Under the mountain, along the river – the Church in Taranaki and Wanganui
Taranaki-Wanganui District superintendent Rev Alan Upson says the largely rural Methodist district has the strengths of healthy ecumenism and congregations with a community focus. But the region also sees many of its young people move to larger centres, faces a shortage of ordained leaders, and sometimes has a sense of isolation from national bodies.
Taranaki-Wanganui has five Methodist parishes – New Plymouth, Waitara-Urenui, Stratford, Hawera, and Wanganui.
And it has seven Uniting parishes – Eltham-Kaponga, Manaia, Opunake, Okato-Oakura, Inglewood, Patea, and Bell Block-Leperton. Most Uniting congregations are unions of Methodists and Presbyterians; some have Anglican participation as well.
Few follow the traditional pattern of one presbtyer for one congregation. Alan is presbyter at both New Plymouth and Waitara-Urenui, Rev Jan Fogg is half time each at Hawera and Stratford, and Rev John Farr has taken on the responsibility of Eltham-Kaponga and Manaia.
Lay ministry training is a major concern for the district.
“The most important resource of parishes is their people. We have to build them up and enable them to provide lay leadership,” Alan says.
“Many of our rural parishes are parochial. This is a strength because the churches are very committed to their communities.
“It is not natural for some parishes to think Connexionally, however. This is why it is very important for lay people to have guidance and theological training.”
Rev Margaret Springett is chair of the Joint Regional Council, which oversees the Uniting Congregations in the district. Margaret says ecumenical relations in the region are good because the regional heads of the three partner denominations meet on a regular basis. They exchange information and sort out misunderstandings.
Still, the mainline churches could be more flexible and ecumenical, Margaret says.
“We are willing to find the right person for the right job but at times the national churches don’t hear us. From the rural perspective it looks as if the churches think they are big enough that they don’t have to think about ecumenism.”
Margaret points to the work of self-supporting Anglican minister Peter Barleyman as an example of the type of efforts that are needed in Taranaki-Wanganui. Peter is a retired farmer who provides training and support for lay leaders in the Eltham-Kaponga, Manaia and Opunake Anglican parishes.
Another concern of the Taranaki-Wanganui district is the drive to amalgamate districts in the Methodist Church. Alan says his district now has regular meetings with the Wellington and Hawkes Bay-Manawatu districts. He understands the logic of creating fewer districts but some people are concerned funds will leave the district and it will lose its identity.