A way of thinking

Dunedin's new Anglican bishop, Dr Kelvin Wright. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Dunedin's new Anglican bishop, Dr Kelvin Wright. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Dunedin gets a new Anglican bishop today. Tom McKinlay talks about God and C. S. Lewis with Dr Kelvin Wright.

The new Anglican bishop of Dunedin fills the doorway.

He's a big man, must be pushing 6'4" in the old money, he'll be quite something in a mitre.

He's solid too - though a vegetarian these days.

He also looks a bit like country singer Kenny Rogers, with slightly less quiff.

His grey hair (same colour as Kenny) is cut quite short, and continues at a similar length down around his chin in an orderly fashion.

That's as it should be, Dr Kelvin Wright is, after all, to be a bishop in the Anglican church, that most buttoned-down and establishment of denominations - the religion of the Queen of England.

Completing the neat vicarly grooming is the sports coat, collar and tie.

So far so stereotypical.

Dr Wright leads the way through to the Highgate vicarage lounge - not moving exclusively in diagonals just yet - which turns out to be as cosily and conservatively decorated as it should be.

But appearances can be deceiving when it comes to Dr Wright.

There's the vegetarianism for a start.

That must catch out the odd parishioner when he pops around for lunch.

Then there's his history with the Pentecostal church, the several Buddhist siblings and the blog.

The blog - which has been running for a couple of years under the "Available Light" banner - contains musings on everything from quantum physics to Buddhism to late-medieval mysticism.

It also contains some quite forthright criticism of the Church's performance.

The bishop's job is not one Dr Wright sought - though he had been up for a bishopric before, in Christchurch.

And, but for the grace of God, as it were, it is an office he might not have been in a position to take up.

When the mitres were being thrown into the ring, Dr Wright was busy backing another candidate.

"The synod became deadlocked.

"It couldn't decide between them, but late on the Saturday somebody asked me if I would allow my name to go forward.

"I went home and did not have one wink of sleep all night," he recalls.

The next day his name duly went forward and today he becomes a bishop.

"It staggered me," he says of the events of the October synod.

He has gathered himself since.

Now he's excited.

The other reason he might never have become bishop is a battle he had with a fairly vigorous attack of prostate cancer.

"The cancer now, well you can never say it's gone.

"Blood tests show there are traces of it still there.

"But it's not doing anything," he says.

The original diagnosis came a couple of years ago and much of the battle is detailed on his blog - the radiotherapy, the discomfort, the comfort of friends and family.

It's not quite blow-by-blow, the squeamish need not look away, but there's a certain amount of detail.

There is, perhaps, a lack of Anglican reserve.

There is no shortage of stiff upper lip.

It was, he says, "a most amazing journey".

In fact, it appears Dr Wright took the prospect of an imminent accounting before St Peter comfortably in his stride.

"The interesting thing for a minister, you are always telling people about life after death.

"Suddenly I had to face my own.

"The surgeon was pretty frank and sometimes the prognosis he gave me was not very encouraging.

"Well it's one thing to talk about it and another to be there, and I have learned that I am not afraid of death, which interested me," he says.

"I have no doubt at all that the consciousness will survive the death of the body.

"I do not have any doubts about that.

"It put everything into perspective - stuff that you chase around after, plans that you want to make.

You realise that it is all temporary, all illusory, and that is quite liberating."

Most of his treatment took place at Dunedin's Mercy Hospital - for which Dr Wright is full of praise - but he also shot across the Tasman for a less Anglican 10 days at the Gawler Institute.

As he records in the blog: "The programme is non-religious but is founded squarely on the practice of mindfulness meditation.

The first activity of the day following the wake-up bell and the daily tot of lemon juice and water, was 45 minutes in the sanctuary being gently led into silence".

"The meditation was not new to me," he says.

"It is something I have been doing for a long time anyway.

"But the diet is.

"I have been keeping a vegetarian diet.

"It seems to work. I am very well."

 

It all starts sounding a little bit Eastern for a Bishop of Dunedin.

And then there are the two Buddhist brothers and the Buddhist sister - with whom he engages in lengthy debates on his blog.

"I think there are places where the insights of Eastern faiths and Christianity do meet," he says.

"One person who is quite important to me is the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart."

Eckhart, it can be noted, was tried as a heretic.

"He's very much a Christian, very much a Roman Catholic actually, but the Buddhists can look at him and say 'He's one of ours', because he says the same stuff.

"I think there are points where we are talking about the same thing, but we have a different system for explaining it.

"A different experience of it in the world," he says.

But that's where the new bishop stops and records some reservations about the road his brothers and sister have followed.

"We would agree," he says, of his siblings, "that the Buddhist system and the Christian system are in the long run incompatible.

"But that maybe beneath both of them there is a deeper reality that we are both trying to come to terms with."

Dr Wright's brotherly accommodation is not an expression of doubt.

"I think in all honesty I would have left and done something else if I didn't believe it was all true," he says.

"I mean, at the heart of my faith is the resurrection of Jesus and a relationship with God through the person of Jesus."

Such confessions of faith mean the theologically conservative Pentecostal church, of which he was once a member, can still recognise him as "one of theirs", he says.

"But I can talk to people with a much broader faith and even people with an Eastern faith because I can understand where they are, and what they are saying."

So, having negotiated the synod, cheated death, and decided not to follow his siblings' example, Dr Wright is to be bishop.

Once upon a time bishops were close to kings, as they remain on the chessboard.

Times have changed.

"In terms of the structure of the society, it is nothing," Dr Kelvin says of the position bishops find themselves in today.

"It is the CEO of yet another religious organisation."

But that's not the end of it.

The position still holds, he says, a symbolic power that can be put to good use.

"There are places in the country, and I am thinking particularly of Taranaki, where Bishop Philip Richardson has been able to establish a place for the Church in society, I guess by taking advantage of that and using it.

"He has been able to do all sorts of extraordinary social projects because of the goodwill that the position has given him."

The Taranaki cleric has a Bishop's Action Foundation that puts people with good ideas for addressing this or that social ill together with the resources for making it happen, he says.

"I would like to look at the resources within the Church, and not just the Church but the wider Dunedin community, and see how we can work together," he says.

This is not to paint a picture of man who sees his role primarily as social crusader.

"At its heart the Anglican Church is a spiritual organisation," he says

"It is the transformation of people's relationship to God and understanding of themselves and relationship to the world that we are really on about."

Not that there is an incompatibility here, he says.

"When people develop their spirituality and come to a deeper understanding of themselves and come into a relationship with God they can't help but change the way they act in the world and do things for other people."

The bit about transforming people's relationship to God presents as the tougher challenge in our secular world.

Even the language in which it is expressed is more difficult to grasp.

It is an issue Dr Wright is, like many in the Church, aware of and concerned about.

Another Anglican, the Cambridge philosopher Don Cupitt wrote in his book After All of the difficulty of claiming "truth" for religion in the modern world.

In similar vein, Dr Wright says "spiritual knowledge has to be scientifically robust as well".

Making sense of "spiritual knowledge" and its language and communicating that is something he has tried to do throughout his ministry, he says.

"You have these big words that we use in the Christian church, 'salvation', `incarnation' and `redemption' and all this stuff and people in the Church do not know what they mean."

Fewer people today have the cultural background to tackle such terms head-on.

"That's the trouble with the Anglican Church.

The Anglican Church has always been a cradle-to-the-grave thing.

Your parents bring you along, you are christened, you get confirmed you go to Sunday school and Bible class.

You go through the whole shooting box and you are used to the symbol system and the liturgy.

Now there's a whole probably two generations for whom there is no connection with it at all.

That's why we need to find different ways of worshipping and different ways of explaining it to a new generation of people."

Dr Wright rates himself a chance to reconnect one or two with the faith and make some of the more opaque terminology a little more clear.

An image of "wiping the window clear" pops up in his blog.

 

He quotes C. S. Lewis: "Any fool can speak learned language.

"It's the vernacular that is the real test.

"If you can't put your faith into it, then either you don't understand it or you don't believe it".

Not that he is underestimating the task.

"In a sense you cannot explain it," he says.

It's experiential.

"You have a spiritual experience and then you have to make sense of it.

You have to put it into words so that you can think about it and orient your life around it.

That is what theology is, it is that explanation of, or trying to approximate or get close to that indescribable experience.

And that's what all these big words are.

"That's what religion is, it is a system of symbols and metaphors that help people think about and relate to the great unspeakable mysteries."

Here in the world, the big issue keeping the Anglican Church in the headlines is its debate over the place of gays and lesbians in the faith.

Dr Wright says that the focus of the debate, on gay and lesbian members, is really a proxy for wider doctrinal disagreements about issues such as the nature of the Bible, of how to view God.

He is also suddenly, it seems uncharacteristically, guarded in what he says.

"Suddenly I find myself as a focal point for a church which has a very varied range of views and I do not have the luxury of my own views in some respects anymore.

"I have to act in ways that are not going to alienate large sections of the Church.

"Now on the gay issue, there is no way I can act that is not going to alienate half the Church, so I am caught on that one."

As bishop, he will be expected to give some leadership.

And he sees a way forward.

"I think the way ahead is not trying to reconcile the issue but getting people confident enough in what they believe themselves that they can allow people to hold different views and still be in communion with them."

In Dunedin, the debate has recently been focused on Juan Kinnear, St Paul's Cathedral's gay assistant priest.

Dr Wright says he can see the pain that has caused but also thinks it may offer hope.

"It is when people can see that these issues are about real people not just about ideas, that's perhaps when people are prepared to look at difference more comfortably than they have in the past."

As for the nature of the Bible, Dr Wright says it is the word of God - what a bishop might be expected to say.

But he doesn't leave it there.

"The people with a high view of the Bible, that it is the word of God, they are right.

"It does have the ability to speak to people, it does have the ability to transform them.

"But you have to approach it with a good deal of knowledge, and the ability to put it into context, in context with itself.

"So you are relating one piece of the Bible to another, and also in context with the time and the circumstance that it was written in."

Providing people with the tools to be able to do that is a constant struggle, Dr Wright says.

Yet he is optimistic.

"People are inherently spiritual, even ardent atheists," he says.

"Why are they so passionate about this? About discussing spiritual matters?"

International crusader for atheism Richard Dawkins springs to mind.

"Yes, he spends a lot of time and energy on it.

"It is important to him," Dr Wright says.

"And I think we all have this inherent in us, the quest to know what it is all about, the relationship with the universe and a sense of purpose in our lives."

All this was sheeted home for Dr Wright at the turn of the millennium when the dean of the cathedral threw open the doors to anyone who wanted to come and light a candle.

The dean was soon ringing around the city trying to scrounge extra candles.

"So you have this big spiritual hunger out there and people look all over the place for ways to satisfy it - transcendental meditation or some guru or crystals or all the palaver that goes on.

And actually within the Christian tradition it is all there, we have the history of all the great mystics and we have ways of meditating and we have ways of prayer which are extremely sophisticated."

Some of the richness of Dr Wright's theology can be put down to the winding path he has taken to this point.

His early experience of church was as a Methodist, at his mother's bidding.

That lasted until he was "old enough to say 'No' to my Mum".

He then did time as an "ardent atheist" and disaffected youth.

"My father was ill for most of my childhood.

"It has been a bit of a struggle for my family and that shows in adolescence.

"You know, you have to find your way in the world and there is nobody there to help you with it."

It all led, in time, to a Pentecostal church in Lower Hutt - the church his girlfriend was attending.

There he had a conversion experience, aged about 21, in the mid 1970s, despite the "worst sermon of my life".

"It was about how if you listen to classical music you are going to go to hell."

By the time he was 22 or 23 he had moved across to a charismatic Anglican church.

A few short years later he took the cloth in the Anglican Church, in 1979.

Thirty-odd years on and he's to be bishop.

"I have a real sense that God is in it and if God is in it, well, it's going to be good," he says.

Which could be the last word here.

But then there is the prominent quote on his website blog: "Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it"

 

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