As you might imagine, it has not been an easy decision. Most of our friends are here in Auckland, built up over our combined adult lives, and the thought of upping sticks and heading south to live and dwell and have our being amongst the hordes in their red and black scarves harrows us both with fear and wonder. Lonely Planet says that Christchurch is home to more engineers per capita than any other settlement in the southern hemisphere, and while that’s largely good news from a dealing-with-natural-hazards point of view, it could get onerous by the time we’ve been to our second or third drinks-and-nibbles event. “So what do you do?” “I’m a civil engineer.” “So what about those Crusaders then, eh?”
Still, Vicar Bob keeps reminding us that it’s all about doing the Lord’s work. Last year at the annual clergy conference up at Moir’s Point, he had a vision for a church plant in Christchurch’s southeast. He led a bunch of us, including Daph and me, on a reconnaissance trip in May. From the airport we caught a shuttle into town. Most of us hadn’t been to Christchurch since before the quakes, so we were all pretty moved by the sight of the cathedral cordoned off behind its own Berlin Wall, in a kind of reversal of the tearing of the temple curtain. A makeshift signboard offered information about the cathedral restoration project: “We now have a unique opportunity to reinstate the Anglican Cathedral at the heart of our city – for us and for future generations.”
Bob gathered us round the sign, fingers interlocked around his takeaway coffee, and filled us in on his vision. “My vision is for a living cathedral,” he said. “Stones that cry out! Rocks that sing! Living rocks! Living stones! You, in fact, and those the Lord calls to join you.”
Behind his shoulder, a high rise hotel, abandoned, luxuriating in the sun. If you have visited Christchurch in the last year, you may have seen it too. Someone has climbed up its outside – somehow – and painted “TOGO” in huge letters across the top. How they did it, without being seen, without a scaffold, presumably under cover of darkness, is anybody’s guess.
“Why Togo?” I whispered to Daph, gesturing at the massive slogan.
“It’s not Togo, Warren, it’s to go. To go or not to go? That’s our question.”
And indeed, it has been our question these several months. We’ve talked about it, late at night, last thing before sleeping. We’ve prayed. We’ve chatted it over with friends. Daphne even went to a life coach to see what she had to say. I’ve kept an eye on property prices – both up here and down there. We’ve drawn up plus, minus, and interesting charts, and we’ve re-read our way through Exodus to see if the Lord might be nudging us through the Israelites’ experience. How exactly do you make a decision like this? How do you know if the Lord wants it? Do you scan the horizon for a sign, a giant “To go” beaming down on you? A friend of mine, an English teacher, said that if God was actually instructing us to go, the graffito would have been in the imperative form – “Go!” not “To go.” What if God wants us to go to Togo, though? Are we wilfully misreading what is after all a perfectly obvious word-play by the Almighty?
But one morning, following another week of chewing it all over and not getting any further, Daph and I managed to snatch a half hour to pray together while Henry was out with his grandma. The sun had just peeped over Mt Hobson and was shining at last into our conservatory, turning it golden just the way you see in House and Garden magazines. We both had mugs of coffee, and I was thinking to myself how perfect it all was, how much like home it felt, how good the Lord had been to us, when Daphne said, “Let’s go.” I didn’t need to ask what she meant; I knew. And I figured she was probably right. You can’t go too far wrong if you’re planting a church, can you? And Bob’s words from Cathedral Square had been lingering on the edge of my thoughts all this time: a living cathedral.
It turns out, however, that the actual bricks and mortar that we set up in are not going to be quite of cathedral-standard. Bob took us on another scouting mission in September, this time to find a building. What we found was an old rugby league clubrooms in Woolston. The club – the Opawa Vipers – had held on and held on post-quakes, but ultimately couldn’t afford to reinstate their premises. Bob led us one Tuesday morning through a murky den of leaners and bar stools, changing sheds, and weights equipment. From the wall at one end of the main room, a giant snake, coiled around a rugby ball, leered down at us, the letters OVRLC arranging themselves into its tail. A potpourri of beer and liniment filled the stagnant air. Daphne and I were about ready to head back out to the car when, predictably I suppose, Bob pronounced it good. “It’s perfect,” he beamed.
It’s true that with new paint, carpet, some windows put in, and a few walls knocked out, it’s starting to feel a bit more like a place of worship. Bob met with a group of local pastors to talk over how this new set-up might fit within the existing network of worshipping communities. He’s also preserved the old weights room, which members of the league club can continue to access, cost-free, during the week. The Vipers’ logo is still in place at the rear of what is now the sanctuary, touched up, only with its tail clearly held in the grip of a Moses-type figure. In the church office, in among the endless Vipers’ team photographs that line the walls, Bob has mounted a picture of the Last Supper, over the caption “The First XIII.” Daphne and I are members of a leadership team consisting of two St Imulus’ couples and a handful of Woolston locals. Strangely, while other parishes all over the city opt out of the local diocese in favour of one based in Nigeria or Togo or somewhere, we’re grafting in.
We’re sad to be leaving, of course. St Imulus has been the making of us, a place of genuine Christian formation. It’s the place where we’ve felt ourselves to be a part of God’s family. But we hope this new fellowship – God’s Clubrooms, as we’ve dubbed it – will be exactly that for others.