Book Review: Sunday Best: How the Church Shaped New Zealand and New Zealand Shaped the Church.
Sunday Best is written out of the conviction “that understanding religious culture is highly desirable for our understanding of New Zealand society” (22). The title comes from an era when “People dressed up to go to church: everyone had their Sunday best” (102). The motif applies not only to dress codes, clerical and lay, but also to competing ideals of Christian behaviour manifested in moral campaigns and angst about the working classes. The subtitle, “How the church shaped New Zealand and New Zealand shaped the church” indicates without saying as much how this is a development from Transplanted Christianity, the compilation of documents by Peter Lineham and Allan Davidson, which was first published in 1987. The sense that Christianity was originally a transplanted religion is now laid alongside how it has also been affected by its reception. Both books carry similar values: “neither to denigrate nor to sanctify particular points of view, but to encourage a critical yet sympathetic understanding of the role of the church and its members in various aspects of New Zealand history” (Transplanted Christianity, 1987, 14).
Peter Lineham brings to this task his unequalled knowledge of New Zealand history and the history of Christianity, and draws heavily on the hundreds of parish histories that he has collected over many years. This implied tribute to local and amateur historians is important, and there is also a sense in which Lineham is also fronting for a team which he himself helped create. The colleagues and students who have been part of Lineham’s journey are well utilized and fully acknowledged. It is appropriate that the dedication is to Allan Davidson.
The focus is on European traditions, though there is more on Māori Christianity than this might suggest. For church members, matters of belief are treated in terms of attitudes and values rather than theology. Church leaders are discussed in relation to status and hierarchy. Issues of gender and concern for children, youth, and the social groups barely present in most church traditions, are each well discussed. Every chapter is populated with vignettes of personalities, many of them colourful, and the book reflects a mastery of narrative, telling illustration, and empirical data. It deals with commonalities across the diversities including those which coalesce across traditions – for instance, music tastes and youth cultures. It is also a story of how good intentions in one generation can to another in different circumstances appear inexplicable and bizarre. If today it seems easier to rejoice at those who seemed ahead of their time when they challenged the authorities of their day, than it is to sympathise with those who hang on to symbols of identity others have left behind, Sunday Best helps us see that both sets of attitudes are common cultural phenomenon, not just reflections of particular religious ideals.
Lineham’s gifts as a storyteller are legendary, and his – at times mischievous – historical insight, sense of place, perspective, and occasion are well displayed. Lineham knows the insides of churches around the country, and his descriptions of their history, and the messages in their design, can take the readers there in an instant. It might not be too much to say that this is Lineham himself at his best – and this is also a story of how the Church has shaped Lineham as well as of how Lineham has shaped the Church. It is also a story in which many of us will recognise ourselves, even if that unsurprisingly means there are places where we might like to tweak some details. This is, in effect, a religious anthropology and one which is important for understanding contested theologies even if theology is not the focus. The interaction of ideals and their context is one of a range of the conversations that Sunday Best helps make possible which are likely to be more important than whether or not particular historical interpretations within it might be challenged or further developed. One of the great strengths of the book is its accessibility – it is wonderfully illustrated, humorous in places, and includes some marvellous lines of poetry. It is also reasonably affordable – and it is published by a university press.
The themes around which Lineham weaves his analysis, somehow managing to avoid serious repetition in the process, indicate where he sees the interaction between religion and culture most clearly revealed. The story begins with discussion about sacred days and the sacred day, then the buildings and their messages – the built environment of faith – followed by the forms and habits of worship itself, its music and language, the dynamics of church leadership, and the trajectories of the beliefs of the people. This is about materiality as well as community, so there is a chapter about money, who raises it and who spends it, as well as chapters on gender, children and youth, socialization, status, and hierarchy. We read about women who still managed to run the show despite exclusion from formal leadership, the importance of food and flowers and the seriousness of competition. This is a text of faith, by an insider in many respects, but an outsider in others, and hearing the voices of both is refreshing. There are a number of references which indicate an understanding of what it is like to be confused by where you go and what you do in an unfamiliar religious space. We get a sense of both comfort and discomfort over liturgies, and what was going on in debates over baptism and the rather contrasting understandings concerning what it was all about for the different parties involved.
Lineham captures well the strong feelings which surround rival musical tastes and whether authenticity in the things of God are best served by formality or popular informality, connection with the world, or differentiation from it. Sunday Best is evidence of how Christians change their expressions of committed faith across time and culture yet remain part of the same religion. The issue of what contradictions are indications of sinful disobedience, and which simply appropriate reflections of faith arising out of creation’s diversity, need to be addressed in other places, but Sunday Best provides an important perspective for those who seek to know what the idea of “Sunday Best” requires in changing circumstances and what living it might look like.
This readable, engaging, account of Christian faith in New Zealand life provides the authoritative background which popular and academic analyses alike need to take seriously in order to be able to understand and interpret what people in times which were more overtly religious saw themselves as doing and saying.
John Roxborogh is an Honorary Fellow at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Otago. He was previously a lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, having taught earlier at the Bible College of New Zealand (now Laidlaw College) and Seminary Theology Malaysia. He has written on the history of Christianity in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, and published articles on the influence of Reformed and Dissenting traditions, as well as the history of missions, and issues of syncretism. He is an Honorary Life Member of the International Association for Mission Studies.