Church - What's happening in 2021?

01.04.2021

In Woolston, Christchurch, a small group of parishioners is fighting to support its local community – and the survival of its church. Frank Film investigates.

By Sally Blundell for Frank Film.

In Woolston, Christchurch, a small group of parishioners is fighting to support its local community – and the survival of its church.

The congregation was down to five, the collection plate was worryingly light, but a small group of elderly parishioners in one of Christchurch’s poorest suburbs is refusing to let their local church fall silent.

“How dare we close the Church and say God isn't here?” asks the Reverend Kirstie McDonald, priest in charge at the St John the Evangelist parish Anglican church in Woolston. “Even when just two or three are gathered, God is there.”

Some thought otherwise. St John’s Woolston was one of a number of parishes split apart following the Church’s decision to allow the blessing of same-sex civil marriages in 2018. The resulting schism saw hundreds of worshippers break away from their local Anglican church throughout the country. In Woolston, an Anglican parish dating back to 1857, numbers tumbled, but a small group of volunteers are showing the church still has an important role to fill within its community.

“Those who remain here,” Rev. McDonald told Frank Film, “believe in an inclusive church. Whether you are LGBQT or whatever you are – you are welcome here.”

Inclusive it is. Every week local parents bring young children to music and play sessions, on Wednesdays the team at St John delivers around 20 food parcels to local families, and on Thursdays community lunches attract 35-50 people. “We are looking for fellowship to provide a place of safety,” says McDonald, “a haven of warmth. That is what church is.”

It seems to be working. Congregation numbers have since climbed back to around 20 people.

It also appears to be bucking a trend. Statistics show the number of New Zealanders identifying as Christian has fallen to about a third of the population. Of these, only 9 per cent attend church.

Fewer again give up their time to keep the church operating. St John’s Woolston is run by a skeleton staff of mainly elderly volunteers. Local parishioners run the kitchen, clean the church, do the laundry and keep the garden in order. “We are busy,” says community development worker Lorna Harris. “That’s for sure.”

Busy, and financially stretched. Woolston is one of New Zealand’s most deprived communities. According to the 2018 Census, the median income is $28,300. Christchurch City Council data from 2014 shows just over a third of people living in the suburb have an income of less than $20,000 a year.

“And we are here as an antidote to that,” says Lay Minister, Val McClimont.

But still there are challenges. Sunday services do not generate enough income to run the church and the pool of volunteers is ageing. More young people, said McDonald, are desperately needed to provide the services that have proved so vital to this long-serving community. In the meantime, the core operators at St John’s Woolston are battening down for another demanding winter, building their community service to feed the bodies and souls of its growing number of parishioners.

Producer: Gerard Smyth
Story Director: Gaylene Barnes