Ashburton embraces God; Lyttelton doesn't

GODLY PLACE: Census data shows Ashburton is the most Christian place in Canterbury.
GODLY PLACE: Census data shows Ashburton is the most Christian place in Canterbury.

Ashburton is the most Christian place in Canterbury, while Lyttelton is one of the least religious, according to new census data.

Growing Filipino and Pacific Island communities have swelled congregations in the Mid-Canterbury town, which has the biggest proportion of Christian people in the district.

About 71 per cent of the 1500 people that live in three central Ashburton areas identified themselves as Christian in the 2013 census.

At the other end of the scale, about 58 per cent of the 2600 people in Lyttelton who answered the question said they had no religion - one of the highest levels in Canterbury.

Ashburton, which has a population of about 30,000 people, has seven churches clustered around the main highway.

Rev Geoff Gray, of the St Augustine of Canterbury parish, said his congregation had grown by about 200 in the last few years.

Samoan, Pacific Island and Filipino immigrants had swelled congregations in Ashburton, he said.

"The Catholic church has always been fairly strong here, but the churches are fuller than they used to be. The slack old Europeans are all a bit post-religion. They like sleeping in on a Sunday morning and taking the kids to football.

"They still obey the 10 Commandments. There are a lot of non-worshipping Christians. They have moral values but they fall short when it comes to Sunday worship."

Gray said he adapted his sermons for the new congregation.

"I try and make the message understandable. I have learnt to adapt to a different culture and adapt my presentation of the message in the simplest way. I just use simple words - ‘change' instead of ‘transformation'."

Reverend Joan Clark, interim minister at St Stephen's Anglican Church in Park St, said her congregation had grown from 70 a year ago to 100 now.

"I think people know each other here. It still has that small town New Zealand feel," she said.

"That family feeling makes it much easier for people to make connections. Word spreads when people are feeling supported." 

Lyttelton resident and The Press columnist Joe Bennett said the port town had always been a place for "free spirited characters".

"We are the heathens," he said.

"Lyttelton is a port, and ports are traditionally cosmopolitan and fairly rugged places because when sailors get off a ship, the first thing they want to do is not necessarily pray."

Christchurch and New Zealand were "very monocultural" when he arrived in 1987, Bennett said.

"It has changed a lot now, but then there was [Christchurch] Boys' High and Christ's College and it was very white and middle class. But you came through the Lyttelton tunnel and suddenly there was a gay Peruvian taxi driver sitting next to you."

About 44 per cent of Canterbury people said they had no religion, compared to 49 per cent who said they were Christian. The next largest religion in Canterbury is Buddhist at about one per cent.

The Press