Review: Worship: A History of New Zealand Church Design

Worship: A History of New Zealand Church Design
by Bill McKay and illustrated by Jane Ussher.

Reviewed by Wayne Matheson

It is a little hard to know where or how to start a review of this stunning and beautiful book. It sets out to be a tribute to 200 years of church architecture and design. Architectural historian McKay thoughtfully explores the history and diversity of church building, while photographer Ussher captures an array of churches the length of the country.

McKay’s forebears were Presbyterian Scots who came to Waipu. He wants the churches to show the chronological development of church buildings in New Zealand, and tells that story by reverse chronology!

One has the sense that there is a little more that underlies this work. Maybe there is a social history being woven into this as well. Is this work also about recording some significantly architecturally buildings for posterity as these places are seen to now be at risk?  The seismic strengthening requirements after the Christchurch earthquakes, along with the costs of that work and the diminishing sizes of our congregations also seem to play a part in the telling of this story.

Is it a looking back when these buildings were places for our weddings, baptisms, funerals and key dates on the Christian calendar? Maybe there is something about churches being such familiar sights in our landscape that we generally take them for granted. Church buildings are not just places of worship, they are also places with memories and stories that define us as individuals, as families, and as members of wider society.

McKay notes, quoting the historian Michael King I think, that our Gothic-revival churches are our greatest contribution to world architecture. We might want to debate that, the photos that so wonderfully illustrate this work show a largely Anglican and Catholic view of our buildings in this regard. While it is not a part of the brief, there is an unmistakable theology being portrayed in building design.

Within our own denomination, buildings that reflect a lecture-type mode; raised pulpits and square boxes, speak of something about who we were and what was important.

McKay, in other works, writes about his research on the areas of New Zealand modernism and Maori architecture, and here notes the impact of both Maori and Pacific culture on church design. While in places this has been more of an assimilation than an incorporation, it is interesting to observe this as part of the wider landscape that reveals aspects of our bi-cultural, multicultural, and wider Pacific journey.

The book is impressive in its size and in the quality of the photographs which capture both the grand and the intimate.  The story McKay tells of our last 200 years is clearly an important contribution to our architectural history.