St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland, New Zealand


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland
Location: New Zealand
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 February 2024, 10:00am

The building

St Matthew’s is a massive and beautiful Gothic revival building dating from 1905, in the early English style, in the central business district of Auckland. The building, which has fine stone vaulting in hard limestone, and a timber roof, was designed by Frank Loughborough Pearson, whose father was a British Gothic Revival architect who built numerous churches and cathedrals. There is a joyousness about the church, as its bells ring out and its welcome poster anchors the door.

The church

St Matthew’s serves as the civic church of Auckland, where memorial services and other important events are held. It has a long history of working with minority groups, including a gay study group established in the early 1970s. The church was active in campaigning against South African apartheid in the 1980s, and currently works for climate justice. It is inclusive in welcoming people of all sexual and gender orientations.

The neighborhood

The church is high on a hill, and it is not in a residential area.

The cast

The priest in charge was the presider, and also read a sermon from a scheduled preacher who had acquired Covid the day before the service. Many lay people had liturgical roles. An unexpected moment had a lay woman reading the Gospel while an ordained person held the book for her.

What was the name of the service?

Waitangi Day Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Half of the pews were full, with maybe 65 people or so. The vast space (the website says St Matthew’s holds 1,400) had been artfully arranged so it didn't look sparsely attended. The congregation included mostly singles save for some older couples, and nary a child in sight. They seemed to enjoy being together and tolerate each other's quirks.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Three people greeted us as we entered, and one gave us a bulletin. The priest in charge kindly warned that one of us had an untied shoe!

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was reasonably comfortable. Every pew in the church had long rods installed beneath it. We presume that the rods once held kneelers, which are now consigned to a storage room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some prayed; some stared at the walls; some chatted softly; one man walked about carrying a glass of water and greeting friends.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

First: Haere Mai, a welcome chant sung in Maori.
Next: Spoken Maori – sadly, we had no idea what it meant.
Then: ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Creator.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books. Only the service leaflet, which was five pages, double-sided.

What musical instruments were played?

Magnificent pipe organ, with a rich and sonorous sound. The organist was a skilled musician who played a brilliant prelude and postlude, and supported his small (four person) choir well. The choir actually smiled when they sang; they looked like they were delighted to be proclaiming good news to the congregation. Some of the hymns had only the texts printed with no music. That made it hard for visitors to sing! Also, a piano accompanied a short communion hymn.

Interior of St Matthew, Auckland

Did anything distract you?

At the top of the south aisle, two rooms have been constructed. During the service, a man went into the walk between them and then came out. Our imaginations were tweaked as we considered... restrooms in church (how convenient!), confessional booths (a little large), a private prayer room (hmmm). Turns out they are a) a transplanted, tiny mission chapel from the 19th century, and b) a nave kitchenette.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Sort of broad church, and quite specific to this urban congregation. So we prayed for ‘priests, cleaners, clerks, grocers, carpenters, professors, mystics, homemakers,’ etc. There was a beautiful eucharistic prayer: ‘We give thanks for Jeremiah who prayed for the city... and prophets like Deborah who challenged people in the town square.’

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 long minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 — The scheduled preacher was a local academic who contracted Covid the day before the service. So the priest in charge read the text. She did a nice job of reading someone else’s words without being plodding, but the sermon was peppered (salted too) with Maori words, phrases, exclamations, which we were unable to follow.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theme was the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, agreed between Maori chieftains and the British Crown, widely regarded as the founding document of New Zealand. New Zealand’s national holiday, Waitangi Day, had been celebrated a few days earlier. There was much comparing and contrasting of treaty documents. The conclusion: ‘We all have a treaty to engage, each in our own way.’ It seemed to us that is exactly the opposite of what adherence to a treaty means. Also, the connection between the sermon and the Gospel (Luke 2:9-14) was not at all clear.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sounds, starting with the bells calling the city to worship. Then the voice of the priest in charge, heard for the first time cutting through the Maori and music and proclaiming ‘grace to you and peace’. She has a remarkable way of speaking holy words with dignity and authority – and at the same time speaking personally and directly. And also the many words spoken by lay liturgical leaders. They were well prepared and well spoken, and I deeply appreciated the voice of the people coming from the people. The introit sung by the four singers, with Maori words meaning ‘welcome’, were sung over and over in a lush musical setting that beautifully capitalized on each singer’s voice range. The music was ethereal and indeed heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Oh, dear Lord, the sermon. It rattled on, and its details made it incomprehensible to us. It had more than one reference to the writer’s importance in the works of Waitangi scholarship. Its conclusion seemed to us to be nonsensical.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We looked lost as long as we could and nothing happened. Then we asked a couple about the booths at the top of the south aisle. ‘St Thomas’ chapel,’ they said, but couldn't explain what that was. ‘Do people go in here?’ we asked. ‘No,’ they said, ‘but you can.’ And then they said we should help ourselves to a cup of tea.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was hard to find the tea pot. The biscuits were plentiful. We felt awkward and left.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 — We would try other churches in Auckland first.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. Wonderful to find an Anglican Church in a foreign land.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The excessive Maori. We found it bewildering in this congregation.

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