Bishop's Charge to Synod 2015

Opening Prayer

E te Atua to matou Kai-hanga
Ka tiaho te maramatanga me te ora, I au kupu korero,
Ka timata au mahi, ka mau te tika me te aroha;
Meatia kia u tonu ki a matou
Tou aroha I roto I tenei huihunga.
Whakakii a matou whakaaro a matou mahi katoa,
E tou Wairua Tapu

Introduction and Thanks
Welcome, welcome thrice welcome as we gather here in St Matthews to celebrate our common life and plan together for our future. As we gather in this place, I am mindful of all who have carried the torch of faith before us, and who pass it to us today. In particular, we remember those of our number who have died in the past year, particularly Jim Brooks and Stan Mawhinney.

It has been my privilege to journey amongst you for yet another year, and I am grateful for the strong team amongst whom I work at Peter Mann House. Alec Clark, has continued his work as ministry educator while accepting the additional duties of being Vicar General. I know from experience that Vicar General is the least enviable position in the church, having all the difficult parts of the bishop’s role and few of the benefits. Alec led the diocese through an interesting phase in my absence on study leave and I am pleased that he did it with such grace and wisdom.
Benjamin Brock Smith worked with imagination and flair and will leave at the end of this year to commence training at St. John’s College in Auckland. He will be greatly missed. 

John Franklin ceased his ministry as my chaplain this year. John brought to his role a deep spirituality and superb interpersonal skills. His time in this role was transformative for many and I was deeply sorry when the funding source which paid for John’s position came to an end. 

My PA, Mrs Debbie Flintoff has continued to exercise her role with her usual style and tact and grace. I truly don’t know what I would do without her. Mrs Dominique Aitcheson is skilled, tireless and full of good humour. She is a great gift to our office and to the wider diocese.  Our accountant Ginny Kitchingman has finally finished untangling and overhauling our convoluted accounting system. For the first time in years we have access to timely and accurate financial information, which is welcome but of course has also presented us with huge challenges as, for the first time in a very long time, we have realised how precarious our financial position is.  

Mr Graeme Sykes has continued to work with great good humour. His vision and optimism are necessary gifts for the diocese. Ms Emma Nees has brought welcome skills to her role as communications officer and in her short time with us has made a considerable impact, particularly on social media where our profile continues to rise and broaden. Emma’s position with the diocese will cease at the end of this year due to budgetary constraints. Mrs Nicola Wong has been a welcome presence in the office this year, cataloguing and sorting out our various trusts and bequests.

This year has been one in which I have been looking back at 40 years of full time ministry in the Anglican Church and contemplating the changes which lie ahead for me personally and for our diocese. It was providential that I was gifted a sabbatical late this year in which I was able to further my knowledge and practice of contemplative prayer and to begin work on a theology of pilgrimage. As part of this, I walked the 843 km of the Camino Primitivo in Northern Spain. I also visited Auschwitz and was privileged to have time for study in London. All of these events have been transformative for me. I believe they have given me some insight into how we may best proceed as a diocese.

We are in interesting times. Our roll is slowly declining, as are the numbers of people who are committed to providing financial support to the diocese. But over the past couple of years our attendances have increased. The combination of declining membership and decreasing interest rates have meant that we are in serious, though not fatal financial difficulty. We will need to undertake some serious revision of how we live as a diocese. So, what is going on here? Let me take the scenic route to an explanation.

The Power of Story
High in the hills of Galicia I walked, a few weeks ago, through a village called A Fonsegrada. The name is a contraction of the Spanish Fuente Sagrada, meaning Sacred Fountain. It was named this because once upon a time St. James travelled through that village. He noted, while he was there that the villagers were good and pious people, but that they were very poor. In a very early version of the prosperity gospel, he decided that their material wealth should reflect their spiritual wealth and arranged with the almighty that the village fountain should flow with milk, not water. The people grew immensely wealthy from the ensuing dairy industry. Presumably somebody changed the fountain back at some stage, but the name continued.  St. James, the patron Saint of Spain seems to have performed similar miracles in most of the villages and towns of the Iberian peninsula, and his activities are all the more remarkable for the fact that, according to legend, his first visit to Spain was brief, and he was dead when he arrived in Spain for his second visit and was buried very shortly thereafter. 

The stories of the saints abound in Spain. Almost every Spanish church has an immense reredos covered in statues of people from history, mythology and the Bible. These stories, even those purporting to come from the time of Christ or even before, arose mostly around the turn of the first millennium. The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and over a period of about eight years subdued it all, but they were resisted in the Northern Kingdoms of Asturias and Galicia which kept up a measure of Christian autonomy over the centuries long period when Spain was Islamic. In these Kingdoms, stories of the saints and the apostles became important markers of distinct Christian identity; they gave legitimacy and depth to a struggling and often fragile Christian remnant. In the early middle ages when the Reconquista proceeded from North to South across Spain these stories spread and new ones were invented, helping the infant Christian culture gain acceptance and giving a reference point in the ancient depths of the faith.

Narrative and Metanarrative
The stories we tell inform us. They give us meaning and an anchor point in a larger reality of which we are part. They help us to make meaning of life and give us a sense of life’s direction. And the stories we tell and believe are set within a greater story: the metanarrative, which is the larger story of how the universe came to be and how we have a part in it. The metanarrative encompasses all of our experience and all the other stories we tell. In Fonsegrada the name of the town demonstrated that the life of the village was seen to be completely continuous with the life of the Apostle James and through him to God himself, so it is an example of a local specific story that is enfolded within the greater metanarrative: that of God’s dealing with the world.

Sometimes stories lose their power. When people stop believing them they cease to be vehicles of power and meaning and become folktales; quaint remnants from a time past which demonstrate nothing but the gullibility of our ancestors. And metanarratives also lose their power as they are subverted and replaced by other stories of meaning. In A Fonsegrada, I doubt if anyone much believes the old tales anymore. The people have other, newer stories to tell; stories of the great explorers, and the Armada, and the merging of the kingdoms into modern Spain, and of the Civil War. But it is not just in Spain that the old stories are losing power.

When I was converted to Christianity more than 40 years ago I placed my life into the care of the Lord Jesus Christ and experienced a powerful sense of rebirth and renewal. That moment was the pivot on which all my life has subsequently turned. I committed my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, even though I wasn’t entirely sure who or what the Lord Jesus Christ was and I experienced a sense of the divine. I was ushered into a new and welcoming community. I found myself healed and restored in unexpected ways. I gained a sense of purpose and direction. For the first time, but not the last, I experienced what it is to relinquish my own ego and place myself into the care of the old, wise, loving other.  And I was given a beautiful story which explained that experience to me and gave meaning to my life from that point onward. This was the Christian metanarrative.
The story, briefly, was as follows:

The Old Old Story
In the beginning was God. The infinitely wise and good God created a perfect universe which reflected his nature by being uncorrupted and perfect. Into this primeval perfect world, God placed people, made in his own image, and endowed with free will so that they might choose to love God and enter relationship with him because a true loving relationship is impossible unless it is freely chosen. The people did not choose relationship with God but instead chose rebellion and enmity. As a result the good universe fell, and was plunged into brokenness and depravity. In his great love God called people back to himself, sending the law and the prophets and speaking to people through every channel open to him. People could not hear God however because the weight of their own rebellion had so distanced them from God that they were powerless to make the long journey back. 

Finally God entered the universe himself in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfect human life we are all designed to live, and at the end suffered a cruel and unjust death at the hands of human beings. He rose from death. In this death the weight of human error and selfishness was finally broken and his resurrection demonstrated the power of new life over all strategies that any contrary power might try to use to thwart it . A path was made back to God that people could never have made by their own efforts. A small foothold of divinity was thus established in the fallen world and we are invited to be part of that invasion of righteousness and help to spread its influence in the darkened universe. We are invited to recognise and live out in our own lives the pattern of life, death and resurrection. We are assured that this work of righteousness will eventually triumph and that God will return again, in the person of Jesus, to rule his restored kingdom.

I need you to note at this point that the narrative came after the experience. The experience of God came in an instant but it took years for people to explain the Christian story to me and they’re not finished yet. We often confuse the metanarrative with the experience it explains. This means that we often believe that the task of evangelism consists in teaching the metanarrative to others in the mistaken belief that if they know it the experience will inevitably follow. We often assess the authenticity of a person’s spiritual experience by testing them on their adherence to the metanarrative, or at least the version of it to which we adhere. If we confuse the experience of God with the metanarrative though, we are in danger.

A Newer Story
There was a time when this narrative was the overarching story not just of the church but of all of Western Civilisation. It was, in other words, our cultural metanarrative. The story gave meaning and purpose not just to individual lives but set the direction of the whole civilisation.  But whether or not we like it, this story has gradually been replaced by another.

Our society now subscribes to a metanarrative in which there was no primeval paradise. The universe wasn’t created in perfection but has rather been growing, steadily and sometimes spectacularly over an unimaginably long space of time. For reasons unknowable to anyone, it exploded from a particularity, a point as far smaller than a full stop as a full stop is smaller than the Westpac Stadium; and has been expanded over aeons into a space whose size defies calculation. Human beings emerged, developing from simpler species, as part of this explosion into being. Furthermore, the supposed absolute realities with which we deal: length, breadth, height and time are not absolute at all but are illusory and relative. And if we look closely at the construction of things on a very large or a very small scale we find ourselves confronted with matter which behaves in ways which defy all categories of logic. 

There was no once and for all act of creation. The universe is in process. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to be present at the Big Bang? Well take a look around you. The Big Bang is happening now: all around you. You and everything you know are all part of this great creative process which has not stopped changing and developing since the beginning.  

In such a universe, the story we tell, of creation fall, redemption and restoration has lost its power to give meaning and direction.

As people have stopped believing; as our metanarrative has ceased to be the means by which they explain the universe to themselves people have ceased to have any allegiance to the church, or to see the church as a possible source of meaning. For if there was no primeval perfection there was no fall. And if there was no fall there can be no redemption from the fall. And there can be no restoration to the original perfection because the original perfection never existed. The whole Christian story as we have developed it over 2,000 years is increasingly unavailable to people for whom it makes no sense whatsoever and who consequently relegate it to the realm of folk story.

So what do we do? The lack of interest in Christianity isn’t some passing social fad that time will heal or which will right itself as soon as a decent enough crisis happens along. We are in a time of sea change in humanity’s understanding of itself, and there will be no going back to the older story.  Do we recognise that we are on a hiding to nothing and give up and let Christianity go the way of Manichaeism and Mithraism?

Our Dilemma
I for one can’t do that. I cannot deny the force of the evidence that the story of the universe now gaining unquestioned acceptance in the West is closer to the truth than the old paradigm of creation and fall and redemption and unity. But neither can I deny that on the evening of August 5 1973, the Living God met me, empowered me and changed my life forever. I know that in my own life these two realities sit together not in some sort of schizophrenic tension but in mutual respect and balance. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. While I cannot any longer describe the action of “Christ in [me], the hope of Glory” (Col. 1:27), in terms of fall and redemption I cannot deny its reality and power and ongoing presence in my life, even as I reach for other ways to explain it to myself and to others.

And my recent walk in Spain gives me pause for thought. Over the past few decades the numbers of people making the pilgrimage have increased from a few hundred annually to well over 200,000. As well, the number of people visiting the shrine of St. James has increased by a staggering amount, from about 140,000 per year at the start of the 20th Century to many millions a year at the start of the 21st. (figures vary but a best guess would be about 4 million per annum) I have now walked about 1600 km on the Camino de Santiago and have conversations with perhaps a hundred others who were also making the journey. Inevitably I asked them,
“why are you walking the Camino?” 
In not one instance did someone tell me that it was because the bones of St. James lie buried in the crypt of Santiago Cathedral. No one was seeking the plenary indulgence that comes from performing a pilgrimage. 

In other words, none was inspired by the old story of what Santiago de Compostela is about. But in every single instance the reasons given were broadly speaking spiritual. People were seeking to know themselves, to discover meaning, or trying to work their way through some great life issue. Some were hoping to get in touch with the flow of history, or the natural world, or sometimes, the divine presence. Most had difficulty articulating it, but for most there was a sense of direction or purpose in what they were doing. One woman said to me, about a month ago, 
“I don’t believe in God, but if there is a God he told me to walk the Camino.”

There is a huge hunger for those things which are the Church’s stock in trade, the things that were gifted to me on that August night in 1973: community, meaning, a sense of the divine, a purpose in life.  Even if people can’t buy into the old stories of St. James, they seek the deeper realities to which the old stories pointed. We have a message to give and a story to tell, but we are telling it in a context in which our accustomed metanarrative no longer has any credibility. We find ourselves in the position of the exiles, who in Psalm 137:4 ask
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The exiles had been removed from all those things which were integral to the faith of their ancestors. They had been removed from the holy city, from the temple and even from the Promised Land. The systems authority by which the faith was ordered had been deliberately destroyed by their captors. They lived under a set of laws that contradictory to their own holy law. All they could do was hang their harps on the willows and weep with the memory of what they had lost and with the knowledge of their own impotence. It must have seemed like an end to them, but from our perspective of centuries later we recognise that it wasn’t so much an end as a new beginning: the start of a renewed and enlarged faith that would have been impossible except for the exile and its subsequent restoration.

Noah Leadership
We need to ask ourselves the same question. How do we sing the Lord’s song in the strange land in which we now live? It’s a particularly pointed question for me, and people often express it in terms of leadership. 
“Show some leadership, Kelvin” they say, meaning usually, 
“Tell those people over there to do what I want them to do.” 
My temptation is to what the Church usually does, which is to show the Noah school of leadership.

I mean not the Biblical Noah but my grandson Noah. He is two years old and is a born leader. He bowls confidently up to strangers and says 
expecting that they will be as delighted to see him as he is to see them, and he is invariably right. To other children, even ones years older than himself his next words are usually, “follow me!” 
He heads of somewhere and the others tag along in his wake. He hasn’t got the foggiest idea of where he is going or of what he will do when he gets there, but the other kids follow because they respond so well to someone with a confident tone of voice and a resolute stride. 

So over the years we in the Church have followed the various fads and trends which have promised us a way out of our difficulties. But these have all been Noah leadership gambits. We are required to do something deeper, and scarier.

There is a famous Spanish poem, written by Antonio Machado
Part of it runs as follows:
Caminante , no hay camino.
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Wayfarer, there is no path
Wayfarer, your footprints
are the path; there is no other.
Wayfarer, there is no path.
Make your path by going farther.
By going farther, make your way
‘Til looking back at where you've wandered,
you observe that path which you cannot
tread again from this time forward.
Wayfarer, there is no path;
Only wake-trails on the waters.

We are asked not to stride confidently off with a cheery “follow me!” but to be still and acknowledge who and what we are; to acknowledge and be aware of the difficulty and precariousness of our position.

The most powerful moment of my Camino came to me early one morning. Clemency and I had set out to walk the Camino Del Norte along the Bay of Biscay. However, after about 400 km Clemency’s ankles gave out so we changed route to the Camino Primitivo, the oldest route and one that winds its way over the Pico Europa mountain range. Clemency caught the bus when we got to Oviedo and went ahead to Lugo while I walked alone. And it was alone. Few people take that route and the ones that did were all a lot younger than me: in their 20s and 30s. They were almost all Spanish or Italian, and although a few spoke some English and I spoke a little Spanish no real conversation was possible. So separated by age and language I walked and ate and slept alone. During this time a prayer became very special to me. Just before leaving Dunedin I had attended the training session for this years’ Cursillo and had taken away with me, on a little card, Tim Hurd's prayer for that event. It is:

God of your pilgrim people
You call us to follow
And to face you
Help us to be open
To your call
Faithful in our response
And to leave behind
All that would keep us
From the fullness of
And fullness of life.
Through him who calls us,
Jesus the son,
Our saviour,

 The prayer spoke powerfully to me through all my walk on the Primitivo, particularly the call to give up all that hindered my discipleship. 

One morning with that prayer in my head, and having made some decisions about things which I felt were, indeed, keeping me from the path of full discipleship, I rose and began to walk an hour and a half before sunrise. The path took me through an oak forest. It was pitch dark and after about 20 minutes in the forest I began to realise how vulnerable my situation was. I was as far from home as it was possible to be. There wasn’t another English speaker for 50 km, I was well out of cellphone range and no one knew where I was. I was in the middle of a dark, tangled forest with who knew what animals around me with a tiny headlight as my only source of direction. 

And I was rapturously, unbelievably happy. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be; that in its own good time the sun would rise and that sometime later in the day I would pass a village where there would be coffee and food. And all I had to do was place one foot in front of the other and move on slowly ahead, following the trail. I was alone but not lonely and filled with a great sense of the wonder and goodness of the universe.  

We are asked to give up; and in that giving up to discover what waits us in the stillness: a sense of the divine, the community of those who are as befuddled as ourselves, healing for our deep wounds and an ongoing sense of purpose. 

For me there are some practical things to be done. We need to recognise the limits of our own resources and accept that we are in a position of probably permanent decline. We need to reshape our church to fit that reality. We need to orient ourselves to proclaiming the eternal Word of God in ways which can be heard within the metanarrative of the society in which we live. We need to change. Over the next eighteen months I intend to do exactly that.

In this time of transition I know that I will not lead this diocese into its future but I will make those necessary infrastructural changes which will allow your next bishop to do just that. I believe that within our own body there are the resources to enable us to make the necessary transitions.  With our changes to the parish statute we are beginning to make the required shifts, but that is only a beginning. We need to make careful and faithful decisions about how we best use the resources we have, and by resources I mean people and money. Our budget this year must be prudent and our immediate spending must be contained within the parameters of what is actually available to us. My own position and that of the principal ministers of the diocese may well undergo significant change in the next year or so. I am under no illusions that it will be easy. I will be committing myself to this as my primary task in the next year, so I am not going to be undertaking any new responsibilities and I will be looking to delegate many of those I already have while this extra and time consuming task of review is done.

We have the difficulty that we take this path as pioneers. We have few examples to follow as we are, in fact, the ones other people are looking to forge the way through unchartered territory. There is no easy solution, no simple three or six or ten part plan to deliver us the answers, there is only the unknown path ahead, through and out of the forest and into the dawn.

To be in this place is a little daunting, but it is exciting. I ask for your trust as I find my way forward, and for your prayers as we find the path together. We cannot go back to old solutions, but look for the grace into which the Holy Spirit will lead us. We need to sit still. To be aware that this is a precarious place, but it is exactly where God intends us to be. And in this wood between the worlds know God’s presence; the community of those who travel with us; the healing that he is effecting in each of us and in our church; and the gentle presence which calls us forward, one small step at a time.

+Kelvin Wright

18 September 2015


Tony said…
Well said mate. Realistic, courageous, gentle, and determined. Authentically you, I would say. God keep you in your journey and your responsibilities for others.
Elaine Dent said…
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