Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Apology and Forgiveness

The trouble with being involved with people is that sooner or later there is an interaction in which somebody or other gets hurt. It happens in the church all the time, not so much because people are inherently wicked but because people are inherently people. So, it's quite a good idea to develop a strategy whereby the hurts can be healed, the differences which caused the hurts resolved, and people can go about the business God has given them to do, ie having challenges and difficulties in order to learn and thus grow from them. A strategy which people often adopt when they are hurt is to insist that the other person apologise. Sometimes this strategy is refined by having some sanction held over the other: some favour or other that won't be granted until the apology is given or some reward offered when it is. Of course when the apology is offered, it is often scrutinised, weighed, declared not to be a real apology and refused.

Don't get me wrong here. Apologies can sometimes be important. They are, when they are freely given and generously received, healing. When a hurt has been great and deep and public they can be very significant instruments of restoration. It's the strategy of insisting on an apology as a precondition of resolving a conflict that I am referring to here, and it is this strategy that doesn't work very often. In fact, I can't remember a single time when it has worked, but I'm sure there must be some time somewhere in the world where it has, or it wouldn't be so popular.

The reasons why it doesn't work are these:

1. An apology extracted under duress - physical or monetary or emotional - isn't an apology. It's something else, for example a political gesture or an invitation to harbour sullen resentment for years to come, but not the show of heartfelt contrition that apology seekers are looking for.
2. When I demand an apology I am, in effect, refusing to move on in my own adjustment to the hurt until YOU have done something. I am, in other words, surrendering my autonomy to you. And if you don't care or don't know what you have done or if you happen to see things a bit differently than me, and therefore have no inclination to behave as I want you to, then I am, at this point, stuffed.
3. No matter how many times I make self righteous statements to the contrary, my demand for an apology is usually not so much about the relationship as my concern for vindication and for my version of events to be seen as the "correct" one. In other words the demand for an apology is often self-ish. It therefore hinders rather than fosters a true relationship built on mutual knowledge, respect and understanding.

There is not a single time in the Gospels where Jesus demands an apology. There is not a single time when he recommends demanding an apology as a way of sorting out troubles. Jesus has another strategy, the exact polar opposite of apology mining, and that is the offering of forgiveness. He tells others to do this. He does it himself. Even when his best mate runs away. Even when some woman has been dragged embarrassed out of the wrong bed. Even when a bunch of drunken hoons in uniform have stripped him naked before his mother and his friends and are punching lumps of iron through his wrists and feet. He tells people to forgive and forgive and to keep on forgiving even when they loose count of the times when the other guy has yet again screwed up.
The offering of forgiveness works because

1. It respects the integrity of the one I am in conflict with and encourages me to listen to them and enter true relationship with them.
2. It places me in charge of my own emotions and gives me full control over my reaction to the events which have so hurt me (and in any event, it is my reaction to it, rather than the event itself which is most important)
3. My offering of forgiveness can allow the other to see me in a new way and thus invite them into change and growth, especially in their relationship to me, but in other ways as well.
4. And finally, and most importantly my forgiveness can only happen when I realise that I too am fallible and broken and prone to hurting others; and that I am, myself, forgiven: constantly, deeply, unconditionally, totally.

And because I stand before God ONLY because I am forgiven, what possible reason could I have for withholding forgiveness from others?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Bright Fine Gold

Otago was founded by Presbyterians. The idea was to build a place where all the best parts of Scottishness would flourish in a community marked by decency, order, probity and piety. The immigrants arrived and laid out a city and built churches. Almost as soon as they got here they founded a university and made sure that secondary schools of the finest quality were developed. It worked for a while. A very short while, actually because the plan was subverted by an unforseen discovery. The Otago settlement began in 1848 and gold was found in Gabriel's Gully in 1861. The lure of fast money and lots of it drew people who had a different set of values than those of the settlers from the Free Church of Scotland. They rushed here indiscriminately from all over the place.These two influxes of people: the Presbyterians with their conservative love of order and dedication to education; and the entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, prospectors are what give Otago its particular character. The two streams intertwine and blend and can't be easily separated now, although some parts of the province lean more to one side than the other. I think Dunedin might lean slightly to the Presbyterian side. Queenstown, where we spent the weekend, leans definitely to the prospector side.

Driving inland on Saturday, I was impressed again by how definite and extreme the landscape of this province is. Through the Manuka gorge the frost was still lying in the shadows at 4 in the afternoon. By the time we reached the Kawerau gorge, the temperature was down to 2 degrees and the hills were white around us. We parked the car in the snow lying in the Wakatipu Vicarage driveway and emerged into that golden clear Central Otago light to gape up at the mountains rising perpendicular in every direction. On Saturday evening there was a very pleasant dinner with the vestry and ministry team, and then it was church on Sunday at Arrowtown and Queenstown.

David Coles, the vicar, was the bishop of Christchurch for 18 years before he came to the parish with his wife Joy. He lent me a jacket on Sunday morning when it became apparent I had miscalculated the amount of insulation a human body needs to stay functioning in that part of the world. It was -3 degrees in Arrowtown. The lovely little wooden St. Paul's church is in pretty good nick, all things considered, but the piles have dropped a bit since the days when the gold miners worshipped there so there are places around the doors and between some of the boards where draughts get in. One blew down my neck for much of the service. I left my cope on for the duration and I'm sure I could think of a liturgical justification for that if I really had to. Arrowtown still looks like the 19th Century prospector's town it was and is. It is leafy and charming and even with a cracking frost draped over it, looks inviting.

Queenstown, where we raced for the next shift, looks like it has sprung out of small beginnings over the last twenty years and draped itself haphazardly and indecorously and busily around the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Which it has. At 9 am on last Sunday, which was only one day into the Winter festival, the traffic was heavy and every table in every cafe was full of people breakfasting on Danish and Caesar salads and Cappuccino. The gondola chugged busily away gliding tourists up the hill. People thronged into the sort of shops where if you wanted a merino sweater or a set of snowboarding boots, you could spend all day weighing up the choices, but if you wanted a ball point pen or a packet of macaroni you could look all you wanted but your chances of success would be somewhat marginal. Everything in Queenstown seems new and angular and modern, made of glass and concrete although sometimes dressed up with schist or wood to give that authentic Central Otago sort of look. There are hotels and motels everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And all of this is set in a landscape of such aching beauty that if I lift up mine eyes to the hills for even a few seconds I instantly forget the object lesson in how not to do town planning that lies at every hand.

Modern though it all might be, though, the atmosphere of the place harks back undimmed to the people who flocked here in the 1860s to try and find something bigger and better for themselves. The place is still dominated by the energy and life and entrepreneurial spirit that comes from being a magnet for people from everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the middle of it, there is the quaint little stone church of St. Peter, where, after parking underground, I celebrated and preached for their patronal festival. The church was nearly full, and the congregation contained a good range of ages and nationalities.There was an informally dressed choir led by their truly remarkable organist, Mark Wilson. The kids made a little St. Peter's fishing net, and the people all gathered around afterward for yet another excellent dinner. It was great.

We drove home late in the afternoon. In the hills between Alexandra and Roxburgh the fog was freezing in the trees, turning them into silver filigree in the fading light. It had been a long day, but a satisfying day. The Wakatipu parish is in good heart, possessed of the same sort of energy and vitality and openness to the future that marks the town. It's gold. Bright fine gold. It would be great to find more of it.

Monday, 21 June 2010


I was back at St. John's Roslyn on Sunday morning. It was my first episcopal duty; that is, the first time I was doing something that only a bishop can do. I was confirming 7 people, all of whom I knew and some of whom I knew very well indeed. Two of them I had baptised and several of them I had companioned for some years as they walked the narrow path. I entered that familiar physical space, where everything was so familiar: the way the morning sun plays through the glass, the shapes of doors and candlesticks, which pews were in the church when I arrived in 1999 and which ones I brought back over the hill from Mosgiel on Alan Dunbar's trailer. I entered an emotional space as well, and one which was paradoxical. I felt instantly at home and instantly that both I and the parish have moved on; that I was now on territory where it was no longer my task to call the shots but to encourage other people to call the shots.

I walked down the familiar aisle wearing still unfamiliar vestments. I preached and confirmed and celebrated the Eucharist. I went to lunch where I tried to talk to as many people as possible, knowing that I wouldn't be seeing them next week. Several people took the opportunity to ask me questions on very significant matters of faith, knowing that they wouldn't be seeing me next week. I asked a couple to phone my PA and make appointments. I bought a few sets of the attractive parish bookmarks which had been made from photographs I had taken in years gone by. I have 34 parishes now which I call my own. There are 63 churches, none of which, like children, can be named as favourite, not even this one which holds so many memories and in which I grew so much. So, I drove out past the wonderful old house where my family had celebrated so much together, out across the city to the place which already feels like my home, to spend a good deal of the afternoon reviewing the strategic plan I will present to the diocese in September, straining to see what the Spirit might be saying about the road ahead.

In the evening I went to the cathedral where my seat is housed and listened to the choir sing evensong. I preached, not the sermon I had prepared, but one which my feel of what was happening in the place demanded. I felt the love of God for that big empty building. And in two weeks I will return, for another confirmation; more people moving on down the path, as are all of our 34 parishes, all of our 63 churches.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Cough! Hack! Cough! Splutter

It's been a while since I posted. For the last week I've had the heavy chest cold which seems to have taken a real shine to Dunedin lately, and decided to stick around and make the acquaintance of half the city. This waking up all night to hack and cough and splutter is the dull bit of winter, which is generally my favourite season. I've been tired of it and with it, but there is a lot happening, so I haven't felt able - or willing for that matter - to just sit around home sipping whisky and lemon and looking pale and interesting. At long last though, the malaise has receded to a level that is only mildly annoying and today was a good one: I had some fruitful conversations; the chapter meeting this evening seemed to flow well and get through its business with good humour and efficiency; I had a funeral visit with a truly remarkable family who even in their grief were whole and self aware and grounded -together in every sense; a seemingly intractable problem looks like it has moved a long way toward resolution much to the relief of everyone involved. It does seem like a good news day.

In fact, despite my lungs wanting to turn themselves inside out, it's been a good news week. On Sunday I visited St. Matthews in the city which was full and energetic and robustly holy, and later, the builders arrived and started making me a study, which means that in a short while I will be able to unpack my books. There are times when I get a bit daunted by the sheer size of the task which lies ahead, but this week I think I can see movement. I think churches -and probably dioceses - are like giant blocks of ice that need moving across a flat surface. If they stop moving, they freeze to the ground and it is a rare old task to get them going again: it takes pushing and shoving and pleading and cajoling and encouraging and kidding and bribing and threatening and reasoning and lots and lots of examining and thinking and listening and talking and all manner of ingenious softening and breaking of the connection between block and ground. But once they are moving, it's comparatively easy to keep them going and provided you've done your homework and got them moving in the right direction, they'll keep right on trucking all under their own inertia for the most part. And today I think I can see movement.

"Cough! Hack! Cough! Splutter!" might be the signature tune of winter but even at this time when I and a lot of other folk are not firing on all four, the life of God starts to show. The timing isn't accidental. Things look up when I feel down precisely as a timely reminder of who is actually responsible for all those promising little creaks and groans and cracks and shifts.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


After a long mild autumn the Winter has arrived and seems intent on making up for lost time. We had five consecutive days of heavy rain with floods in all the usual places where, in aeons past, bogs and lakes used to live and now want to return to check out the old family home. Then, in the high country at least, there was some snow. On Monday, a day off after a busy weekend, I drove up to Naseby to try and find some, and was not disappointed. There was snow knee deep beside the road all the way through the Pig Root and fog and hoar frost. In the fog free bits the sun shone brightly out of an inky sky onto a vast white landscape: my very favourite kind of weather, cold, clear, sharp, huge, still. This is the Maniototo; Middle Earth; Tolkien landscapes that need no photoshopping in order to flabbergast the punters.

There was a stop or two for photos, and a swift trip down a back road into Naseby for lunch in a quaint little cafe. I learned that the new car can handle with panache a)black ice b)dirt roads and c) snow. I drove home rested and pleased with the day, to digest the lessons of the weekend and to face the conversations of this week.

Our diocese is not without its challenges. If we are to grow into the future, there are changes to be made in the way we organise our common life together and these must be implemented soon. We have one or two complicated pastoral and organisational problems which clamour for my attention. We have vacancies to be filled. We need to find a new generation of leaders. The weight of it all sits heavily at times, but the good will and optimism of the people I met in Winton on Sunday is what fuels me. That, and a few precious hours spent alone in the vast and timeless land