Thursday, 30 June 2011

Te Kotahitanga Forum

For most of this week I spent my nights in one of those  travel hotels in the industrial park near Auckland airport and my days on Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa Marae. The days were better. Of course this was in part becaue of the contrast in venues. On the one hand there was soulless straight edged built to a budget mediocrity and on the other the fluid graceful power of carvings, the delicate flowing of paint  and the striking, deceptively simple geometric counterpoints of woven flax, together  hinting the whakapapa of every tribe in New Zealand. As soon as I walked onto the marae, I was struck by the rich ruby red of the house, deeper, more bloody than the more customary ochre and particularly powerful when backed by a flannel gray Auckland winter sky. I didn't bring a camera, darn it, but  managed  a few shots with my iPhone. As we sat during the day I could fill in the (I hasten to assure you very rare) dull bits in the proceedings by admiring the extraordinary workmanship of the carvings all around me.

I was there for the Te Kotahitanga forum, a little talkfest in which the three strands of our church - Maori, Pakeha, Polynesia - came together to discuss the future of our most valuable shared asset, St. John's College. The decisions as to the shape and role of St. John's belong to Te Kotahitanga, the body where our three tikanga church meets, and this forum was an information and idea sharing meeting  with a wider membership than TK itself.

The conversation was facilited by people I have admired for a long time: The convener was Caroline Leys with whom I worked in a group setting up the Seed training programme for spiritual directors about 20 years ago. Caroline is a fairly commanding presence. She is as tall as I am, and has a way of fixing people with an unwavering gaze, smiling winningly and talking sense to them all at the same time. The keynote speaker was Roger Herft. Soon after I arrived in the Diocese of Waikato in 1986, Roger was elected,  at the age of 37 as our bishop. He was a great bishop then, and has gone on to be an even better one since, and is now Archbishop of Perth. He speaks with his Sri Lankan accent and a very still, engaging demeanour, and wins people with gentle, self deprecating humour, with the depth and utter common sense of what he says, but more importantly, by the sense you always get of a person with a risch and deep personal spirituality. It's easy to feel safe and comfortable when the leadership of a group is strong and knows what it is doing, and people at the forum felt safe and comfortable enough to relate with a great deal of grace.

In a few months TK will have made decisions which will affect the way St. Johns will develop over the years ahead and it would be inappropriate for me to preempt those decisions here, but I was impressed by the graciousness of the conversation this week past. Each of the strands of our church had prepared thoroughly and thoughfully. Each deliverred their position with integrity and with a genuine desire to safeguard not only their own particular needs, but also with respect to those of their partners.  Much of the time was spent in small group discussions, and we bishops were segregated off into a group all of our own, out of concern I think, that we might lower the tone of the dabate if we were spread around amongst the other groups. That was fine by me. The discussion in my group was intelligent and robust, and I have a very profound, and growing respect for the diverse group of people which the Holy Spirit has placed on to the bench of bishops in Aotearoa New Zealand. I must confess that at the end of the forum there were no great surprises: the things said and and the views aired were much as I expected them to be. What did surprise me though was the warmth, honesty, intelligence, respect and deep listening we accorded each other. This is what will enable us, more than any set of decisions could ever do, to live together with authenticity as the church in this place.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared.

Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they have been laid out by your antagonist and choose another path which will extend, not diminish your integrity. Turning sideways into the light is a way of re framing Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:38 ff: But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer... love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. When faced with an act of cruelty and aggression which seeks to define us in the terms laid down by the aggressor, Jesus tells us to change the terms.  When the Roman soldier bullies us into carrying his pack, turn the oppression into an act of camaraderie.

Turning sideways into the light  is not retreat and it is not cowardice. As Gandhi demonstrated on the salt marches,this is a shift in consciousness which requires considerable courage and integrity. As Te Whiti showed at Parihaka, this is not necessarily a strategy whereby we will "win"in the immediate tactical sense, but it is the only strategy by which we can retain our sense of values, and, as history has shown in both of these examples, it is the way by which righteousness will ultimately triumph.

Turn sideways into the light as they say
the old ones did and disappear into the originality
of it all.  Be impatient with explanations
and discipline the mind not to begin
questions it cannot answer.  Walk the green road
above the bay and the low glinting fields
toward the evening sun.  Let that Atlantic
gleam be ahead of you and the gray light
of the bay below you,
until you catch, down on your left,
the break in the wall,
for just above in the shadow
you’ll find it hidden, a curved arm
of rock holding the water close to the mountain,
a just-lit surface smoothing a scattering of coins,
and in the niche above, notes to the dead
and supplications for those who still live.
Now you are alone with the transfiguration
and ask no healing for your own
but look down as if looking through time,
as if through a rent veil from the other
side of the question you’ve refused to ask,
and remember how as a child
your arms could rise and your palms
turn out to bless the world.
~ David Whyte ~

Monday, 20 June 2011


Over the past couple of weeks I have been taking pictures of old churches. Not the usual scenic, picturesque shots of lovely old buildings with quaint towers and pretty churchyards, but of dead churches: buildings that once were home to vibrant congregations, but which are now used for other purposes. Some have become lovely little homes; some are restaurants or bars or shops; some are sitting derelict and vandalised. There are a lot of them.

Some of them are small, wooden chapels built to a budget; others are large and ornate and expensive; all of them represent the end of  end of a particular dream. Once there was a fundraising campaign and pledges and cake stalls and a large billboard with a thermometer drawn on it. Once there were people who gave sacrificially to erect the building and others who spent countless hours tending and decorating it. Once there was the murmur of prayers and the sound of massed voices singing along to an organ or a harmonium. Once there was a youth group and a women's guild and a man with a clerical collar, and processions with the Bible or with a brass cross, but no more. Now there are beds or a till or birds nests.

I have been wondering a bit why I am wondering about these old buildings. One reason is because they are the sign of social change on a grand scale, and of course there are other buildings scattered around the countryside which tell the same or a similar tale: old post offices and banks and factories and rows of empty shops and whole streets of decaying houses which speak of shifts in mobility and economics and community relationships. These old churches though are saying something else to me. The old regional banks have been replaced by bigger banks in the cities and the factories have moved to Auckland or (more likely) Beijing. The stuff sold in the wrecked shops is now bought online or at The Warehouse. The old churches have not been replaced by anything. Some of those which once housed a congregation of one of the  traditional denominations may well have had a short spell as home to one of the "newer" church groups, but now the activities for which the building was first erected have disappeared entirely. 

These empty worship shells scattered around the countryside are the signs of the death of a particular religious infrastructure. I look at them with such fascination, I think, because they represent a process which is still continuing. A particular way of meeting the spiritual needs of our society is disappearing because it no longer meets the needs of our society, and still we are preoccupied with preserving it: keeping our buildings open and making sure our functionaries are paid and making sure the committee structures which kept the whole system turning over are filled with the fewer and older and wearier people who still give us allegiance. I think we have missed -are missing - the point.

The role of the church is to introduce people to the Living God and open them to the transforming power of the presence of God. Gradually we have forgotten to do this. We have forgotten how to do this. We have forgotten, even, that we are supposed to do this. And quite naturally, and quite rightly, the infrastructure we have created precisely to help us to do this crumbles and dies. 

The old churches tell me one thing and they tell it to me clearly and loudly: The church must facilitate personal transformation or it must cease to exist. It is time to forget the infrastructure except to the extent that it facilitates the one essential task of the Church. As my Lord tells me, "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all the rest will be added to you as well."

Old Churches

 These are pictures for which I pretend no great artistic merit. They are pictures of buildings in Otago and Southland which once served as the spiritual homes of various congregations, but which are now used for other purposes or no purpose at all.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Week of Guided Prayer

I am in Southland this week with John Franklin, my chaplain. We are conducting a Week of Guided Prayer, which is also known in some circles as a Retreat In Daily Life. The WGP is a process I have used for many year now. It derives, ultimately, from the Ignatian spiritual exercises, and is, in essence a fairly simple thing. Participants gathered yesterday at Holy Trinity Gore and together we used a fairly simple prayer exercise. Then, after an initial conversation, each of the retreatants has covenanted to spend half an hour a day in prayer, and another half hour a day in conversation with a prayer guide, ie John or me. I recognise that for most people, the prospect of half an hour in prayer is a bit daunting, so every day I will suggest a way of prayer, and if necessary provide the resources that are needed for it. Next Saturday morning we will gather again for eucharist and a final group exercise and the process will have ended.

I know that someone as experienced in Spiritual Direction as John could lead this week by himself, and that we have several other people in the diocese capable of assisting him, but I am here in the deep South leading this week personally for two reasons. One is that I have a great deal of respect for this process, having witnessed the profound transformation it has wrought in peoples' lives in the past, and I want to show by my participation just how important I believe it is for our diocese. Secondly, I wish to show something of what i believe the role of Bishop should be about. The church has, over the millennia, done a wonderful job of making an institution oif itslef, and of definging the role of bishop as a functionary within  that institution. I guess I'm not a very instituional sort of person and I'd like to do things differently. Sitting with people and walking with them as the Holy Spirit makes profound changes in their lives seems to me to be just the sort of difference I would most like.

So John and I are camped in the Gore Vicarage, and travelling to various points around town and further South. We are early in the week yet, but early indications are that this WGP is going to be just as transformative, healing and inspiring as have been all the other ones I have participated in. It's looking good for Southland and for the rest of our diocese.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Mary's Room

 Lately I have been thinking about Frank Jackson's thought experiment, variously called Mary the super-scientist or Mary's Room. I have even preached about it a couple of times, and a recording of the last time, at St. Matthew's Dunedin, is here. The thought experiment goes something like this:

Mary is the world's most brilliant neurophysiologist. her specialty is the perception of colour. She knows absolutely everything there is to know about colour: how the retina is affected by light, how the brain processes the information etc. When it comes to colour perception,  there is not one fact that it is possible to know that she does not know. By a huge irony, however, Mary is herself only able to see monochromatically. That is, though she knows all it is possible to know about colour, she has never experienced colour vision herself. One day, due to some freak happenstance,  her monochromatism is ended, and she is able to see colours. The question is: does she know anything after the happenstance that she didn't know before?

Jackson's experiment is part of his knowledge argument against Physicalism: the belief that the universe is entirely physical; Jackson's argument is that if Mary knows something after her monochomatism is ended that she didn't know before, then there are things in the universe, most notably various mental states, that are not physical. Personally I find Jackson's argument overwhelming, and the counterarguments I have seen, at least to date, rather less than convincing. As another example of one of these non physical realities, you could give an exhaustive description of a piece of music by describing everything physical about it: the way the vibrations of wood or brass or catgut are produced, how they travel in the air, how they affect the eardrum and the intricate mechanism behind it, how the resulting nerve impulses are processed by the brain - but you would not have mentioned anything of importance about the piece of music as MUSIC.

So what is it that Mary knows now, that she didn't know before? Well, it's almost impossible to say, precisely because what is known is not physical: it is subjective rather than objective and to describe it in objective terms is impossible. A physicalist might, of course agree with this, and reply that because only physical things exist, the subjectively discerned thing, that cannot be described in objective terms, do not in fact exist and are some kind of illusion. Which is impossible to answer, except by looking at the purple of a thistle or the yellow of a Swiss dandelion meadow or the red of blood and knowing that what you are seeing and are so moved by is real enough to need no evidence other than its own witness. Richard Rohr sums it up quite well, here.

Of course our knowledge of the divine is of the same sort as our knowledge of colour, or of music, or of beauty, or of our own existence for that matter: it is subjective. Such knowledge is no less important for not being objective and perhaps we should abandon the futile attempt to make it so but rather "be still and know..."

Saturday, 4 June 2011


Generally speaking, sunsets and seagulls and so forth don't need to be asked before you photograph them. They do their momentary aurora impersonation or flap idly by unaware (I assume) of any concept of photography or of beauty for that matter. People are another issue entirely. For me photography is, as I have said on another occasion, about awareness. I go out with a camera and immediately I am disciplined to be aware; to leave self behind and try to be present to what is around me. It is a personal thing, and a spiritual exercise. As soon as you take a photograph of another person, however,  there are at least two people involved: the one in front of the camera and the one behind it, and both have an investment in whatever results from pushing the shutter. My interest in taking photographs is to try and capture what I see. The interest of most of the people being photographed most of the time is not what I see, but how they wish other people to see them.

Sometimes these interests coincide. I took the photograph above, of Catherine and Bridget at my nephew Hamish's wedding in 2007: In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters (Job 42:17) but I think I could give Job a pretty fair run for his money.  The picture captures something I see in both my girls: not just their beauty, but also their intelligence, poise, self assurance, openness and I could go on and on but I am their father after all and you don't need my bragging. Further, it captures something of the very special relationship they have with each other and I know that both of them like the picture because they have both displayed it and used it from time to time. But making such a pleasing portrait is a rare thing, and again I think the issue is essentially spiritual.

The persona: the self I project to the world is something I have a huge investment in. My persona is, after all,  all that stands beween the me that I work so hard to keep hidden and the prying eyes of all those around me whose opinions of me matter so desperately.  I have read a few books and articles about portrait photography in the last week or two and it seems to me that for most people, most of the time, portrait photography is abpout the persona. Taking a portrait usually starts with the question, "Why are you wanting this picture? To display on the wall of the family home? for a CV? For a lover? For a grandmother? In other words, what is the sittter hoping to project and to whom? The photographer's role is to help in this harmless - maybe even therapeutic - deception. A skilled portrait photographer can of course manage at the same time to convey something of the true nature of the subject, as in this famous portrait of Alfried Krupp by Arnold Newman, or pretty much anything by Annie Liebowitz Portraiture is perhaps the most technically demanding form of photography. Lighting is crucial and requires a certain amount of manipulation. This requires equipment and a level of expertise that I don't currently possess, though I am quite confident I could come by it if I put my mind to it.

In the end, I suppose it is about relationships. I take a photo of a row of pilings on a summer's evening with Green Island just visible on the horizon and the picture is a capture of what I see , but more importantly, a capture of how I relate to what I see. I take a picture of my daughters and what is on display is not just my lovely girls, but how I feel about them and relate to them.  I sometimes take passport photos for people. Like anybody else, I make the whanau line up and grin inanely on Christmas and birthdays. But to capture what I really see in people; to capture how I relate to what I see in people is not quite so easy; but seeing as I am surrounded on every hand by wonderful and photogenic people, I am becoming more and more interested in giving it a go.