Mystery Worshipper: Nengscoz
Church: National Memorial Service
Location: Hagley Park, Christchurch, New Zealand
Date of visit: Friday, 18 March 2011, 12:30pm
Hagley Park is located in the centre of Christchurch's central business district and is often host to mass events. The staging was set up differently this time, however, because of the preparations that had earlier been made for the Ellerslie Flower Show, which had been cancelled. The congregation faced east, toward the cordoned off central business district, with staging for the officials and video screens and speakers peppered throughout the people.
The community of Christchurch had suffered through a devastating six months of earthquakes, culminating in a 6.3 magnitude aftershock at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011. At least 182 people perished, and there are still others missing and bodies yet to be recovered. Unsurprisingly, the city rallied and people helped each other thousands of ways. The service was to recognise both of these things.
Worshippers, in the main, trekked over the majority of Hagley park to get to the staging. They walked across a golf course covered in new dips, cracks and mounds, the latter made from liquefaction that has yet to be cleaned up. People were requested to walk or bike and every tree was surrounded by bikes, due to the lack of bike stands. Finally the eastern side of the park was inaccessible, still deemed too unsafe as it backs onto the CBD and is cordoned off.
His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales KG, representing Her Majesty the Queen; His Excellency the Rt Hon. Sir Anand Satyanand GNZM QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand; the Rt Hon. John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand; the Hon. Phil Goff MP, leader of the opposition; His Worship the Hon. Bob Parker, Mayor of Christchurch; Henare Rakiihia Tau, the Upoko Ru Nanga (head of council) of Nga i Tu a Huriri (the local Maori subtribe of the region); the Rt Revd Victoria Matthews, Bishop of Christchurch; the Very Revd Peter Beck, Dean of Christchurch; plus other officials and representatives of various groups. Jeremy Borland, better known as "Jeremy the Sign Language Guy" and something of a celebrity in these parts, and "Evelyn the Sign Language Lady" provided renderings of the proceedings into New Zealand Sign Language, which is one of the official languages of New Zealand.
What was the name of the service?National Christchurch Memorial Service.
How full was the building?
The northeast corner of the park was full. Estimates are saying that 100,000 people attended.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Due to the masses of people, there were no personal greetings although there were some very friendly police officers, Salvation Army representatives, and welfare staff milling about.
Was your pew comfortable?
Instructions to the people of Christchurch were to bring something to sit on that would not block the view of the people behind. I brought a trusty picnic blanket but noted that around one-fifth of the people had brought some form of chairs, much to the annoyance of those sitting behind them.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Patriotic, calm, resigned. People were drawn to the area in a resigned manner, and were greeted by a brass band, followed by a lament on bagpipes. The congregation were then played a 14 minute video of the destruction in the centre city, an area we have not been able to access.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Henare Rakiihia Tau opened the proceedings by reciting the mihi whakatau, a formal welcoming speech used by the Maori in their tribal ceremonies. I only speak basic Maori and cannot reproduce the opening words. But he then went on to say in English: "Firstly, I give thanks to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and their holy and faithful angels, as we submit our prayers of hope and belief..." Following this we sang God Save the Queen.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The words in both Maori and English were projected onto big screens.
What musical instruments were played?
The Woolston Brass Band played before the service, along with an unknown piper. The pu-tatara (traditional Maori trumpet made from a conch shell) was used to open the service. All songs were accompanied and various celebrity musicians made appearances, along with the choir of Christchurch Cathedral. Singer and songwriter Dave Dobbyn, who is regarded as a national treasure for his songs that have over the years become a part of New Zealand life, sang and played the guitar. Also contributing were the soprano Hayley Westenra, known for her recordings of light classics as well as for her work with UNICEF; and opera singer Dame Malvina Major, who numbers Hayley Westenra among her pupils.
Did anything distract you?
At intervals throughout the service, lone red or black balloons (the colours of the Canterbury region in which Christchurch is situated) were released into the sky and drifted away.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was traditional, with lots of readings and inspirational musical numbers, lighting of braziers, etc., whilst the congregation sat and listened. One lone man waved his hands during Hayley Westenra's rendition of Amazing Grace. Prince William conveyed Her Majesty's condolences and sympathy, and said how moved he was by what he had seen. We grieve, he said, but we also love. "Be strong," he concluded, speaking in Maori. Prayers were offered by representatives of the Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Baha'i faiths, along with readings from the Bible and prayers by the various Christian dignitaries present. Dame Malvina Major sang Pie Jesu from the Requiem mass, accompanied on the piano, but the setting was unfamiliar. A kite floated about the sky pulling a banner reading "Rise Up Chch" [sic].
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Bishop Matthews has a strong accent. I assume it is Canadian as she was born there but it is quite unusual.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop preached on the strength of God's love, drawing on Psalm 23 and making allusions that we, as a people, have come "through the valley of the shadow of death" and have emerged stronger. She urged non-believers to question the motivation behind the generous responses of the majority of the city, whether pulling people out of rubble or shoveling the silt out of a stranger's garden. She argued that they were moved by the Holy Spirit and we have seen God's work in Christchurch.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The rendition of Pie Jesu; the solidarity I felt in being surrounded by fellow Cantabrians; the recognition of all the people, paid and volunteer, who have been working hard toward the recovery and cleanup effort; the inclusion of the deaf by having Jeremy and Evelyn translating the entire service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
His Royal Highness' terrible Maori pronunciation, although the thought was there, which is what matters really.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I moved along with the masses, otherwise I might have been trampled.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was available, although mid-service water carriers were distributing water as it was a gloriously sunny day and quite warm.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – While it is in a handy, central location, I fear this may be a bit cold to attend during winter.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sort of. Whilst this service was billed as interfaith, it was decidedly Christian. We sang Christian hymns, had readings from both the Old and New Testaments, and prayed the Lord's Prayer. The clergy present were predominantly Anglican. There was the token gesture of letting members of five other faiths read out a prayer, but only at a designated time. It made me feel as if we weren't respectful to other religions.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The floating banner "Rise Up Chch."