Yesterday morning I went to the 7:00 am Eucharist in St. Mary's New Plymouth. With all that old stone re-radiating the February sunshine the church felt warm . The military hatchments are still there, and I knew 8 or so of the dozen people gathered to worship in the soon to be cathedral, so, even after an absence of more than a decade, it all seemed very familiar. Appearances can be deceptive.: it wasn't actually very familiar at all. In the time I have been away the Taranaki Bishopric has undergone a change; use whatever nifty theological word you like: resurrection, redemption, revival, they all seem to fit. It's not the place it used to be and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
When I left it was the bottom bit of the Diocese of Waikato, newly cobbled together from the leftovers of two dioceses, with not many parishes, not many clergy and not much money. There was a lot of history, some great church buildings and some even greater people, but what with rural depopulation, and declining church membership and one thing and another, it was hard to see how the newly elected first Bishop of Taranaki, Phillip Richardson, was going to be able to do much. But, as I've said, appearances can be deceptive. Ten years down the track the place is humming along very nicely indeed, and two and a half weeks out from my own ordination it was encouraging - inspiring, even - to be there.
At the heart of all that is happening in Taranaki is the Bishop's Action Foundation. This is an organisation which acts as a sort of a Nanny McPhee to the voluntary sector in the region, setting things to rights and helping folks get things done in some almost magical ways. It works not by dashing in and taking over, and absolutely not by lecturing folk or telling them what will be good for them, but by making connections, drawing things and people and money together, and by gently expanding peoples ideas of what is possible. The Taranaki, like everywhere else, has all the usual problems which afflict humankind. And like everywhere else, there are lots of good people who come up with ingenious schemes to overcome those problems. And, also like everywhere else, these solutions often fail, not because they are bad ideas, but because the people who think them up are not expert in all of the skills required to turn good ideas into helpful reality. Enter, stage left, the Bishop's Action Foundation. They have ways of making you succeed: they can help with finding the right funding agencies; they can tell you the names of the people with just the skills you need to make and market your great idea and give you their cellphone number. They might even phone up and tell them you are on your way round. They can do the research which will tell you whether your cunning scheme really will work, and when it has been going for a while, do an evaluation to find out whether they were right or not. The result is a multiplication of the energies of the province's voluntary sector, and lots and lots of stuff gets done.
Now of course, much of the stuff getting done by the BAF is not specifically "religious", but there is plenty of explicitly spiritual stuff going on. In a couple of weeks St. Mary's Church will be become the Cathedral, and this signifies a development of the other stream of Gospel energy flowing through the Anglican Church in the Taranaki: worship. I think it is important, though, that developing the service part of the equation came first, because as people get helped, the diocese has the satisfaction of living in the example of Jesus, and because there is something whole and helpful and Gospel centred at it's heart, it is united and invigorated. This is what inspires me.
Much as part of me would like to have a crack at it, I don't think we in Dunedin Diocese could just copy the Bishop's Action Foundation. Rather, we need to be thinking about the general principle of finding a Gospel centred core around which to build our own life; a core which derives from our own unique environment and draws on the skills of our own mix of people. From the Taranaki, I will take the lesson of expanding my preconceptions of who, exactly, constitutes our skill base. I will take some other, more practical lessons, such as an excellent model for reorganising rural ministry. But mostly I will carry away the knowledge that small size, aging demographics, lack of money and geographic isolation are NOT what defines the Church of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who does that. And the Holy Spirit seems to....well.... blow wherever the Holy Spirit pleases.