WORSHIP — A History of New Zealand Church Design by Bill McKay (photography by Jane Ussher) (Penguin, Random House, 2015); $85. Reviewed by TERESA WACKROW.
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In September this year the people of Auckland diocese were privileged to have Sr Jill O’Brien, SGS, a liturgical design consultant from Western Australia, visit us and share her wonderful knowledge of the principles to be considered in the design of spaces for worship.
One of her repeated phrases was, “Where there is no beauty there is poverty”.
Bill McKay’s book, Worship: A History of New Zealand Church Design, is filled with beauty in the images it presents of many of our New Zealand churches.
The flyleaf calls it a “stunning tribute to New Zealand church architecture [which] brings together early country churches, grand cathedrals and striking modernist designs in a unique survey of some of our most compelling landmark buildings”, and certainly it is. It is also a wonderful testament to the faith of the people of New Zealand, from the earliest days of Christianity through to the present day.
The book is organised into six chapters. The first chapter, called “Challenge and change: Churches today” begins with the Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch and includes, among others, the tiny Waterfall Chapel at Maungatapere, and the Samoan Methodist Church in Arch Hill, Auckland.
The following chapters look back through the history of New Zealand church design: “High tide: The modern resurgence”, “Churches in a variety of styles: Between the world wars”, “Transplanted Christianity: The late nineteenth century”, “There are no Maoris at Te Awamutu: Settlers and wars”, and the final chapter “Civilisation arrives: Missionaries and early churchmen”.
Bill McKay introduces each chapter by reflecting on the historical period. He follows this with comments on the design, architectural features and significant artworks of each of the 69 churches depicted.
I was struck by the very effective use of timber in so many of our New Zealand churches. Wood has such great symbolic significance to the Christian faith.
As the national church building guidelines for Australia remind us: “Noah constructed his ark from wood, the Ark of the Covenant was a wooden chest with wooden handles, the interior of Solomon’s Temple was completely lined with wood, Christ died on the wood of the cross, which becomes for us the tree of life.
‘Behold the wood of the cross’, we sing as we venerate the cross on Good Friday. Wood is a material whose nature and symbolism is suited to mediation between heaven and Earth.”
This is beautifully illustrated through the photography of Jane Ussher. This is a beautiful book with stunning photographs that draw the reader to sit and contemplate the faith of the people who designed and built these churches and the mystery of God revealed in the quiet meditative spaces depicted on the pages. I highly recommend it.
Teresa Wackrow is the coordinator of the Auckland diocese Liturgy Centre.

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