The Long Slow Goodbye

About 6 weeks ago I announced my impending retirement. I am obliged to give three months notice but gave the diocese about ten months because there needs to be some very major changes made, and we need the ten months to make them.

The simple truth is, we, in the Diocese of Dunedin can no longer afford a full time bishop. This year we are balancing the budget because the St. John's College Trust Board has recognised my role as a ministry educator and has allowed us to use some of the funding we use for educational work to be applied to the episcopate.

I have spoken of the reasons for the changes in our circumstances before. At our peak, back in the early 1970's there were about 10,000 people worshipping in Anglican Churches in Otago and Southland every week. Last year there were around 2,000. In other words, there has been an 80% decline over the last 40 years. The infrastructure of our church was developed to serve a spiritual environment which has changed beyond recognition, and now we cannot sustain it. The reasons for our decline are linked to the shifting patterns of religious behaviour in the Western world generally, and to the enormous social changes which have taken place in the Rural South Island over the last few decades. In many ways we have met these challenges quite well: many of our churches are quite buoyant, and our attendances at services across the diocese have actually risen over the last 3 or 4 years but this rise in attendance has not been matched by a rise in committed membership, or in giving.

I find myself in a very ambiguous position. I know this diocese better than anyone else: I have driven over 250,000 km, and travelled on almost every road in Otago and Southland; I have prayed in every church in the diocese and led worship in almost all of them; I have spent time in all of the diocesan service organisations and served on the boards of many of them; I have a reasonable grasp of our finances and I understand our canon laws; I have represented our diocese many times at national and international forums; I know the landscapes and I know the people, but I must now stand back and allow others to decide the future of this diocese I have lived in and served and loved for 18 years as priest and bishop.

On Tuesday our Archbishop will be here to help our diocesan leadership work through the issues which lie ahead. There are options for our future which are simply untenable: we can't just sit back and wait for things to improve; we can't imagine that if only we all dig a little deeper things can go on as they are. Things are never again going to be as they were. We must make significant changes to the way we operate or we must cease to exist altogether. And all who have a leadership role in our diocese are committed to the former scenario.

We face death and resurrection. And why should we be surprised? This is the way of the Gospel, after all. What we do know is that people are no less insatiably curious about the great questions of life than ever they were and people are no less open to spiritual experience. We in the Anglican church have such a wealth of riches to offer that conversation that our future is assured, as long as we have the courage to follow Christ through the ending of systems which have long since outlived their purpose to the newness beyond.


Elaine Dent said…
I'm taking notes. God's blessing and my prayers for this work. Last week's Richard Rohr quote: "The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation, the mystery we're examining, more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart--chaos--invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is falling apart. Otherwise, most of us would never go to new places. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. You will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart. This is when you need patience, guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening your controls and certitudes. Perhaps Jesus is describing this phenomenon when he says, "It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:14)....Transformation usually includes a disconcerting reorientation. Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of your inner life, what we call your "spirituality." Change of itself just happens; but spiritual transformation must become an actual process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, and allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore. You can see why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol for many Jews and Christians."

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Franciscan Media: 2001), 69, 81-82.
Lloyd + said…
Dear Bishop Wright. Thank you. This is imperative for the whole Church.If we get it right, exciting times for mission are in front of us.
fuegoHugh said…
Kia Ora Bishop Kelvin

You are a wise and open churchman and have paddled your waka well, as someone who lives 'beyond the Waimakariri, but received a christian dedication 30 years ago in St John's Lawerence, I taupuhipuhi your message today and your service in the South of this fine Island nation.

in Christ
Geoff Hume-Cook said…
A loving, honest, beautiful but gently brutal korero Bishop Wright. I appreciate your principled, compassionate and heartfelt words. They apply equally to many institutions across the Western World: would that more outgoing senior office-holders were possessed of your humility & wisdom.
Thank-you for sharing your thoughts.
May your 'retirement' be as fulfilling and challenging as your working life.
Best wishes,
Unknown said…
I hope you don't mind that I have copied this link and the image to the website Te Kare O Nga Wai. Your words deserve to be heard again for the wero they lay down for all of us. Kia kaha for the coming days. Some of us at least will be watching with prayerful attention as the Diocese discerns the path from here.
Christina said…
Dear Bishop Wright, much courage and peace to you in these days, thanks for sharing these wise insights.
Anonymous said…
May God bless you and the diocese and may you be encouraged by the examples of all those who have stepped out into the unkown in faith.
James Harding said…
Thank you for these reflections, Kelvin, and for the thoughtfulness that you have given to this significant moment in the life of the diocese. I've been mulling over your words over the last few days, and while I don't know whether this is the right place to put them, nor what the Archbishop would have said yesterday, I feel I have to put them somewhere.

"[W]e … can no longer afford a full time bishop." These words point to the nub of one of the key problems here, and that is that one of the old patterns of thinking and behaving we need to move out of is one that construes our Christian lives in terms of what we do, and in terms of how what we do can be measured and calculated, rather than in terms of what and who we are. The fact is that in Anglican ecclesiology there is no such thing as a part-time bishop. I am not making a point here about how a bishop is paid for her or his time, but about what a bishop is. I have not ceased to be a priest because at the moment I am not regularly ministering sacramentally in a church; nor will you cease to be a priest or a bishop as and when you retire.

I think that the funding situation is forcing is to reckon with the truth of the matter, that a bishop is not fundamentally a manager or administrator, not called as of first importance to sit on multitudinous boards and committees; the Body of Christ has other members with such gifts. A bishop is fundamentally a pastor and teacher, and in taking on the role of ministry educator, you have in fact been embodying something fundamental about what it means to be a bishop. You are not a bishop some of the time and a ministry educator for some more of it: you are a shepherd of the pastors of the Church, and that means being our "ministry educator" (a horribly managerial term, but we are stuck with it for now).

It seems to me that the financial situation that we have all got so worried about may turn out to be not so much a matter of stewardship as of a renewed call to discipleship: we have to remember what really matters and why we are really here, to live out the Great Commission given by the Risen Jesus to the apostles.

James Harding said…
One more thing.

"What we do know is that people are no less insatiably curious about the great questions of life than ever they were and people are no less open to spiritual experience. We in the Anglican church have such a wealth of riches to offer that conversation that our future is assured …." Well this is true, but we do have to be careful here. You are absolutely right to add "as long as we have the courage to follow Christ," but I wonder whether making that a subordinate clause illustrates another part of our problem. Many of us simply assume that our future is assured, but I am not at all sure that the future of the diocese, or the future of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, or the Anglican Communion, is assured at all. The future of the mission of the Risen Christ is assured, but we do not know which branches need to be pruned for that mission to go on.

I say this partly because I am concerned by the idea that we as Anglicans might have an alluring brand that can be marketed to those who have certain spiritual needs (that is my wilfully cynical re-writing of your more vibrant and optimistic sentence). I am always intrigued when I see Bibles shelved in the New Age and Spirituality sections of bookshops—because that is not where they belong. Ours are not simply marketable goods in a spiritual supermarket. Supposedly they are the words of eternal life, entrusted to us by Jesus. We need to remember that we are in the "business" (ugh: I cringe that I chose such a word) not of spirituality in general, but of Christian discipleship in particular. We also need to remember that the future of the Church in this place is not ours to decide, but to discern: it is God's work, not ours, our task being to be attentive enough in prayer and the reading of Scripture, so to allow God's love to be grafted onto our hearts, that we may become part of it.