7th October, 2018


On 12 December 1841, two weeks before he departed England to take up his work as Bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn, asked the stirring question:

Why should our hearts faint within us, when we go forth to sow the seed, and to lay the corner-stone of the Church of Christ in the most distant of islands of the seas?

Selwyn’s task was to oversee both Te Hāhi Mihinare, the Māori church emerging from missionary work, and to develop, almost from scratch, the settler / colonial church. Bishop Selwyn came to New Zealand as a church builder, planter, and organiser.

Twenty-seven years later, on 4 October 1868, Selwyn consecrated this church of St Andrew. He concluded his sermon with the following charge:

… we pray that from this place the living stream, fed with the fulness of the love of God, will flow forth into the regions beyond, into the thirsty wilderness, where the lonely shepherd feeds his flock; to every valley and every hill where the emigrant may pitch his tent; to every island on the surface of the ocean….

The St Andrew’s of 1868 was surrounded by scattered farms, not the dense urban settlement we know today. Often during his journeys through the country Selwyn pitched his tent. He knew the remote places where recently arrived migrants wanted to build a new life. Selwyn’s imagery of wilderness, shepherds and pitching tents is far removed from our world. He reflects the pioneering settler society, and the ideal of the church as a living stream sharing the love of God.

Selwyn’s imprint on the Anglican Church in New Zealand as its pioneering bishop was massive. This building and parish reflect part of that legacy. With great foresight, Selwyn secured significant sites and planted parishes with an eye to the future. He also inspired the distinctive style of wooden buildings described by his name – “Selwyn Churches”. One architect writes about them “as charming examples of church architecture” that “spawned the now ubiquitous timber Gothic style” which “have come to be seen as New Zealand vernacular buildings”.

Twenty-two years had passed since the first services in Epsom in 1846. The consecration of St Andrew’s in 1868 was both a solemn and joyous occasion. There was a full “choral Communion service” which included the four Psalms “chaunted”, with, we’re told, “an efficient choir from St Mark’s, assisted by ladies from Parnell, the whole under the leadership of Mr. E[dwin]. Hesketh.” St Andrew’s notable tradition of choral music was begun.

This was an incredibly busy time for Selwyn who had recently returned from the first Lambeth Conference to sort out ecclesiastical matters in New Zealand before returning to England to take up his new role as Bishop of Lichfield. In the week before St Andrew’s consecration, he held confirmations at Howick and Mauku. On the Sunday morning he led the service at St Mark’s; in the afternoon he was here for the consecration of St Andrew’s; in the evening he held another confirmation at St Matthew’s. The General Synod began meeting the next day with Selwyn as President. It met for a total of eleven days. Selwyn was a man noted for his stamina!

Three days after the Synod concluded, and following a farewell service, Selwyn, his wife Sarah, and son John, boarded S.S. Hero to return to England. In an extraordinary gesture, Auckland authorities declared a half-day holiday. John Kinder, who designed what is now the heart of this building and the minister for Epsom at the time, wrote about that farewell:

The crowds between the church and the wharf were enormous, the excitement intense. All seemed moved with one heart and voice to give expression to their admiration for the great and noble man they would not see again, and their feelings on losing him…. We [are] all the poorer for this loss.

Historians, like myself, still grapple with Selwyn and his legacy. This is not the day, however, to critically examine either his short-comings or unduly praise him. What we celebrate today is this building, and more than that, the women and men who helped build it, extend it as growth demanded and who have been part of its life.

Buildings which you know well, like this church, shape us. They’re not just inert material structures.

Church buildings are places where the cries and chuckles of young babies have been heard, as people experience the joy of celebrating new life through baptism. Children and teenagers have been part of the energetic life of this place, learning about Christianity, developing life-long friendships, confirming their faith. Couples have stood in front of families and friends and declared their love for each other; their commitment to live together in sickness and in health. Tears have been shed, as the end the of the life of someone dearly loved has been marked.

These rites of passage have strengthened the emotional attachment which we have with those who gather with us for these occasions. Place and people, church building and congregation, through these shared experiences over time, become intertwined. The brass plaques, the memorial windows, remind us of those who have been shaped by, and contributed to life of this building. People who sat in these pews before us have undergone the full range of human experience, between birth to death.

What was it like coming here during two world wars, where absence was felt by parents and families concerned about close relatives fighting overseas, or just having received the unwanted telegram about the casualty or death of someone loved. With the memorial windows and chapel here at St Andrew’s, one can’t escape the impact of those wars. While a church building is a set apart place, it is not a retreat from the world, but a place where world, worship and memory meet.

But this building is also a place of encounter. The Word read, and the word preached over the decades in this building, has inspired, challenged, encouraged, and no doubt at times, bored or even angered its hearers. The debate here at St Andrew’s, for example, over whether candles should be placed on the altar, resulted in a close vote of 113 to 75 in favour and the resignation of the People’s Warden! It’s helpful to be reminded that many of the controversies of yesteryear, which bitterly divided people, leave people today wondering what all the fuss was about.

The advice of the seventeenth century cleric, George Herbert, is a salutary reminder to preachers, however, that their words are finite. As Herbert put it:
Resort to sermons, but to prayers most:
Praying ’s the end of preaching.
This building has been a house of prayer in word and music for 150 years. Its walls have absorbed, as it were, the hopes and fears of the people who have come to worship here.

The day before this building was consecrated, the local newspaper reported under the alarming headings: “The War at Patea” and “The War: East Coast”, the fighting between colonial troops and Titokowaru and Te Kooti and their followers. There was also reference to a “Ministerial Crisis” in Wellington, with the government only staying in power by one vote. “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”, was the Psalmist’s plea. That cry symbolises the desire for the shalom, the well-being of God’s world. It has echoed here down the decades.

The church is a remembering community – “Do this is remembrance of me” is the eucharistic injunction we follow when we break bread and share the cup in memory of Jesus, his life, his death, and the new life found in his community of followers. The ordinary and the extraordinary come together. As the hymn puts it: “wherever Christ is followed, earthly fare becomes sublime”.

The earthquakes in Christchurch reminded us of the importance of buildings and the deep emotional attachment and close association which people have with them. The debate over the restoration or replacement of the Cathedral underlined that.

But as our Bible readings indicated, there was a long-standing tension between buildings as the “house of God” and the church as “the people of God”. The Greek word, ‘ecclesia’, which is translated in the New Testament as “church”, does not refer to a building at all, but to those who are called out, those who gather for worship. And so, while today we celebrate the anniversary of the consecration of this building, we also remember and give thanks for the people who have over the decades come here to worship and pray, and the priests and those who have ministered with them.

Historically there has been a close relationship between the building where people gather and the parish, the defined geographical area in which it is located. The parish is a unique institution which has played a formative role in the lives of generations. Apart from the extended family, what other organisation in society has brought people together from the youngest to the oldest and influenced and so powerfully shaped their lives? This parish, with the church building as the place where people gather, has fulfilled a range of social, cultural, and above all, religious and spiritual functions: in nurturing faith, giving sustained pastoral care, serving the community and directing people to the needs of the world.

While I don’t want to rain on St Andrew’s celebration today, we must acknowledge that we live at a time when parishes are under enormous pressure with aging and diminishing congregations. Traditional generational loyalty to the church has declined and can no long be relied on to provide new members. The church has suffered negatively in public opinion, and sadly become increasingly irrelevant in the lives of the majority of people.

A year ago, the Church Times in England conducted a seminar which tackled the question, “The Parish: Has It Had Its Day?” Those taking part in the debate pointed to both instances of hope and matters of huge concern. The verdict is still out on question: “What future does the parish have in the 21st century?”

Neil MacGregor, the author of Living With the Gods, in trying to understand the power of religion in the contemporary world, writes that “religion is one of the most powerful forces for shaping and energising a community…. because it gives the group a narrative of who they are and what, together, they can become.” MacGregor concludes: “Religion in its social dimension is … about hope, new behaviour and the challenge of struggling toward the future.” The ongoing challenge for the church is to embody that narrative of hope, to give meaning to living and provide a community of belonging.

One hundred fifty years ago, Bishop Selwyn imagined a living stream flowing from this place carrying the love of God throughout the country and beyond. Among those present that day was John Coleridge Patteson, the Missionary Bishop of Melanesia. He took over from Selwyn the leadership of the work of sharing the love of God, in all its fulness, with the people of Melanesia. Three years after being here, Bishop Patteson was killed and two of his colleagues died of tetatnus from arrow wounds sustained when they went to retrieve their bishop’s body. Sharing the love of God can be a costly business. But as Selwyn envisaged in that farewell sermon in 1841, the seed was sown, and as he said, “the corner-stone of the Church of Christ” laid “in the most distant of islands of the seas” – including here at St Andrew’s Epsom and in Melanesia.

As well as giving thanks, an anniversary is also a time to commit to be the church in this place for the present and into the future – whatever that future might be. Our world is very different from Selwyn’s world; but the living stream which he envisaged carrying the love of God still begins for St Andrew’s in this place in worship, in caring for each other and the wider community; it’s a love which reaches out to the poverty-stricken in our society and world; it’s a love which includes all people, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race or faith; it’s a love which prays and works for peace where there is any form of conflict or violence; it’s a love which embraces creation and seeks the healing and renewal of the earth. Blessings be upon this building, this parish, and on you the people of this people. Thanks be to God!

 – Reverend Dr Allan Davidson