Lutherans living the gospel in New Zealand
Voices from the Communion: Bishop Mark Whitfield of the LCNZ
(LWI) - The Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ) is a small church with around 800 baptized members spread out across 14 different locations on the North and South islands. Rev. Mark Whitfield, Bishop of the LCNZ says there is a good ecumenical spirit in New Zealand and that he believes the priority for each congregation is to “discover what it is that God wants them to do” in their particular context.
The first Lutheran missionaries came to New Zealand from Germany and Scandinavia over a century and a half ago, with others arriving in the years following the Second World War.
In this interview with Lutheran World Information (LWI), Bishop Whitfield talks about ecumenism, interfaith relations and the challenges facing his church “at the bottom of the world.”
What do you see as the top priorities for your church today?
I don’t think it’s a matter of trying to invent programs or plans for growth, but it’s more about seizing the opportunities that are always there to be God’s love in all of our communities. I spend a lot of my time as bishop, and previously as pastor in Wellington where I still live, being intentionally on the lookout for opportunities to speak the gospel and to be the gospel in relationships with others. As bishop, that’s also my constant theme of engagement with pastors and congregational leaders, to simply keep their hearts and eyes and ears open to what God is placing in front of them in terms of opportunities.
Are there places where the church is growing?
There is potential for growth in all of our major cities and over the past 15-20 years there have been congregations that have grown. In Auckland, our largest city of about one and a half million people, we only have one English speaking church but they are embarking on a program that may lead towards church planting. They certainly have a vision and a heart for growth, but it’s not easy, so we tend to be either holding our own or even in gradual decline numerically.
How would you describe relations with the other Christian churches?
There is a very good ecumenical spirit here in New Zealand and we get on extremely well. One of the challenges for us as Lutherans is that because we’re so small, a lot of the other denominations don’t know we exist here. But where there is an awareness of who we are, there’s a deep warmth for us and for the important contribution we can make to the broader Christian witness. I’m currently the secretary of our National Church Leaders’ of Aotearoa-New Zealand committee and play a very active role there, so that has raised the profile of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand.
How did the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation affect those relationships?
I worked very hard to invite other denominations to participate and we had a wonderful time sharing in those events, particularly with the Roman Catholic Church and, as a result, we began our formal dialogue with them. We also got to present our major Reformation Cantata Vespers at the Anglican cathedral in Wellington. I sing in the choir when I have time, so that’s also helped to forge good connections, but we’ve still got to work at it.
You reached out to Muslims following the recent terror attacks in Christchurch - how are you continuing to respond to those affected by the mosque killings?
The nation has responded extremely positively and has reached out with love and care to embrace our fellow Muslim citizens. That outpouring of national love and warmth has been modelled very well by our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, so the test will be to ensure that continues. The ecumenical church, especially in Christchurch, has rallied together to be alongside Muslims and they’ve conducted many prayer vigils and services. On the day after the attacks, I was with a small group of Lutherans in house worship and we visited a mosque in that city [Tauranga], read from the Psalms, prayed and shared the Aaronic blessing. But I also think we Lutherans have been a bit reluctant, or perhaps unsure, about how we might engage with this opportunity.
How are you trying to promote stronger interfaith relations?
If you’d asked me a decade or two ago, I don’t think I would have been so comfortable talking about Christian-Muslim relations, but now I think it’s very important for us to understand other religions and how we can connect and relate to them. Two weeks after the mosque attacks, I set up a zoom conference for all our pastors with a young pastor who has done special studies in Islam-Christian relations, so I’ve been trying hard to encourage our leaders to be open to learning about how those relationships could be either established or nurtured.
How about the connection to the wider Lutheran World Federation (LWF)?
I’d like our people to know we’re part of something bigger, we’re part of a church through which God is doing some amazing things, all over the world, that we’re not always aware of.
Some people in the church would know that they’re part of a very large global denomination, but for others it’s not even important that we’re a district of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). There’s a sense that we’re here, at the bottom of the world, and even in our own nation, people don’t always know who we are so people don’t feel confident and the whole thing of being part of a global Lutheran family is almost played down. LWF General Secretary Martin Junge visited here a couple of years ago and it was important for me to share what we are doing. I’d like it to work the other way too: I’d like our people to know we’re part of something bigger, we’re part of a church through which God is doing some amazing things, all over the world, that we’re not always aware of.
What are the next major events on the calendar for your church?
Our next big event is our synod in about two months’ time. It takes place every two years and is quite low key compared to the General Synod of the Lutheran Church of Australia where we do the bigger things. Our synod is very focused on inspiring and encouraging local ministry opportunities. And I’m always on the look-out for the chance to celebrate moments in history that can re-inspire us and fire us up again for the story that God is still writing in our country today.
The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.
Voices from the Communion Series