Saturday, 30 April 2016

Steps and Plateaux

Ordination changes a person's self perception in ways that only those who have experienced it can understand. Urban Holmes says that when the community singles us out and sets us aside we become living symbols. We evoke various archetypes in people, particularly the shaman archetype, and people react to us in ways of which often they themselves are hardly even aware. We are the screen onto which all manner of psychological and psychic stuff is projected, and people react to their own projections in ways which are deep and unexpected. I noticed it most markedly a few days after I was ordained deacon, walking through Cathedral Square in Christchurch. I walked past a group of gang members, perhaps a dozen of them, who were laughing and talking and clowning around just outside the Cathedral. As I walked past, wearing my crisp new black shirt and shiny new clerical collar, they all fell silent and stared at the ground. It wasnt me they were reacting to, of course, but what I evoked in them. With every new ordination, to priest and then to bishop, the dynamic has remained the same, but got more intense.  

This symbolic weight is useful at times, but  I have never fully got used to it. I know that I won't ever be able to relinquish it entirely: the call and the gifts of God are irrevocable; but in a year I shall be able, somewhat, to set it to one side.   And, no matter how holy or godly this whole business of diaconate and priesthood and episcopacy may be, they are things which lie in the upper, transient layers of my self. And my life's purpose is to allow myself to be led towards, and to know and to inhabit those more permanent places which lie more deeply and truly underneath them.

As with all things to do with my own consciousness I understand that I am powerless to effect changes by dint of my own willpower, but I do know (at last!) how to sit still and give consent. And that is enough, for, the more I sit, and am open, and surrender, the more I am able to be changed by the one who seeks to live in me and draw me ever homeward. 

I don't know how it is for you. For me this journey homeward happens in steps: There is a sort of inner plateau, and then a transition is made suddenly, and  there follows a long period of living in that newness until it is integrated and accommodated. I don't decide on these changes. They seem to be decided for me. So, over the past few days, another small step; a slight shift in perspective: only a couple of degrees but the change of angle was decisive. Oh! So that's what was going on there! Another small change. Another small death. Another step to freedom.

Today, while it was yet dark, I woke and drove in the strengthening light around the harbours edge towards the Eastern horizon. Ostensibly it was to take photographs but I knew that the real reason was to watch the sunrise and to give thanks. It was, symbolically, to hurry towards the resurrection which waits for me in a year's time and in today.

Friday, 29 April 2016


Vodafone, who supply my internet connection, gave me a little present the other day: a year's free subscription to Neon. In the unlikely event that I ever decide I want to watch Bob the Builder or  Game of Thrones after all, then all the episodes, every single one of them, are sitting there waiting for me. Also sitting there is a not bad supply of movies including a few I've always been meaning to see but somehow never got around to viewing.

The 2008 film Doubt is one such. I saw it last night and I'm very pleased I did. Technically it's a tour de force with superb cinematography in a suitable limited but highly contrasted pallete, intelligent editing, certain direction,  brilliant casting and some outstanding performances. The central roles of an embittered nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a young and na├»ve history teacher, Sister James and a popular parish priest, Father Flynn, played by Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman respectively are as strong and convincing and as finely nuanced as you might expect from such a stellar ensemble. The most powerful performance though is Viola Davis, playing Mrs. Miller, the mother of the boy at the centre of the narrative.  Her role is small but utterly compelling as she tries to protect her son from being destroyed by the various levels of ensconced privilege: white, male, priestly power.

I'm not going to write a full review here. There's plenty of those online. I was impressed by the way liturgical symbols - wine, water, smoke, bread - were used throughout the movie. There were also Biblical images, a dove for example, but pre-eminently wind.  The image of wind (as in the wind of change, the wind of the spirit, having the wind taken out of one's sails, putting the wind up someone, being long winded) is present in almost every scene and at times runs the risk of being just a little heavy handed but this is a movie with a great deal of theological sophistication.

The movie begins with a sermon, and a very good one too, being delivered by Father Flynn on the subject of doubt. He says that it is our doubts, not our certainties, which most unite us, and the rest of the movie is a working through of this thesis. Set just before Vatican II, the story is a conflict between two mutually exclusive views of what it means to be the church and about the winds of change which are sweeping all before them. It is also about priestly misconduct, the role of women in the church, and the power systems which both effect and resist change. Sister Aloyisius is convinced, despite a lack of  any real evidence, that Father Flynn is a paedophile and she sets about removing him from the parish. In the end she succeeds, but the audience must form their own views of Father Flynn's guilt or innocence and we do this on the basis of our own preconceived ideas and prejudices. The movie, in other words, confronts us with our own doubts, and true to the opening sermon, we find ourselves paradoxically drawn to those characters who are least certain, most doubting and repelled by the one person, Sister Aloyisius who is most certain.

I will watch it again, but Neon has a lot more for me to see yet before my year is up.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Stewart Island

A selfie. My reflection in the engine nacelle of a Stewart Island Flights Britten Norman Islander

It's a two and a half hour drive from my place to Invercargill and a short wait at Invercargill's very modern and surprisingly large airport before we board the flight for Stewart Island. We fly in a Britten Norman Islander, a two engine, robust, no nonsense, ten seater, plane known affectionately as the Landrover of the skies. I cram into the very back seat for the 20 minute flight and peer out at the surging, frothy surface of Foveaux Strait beneath me. Flying at about 1000 ft there is more of a sensation of height and of speed than in any jetliner travelling at ten times the height and eight times the velocity.  There is a bit of a southerly but the flight it comparatively smooth. The ridiculously young pilot dots it down on the runway on top of a bush clad hill and we creakingly unfold ourselves onto the ground. 
There are ten people in church on Sunday morning and it's bitterly cold while we are setting up the service. We sing and pray and break bread and then have a pretty lavish morning tea. I chat to a ten year old who tells me he and his family have just flown in the Islander to  the other side of the island. The pilot buzzes the beach where he intends to land to make sure there are no sea lions on it, and then uses the firm sand at low tide as a runway. He comes back to pick them up a few days later after they have had their fill of fishing and walking and sitting around in the very comfy old homestead which serves as a DOC hut. When he was out deer hunting with his dad, a kiwi ran over his foot. It's the nearest he's been to one. He's never got closer than about two metres before, although one did come onto the porch while they were there. Such privilege. The lucky kid.
I line up for the ANZAC dawn parade. It's even colder than yesterday. My job is to pray, and a soldier reads out an address about how the day is no longer about remembering war heroes, and more about celebrating the values on which our community is founded. The last post is played and we go to the RSA for tea and sandwiches and scones. I don't really understand what is going on with ANZAC day anymore, except that I think it's in the process of becoming some sort of folk religious celebration of origins. 
 By Monday afternoon the wind has really picked up. We go down to the little office in town to catch the shuttle to the airport, but the planes aren't running. Barry from Stewart Island Flights swaps our plane tickets for ferry tickets and we go to the wharf, but the boats are stuck also. There's nothing for it but to head back to Peter and Iris Tait's place and remake the bed. This is no great hardship. The Taits run Sails Ashore, a very upmarket little lodge. There are large windows looking out to Halfmoon Bay, and there is underfloor heating in the beautifully tiled en suite and everything is space and light and polished rimu.  Noah Skypes. Why are you stuck on an Island Amma and Pappa? he asks, and is answered a half dozen times. It's a privilege Noah. We are so lucky.
This morning the wind has dropped enough for the tough little planes to fly. We are back in Invercargill by 10.30 and drive home chatting and listening to music. We have been away 4 days. It feels like a month. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Available Light

There's a photo I've been wanting to take for a long time. I know the place. I know the light conditions I want. I know what time of day I need to be there. This morning looked like it might just fit the bill nicely, so I was up early, did my morning routine, and had the car out of the garage with camera and tripod well before sunrise. I drove to the spot but my photo failed to show up. There wasn't enough cloud in the sky and there was a fog, and anyway, what on earth did I think I was doing?

Going out with a particular shot in mind is the antithesis of what photography is about. I was wanting to impose my idea on reality, rather than looking to see what was before me. I've been taking pictures for nearly fifty years now, and still I fail at the first lesson!

I took the long way home. I stopped and saw  the fog rolling over the harbour around my beautiful town. I waited for the photos to arrive. I pressed the shutter a few times, but mostly watched the terns and the shadows and the headlights of cars on the wet road, and was pleased that my failure at photographic seeing 101 had got me out and about on such a stunning morning.


Thursday, 14 April 2016


I was 15 when Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, perhaps the most influential  music album ever.  It changed, forever, how popular music was conceived, recorded and played, and of course I listened to it and within a month of its release, knew it pretty much by heart, including Paul singing the jokey little song on side two, When I'm Sixty Four.

when I get older, losing my hair,
many years from now....

At 15 I could not conceive of being 64.  I had worked out that I would be 48 at the turn of the Millennium and was greatly disappointed by that prospect, in that I would be far too old to enjoy all of the amazing wonders (flying cars, space travel, ray guns)  that the  Twenty First century was bound to bring. And today it's here. My 64th birthday.  I looked in the mirror when I took my shower and a sort of bristly, balding, scarred, heavy old man looked back. And was mighty pleased to do so. If it wasn't for advances in medical care which have happened pretty much in my life time, septicaemia would have killed me in 2000, or, failing that, prostate cancer in 2009.

I looked in the mirror and saw my own mortality. We, all of us follow a sort of bell curve in our existence. We are born into the world and steadily increase our presence - bodily, psychologically, spiritually - in the world until we reach a peak of absolute presence, whereupon we almost immediately begin to decrease. Our bodies slow and fail, and we lose some of our mental acuity on a gentle downward curve which carries us to the goal which waits for us all: non existence. On each part of that parabolic trajectory there are tasks for us to do and desires and drives which are peculiar to that stage of life. At 64 I am a fair way down the right hand side of the bell curve, and a great number of the tasks of earlier stages have either been accomplished or given up as a bad job. The needs and desires I once had no longer seem quite so urgent.

I think this pattern is universal, inevitable and undeniable, but many in our culture seem to disagree with me. We seem, in the European West anyway, to be fixated on the early, uphill stages of the curve. The way bodies look in their 20s or 30s sets a normative pattern, and we define living by the possessing and meeting of the desires characteristic of that age: meeting and finding a mate, reproducing, becoming powerfully proficient in our careers. This stuckness in the uphill part of the bell curve is a symptom of our unwillingness to face our mortality, and a consequent reluctance to embrace not only the losses of aging, but the gifts of aging as well.

Because this is a gifted time.

Every summer we can take a cottage 
in the Isle of Wight (if it's not too dear)
we shall scrimp and save;
grandchildren on your knee,
Vera, Chuck and Dave...

I no longer turn the heads of young women as I walk down the street, but I am a grandfather, and that is infinitely better. I can't jump a fence any more, but I know what it is to sit and be. I forget stuff, but I also wake at 3 in the morning and glimpse the connection between Incarnation and Trinity, between desire and surrender. I know that I will die, and I am quietly excited and curious about the prospect. I know that today I am alive and that the world is wonderfully, elegantly beautiful.

I shower. The companion of my youth, who has aged in parallel with me, waits with a basket of presents and we have a ribald, gut splittingly funny conversation. And the stereo plays, synchronously, as it is wont to do, another, better song about mortality and the gifts it holds.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Birthday Party

On Thursday I went to Wellington for a day long meeting of the Bishops. We sat in one of those soulless airport conference rooms and talked through matters which some people think are important enough to leave the church over.

Friday was a day of conversations, some of them fraught, then an afternoon frantically preparing our little house for an influx of visitors.  And on Saturday, Ada was one.
We had the sorts of food that toddlers like. She got presents. We sang the song and cut the cake, and people took photographs. Ada took it all in her stride. She doesn't sleep much, but nonetheless is determined and quiet and mostly calm. She is very quick to smile. She has been walking for almost three months now, so is very mobile and takes a bit of shepherding. She has worked out roles for us all, mine being to carry her about, on a route decided by her, follow the direction of the appraising frown in her dark brown eyes and talk about the things she points at. It's only been a year and a full, singular, rich, strong personality is taking shape even as I watch.
There were 6 or 8 adults in the house and three pretty lively children for all the weekend. We had people in the caravan and an airbed set up in my study, and there was constant movement and noise, which was welcome and beautiful even to the introverts amongst us.

On Sunday I had a confirmation in All Saints, North Dunedin, where even with the movement and colour of the service, experienced in the bluish haze of smoke from the thurible, I found a welcome little island of stillness. I preached on Trust, and knew that, as usual, I was speaking mostly to myself. This Lent past, in a thousand ways I have had the lesson repeated that this beautiful, powerful, elegant, astonishingly clever universe is  a gift to me and means me well. The universe and the immense will which formed it trust me, so I can trust them in return.

After the service there were sandwiches and cake in the parish hall, but I couldn't wait to be back in my little home, still full of people, and with toys and bits of cake scattered over the carpet and with Noah asking me questions which sounded like poems. Why do people sometimes see motorbikes?  What are butterflies for, Pappa? Where does the moon go in the daytime?

Today was farewell. I buckled my dear ones into their car seats, hugged my daughter, shook hands with my son-in-law. We all waved. Then Clemency and I  packed up the temporary bedding, dismantled the child proof fortifications on the stairs, looked at the photographs, cleaned the house, and settled back into our quietness.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Radical Face

Late yesterday afternoon I drove through the Southern Otago sunshine to Gore. The people at Holy Trinity church wanted to discuss their immediate future with me, so we had a pleasant and productive chat in the parish hall before I had a quick meal with Keith and Anne Gover and drove on through to Invercargill.
At All Saints Gladstone a group of about 20 or so had gathered to discuss the issue of the ordination and/or marriage of gay people. There were no surprises in the views expressed, but I think that we are making good progress in our ability to live with difference.
This morning I was in Lumsden to talk to the people from four very small rural congregations, also about their immediate future. In the face of shifting patterns of land use, wholesale but unreported changes in the rural culture of New Zealand and the spiritual shifts common to all the Western world, there has been huge decline in small country churches in the last decade. There has been no diminution of interest in spirituality, mind you, and our Anglican congregations are, in their own ways responding to this. Whether they need to keep their old buildings in order to do so is a pressing question for many of them, and that was largely what we talked about. 
As I set out for the three hour drive home, Mr. Spotify sent me a text (how nice of him to remember me!) letting me know that the Indie electronic/folk/rock band, Radical Face had finally released the third album in the Family Tree trilogy. Excellent. It's a bit odd to call Radical Face a band, when basically it's just one guy, Ben Cooper from Jacksonville Florida, but he makes pretty interesting music. His Trilogy, Roots, Branches and Leaves has a connecting Narrative of a fictional family, the Northcotes, who live in Florida sometime in the 19th Century. Each album, as the names suggest, addresses a different era in the development of their relationships.He also has some accompanying EPs, the Bastard series, which deal with the sorts of family dynamics which every family has but no family will admit to having.  His tunes are good, and he makes very intelligent use of a synthesiser, but it's the lyrics I really like. The overall narrative structure allows him to make some thoughtful commentary on the human condition. So I had a happy drive home. Three albums and not one bad track amongst them.

Monday, 4 April 2016

And So It Begins

I got a big fat package in the mail today. It is all the documents required for General Synod, which is to be held in Napier in about a month's time. There's a whole swag of stuff and much of it looks pretty inportant and interesting, but of course the one issue that most people are really interested in is the report of The Way Forward group, on same sex marriage. Tomorrow I'll be going to Southland: I have a couple of meetings to attend but the main business will be a discussion I will be leading on the Way Forward report. This will be the first of such meetings in our diocese, and another two will follow in the next fortnight.

I have read the material, looked at the proposed new liturgies for the blessing of civil marriages, and thought through how we might best discuss the contentious issues the report deals with. I'm certain of one thing, and that is no-one is going to change their mind, but we all knew that anyway. The Way Forward seeks a formula by which we might remain together as church despite our differences and the proposed scheme is quite a clever one. It allows dioceses or hui amorangi to decide for themselves whether they will allow the blessing of same gender civil marriages, providing such marriages are lawful in that particular see.

The proposal will meet many of the practical obligations raised by same gender marriages: it will give a way in which a candidate for ordination who happens to be in a same sex marriage can have that relationship assessed as 'rightly ordered' according to the canon on discipline. It will allow dioceses and individual clergy who have theological objections to performing such blessings to decline to do so.  There are two liturgies being suggested, one for same gender couples and one for differently gendered couples. The differences between the two are so slight it took me quite a few minutes of careful comparison to find them.

The question we will need to consider is whether all this careful work will enable us to live together as one church with our differences. Time will tell, but if the whole church can find the level of  mutual respect and openness to the Holy Spirit which was manifest in General Synod 2014, then there is hope for us.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

My Dunedin. Just a few more.

I was looking through some old photos and came across these which I took, maybe 10 years ago.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Unconditional Positive Regard

Here's a secret. I learned it this past Lent. If you want to change your life, meditate for an hour a day. The changes won't happen immediately but they will happen.

Sit still.
Stop trying.
Don't just do something, sit there.
Be quiet for a change.

The psychologist Carl Rogers coined a phrase, Unconditional Positive Regard, to express the attitude required of a counsellor towards the one who comes for counsel. By it he meant that no matter what was said or done, the counsellor offers support and acceptance. The extension of this regard gives an environment in which the vast resources within the client can be mobilised for their own healing.

I don't know where the humanist Carl Rogers got his phrase from, but it seems that great minds think alike, for this is the attitude God extends towards us. Jesus said, Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  I think he meant this: get out of your own way. All that stuff you have been trying all your life; the stuff that has never quite worked: why do you persist with it?

So, sit still, and let go, as far as you can, the old life; that is,  the insulating layers you have so carefully erected between you and God; and God's unconditional positive regard for you, which is always there, will be revealed. And will be allowed  to work for your good.