Wellington Anglicans pick dreadlocked bishop

A NEW APPROACH: Justin Duckworth is the new Anglican Bishop of Wellington
A NEW APPROACH: Justin Duckworth is the new Anglican Bishop of Wellington

The newly elected Bishop of Wellington wants to breathe fresh life into the church, but first he needs to figure out how to fit a traditional bishop's hat over his bohemian hair-do.

It was announced yesterday that Justin Duckworth, 44, a free-spirited, dreadlocked priest and the co-founder of a secluded commune in the Reikorangi Valley, near Waikanae, is to be Wellington's next Anglican bishop.

As someone who has always shied away from the mainstream church, Mr Duckworth acknowledges he would not have been on many people's list of likely contenders but believes he now has a mandate to shake things up.

"I'm just there to help them do that. I think we recognised that we needed to, in some sense, re-engage with younger generations and work out how to make sure that the church doesn't die in the next few generations. It is a little bit of pressure but it is also a lovely generous thing."

The new bishop speaks candidly about his love of marathon-running, mountain-climbing and directing stage musicals – and advises he may soon be recruiting members of the clergy to take part.

His riverside commune home, Ngatiawa, is an isolated and supportive community for those who need a change of environment.

In the 10 years since he and wife Jenny set it up, Ngatiawa has evolved into a vibrant, cluttered home for about 20 permanent devotees and more than 1000 visitors each year. Meals are cooked together, prayers are held three times a day, cows are milked and pigs fed, and everyone pitches in to keep the somewhat haphazard order in place.

Mr Duckworth is aware the tranquility he is used to will soon be replaced by the all-consuming duties of chief pastor. But he says he will assess matters as they arise and promises not to flinch in the face of new challenges.

"I will suddenly enter a world that up to the moment I've only been on the outskirts of. Though I've been an Anglican priest for a long time, I've deliberately been on the edge of the wider system or scene. Suddenly I will enter the centre and have to get my head around the inner mechanics of the system."

The church has placed a great deal of faith in Mr Duckworth's easygoing yet earnest energy and it is hoped he will bring about a renewal for the somewhat outdated status quo.

Anglican Church spokesman Lloyd Ashton said a retired bishop had told him there was no room for complacency any more. Those who voted for Mr Duckworth saw he had a strong track record of serving "the last and the least" for the past 25 years.

"They could see that he's a thinker-outside-the-square, that he's street-savvy, a visionary, a team-builder, maybe a prophet, even.

"I think that the voters sensed he could help realign the church. It's a force for transformation," Mr Ashton said.

But before Mr Duckworth can reinvigorate the church, he wants to try on a traditional bishop's hat to see if it will fit over his thick dreadlocks.

He knows his hair has probably been a talking point among the clergy.

"I've always had long hair and Jenny loves me with long hair. But for those of us who are blessed with curly hair, it's really hard to get the knots out. Then I suddenly thought: dreadlocks. So I just get out of bed in the morning now and tie them up and there's no maintenance.

"I'm going to have to work out how the traditional mitre fits over the dreads, there may have to be some creative design there. I'm not planning on getting rid of them though ... that wasn't part of the fine print."

The Dominion Post