Saturday, 20 April 2013

Pangaimotu

On the last morning of the Bishop's conference on Pangaimotu Island, just off Nuku'alofa in Tonga, we had been asked to walk around to the other side of the island for our morning Eucharist. So, leaving our little ferry by way of a floating jetty we walked the ten minutes from Big Mama Yacht Club, where we had been meeting, and found Archbishop Winston Halapua waiting for us. He was dressed in an alb and was talking on his cellphone. Here, in this place where it felt about as remote as it gets he was still connected.
Which was why he had asked to meet us there. The spot he chose was one where, as a small boy, he had gone fishing with his father. As he explained it, the clergy stipend back then wasn't nearly enough to feed the twelve members of the Halapua family, so his father put food on the table using his expertise with a throw net. Little Winston's job was to gather the fish his father took from the net and form them into a sort of raft to float back to the mainland. It was a place of cherished memories, where the little boy had performed useful and enjoyable work with his adored father. But now the beach had changed and the coconut palms were dying off because global warming was causing a rise in sea levels. No matter how remote we are, we are still connected.
Pangaimotu is exquisite. There is a gently sloping beach, palm trees, coarse golden sand, warm water and a charmingly down at heel establishment run by Ana, aka Big Mama where blue water yachts stop for R&R and where locals come for swimming and picnics. We sat under a canopy made from driftwood and palm leaves for a few days to discuss the affairs of the Anglican church in Polynesia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Perhaps because we were so relaxed, or perhaps because there was no way we could do anything but talk to each other, this was one of the friendliest and most productive meetings of its type I have attended. We chatted, prayed together, ate, sang songs as we travelled to and from the island, walked, swam, drank the local beer, and did our best not to snooze during business sessions. A lot got planned. A lot was decided. Friendships were deepened and renewed in the hot still Tongan days together. And in the middle of our idyllic landscape, there was always a visual reminder of the importance of what we were doing. Just off the jetty is a rusting shipwreck, pointing up out of the water like a giant shark's head. On most days little boys (and the occasional bishop) jumped off it into the crystal clear water. Right beside it was another, smaller wreck, and as we walked around the island I could count another eight, varying in size from small fishing vessels to large ocean going ships. These were boats driven ashore in hurricanes, and left to rot because the Tongan government had no money to remove them, and not enough power to force their owners to do so. It was another reminder that we are all connected, and that the cost of a modern trading economy often falls on the smallest and most vulnerable, whether it be people or nations.
As Justin Duckworth reminded the Christians of Dunedin a few weeks ago, our call as resurrection people; as followers of Jesus,  is to fight oppression wherever we see it. And here in the eroding shoreline of Panaimotu and the thousands of tons of abandoned iron was sign enough of what we are called to sacrifice ourselves to defeat.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Three Services

Photo courtesy St. Peter's Cathedral, Hamilton

I went to church three times this last weekend. On Saturday in company with about 1,000 others I went to the chapel of St. Paul's Collegiate School in Hamilton to participate in the farewell service to Archbishop David Moxon. The next day I went to my old parish, St. Francis Hillcrest and was able to take in the main morning service before rushing off to the airport to catch the flight home. Then in the evening I went to the Resurrection service in the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, and again in company with about 1,000 people.

The three events were quite varied. And that former sentence will be my official entry in this years understatement of the year awards. The St. Paul's chapel is a beautiful place with a soaring wood roof. It is light and spacious with the reflected light of a pool playing through a plain, frosted window featuring the words of Jesus arranged to form an enormous cross. The liturgy was considered, intelligent and reverent. People spoke warmly of David Moxon, whose influence on the life of the Anglican church in this country has been unparalleled.There was a lot of colour, and despite the formality and complexity of the occasion I found the time sped past quickly. The hymns were David's favourites and he is a musician. In his sermon, Philip Richardson managed to combine a  farewell tribute and some clever insights on the readings for the day. I was very glad to be there. There was, for me a real sense of God's presence, and the liturgy, the vestments, the beauty of the building and the views out to the water and trees beyond set us in a context temporally and spatially huge.

It was harvest festival at St. Francis, and the familiar octagonal building was decked out with all the usual bunches of grapes and artfully placed displays of home grown vegetables. Being a co-operating parish (that is, encompassing Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists) the service didn't follow a pattern usual in many Anglican parishes. When I was there we had over 100 children in the Sunday School,  so we had the readings and the preaching at the end of the service rather than at the beginning so that we could more practicably manage the kids. This practice is still followed. The music, led by a small music group was pretty standard for a suburban church these days, and there was a lively question and discussion time following the sermon.There were many faces we recognised, even after more than 20 years away, and it was wonderful to be back in the community which had meant so much to us and played such a huge role in our formation.

The Regent Theatre doesn't look like a church. Devoid of scenery and props the stage is not particularly handsome though there is a certain period elegance  to the rest of it. Arranged on the stage were the members of the band with the usual assortment of haphazardly placed black boxes, chrome stands and cables. It was loud, and I was in the front row. The songs were a mix of stuff unfamiliar to me and old standards spruced up a bit with fancy guitar riffs and complicated drumming. The largely young congregation sat in the half light and looked at the musicians on the brightly lit stage. From time to time casually dressed guys wandered onstage to contribute to proceedings and wandered off again. It was all as contemporary as the latest model iPhone and it was exuberantly energetic and lively. It was great to see so many churches worshipping together but at times I had to work hard to feel part of what was going on around me.

Then Bishop Justin Duckworth spoke, for a good half an hour without notes, microphone in hand, strolling back and forth,  in his trademark dreads and bare feet and he was spellbinding. He spoke of resurrection and of the way the church seems to have forgotten about it. He told us that the religious, political and social powers had killed Jesus but that Jesus resurrection had defeated these powers and rendered them second rate. He reminded us that if we seriously believed in resurrection we would join the fight against oppression wherever we saw it. He told us that God's call was not to be successful or cool or wealthy but to suffer and to serve. 1000 people sat so still that the only reason you couldn't hear a pin drop was that no-one had thought to bring one. All this varied weekend of church going and this half an hour put it all into its proper place. Vestments or checked shirts or frosted windows or spotlights; none of it matters really, except to the extent that it invites us to follow Jesus in laying down our lives and participating in resurrection. Thanks Justin.