church will still be here with a number of buildings in ten years or more time, but there will be an increasing number of new expressions of faith, midweek, and Saturday groups.”

A decade ago, his predecessor told the Church Times that, despite the challenging financial situation, he did not lose sleep over the future. Dr Benford admits to not always sleeping so soundly.

“I do lose sleep, but more over people being failed by the Church than church building closures — people for whom the Church has been unpleasant, who lose faith when they leave church. I want to be an encourager, not an arm twister.” Many clergy friends remining in the UK faced similar concerns, he said.

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen Ann Hartley, served as Bishop of Waikato in New Zealand North Island for three years. She cautioned about drawing too many parallels between the challenges — and the response to them — facing Dunedin with dioceses in the UK.

Indigenous spirituality ran very deep in New Zealand, and culturally the two contexts were very different, she said. “What is important is a sense of confidence in how we proclaim our faith, how we use our resources wisely for growth, and how we celebrate even the smallest of gains; so the focus isn’t constantly on big initiatives.”

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