Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Thoughts & Elections 2011

McCahon's paintings speak of a quintessential New Zealand and a land that has about it something speaking of the Holy, the numinous. Some very innovative spirit has borrowed the McCahon canon and adapted it with a comment, speaking for land and what New Zealanders decided at the polls yesterday. I think it is very clever - but more than that: it is also heart-rending.

When I see what seems to be happening to this country ...

Friday, November 25, 2011

White Ribbon Week

Today the occupiers in the Octagon cleared their tents away and stored them in the Cathedral for a few hours so the official White Ribbon Day could be celebrated in the Octagon unimpeded. I thought that was a splendid example of goodwill from two groups who are both working for a better society for us all to live in and it puts some of the negativity generated by a few letter-writers in the ODT in a more generous and (I think) a more accurate context.

Last Sunday night the White Ribbon Riders (otherwise known as 'The Patriots') arrived in Dunedin on their ride through the South Island to promote the White Ribbon message of men saying no to violence against women. They were met in the Octagon, greeted by the Mayor, and then came over to the cathedral for the bikes and riders to be blessed and to share in a service where they told their stories and we listened to Lesley Elliot with her story. The Cathedral is the spiritual home for the Elliot family and it was wonderful to have Lesley share her story in this place which holds such poignant memories for her.

It was an extraordinary service in every sense: we had a wonderful kapa haka group from the students at Kings and Queens in South Dunedin; a small group of talented and courageous young people from the Samoan Assembly of God Youth Group from Lookout Point sang us a song composed for the White Ribbon - 'These Two Hands'; while, running through the service, the Cathedral Choir provided, as it always does, the most beautiful music.

I can now admit that I had been a bit anxious about how these various cultural and musical threads might hold together in such a formal setting as our Cathedral - but somehow, by the grace of God - they did. At the end, as votive candles were lit and the choir sang Samuel Wesley's superb 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace', I had a new sense of what a cathedral can hold together in its service to the city and what a privileged ministry this is - in every sense: one is privileged to work with wonderful people and colleagues, and with outstanding community groups. This is a city where people do care and there is a real sense of community.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inside Job & Global Financial Crisis

It was an extraordinary Saturday afternoon with nearly 150 people in the cathedral - people from all sectors of the community: the occupiers in the Octagon, the DCC and the university as we showed the film 'Inside Job' with its devastating account of the financial crisis of 2008 in America and the extraordinary greed that has affected the world so seriously and yet seems so unashamed and difficult to correct. The film was a fairly solid 'watch' but we still had about an hour to share responses to it and there seems to be a very positive response and strong desire for further discussion. Watch this space!

Remembrance Day 2011 - a sermon

Did you read Friday’s ODT editorial on Remembrance Day?

It took us back to the memory of the First World War and the society that bore the immediate devastation of that conflict 93 years ago. One in every 4 New Zealand men between the ages 20-45 was killed or wounded; one in every four, - imagine that! It seems the ratio was even higher in Otago and Southland because of the higher rates of volunteers from our region. One in every 4 – no wonder that even today nearly every New Zealand town still has its War Memorial as a crumbling legacy of the war that shredded a generation. In this Cathedral also: that Memorial Window bears the badges of all the Otago and Southland units that served in that War. But there is more: there above us is the flag that Hoani Parata, a Curate (and later a Canon) of this Cathedral, took and used as Chaplain to the 1st Expeditionary Force in France and Egypt. Each year, on the 21st of October, the Anglican Church of New Zealand remembers him.

The war changed everything and the human cost was immeasurable.

The generation that went to war was not only shredded but it returned with its confidence and hope badly dented. All around were the signs of absent contemporaries. Try and imagine what that absence might have felt like: everywhere, in every street, there were absent sons and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, lovers, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Everyone who survived would daily have felt surrounded by loss.

Perhaps the greatest loss in the war was immeasurable – and it was the loss of faith in human purpose, human meaning and our institutions. There was no longer any automatic belief in such things as national righteousness, wise government, the trustworthiness of official communication and popular media alike – was shaken beyond repair. All the spiritual and intellectual maps and landmarks of that generation were damaged beyond recognition. In the spiritual winter that followed, they experienced the Great Depression, the sugar bag years, and the economic consequences that splintered the nation and saw riots in Queen Street and unemployment rise to an estimated 30%.

Yet despite the horrors and losses, some good things happened.

For some there seems to have been a new moral clarity and I think of such things as:

· a deeper understanding of social injustice;

· a renewed determination that war should not recur;

· and a new kind of idealism that led to the Welfare State and visions of a sustainable society;

· and, for some, there was a new understanding of God

What I mean by this last point is that the shambles and agony of war caused (for some) a new understanding of God to come painfully into being. The God of nations and Empires, God the problem-solver, many familiar but questionable understandings of God, began to change.

For example, one of Hoani Parata’s chaplain colleagues illustrates the sort of change that began to emerge: Chaplain Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (better known as ‘Woodbine Willie), who doled out smokes while he chatted to the troops, and wrote his poetry in the language of the ordinary soldier in the trenches. He was no ordinary chaplain. In one of his meditations on prayer he recreated a scene in the trenches and says: 'I wish that chap would chuck his praying. It turns me sick. I'd much rather he swore like the sergeant.'

In the mud, the muck and the misery Kennedy is revolted the thought of a bland problem-solving God and all the pious platitudes that reloigion can produce. Instead he looks at the cross and to the God who is discovered in the heart of one’s own endurance and pain – a God is not a solution, not a Father Christmas or a fairy godmother, but simply the one who ‘holds’ your deepest self, shareing your suffering, and so makes it possible for you to look out on the world without loathing and despair. I suspect that the way Studdert-Kennedy talked and wrote was pretty well the only religious response that was at all credible to those who were living through a daily nightmare. Throughout the mayhem he maintained his discipline of prayer – a discipline that kept his heart and imagination open to who he was, and that kept him grounded deeply in the reality of the suffering Christ. Doubtless some found their lessons at the front through other disciplines, but whatever kept them grounded in themselves, and with one another – I’d say God was in that anyway.

However, the trouble was that after the war, people being what they are, too many forgot to keep asking those questions, and abandoned the disciplines of mind and spirit that nourish us and keep us honest: many religious people went back to cosy shallow ways of thinking about God, while others settled for easy clich├ęs about world progress, and so the hard lessons learned on the front line were forgotten. And the winter of the spirit, and another war, were yet to come.

So Remembrance Day is not just a sad and wistful looking backwards but very much a day to search our hearts for what it means to be a human being and for what kind of society we are building. It is a time especially to be wary of what Chesterton described as ‘The easy speeches that comfort cruel men’. In our current Global Financial crisis, with the power wielded by faceless unregulated global financial agencies, it may be that those who now camp in the Octagon and protest at what is happening to our country are asking the questions we should all ask. The generations we remember today walked forward with courage and held the bonds of our society, our nation and our Commonwealth together. Today may we ‘remember the lessons they learned and may we be spared from learning those lessons the way they had to’.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Babel, Egypt and the Global Financial Crisis

I am fascinated by the 'Occupy' in the Octagon. It was kind of someone to suggest that the sermon at Mattins last week was worth putting on the blog, so here it is for those who want to mull it over and reflect on how our faith might speak 'into' the Global Financial Crisis.

Sunday, 6th November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Old Testament lesson: Deut 17:14-20

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” ...


We are living in strange times. The letters GFC are now commonly encountered as the acronym for Global Financial Crisis – a crisis which feels so complex that it seems a sort of Gordian knot and impossible to unravel – so we have the unusual spectacle of protestors camping in the Octagon (as part of a world movement): camping, protesting, not because they have a simple solution but because the world has to make a start somewhere. Think of the protestors as seed, sown among us, to help us see past the present world order that has created the GFC, to imagine a new future, a way of being in this world in which we all strive for the common good.

To change the current way of economic thinking and practice that has produced the crisis seems, I know, unimaginably difficult. But that difficulty must be engaged. It is a call of the Spirit for every Christian to engage with; a cause for everyone of good will to engage with.

Theology works through symbols, images and stories and this morning I invite you to think of the current economic order as a modern tower of Babel – a monstrous edifice built upon fear, arrogance and greed – with the protestors camped in the heart of our city encouraging us not to be overwhelmed by the order that threatens to destroy us. Babel is a great image for our contemporary crisis where the global economic order does not serve the common good. In the OT Babel is a symbol that is linked to another image, Egypt (but I run ahead of myself) and here is how I suggest it can be understood.

In the OT the story of Babel is in Genesis: that book that talks of beginnings, of creation and fall, of the development of human nature and the selection of people through whom God acted. At the heart of the Babel story is human fearfulness – the very human anxiety at scarcity of resources – and what happens when that fear drives you to live without the sense of God, and without concern for the common good.

Now the rest of the Torah (first 5 books of the OT) reveals God showing the chosen people (and us) how to get beyond Babel. In the very next chapter after Babel we meet Abraham and the story zips along until we find ourselves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Take note that Pharaoh has become wealthy by creating a monopoly over grain in a time of famine and in the process the people has become a nation of slaves. They have become so enslaved by Pharaoh’s manipulation of power that by the time we get to Exodus we find a Pharaoh scared of the oppressed work force he has created and those slaves scared of the Pharaoh and his insane policies. Both the Pharaoh and the people he has enslaved are trapped in a ‘kingdom’ (or system) of anxiety.

The Israelites have to make a journey out of this Kingdom of anxiety – a journey out of selfishness and a journey toward a greater common good. Moses leads them – but they struggle with what the journey demands of them and early in Exodus the people want to go back to Egypt. But, in the scarcity of the wilderness and against all expectations, God provides food – quail and manna. They don’t know what to make of the manna, they have never encountered anything like it before – it does not fit with any of the categories of their knowledge. (We may admit that this is also our experience in the mystery of the Eucharist; that we regard the consecrated wafer with the same sense of bewilderment – the strangeness that this tiny thing bears the Christ, holds the love of God.) In the wilderness this heavenly bread, this sign of divine generosity, is in complete contrast to the anxiety and fear of scarcity they knew in Pharaoh’s empire. It comes, as it were, as a sign from another world.

As we know, the Children of Israel persevere and after many adventures, hardships and follies their descendants finally enter the Promised Land.

Which is more or less the point where our First Lesson this morning finds us: but notice what the text says- any ruler in the Promised Land must work for the common good and not acquire great wealth – that ruler must not take the people back to Egypt – back to the Empire of anxiety where greed and fear and oppression abound.

Now can you see how the broad sweep of the Old Testament story is relevant to us today?

Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. The forces of globalization, the deregulated financial markets, are built on fear: but we are called to live very differently. There is an alternative to Pharaoh’s kingdom of scarcity but, if we are to find it there is a journey that has to be undertaken before we can enjoy its freedom. To help us on that journey is the task of the church (and its allies); in its preaching; in its spiritual life; in its generosity; and in its theological education – everything is to encourage and guide us on that journey into freedom which every Christian is called to engage in. We are to make our way out of Egypt and learn to share in God’s abundance and freedom. This is the context against which we understand the Gospel feedings of the 4000 and the 5000: wherever Jesus is the world of scarcity and fear is transformed into a place of abundance and fearlessness.

This Global Financial Crisis shows us the nature of Babel and Egypt – and presents the question is this where we really want to live and what we want to work for? In this crisis is there a challenge or opportunity to work and strive for the common good, for a new way of being in the world?

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Pursuit of Truth

Friday afternoon and I am pulling a few threads together for the sermon at Evensong on Sunday and trying to finish before pushing off to the Quiz Night this evening.

Well - it is a work in progress: but here it is anyway.

The words of the anthem for this Evensong beautifully complement the glowing intimate sense of love that permeates the Epistle we know as 1 John.

O thou the central orb of righteous love, pure beam of the most High,

eternal light of this our wintry world,

thy radiance bright awakes new joy in faith, hope soars above.

You will notice how the anthem holds images of light, of brightness, against the implicit dark of a ‘wintry world’. John (who in the Gospel associated with his name speaks of light shining in darkness), in this epistle uses another image for light – but this he names as ‘love’ – and he holds this against that ‘darkness’ that he names as ‘the world’. Notice how he puts it: ‘let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts... you are from God... they are from the world.’ Against the images of darkness and world, John sets the images of light and love and maps out a whole way of being, a total orientation of the self.

The mental juxtapositions and inner dialectic inherent in the tensions that John works with should feel very familiar to us. What is the truth? Do we not wonder what life means, whether there is a God or not, whether there is anything such as ‘meaning’? Do we believe that the scepticism of our post-modernity is really so much more advanced than a reasonable thinker in the ancient world? Are our spiritual convolutions so unique? Obviously they are contextually different; the advance of science ensures that. But, in our raw humanity, I doubt that much has changed. Humankind still fears death, needs companionship, and struggles to make sense of the world and our place in it. We all come with questions. We hunt for truth – philosopher, scientist, theologian – we all seek to make sense.

This of course is the reality that lay at the heart of Professor Murray Rae’s inaugural professorial lecture at the university last Thursday evening when he spoke on ‘Theology and the pursuit of Truth’. From a well crafted lecture that began with Socrates I took away a real appreciation of what Rae suggested best describes the scholar’s attitude toward one’s discipline. He suggested, I hope I recall him correctly, that it was ‘love’. The word sounds surprising in the academic context but it ‘fits’. Love is a word that suggests a stance that is respectful and which regards the subject in such a way that there is no room for the intrusion of the ego and its follies, its posturing and arrogance. One may even say that love as we describe it here – and, goodness knows, the word ‘humility’ comes to mind - such ‘love’ is associated with an enhanced perspective on reality; it is open to the ‘truth’ whatever that may be or how that may appear. This is, of course, all disputed ground. What names we give to ‘truth’ and how we understand it all differ. We may not even be convinced that what we seek is ‘there’ – but each discipline pursues truth with that ‘love’ which provides the light essential to understanding.

Which brings us back to the light and love that John speaks of in his Epistle: it is a transforming way of being in the world and of approaching the truth. One way of illustrating this would be through the mystics of the church – and one immediately thinks of Dame Julian in her Revelations of Divine Love. Her calm, attentive and loving approach as an anchoress, simply waiting on God, ‘contemplating’ Christ, caused her to experience the series of ‘revelations’ that she recorded. I am particularly fond of what is one of the most famous of the revelations – one in which she is shown the ‘littleness of the cosmos’: (Chapter IV)

...He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of his hand, it was as round as any ball, and (I) thought, “What may this be?”

I was answered generally, “It is all that is made.”...

The loving orientation of Julian is a disposition of being that allows her to see herself and the universe in perspective against the immense otherness and mystery of God. There is no fear in this, no existential horror or vertigo at the abyss of being – instead she notes:

He (Christ) is our clothing: for love wraps us and winds us, embraces us and causes us, and hangs about us for tender love that He may never leave us.

In the deeply-felt knowledge of such love, no wonder – as the anthem puts it – ‘hope soars above’.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Heeling to the Wind - the poetry of Brian Turner

I've been doing a spot of reflection and some writing on Brian Turner's poetry and I'm posting it here in case anyone shares my enthusiasm for the way a poet's struggle with words and experience is also a work of the Spirit - while stepping beyond creed and doctrine.

Born here, buggered it up.

(‘New Zealanders, a definition’)

A one line poem delivered in the dry tone of an ordinary Kiwi bloke – just one of Brian Turner’s ‘voices’: you might ask, is this poetry? Well, hardly - not if that was all he wrote! However that one-liner has a huge metaphysical embrace! It holds much more than we, at first glance, appreciate. It is a summary - a tragic vision – reminiscent of theology’s image of ‘The Fall’. Here Turner’s laconic indictment covers both a sense of wonder at what has been given and an anguished sense of loss, whether at the destruction of the environment, the shock of mortality, or the individual messes of poor choices and botched relationships.

A sense of wonder streams through Turner’s landscape poetry – he is after all a well established poet of the Central Otago landscape. Fortunately he resists the platitudes and sentiment that choke much landscape poetry and instead has a sense for the familiar details that can speak and hint at something more. That ‘something more’ can be found in ‘Autumn Song’ where the poet begins:

'On the road again to somewhere west,

the morning’s sun badgering the fog

cloaking the Poolburn, and over the hill

in Ophir where evening primrose

and tall hollyhocks sway by the roadside.'


These sharply realized details establish the poet’s sense of place and his intimate bond with it. Memory and experience have so embedded the place in him that it remains with him as a real presence through the journey.

'It’s as if one’s rooted to the spot as well

as moving through the countryside...'

This powerful spiritual location becomes more clearly pronounced on the afternoon’s return journey back up the Ida Valley to Oturehua as the visual images cluster thickly and become almost overwhelming, almost luminous with presence.

'...while mobs of ewes lie like maggots

beside glassy ponds, sedated by the sun.

To the northwest the long line of the Dunstans

are a buff brown, Mt St Bathans blue-tinted,

and the crinkled Hawkduns bar

the way at the head of the valley. White

butterflies dither in off-white yarrow

and alight amongst the last of the mauve clover.

There’s a softening of the light as the sun slides

further and further west and I drive

slowly up the valley towards Oturehua

dreaming of love and peace, listening

to Domingo singing Bach’s Ave Maria

and Franck’s Panis angelicus, and I think

at last I know what is true, what wonder is.'

Turner’s loving, careful marking of detail in the softening light is a spiritual communion, almost casually registered in the allusions to Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. The delighted hopefulness of the last line is however tempered by his pointed balancing of the ‘I know’ against the ‘I think’ of the line above. While Turner has used the device of the journey through the familiar landscape to become a journey into the holy, he keeps space for ambiguity and space for things to stand as they are in themselves.

This, Inside Outside (2011), is Turner’s latest collection and it is divided into five parts. In the last sequence, labelled ‘Post-Operatives’, Turner becomes particularly personal as he reflects on major surgery that he had to undergo. This is difficult and high risk material to manage. Here the poems assume a starker tone, as in ‘Face to Face’ where the recollection of fear and helplessness is barely contained by his word-play. The human condition, the poet’s condition, is without ‘a fix-it pill’.

'You’re given the facts.

You hope it’s not a sentence.

It seems too early somehow

and somehow means

more than somesuch.

Right now the past

won’t sing to the present

and croon that there is

a fix-it pill for every condition

available online,

and every dinner

friends put on

seems like

the last supper.'

This foreboding work is balanced by the insights that follow in the poems that emerge after the operation. In these poems an overt metaphysical interest is clear. For instance, in ‘Making Up Your Mind’, Turner reflects on the shock of his mortality and complains of the uncertainty he now experiences, and of ‘feeling you’re someone else’s experiment’. For him the possibilities of what to believe or hope in seem neither obvious nor satisfactory.

' ... Then,

disgruntled, you start picking away

at your life as if it’s muesli

and you’re sorting out the particulars,

the bits worth eating from the rest

that seems sourced in a desert of dross.

No wonder you’re looking for somewhere

that feels more stable, that might serve as a

pleasing aura before you vanish into the ether.'

That spiritual search for ‘what feels more stable’ is not simply answered but ‘Lakeside’ shows the post-op Turner anchoring himself in the natural world once more and with renewed appreciation for his hold on life.

'A sharp, puffy southerly

blows up the lake

so I sit in the sunny

front seat of my car

and watch a small yacht

heel, periodically

wave surrender.

At the roadside edge

of the gravel beach

birds chitter and sing

in a scraggy tree, peck

the last, reddest wild apples

of the season.

It may be autumn

but today it feels

like spring to me.'

A keen yachtsman, Turner finds hope in the yacht heeling before the wind. He expands the image in ‘Secular Yet Sacred’where his freshly honed awareness of mortality and his longing for the transcendent now fuse in what may be a renewed sense of the poet’s calling. The raw unchurched life of the spirit - ‘the wind in your sails’ - commands the poet to speak, to ‘bear witness’. Here there is a hint of grace and faith, though not comfortably packaged in the words of religion but instead enacted in surrender to ‘the wind in your sails’.

'There’s this clear insistent voice

commanding we bear witness

to how fleeting such is, ...

... But don’t

despair, don’t. Be what you are,

heel to the wind in your sails.'

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Christ the All Black icon

You can see it in Taonga, our Anglican provincial quarterly; you can see it on various blogs - it excites comment and reflection. What do you think? This image of Christ the All Black is on display in Wellington’s Anglican cathedral. It is in the traditional Christian iconic style. The artist, Don Little, said he had painted the piece after wondering if rugby was the new religion in a country that had largely turned away from religious belief. “The word ‘icon’ is being flashed around everywhere nowadays, so I just thought, ‘What is a New Zealand icon?’”

After the debates over the 'Haka Peepshow' artwork, it is interesting to view something which may seem easier to relate to. After all the icon style is familiar; we are used to questioning what a picture may be about.

I find this image confuses me with the subject and the style - that melding or interpenetrating of the sacred and the secular domains (if you buy into that kind of separation). From that (calculated) confusion there unfolds a whole series of reflection and negotiations. Can we speak of Christ in rugby? to which I want to say there is no situation in which we cannot speak of Christ - but the irony here is that we have largely replaced Christ with rugby. So the 'icon' is a reminder of the Christ we have 'displaced'; and possibly still a pointer to a Christ hidden within all the pursuits that engage us - not least in rugby.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Haka Peepshow: Art and Society?

It is a strange thing to see in the Octagon. I began to think about it when I dashed off my letter to the ODT which I saw was published this morning.

It is the nature of art to excite debate, questions and controversy. It does not particularly matter that a work may be considered ribald by one or puerile by another. The defence of the Rakena artwork in the Octagon by Bridie Lonie this morning (ODT 21/09/11) is a good example of how a critical defence may be made for just about anything in art and how one will bring to a work one’s own bias and various agendas, cultural or otherwise. Lonie’s claim that the ‘peepshow’ is of ‘enduring value’ is, I suspect, more an aspiration than reality.

What does matter however is the social responsibility of art (and this seems pertinent when I recall that the DCC could not find $38,000 for marginalised workers at the Recycling plant but could find $50,000 for the “Peepshow’) and how this ‘Peepshow’ speaks to or for a society in hard times. I doubt it does.

As I think further, I want to continue to argue with the Peepshow - but not because it is necessarily 'bad art' as some have claimed. What constitutes 'bad art' is surely too hard to define. Having said that I concede that the notion of art having a social responsibility is equally contentious - and one has grey and dreary visions of state sponsored statues or paintings promoting the virtues and labours of the Workers or the Great Leader! However it seems to me in this specific instance, in a city where there are so few employment opportunities and so much financial hardship, that we have this exhibit that offers so little to delight and requires us that we operate it like a slot machine. It seems, at best, insensitive.

Friday, September 9, 2011

No Ordinary Evensong

A cold and wet Spring evening, and we have, at least for tonight, resumed the mid-week Choral Evensong as the girls of the choir from Christchurch Cathedral Grammar School are in Dunedin on a visit to St Hilda's and have joined our choir for Evensong. The combined choir must number perhaps as many as sixty and the procession as we enter stretches the length of the nave - it is quite a sight. Peter Ellis is on the bench and there is no doubt that he knows this organ and how to play for this space and this choir. Michael (as usual) conducts this greatly enlarged group so well - a joy to watch!

The Cathedral Grammar is billeted out with St Hilda's families and many of them have come to the service, a detail that speaks eloquently of the commitment and hospitality that St Hilda's does so well.

We have not printed off anywhere near enough service sheets but the congregation have managed and though the service would have been unfamiliar to many of them, they have followed it rather well.

It may be that Choral Evensong is something followed rather than participated in, except that the participation is more that of the spirit than the voice. The service provides an ample space for reflection and the enjoyment of beautiful music and fine words resonating in this beautiful building. Here heart and mind can soar and amidst the beauty the presence of God can draw closer to us - or at least open us to an awareness of that presence.

It has been a long time since Cathedral Grammar has been able to sing the Office in a Cathedral. We continue to keep Christchurch in our hearts and to pray. At least, this night, this is their Cathedral.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Spring Morning Thoughts: Education

One hangs out on the deck these mornings, for a few minutes at least, with the first espresso of the day and with the dogs cheerfully circling before they settle down patiently to wait.

The day off yesterday was a bit of a farce. Most of it was spent chasing up information about why a devout Anglican family could not get their daughter into our excellent Anglican girls school. Summarising an exchange of emails, it seems the school considers it is (a) not really Anglican but merely 'in the Anglican tradition' and (b) being Anglican gives no priority of preference but is merely one consideration among others associated with 'special character'. The point of not giving particular preference to being devoutly 'Anglican' is, I understand, to avoid discrimination.

Hm! As I see it, there is something amiss here. In 1979 the school became integrated and in 1980 Synod amended its statute for the School - and there was no suggestion the school was not Anglican or that its Anglican identity was now compromised in any way. Did the integration deed require that practising committed Anglicans could have no place reserved for them at all? (If it did, what was the Bishop thinking?) Or is the lack of a real preference now something that has evolved over time?

These are not academic questions but they cut to the heart of what the church goes into education for. The primary (but not sole) reason we are are in education is because we are concerned about the formation of our young people as followers of Christ in that distinctive way that is the character of the Anglican church - and we need to do this because they are the church of the future. Consequently a priority for devout Anglican families should never be a problem. All it would mean is that a few places would always be held for families who were demonstrably in that category and if they were not taken up would then be made available more generally.

Of course the wider questions of church schools and whether we should be bothered with them is a debate that tends to provoke strong reactions. Many see these schools as bastions of privilege - and are ideologically opposed to them. I think that is far too severe. However if they are not to be bastions of privilege (and refuges from a failing state sector) they must at least genuinely honour the religious purpose for which they were founded.

I will continue to mull this over as we prepare for confirmations in the cathedral this Sunday. Now that's a point: I wonder when our church school last held a confirmation?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sermon Preparation Matthew 18

It is a detail from a 14th Century illuminated manuscript. Set within the Capital 'C' the artist has set an image of the last supper. Everyone is there, held within the circle, and at the bottom, marked with the dark 'halo' is our friend Judas.

I say 'our friend' because there is the dark side in all of us and in contemplating this image I have also to recognise myself and those traits that I would not like to admit to the world - or for that matter to myself.

Then, if I take this on a slightly different tack and see in this image an icon of the community that is the church, our friend Judas is the one who makes us see the church differently. Is the church better without Judas or does it need him? Judas is that awkward, wayward, destructive presence at the table - do we put up with him or urge him to leave? The fact is that community life would be more comfortable without this destructive presence - but he would leave a gap. It may be that the test of Christian community is how we put up with the one who seems to be destructive. It may be that this is also the one from whom we learn something ... the one whom strangely and uncomfortably ... we need.

All of this of course is all partly by way of sermon preparation - the gospel is Matthew 18 tomorrow with its guidelines on how to manage conflict in the church. I suppose it may be reassuring to remember that the early church surely had its problems and the provisions of such guidelines, as much as the presence of the dark-haloed one in the letter C, are a reminder that human nature has remained remarkably constant over time.

I had hoped to have done the sermon much earlier than this but Friday turned to custard and my plans to attend the conference today on the New Atheism have had to be abandoned.

But this is not just a matter of sermon preparation it is also about my friend X who frequents the cathedral and is frequently a disruptive presence. X can appear intimidating and of late his behaviour has become unacceptable as others don't feel safe or comfortable under his tirades. He is largely unable to amend his behaviour. It can't go on: so I look at the letter C and feel uncomfortable as I accept that this seems to be one of those moments when I must set a limit on the scope of our community and effectively remove someone from the table.

Our circle will be broken ... we will be less.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thoughts on Mt Cargill

It has been a wonderful Monday with the (possibly misleading) signs of Spring all about us - warm, still and with clear skies. It was the sort of day that the question 'where shall I walk the dogs?' seemed absolutely right. I had not been there before, but the track from the North Road up Mt Cargill to the Organ Pipes seemed to beckon - it seemed a day to try something new.

This sort of exercise gives the lie to the 'all humans are created equal' theory: the steps up the steep track are clearly designed for those with long legs. So, with much patience I plodded wearily behind the dogs - felt the organ pipes were a bit of a disappointment and continued to march on up past Mt Butters and then on to Mt Cargill. On the way Dunstan discovered a detour which took him into mud that I unwisely followed him through. It was thick and dense stuff that oozed up over the boots - and the track led nowhere except to a gravel heap for track maintenance. Mac was wiser - and took time to contemplate things - as the photo shows.

Below the organ pipe rock-fall it was interesting to see the natural 'rockery' being formed. I studied it with some real pleasure. Not least because it was an excuse to stop and catch my breath.

At the top of Cargill we greeted a young couple who had come up the easy way, driving up Cowan Road. I greeted them with the smugness of the virtuous who had walked - mixed with the envy of one who had to get down again (oh my knees!).

Monday's solitary walk is a great way to process the events of Sunday. The reception to changes in the apse had been very positive but useful suggestions for refinement had been forthcoming.

All the way snippets of other Sunday conversations ran through my mind.

  • Can one be a Christian and practise Buddhist meditation? Why not? Plenty of examples of Christians who have gone along that path - not the least being Thomas Merton. I remember from my own time in Hong Kong the fruitful conversations held with Buddhist practitioners of meditation; also that cross I own from that environment - it shows the cross with the lotus at its base.
  • Then there was that intriguing question about whether the Genesis stories of the Creation and Fall can be read literally. I floundered a bit in that conversation because I cannot read them literally and they are not meant to be read as science - and a strict literalism creates more problems than it answers. However the question was a very intelligent one and it was related to the necessity of the atonement. Not by any means a framework for a casual conversation - so I suspect we will need to revisit that chat. However it does remind me that how we read scripture and how our faith grows is never static but always a dynamic process - wherever one stands in the theological/spiritual spectrum that holds true.
Some hours later and back in the city, a pub lunch of cod and chips with an icy pint of Tui - not a bad way to celebrate the sense of Spring.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letting the Cathedral Speak

To St Francis is attributed the sentiment 'Proclaim the gospel constantly and everywhere and, when necessary, use words.' That could well apply to the cathedral: what its architecture says about God and what its inner space proclaims. The design is the primary statement the building makes. As visitors idly wander in our hope is that something of the building speaks to them.

Ever since I arrived here there has been incessant rumblings and general discontent about the apse. There has been a Chapter Committee to examine and propose alterations and a great deal of people's time and energy - not to mention cathedral money - devoted to this matter.

What we have not been able to see is the visual strength of what we already have. So this past week I had the improvised nave altar removed along with the heavy and immovable plinths that blocked the crossing. Then choir stalls were set back and the ambulatory cleared of all the things that had been stored there.

With the crossing cleared I felt an overwhelming sense of space in which to pause and wonder at the beauty of the place. The main altar was now unmistakeably allowed to be the central point of focus and at the same time it was dwarfed by the sheer height of the apse and one's eyes were drawn upwards.

Well, it is an experiment. Bishop and Chapter seem happy but there are questions. I am anxious about the choir in this arrangement - they are almost behind the organ and separated from the congregation. For music - this is not ideal. Yet the appearance is greatly enhanced. The discussions will continue but for the moment I am pleased to let this glorious building sing its own song even when we are not present!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sir Paul Reeves

I was privileged to be at the state funeral for Sir Paul. It was an extraordinary gathering and, of course, it honored an extraordinary man. The service was impressive - not just in it's dignity but in the extraordinary way the liturgy gave space for, and coherence to, a great diversity: state and church; Maori and Pakeha; local and international; the formal and the informal.. As we processed in, the music being played in the forecourt was a waltz and one Dean murmured to me 'shall we dance?' - and that suggests something of the spiritedness of the occasion.

Contrast that to, say, the Stanford Nunc Dimittis sung after the Commendation, during which Tiki Raumati softly recited a poroporoake (farewell) while the casket was sprinkled with holy water and censed - the nice touch (for me at least) was that he gave the censer to one of the daughters and guided her round the casket as she censed it. It was holy and personal and numinous.

I came back feeling moved and humbled by all I had seen and heard - not at all a bad way to feel after a funeral.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Waterfront poem - Wellington

You would so easily pass it by, as I did on my walk along the waterfront on the way to the cathedral early this morning. But ... Coming back the same way, I saw it. A plain cement block set against the wall of the wharf, below the path and by some steps. Modest, unassuming but surprising. No attribution given, but carved in the cement were these words:

My quiet morning hill
Stands like an altar drawn
Whereon hushed hands shall lay
The shining pyx of dawn.

With penitence and stir,
And drowsy flurry by,
The wind, a shamefaced serving-boy,
Comes running up the sky.

It is a from a poem by Eileen Duggan.

My Quiet Morning Hill

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wellington: Ramsey House

A dull grey morning sky in Wellington and I have just stepped out of the modest serviced apartments. It feels quite odd - the building I have slept in has been refurbished into apartments but originally it was what we might now call 'iconic'. Built in the art deco style, it was a Lambton Quay landmark, the MLC Building, on the corner with Hunter Street. For a time, in my childhood, it must have been the tallest building in the city: speaking for an insurance company, it oozed permanence and prosperity. The letters MLC are still on the lift doors and it's emblem at the top of the tower. The world has moved on.

The photo above is from the chapel at Ramsey House, the Anglican Chaplaincy Centre at Victoria University. I wandered in to see the chapel in its current premises (it has moved since my time years ago) but I was delighted to see the original window of the Transfiguration (I can't recall the artist) and enjoy the spare, austere simplicity of the chapel. I owe much to this chaplaincy - my own vocation and discovery of the Anglican way especially.

On the frontage it now feels like a coffee shop and was filled with students texting and working on their netbooks. It is great!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Price of Milk & Social Responsibility

There's no doubt that farmers are the backbone of the New Zealand economy; that they work hard and that they deserve the rewards of that work. However there are some questions that I have about the market assumptions that seem to operate these days.
  • Most of the 'competition' in the market for milk products has been managed by the farmers' co-operative Fonterra.
  • Many farms are owned not by the local farmer but by investors or corporations and (mis)managed accordingly (i.e. profit driven without a sense of stewardship).
  • Foodstuffs and Progressives are the great chains that set supermarket prices, but they do so in an environment where Fonterra is steadily trying to get higher prices overseas without regard or consideration for the domestic market.
Yet the dairy industry is built upon the land in which all New Zealanders should have an interest and I want to argue that all parties, Farmers, Fonterra and the Supermarkets should acknowledge that by a social responsibility agreement that reduces the price of dairy product for the home market.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Sermon Evensong 7 August 2011

In Matthew’s gospel for this Sunday, where Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter is shown as getting into trouble and nearly drowning at the moment he loses his focus on Christ. It is as if Peter has doubts about what he is doing – that it is after all impossible – and at that moment of doubt he is lost. Doubt and belief – that is what I found myself thinking about for this evening.

You may recall these lines from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)

People expect me to be an expert on God but I think that despite a good deal of study, I am a slow learner – and no expert. So when people ask me to explain the Trinity or the nature of God, or the nature of miracles, I can almost feel my eyes glazing over and my brain going rather numb. Yet, I believe in God – though I can quite understand why some would consider that claim rather quaint.

I suppose, in the manner of the Queen in Through the Looking Glass, it is a matter of practice – work at it for half an hour a day; spend time working at prayer, meditation, reading scripture and so on (all those things clergy promise to do) – and the impossible stuff begins to stop being impossible and becomes somehow, strangely true and sometimes one even has an intuitive sense of understanding it.

Which may mean that St Anselm knew he was on to something when he famously said "This I know to be true: that unless I first believe, I shall not understand."(St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury 1033-1109).

Now when we say we believe in God folk usually have the idea that one is talking about intellectual certainty and that we are dealing with the traditional so-called proofs for the existence of God. You know the kind of thing – there must be a God because...:

  1. People have intermittently believed in a God from the beginning of history;
  2. It is hard to consider the vast structure of the universe and of the human mind originating merely by chance and not from some vast, complex source;
  3. That built into us seems to be some need for something like truth, goodness, love – or some similar alias for God;
  4. That every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come to report on that experience with wonder and awe.

But the trouble with so-called proofs is that a moderately intelligent child could come up with arguments to counter them. If you don’t want to be convinced by them, if you have no desire for God, then all the proofs in the world won’t move you an inch. One could take Descartes’ advice and doubt everything – but what does that achieve? Pascal took a different approach: he argued that doubt could only lead to more doubt. Instead he argued that “we arrive at the truth not by the reason only but also by the heart.

Now, I’d argue that to be a valuable insight. So, when we say, as we do in the Creed, ‘I believe’, it does not mean that I am advancing an intellectual conviction. It certain does not mean that I say the Creed without any doubts: far from it. On the contrary I have frequently considered writing a brief book – but made no progress beyond the title – which was ‘The Doubters Dictionary’. Doubt is that helpful presence of the mind that keeps us questioning (Descartes) and balances what Pascal would have called the heart.

Now, I speak personally here: what I think happens when we say the Creed is not so much a declaration of intellectual conviction as an assertion of commitment. Although the Latin ‘credo’ has traditionally been translated as 'I believe', the Latin word for 'believe' is opinio and it means to have an opinion or to make an intellectual assertion. Instead credo means something much more important. It means 'I set my heart' and it is a pledge of faith and commitment.

So, with Peter and all those other wavering disciples tossed about in that frail craft we call the church, we may indeed be tormented by doubt; we may indeed see ourselves as a motley crew of the wavering and the undecided. Yet at the end, when we clamber to our feet and say the creed, the doubts remain and yet we set our hearts on Christ and follow him.

This evening and in the week ahead, keep practising, keep, day by day, setting your hearts on Christ.