Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Dear Lynda

Dear Lynda,

I was at your place yesterday. It doesn't seem so long since the last time, when I came and spoke about how all cathedrals are, in the final analysis, transitional cathedrals. I was gutted to be rung by Michael Hughes the other day and learn that deans are too. Shocked. Shattered. Unbelieving. I know your health was bad, and I know we are all temporary but you were so full of everything that makes life worthwhile that your death  just didn't seem right.

You would have loved yesterday. As Garrison Keillor once said “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I'm going to miss mine by just a few days.” You were there, of course; or at least your body was, and everything about the service spoke of you. I'd be really interested to know if you were conscious of all that. Perhaps one day we could talk?  The music was great: your choice, I understand, and Bishop Victoria spoke of you so movingly. The script of what she said is recorded on the Taonga site, but like any script it conveys hardly any of the life and power and feeling imparted by she who spoke it. She let us in on the joke about the Golden tumours. One of your best! And of course you know about the lections for yesterday morning, which tells me that the Holy Spirit was in on the joke also.  Victoria, like many good preachers, kept repeating a memorable catch phrase; in this case it was, "when did you last see Lynda?" and of course I thought about that all during the service and for a lot of the time afterward.

It was General Synod. We talked of books. Thank you again for introducing me to Huraki Murakami, whom I shall never read from now 'til Kingdom come without thinking of you. Ditto 1 Samuel chapter 6. I thought of how much more I could have shared with you, of the possible conversations we might have had and which I now bitterly regret  not having. It was only in the last couple of days that I learned your age, and I was surprised to realise that I more easily fitted into your parents' generation that yours. Unconsciously I had always thought of you as a contemporary, and in conversation yesterday I learned that this was true of a lot of people - some my age and some twenty years your junior.

I guess one of the things I always sensed about you was that behind the humour and the accomplishments and the wit and the sheer good fun there was a great well of self doubt and pain. I think that this is one of the things that made you so compelling. You seemed to me to be a person who had lived the crucifixion with such depth that you knew beyond the shadow of doubt the reality of resurrection. You didn't so much preach the Gospel of the resurrected Christ as live it. You were one of the most genuinely modest and self effacing people I've ever met. Which is the real reason I hope that in some way you were conscious of yesterday.

The cathedral - YOUR cathedral - was full. Every chair was occupied and a couple of hundred stood at the back. Some of us had come quite a way to be there, because we could not be anywhere else on that particular Tuesday. We sang and prayed and listened and laughed, and mourned what we'd lost in you. But more, we mourned the loss of what you might have -would have - been. You were just the sort of leader our church needs right now. But it's not to be. You're gone.

As a lover of great literature you will understand how the ending always works back and defines all that went before it. So it is with people. Yesterday I saw your ending, which was the better part of a thousand people of every age and type, gathered together from across New Zealand and beyond because they loved, respected and admired you.

You did so well. You made such a difference. Thank you so very much.

With love, admiration and respect,

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


I came across this remarkable little film just yesterday. I am astonished by the technical brilliance of the film maker, Anthony Cerniello, but there is more than that. The piece is a reminder that we are not things: we are, each one of us, a process. We are a particular configuration of energy which is in perpetual change; and this energy pattern had a beginning and one day will have an end. 

This film is very beautiful.  The face is beautiful and the changes wrought over the years are, to me, awe inspiring. How astonishing that the food consumed by this little girl can be reconfigured into bone and flesh and brain tissue. How amazing that a design for a human being can so relentlessly and powerfully unfold. And as I watch her change in the space of five minutes, I ask, "when does she become more, or when less beautiful?" And the answer is, "she does not". At every stage of her continuous journey from childhood to old age she is constantly and equally lovely. I think of the efforts our culture puts into fixing the ideal of beauty somewhere in the early 20s, and think of the ludicrousness of that ideal and of the constant damage it does to the 90% of us who don't fit it.

Perhaps my viewing of the film was enhanced by my visit to the doctor on Monday. Nothing was wrong, particularly, but every three months I have a blood test and, in the week following, visit my GP to be told the results and to have an injection of the gunk which keeps me alive. I have recently changed doctors, so this was my first session with the new one. I sat in his room and we chatted about the history of my various treatments. He brought up my blood test results on his computer and the gunk is obviously doing its job: my psa level has descended into the undetectable region and, so he tells me, it's likely to stay there for a very long time. He opened the elaborate little package I had brought with me, took out the syringe and the little vials, mixed the paste and injected it into my shoulder. He gave me a prescription for the next dose, weighed me and took my blood pressure. I walked out into the lightly falling snow and made, as I sometimes do, a small personal pilgrimage.

I drove up the hill to Halfway Bush and to the house my family lived in when I was a small child. There, in that little place and the tiny park behind it which was my playground, the memories of my childhood seem close enough to touch. I sat in the car with a dull ache in my upper arm reminding me of the fragility of life and of my own ending and I thought of a Hornby clockwork train set laid out on the bare boards of the lounge floor one Christmas morning, only fifty feet away in space but fifty seven years away in time. 

It all seems so close, beginning and ending. 

The little film of Danielle is captivating because it is my own story. It is the story of us all.

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


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


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.