I have just returned from the service at Taranaki Cathedral for the recognition of Archbishop Philip Richardson. It is almost inevitable that after such events one enthuses at the splendour of the occasion, the liturgy, the music, even the homily - and so on. One could do that, and rightly, but that is not quite what most impressed me.
To explain this I need to backtrack a little, almost to 14 years ago when I was the Vicar of a largish South Taranaki parish. Early in my tenure I was at a clergy conference and a very wise and experienced priest from the Wellington diocese who had much to do with South Taranaki when it was in the Wellington Diocese, asked me a slightly unusual question: had I any sense of 'darkness' during my ministry in the parish.
Various replies came to mind, not all entirely serious, but I remember that I answered him seriously and admitted that there were aspects to my ministry in the region that I had not come across before; they were not clear and I would struggle to define them - but there did seem to be something of a stubborn miasma that I could not explain.
He went on to say that he had counselled priests from my area before and speculated that this was a spiritual consequence of the Land Wars of the 19th century which had left a deep legacy of bitterness, division, grief and loss. That actually makes a kind of sense. The notion of a curse as something grounded in the psyche and being passed on through generations, even soaking into a site or locus, did not seem to me as especially fanciful or implausible.
So, back to Taranaki Cathedral on Saturday morning: the first thing that impressed me was the abundance of Maori worshippers - yes it was a 3Tikanga service, but it wasn't just that. There was a 'lightness', even a rippling spiritedness that seemed new, fresh and energising. There were Maori there; there were people from Parihaka ( that most visionary and abused of communities); the military hatchments had been relocated; a new canonry was created to honour the legacy and strong ties of Sir Paul Reeves to the region, and, lingering in the background, was a reminder that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had been here - and much had been happening. In all of this one has gratefully to acknowledge the vision and hard work of Archbishop Phillip and the leadership team he has formed in the region. A spirit of hope and reconciliation is in the air and the difference is almost palpable.
Now I am not saying that everything is now right throughout the ‘Naki’. I would like to say that but it may not be so. But things are changing and I notice the difference. The church was and is helping to nurture real changes. Thanks be to God.
The other thing that really impressed me was the sermon: Judge Sarah Reeves preached and here was someone also making connections between church and society in a real way. She spoke in particular of the changes to the Marriage Act and how society was becoming more inclusive and she compared the inclusivity that society was welcoming with the difficulties our church has in being inclusive – and of course the situation with the Human Rights Tribunal came to mind.
If I understand Judge Reeves correctly, she was looking for where there were signs of what a Christian must understand as the activity of the Holy Spirit: where is life being enriched, where is love being affirmed, where are people feeling included and valued? It seemed to me that she warned the Church of being less loving, less life affirming, less inclusive than society. I won’t argue with that: we sometimes act and speak as if we thought the Spirit of God was limited to the church!
So, returning to Dunedin from New Plymouth, I travelled with a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit of God working in our church and our nation: working in Taranaki with signs of healing and reconciliation; and working in our society as differences are overcome and as some people come to feel included where they have not been before.