Sunday, 6 July 2014

Back to Bluff

No, not Bluff. Dunedin. Taken from our deck on a stormy day about a year ago. 
Today was one of those rare Sundays where I had no commitments, so the question arose, where do we go to church? Well, it was a no brainer, really. There's only one parish left in the Diocese where I haven't worshipped on a Sunday morning, so Bluff it was. We rose at 6, left at 7 and after a cup of coffee in Invercargill, arrived at the Bluff Co-operating parish right on the dot of 10.

As it turns out we were on time for the service, but still managed to be a little late as the first Sunday in the month is the one Bluff puts on a pancake breakfast which begins an hour earlier. A few people there, some of the Anglicans, of course, knew who I was and were very slightly surprised, but took it all in their stride. We were given pancakes and coffee and then, with the other 30 or so people present, sat at small tables while the service unfolded. It was simple, casual and very well done. There was singing led by a small but very competent music group, a couple of Bible stories, a sort of a quiz thing and a prayer or two. Perhaps four of the congregants were my age or older, one or two looked like they might have had quite eventful lives and the rest were young men, young women and very young children. I loved it. If I lived locally I'd be there every week.

We left well before midday and with the rest of the day ahead took the scenic route home through the Catlins. We stopped at that rather good little cafe sited in the old Niagara school for soup with homemade bread and were home about 3.30

It has been a lovely Sunday, and it followed a Saturday which was equally satisfying, though in a very different way. Yesterday a dozen of us met in the Diocesan office to discuss the finer points of our committee structure. I know that if anyone had invited me to such an event in the past I would have spent more time thinking up plausible reasons not to be there than the meeting itself actually took. For me the only thing more stultifying than a committee meeting was a committee meeting to design committee meetings; but yesterday was interesting, and even inspiring. We were well led by Margy-Jean Malcolm and everyone was fully engaged as we were in fact  re-designing an Anglican Diocese from the ground up. We were looking for the most efficient, simple and productive way to use our material and personnel resources for the purposes of the Kingdom of God. And we made great progress. We finished at 3, all of us feeling somewhat depleted as we had, in the process of working out the practical details of a much simplified diocesan structure, talked together through the big questions of what exactly it is that Christ calls us to here in the bottom third of the South Island.

So today, to drive through some of it and worship with one of our most vibrant little communities was important; to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and that our job back in the office in Green Island is not to get in the way but rather to support and encourage and resource the work that many good people are already doing.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Last Week

Today was a day off. I went for a long bike ride and walked along the beach at Doctor's Point: down along the flat sand, carrying my camera and astonished at the beauty of the clear line between land and see and the patterns at the bottom of the translucent water and knowing that it was well beyond my ability as a photographer to capture it. I walked past the place where the terns nest on the rocks and through the cave with its wave weathered roof shining golden in the winter morning sunlight. This beach is one of my happy places: a small simple stretch of coast that looks different every time I go there. A place for remembering and for letting go.

Last week was our annual ministry school, which was about letting go. We had a great programme, designed by Alec Clarke and Benjamin Brock Smith. I led some Bible studies and we had input from Chris Holmes and Kevin Ward. We had speakers from the 5:30 service at St. Matts and from Urban Vision, challenging us with a couple of different ways of being church. At the end of each day Phil Clark led us in  kind of examen, looking back and drawing together common threads. We acknowledged the great changes we are facing as the Anglican Church in Southland and Otago, noting the obvious statistical and demographic facts that we have lived with for years now. But it wasn't a depressing or negative time; far from it. The mood of the school was upbeat, buoyant even. We were hopeful and excited about the changes which lie on our very near horizon.

We are in a transition in our diocese, with the decay of our old processes all around us, but also with the hints of the new beginning to appear, sometimes in surprising places. We have a superb team of clergy and lay leaders and the procedural and infrastructural changes which might help them forward the mission of the church in surprising new ways are far more complete than I had expected them to be at this stage. I talked about my own role as bishop and about how far I saw that extending and what I thought was required of me over the next two or three years. I left with energy and confidence that we will handle the changes which lie ahead of us.

I went straight from the ministry school to the national interfaith conference which was held in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. I had never been into a Mormon church before, and I was curious. It was, on the inside, much as you might expect from looking at the outside: lots of straight lines, everything clean and neat and well made. There was a built in data projector and a nifty central pulpit with an electric height adjustment device. With a huge gymnasium and a multitude of small meeting rooms the complex was perfect for the conference, and the Mormons had, in a humbling show of generosity, let the organisers use it for free and had postponed their own Sunday morning worship to accommodate us. On Sunday I had the novelty of sitting there in a service of worship where the music was led by Colin Gibson on piano and the Hare Krishna group on guitar and drums, though not at the same time. Lord Leslie Griffiths, was the keynote speaker and there was the usual round of breakout groups and workshops. It was a good conference, but I must say that after our ministry school, anything would have seemed anticlimactic.

So today, on a calm clear, warm and sunny winter's day, it was wonderful to be back on my bike and walking the Otago coast and thinking on things past and things to come.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Transitions

Yesterday I was at one of my very favourite places, St. Barnabas' Warrington. Even though there were a few people away the little church still looked and felt pleasantly full. It was Te Pouhere Sunday so I spoke about the early missions and the Treaty of Waitangi, but all the while I was thinking about something that had been preoccupying me for the past 24 hours. And that is transitions.

In the course of any given day we encounter situations where the rules of engagement change; where the ways of doing things and the things we say and even the things we think radically change. Take the service at St. Barnabas' for instance. For an hour or so I wore clothing that was more or less unexceptional in the context of the church but would have been bizarre should I have worn it while strolling down George St. in Dunedin. Inside the church we used language and concepts which would have been incomprehensible outside and we did things (communal singing, all sitting in rows facing the same way, kneeling and standing on cue, saying prayers aloud) which we would never dream of doing elsewhere. In other words, in the church context our rules of engagement change. We drop our normal everyday expectations and ways of engaging with each other and adopt a new set.

This doesn't just happen in church of course; we do it constantly. A family will have a set of rules which prevail when eating dinner and another for when visitors come and another when engaging in a spat and so forth. Schools, workplaces, clubs, all have their own various contexts and corresponding rules of engagement. We move seamlessly from one context to the next and as we enter or leave we make the appropriate shifts in behaviours and language.

As we make these changes there are little routines we go through to mark the shift from one reality to the next. At St. Barnabas a bell was rung, Lois, the priest in charge asked people to stand and sing a song, and hey presto!we were all in the little world of an Anglican liturgy. We stayed there until it had run its course when a set of ritualised words and my moving to the back of the church signaled that that little reality was over and people were free to chat, or do other activities not allowed in the liturgy but allowed in the world they were re-entering.

What interests me are these transitions. There are many of these little rituals that we employ almost unconsciously as the day passes. We sit at table and say grace then pile the plates and move, together, away from the table. We sit on the mat and sing a song to mark the start of the school day and take our bags off the hook to mark its ending. We don our gym clothes and then shower and change back into our street clothes. It seems to me that if they are done well these small transitional rituals seamlessly link all the little sub worlds together and integrate them one with the other. If they are not done well they cause anxiety in all present, and cause our lives to feel and appear fragmented.

I don't want to do much more than note the existence of these little transitions, but they are significant for our liturgies (obviously) but I suspect also for the way the various aspects of our lives hang together. There's a PhD in there for someone. If you're scrabbling around for your thesis, feel free.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Bloodlands

I read this chilling book at the recommendation of Mike Corkery, the warden at Selwyn College. It is a book which, because of its subject matter, was difficult to finish but which I am very glad I have read.

Published in 2010, it describes the history of that part of Europe caught between the competing totalitarian Empires of Nazi Germany and The Soviet Union between 1933 and 1945. In that 12 year period, approximately 14 million non combatants were deliberately killed by these murderous regimes each under the sway of an ideologically driven dictator.

The Bloodlands are the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, parts of Russia, and the Baltic states. It was here that Stalin deliberately starved 3 million people to death; here that the overwhelming majority of the victims of the Holocaust met their ends; here that millions were murdered or transported in vast programmes of ethnic cleansing. Adolf Hitler had his objective of a racially pure Germany with enough living space in the East to establish a utopian Aryan empire. Stalin sought to consolidate control over a vast and diverse Soviet Union and pre-empt dissension by eradicating or moving any possible locus of rebellion. In co-operation or in competition these two powerful systems unleashed cruelty on the peoples of Eastern Europe whose scale defies the imagination.

The book is meticulously researched and footnoted and there are lengthy appendices. The sheer volume of material makes Snyder's case inarguable. His style is measured and objective. He avoids the temptation of wallowing in salacious detail or emotive sensationalism and instead allows the bald facts of history make their own staggering impact. He makes the point that by far the majority of victims of  both regimes did not die in concentration camps. They were slaughtered in or near their own villages by gas, bullet, fire and starvation and were buried in vast communal graves. The secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union and its satellites, which account for all of the Bloodlands, means that little Western attention has been focused on these atrocities but Snyder corrects that oversight with clarity and quiet, relentless attention to detail.He traces the origins of the conflict back to the division of Europe in the Treaty of Versailles, and further back to the ethnic tensions and rivalries of Europe. He convincingly outlines the motives of Hitler and Stalin, which altered as the Second World War took its course. He examines some of the lasting after effects of the slaughter on the modern States which occupy the Bloodlands.

This is a great and necessary piece of historical writing. It is also a sobering call to reality. These horrific acts, unprecedented in the history of humankind, happened less than a century ago. Only two or three generations ago the ancestors of the current protagonists in the Ukraine were being butchered in their millions. Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians and others were killed or driven from their homes which were then settled by forced migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union. It's no wonder they're fighting today.

Two things struck me particularly about Snyder's analysis. Firstly that none of the atrocities performed by both sides in this conflict would have been possible without the willing and sometimes enthusiastic help of the local populations. Secondly that both Hitler and Stalin were acting from what they believed to be a strong moral imperative. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.

This is a book I highly recommend as an insight into the recent past of Europe and into the human condition generally. But don't imagine that you can read it and remain unmoved and unchanged by it.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Why I Hold the Views I Do


St. Hilda's Collegiate School, taken with my phone after a recent meeting. This picture has nothing whatsoever to do with what follows, but I like the interplay of shapes and particularly the shadow on the wall.

My mother is a Methodist, liberal in her theological and social opinions. My father was a socialist, just slightly to the left, in his politics, of Karl Marx. My siblings -there are 5 of us- are all bright, eloquent and omnivorous in their consumption of books and other intellectual fodder.  One of my most cherished childhood memories is of mealtimes in our little state house. The food was ingested with copious amounts of spirited, opinionated, clever and sometimes informed debate on whatever subject happened to catch the attention of one of the family that day. Or whatever one of us thought might get a rise out of someone else. So, sex, politics and religion it was then - oh and motorbikes, economics, international relations, demographics, cricket, company ownership, the utter iniquity of the National Party... you know, the usual run of family conversations.

We sometimes got heated but never came to blows, and there were some basic family ground rules, originating with our parents, about acceptable opinions. In politics we were left (naturally) and we were, I now realise, fairly progressive on things like race relations and women's rights. And on matters of sexual orientation. I can't remember as a family actually having any gay friends and acquaintances but we accepted "that's the way some people are" and we had a family abhorrence of disadvantaging anyone for something outside of their control. Actually, the question of whether or not it was outside of their control probably occupied us for a few hours when roast mutton and boiled spuds were being passed around.

When I was old enough to be under the sway of the testosterone washing round my body, I knew which way my own orientation lay; I didn't make any choices about that, any more I suspect than anyone else does. I knew that I was a raging heterosexual. I cannot remember even once being even remotely attracted to a man, so it was all quite simple for me; homosexuality was something other people did, so what business was it of mine to ever get steamed up - in any way - about it?

After my conversion to Christianity in 1973 I attended churches where social and theological views were decidedly conservative, but on this matter I simply couldn't find the energy to muster the required amount of indignation. I've had the Biblical case for regarding homosexual behaviour as sinful presented to me many times, but somehow it just doesn't wash, any more than the Biblical case for the sinfulness of eating pork or that for preventing women from speaking in church.

So why do I hold the views I do? I would have thought that by now the answer to that question would be pretty obvious. Because that's the way I was raised, that's why. It's not just that for all the formative years of my life I had a pretty thorough apprenticeship in liberal humanism, but also that my personality type, my life experience, my ways of ingesting and processing information all predispose me to think the things I think and believe the things I believe.

It is my opinion that this is true for what most of us think, about most things, most of the time. Of course we pretend this isn't the case. We, all of us, talk and think as though we are blank slates and that out of all the various options on any subject we have chosen (how wise of us!) the stance that is most obviously right and correct. Of course we have some free will as to our opinions, but I think it operates in fairly constrained limits.

I am a convinced Christian but if I had been born in Saudi Arabia instead of New Zealand I would doubtlessly be a mullah instead of a priest, or a Buddhist monk if I had been born in Tibet or Thailand. And if I had been born into a different family or had a brain wired in a marginally different way or for reasons far outside of my control had a different experience of life I would in all likelihood be a theological and social conservative. And of course in each of these conditions I would believe in the rightness of my position and argue vigorously for it, backing my opinions with sound arguments and irrefutable scriptural authority.

My opinions are largely not chosen, they are circumstantial. But then again, so are everyone else's. So here we go in the church ripping ourselves apart over an issue in which we all are more or less predisposed to hold the views we do. Which is not what the Holy Spirit calls us to. Christ calls me into discipleship; that is, into closer and closer union with God. This does NOT mean that I must conform myself more and more closely to the one righteous Godly position on any given subject (even if I fondly like to believe that the righteous position is the one I already hold). It means rather, that God leads me, everyday, to understand more and more fully what I think and how I react. But more importantly, God painstakingly and patiently leads me to understand why I think and react the way I do. This place of understanding is the place of real freedom. It's only here that I have real choices about how I believe and how I act on those beliefs.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Way to Love

Every couple of years or so I re read this little book. There are 196 pages, but they are small - the book fits easily into a pocket. There are 31 short chapters so what with the diminutive size and all, you'd think it would be a pretty quick read but it's not. At least, not for me.  The minimum time it takes me to read it is 31 days, but usually it is more like 62 or 93. That's because although it only takes 5 minutes to read a chapter I have to sit with each one for a long time afterwards.

When Anthony De Mello died in his mid fifties in 1987 he was very widely known and read. For many of us, his numerous books of enigmatic little stories have been rich seams to be mined for sermon illustrations. For a lot of people Sadhana (1978) has been a resource enabling the start of a contemplative spiritual practice. Until Thomas Keating's Contemplative Outreach and Laurence Freeman's World Community for Christian Meditation became firmly established, Anthony De Mello was about the only show in town when it came to popularising Christian contemplative spirituality. Sadhana is still a good place to start, but now there are many others and I'm often surprised by the number of serious Christian pray-ers who have never heard of it.

The Way to Love was published posthumously and consists of a number of retreat addresses tidied up for publication. The tidying has been less than thorough in places and I am very glad of that; written and spoken English are two quite different things, each with their own idiosyncrasies and even to some extent their own grammars, and The Way to Love often betrays its origin as a piece of oracy rather than a piece of literacy. Sometimes reading I can just about catch the lilting rhythms of De Mello's Indian accent.

The central idea of the book is the one that lies behind my little conversation with Jesus post of a couple of days ago. Jesus began his ministry proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here. Note: not that it is coming , or will come if we all work very hard, or will be presented to us at the end of time if we just believe the right things and stop being naughty. Jesus said it is here. Now. So why don't we see it then? Well, Jesus is a little less than forthcoming on this point. All he tells us is to have metanoia (μετάνοια) which we translate "repentance" and conjure around it pictures of preachers in black cloaks tut tutting at our peccadilloes. But Jesus meant something other than that. He meant what the word says: to think again; to have a new way of understanding. This is the point Anthony De Mello expands on.

Happiness is here, says De Mello. You don't have to go doing anything fancy or expensive like acquiring a new house/car/spouse to get it. You don't have to go on a diet or reach enlightenment. You don't have to be successful at work or love or religion. You don't have to be married or single or have your life sorted out. You don't have to wait until next year or next life. It's already here. The Kingdom (that is, all that you are looking for in the deepest parts of yourself) is as far away as your hand. The reason you don't see it is because of the way you think. As Jesus says,  
The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.
By which I think he means that if the way you see the world is stuffed, then the whole world will seem (to you) to be stuffed. And De Mello says that all of us have bad eyes. We are programmed - by our genetics, our upbringing, our culture, our experiences - to see the world in certain ways and to believe all manner of preposterous nonsense, for example that we require [ please fill in your fondest wish here ] in order to be happy. Because our way of seeing the world is more or less blighted our experience of the world is more or less blighted and almost none of us are happy. But, says De Mello, everything we need to be happy we already have. Now. Here. Open your eyes and see it.

Simple but not easy. Most of the book is a primer on how we might do that, partly through awareness of the world and of others,  but mostly through awareness of ourselves; and particularly through awareness of our own programming.

So over the next couple of months, while I am reading other things I'll read a chapter every day or so and let it percolate further in. The copy I am reading is brand new, as I keep giving them away. I notice, also, that it is the last one I have. Better nip out to my favourite bookstore and pick up a few more.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Home Again

I took this photo on my phone.Can't remember when or where. Just found it now, and I quite like it.

I spent all day Friday on planes and in airports. Saturday I slept in. Sunday I went to Balclutha to preside at the induction of Griff Moses as the new vicar, and I was grateful that the service was late in the day as I felt so tired. Today, my day off I went for a long walk and began to renovate our bathroom. Pulling wallpaper off walls is a good thing to do when there is inner stuff to process.

I took part in a couple of the synod debates, other than the one on the Ma Whea report, of course. I was, for instance, quite shocked when Carole Hughes presented a table showing the low number of women in leadership in our church at a national level. We have few women members of our key committees and almost no women chairs of those committees.I think there is more to this than just telling the boys to step aside and let the girls have a go; I think there are issues of structure and culture which are very difficult to identify and address, but of course they need to be i & a.

Late on the last day we had a debate which went nowhere and yet was perhaps the most important matter that came before us. Bishop Api Qilio spoke at length about the effect of global warming on his diocese, Polynesia. People's homes, and in fact the very land those homes are built on are under threat. And the threat isn't in 10 or 20 years time, it is happening now. The way we deal with important social issues in synods is to leave them all til the last day, have a hurried discussion and pass a meaningless resolution or two, which is pretty much what we did with this one. There has simply got to be a better way.

The personal effect on me of being with Ngapuhi for a week, and of visiting Oihi and Waitangi have been far more profound than I expected. Living in the South I sometimes forget the power and beauty of Maoritanga, but I couldn't do that in Tai Tokerau. Neither could I ignore the basis of our nation in partnership. I am glad that our pre General Synod  IDC meeting is going to be replaced next time by a meeting between tikanga Maori and Tikanga Pakeha. Very glad indeed.

The Ma Whea discussion still sits with me. Few people, judging by the comments on here and other places, recognise the enormity of the task the church has set for itself or the potentially radical nature of the changes we have committed ourselves to. Having been part of the decision I feel committed to doing all in my power to bring them about, but it's not the decision which sits with me most. It is the way the decision was made. Sometimes in a very good liturgy there is a time when the church seems especially united; especially open to and flowing with the Spirit of God. In Church this happens for a period of minutes, or even maybe an hour or so. At General Synod /Te Hinot Whanui 2014 it happened for 8, 10 or 12 hours a day and for three days straight. General Synod was, and I can scarcely believe that I am saying this, one of the highlights of my Christian walk so far. In large part I think the special flow of the synod was about being at Waitangi. In part it was about being continually under-girded by prayer: the unselfconscious movement into karanga and himene, which was the particular gift of Ngapuhi to us all, formed a sort of basket which held us all. Mostly though it was because we stumbled into, or maybe were led into, a better way of dealing with difference. Instead of slugging it out to try and prove ourselves right we agreed on the imperative of a unity which doesn't require uniformity and we set about seeking a way to remain together while recognising the integrity of each others differences. We've mapped out a way in which this can happen. All we have to do now is make it happen.

I came home realising how deeply Anglican ways of doing things run in me, and how glad I am of that. There are other things happening for me right now, which I won't bore you with, but I am grateful to have been in Waitangi, I'm grateful to be in Dunedin and I'm happily anticipating all that lies ahead.