During the 1940s support for ecumenism (cooperation between Christian churches) increased. The Presbyterian Church was a founding member of the National Council of Churches in 1941 and Presbyterians were active in the council’s leadership. The church also supported the Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas (CORSO). In 1969 most of the New Zealand Congregational Church, including a large number of Pacific Island people, merged with the Presbyterian Church. Concentration on internal concerns and a desire to retain separate denominational identities blocked subsequent attempts at wider church unity.
In the 1950s the New Life Movement brought a renewed focus on growth. During the post-1945 baby boom, churches were built in the burgeoning new suburbs, providing much-needed social networks for families. In 1959 the church supported the visit of US evangelist Billy Graham, whose campaign attracted large crowds and led to an increase in church membership.
The 1950s also saw church reform. In 1954 Presbyterians voted to accept women in church government, and the first women elders attended the 1957 general assembly. In 1964 women were admitted into the ministry and the first woman minister, Margaret Martin, was ordained the following year.
Changes in the Presbyterian Church service also led to new designs in church architecture. The large dominating pulpit was relocated to the side and the (more democratic) communion table became the focus. Some churches arranged seating in a horseshoe shape so people could see faces rather than only the backs of heads. Others introduced colourful banners to brighten sober interiors.
Theological reform proved more contentious. It came to a head in 1966 when Lloyd Geering, the principal of Knox College Theological Hall, questioned the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and later said he did not believe in life after death – the idea of an immortal soul. Conservative church members claimed these ideas contravened church doctrine and had Geering charged with heresy. Geering successfully defended himself at the 1967 general assembly, but the church formally dissociated itself from his views in 1970.
Lloyd Geering was not the first theologian to raise hackles. In 1888 William Salmond, a former Theological Hall professor, published a book that questioned the belief that human salvation only came from Christianity. When traditionalists slammed the book for doctrinal error, Salmond retorted that dogma fostered intellectual stagnation.
By the early 1970s the growth of the previous two decades had stopped and membership was dropping rapidly. The increasing secularisation of New Zealand society was one reason for this, but wider socio-economic forces also played a part, including the rise of private forms of entertainment such as television.
In 1964 church membership (as opposed to those who identified themselves as Presbyterian) stood at 90,500; by 2008 it had fallen to 29,300. By this time the church had a high proportion of older members – nearly 50% of parishes had no programmes for youth. The movement of population from rural to urban centres, and from south to north, also had an impact. The Presbyterian heartland was still Otago and Southland, but 25% of church members were in Auckland.
During the 1980s the charismatic movement within the Presbyterian Church provided a revival of sorts. Its emphasis on receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit – including speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and miracles – attracted people interested in the supernatural. Its high-energy worship style led to its followers being called ‘holy rollers’.
Accommodating greater diversity and funding new ministries were among the challenges facing the church in the 21st century. Pews once filled with Europeans increasingly featured Pacific, Asian and other faces. The church hoped that building cross-cultural understanding between these groups would create greater unity. Diminishing income impeded new ministries. One solution was the ‘Press Go’ programme, in which individual churches could choose where to direct their funding. The church also looked at ways to release the considerable capital tied up in church property. A final challenge was to find ways to connect with new generations to ensure the church’s future.