He's been shackled to his children on an anti-slavery march, mistaken for a pimp in seedy Cuba St, and founded a modern monastery. Nikki Macdonald talks to Bishop Justin Duckworth about his colourful past and his greatest challenge yet – revitalising the Anglican Church.
By the glow of a candle stub cradled inside a coconut shell, Justin Duckworth says sorry for letting anxiety and stress get in the way. And at morning prayers the next day, in the tiny chapel he helped build in the foothills of the Tararua Range, the Bishop of Wellington asks God for insight into a difficult problem.
It's a rare glimpse into the weight of the task facing the head of Wellington's Anglican Church, a year on from his surprise election to an erstwhile fusty old boys' club. The dreadlocked, barefoot bolter who'd lived a life on the edge of society and the church, is now charged with reviving an institution in decline.
If there's one thing the 45-year-old wants to drive home to the church, it's the need to enact their faith and live "peculiar lives". And few could be more peculiar than Duckworth's own – the boy from Stokes Valley turned urban missionary turned modern monastic.
That simple wooden chapel is the centrepiece of Ngatiawa River Monastery, the spiritual community Duckworth and his wife Jenny founded, which has been their home for the past 10 years.
The couple bought the dilapidated old Presbyterian camp, tucked under the hills behind Waikanae, as a refuge for "strugglers, seekers and servants".
It's a place of contemplative quiet, and listening without judgment. Of a thrice-daily rhythm of prayer rung in by an old railway iron. Of communal meals seasoned with laughter. Of home kills, fruit trees, roaming sheep and escaped ginga pigs. Like Duckworth, it's faith in action, with a smile. The roster sports goofy photos in place of names, and the "bringer of morning cheer" is exhorted to "fake it till you make it".
And, like most things in Duckworth's life, Ngatiawa comes with a revealing story, told with self-deprecating humour and disarming candidness.
The Duckworths didn't exactly buy Ngatiawa. They agreed on the sale, moved out of their ex-mattress-factory shared home in Te Aro, then applied for a mortgage.
"We're not the brightest people in the world," Duckworth laughs. "We didn't really consider the fact we didn't really have incomes ... our Christian mortgage broker tried three banks then made like Pontius Pilate and washed his hands of us. We're sleeping down the road in a barn in one room, our gear is already shifted in – totally unprofessional, we've got no income and no bank is going to lend us a mortgage. It was a disaster."
TSB eventually came to the rescue. But it wasn't the first or last disaster of the couple's life on the margins, from 20-somethings running a Newtown home for troubled and troublesome girls; to communing with streeties and prostitutes in seedy upper Cuba St; to learning to sand floors and "build things that stand vaguely upright" here in this cold silent river valley. And all while bringing up three children.
Duckworth is a doer. He does church, does life, does marriage. He's never had a 20-year plan, he just does what he thinks is right. But when Kapiti vicar Henry Resink asked if he would consider running for bishop, Duckworth had to completely rethink his life and contemplate moving from the church's back pew to its front row.
Looking for guidance, Jenny went to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River to pray, and Duckworth trekked to the exposed top of Mt Kapakapanui, overlooking Ngatiawa. No great strain for a veteran of 10 Southern Crossing runs who once climbed Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Taranaki in one day. Except he pitched a tent on the summit in the freezing wind.
"It was bad. I'm in my sleeping bag, I've got all my polypropylene gear on and I'm totally hooded up and I'm freezing. I'm thinking I'm going to die, being the softy that I am. In my brain I'm going through all my survival things: if the tent blows over in the night I just grab my jacket and my boots and just get out of here.
"I was scared. And then I had one of those God moments. When I say God moments, I just mean a thought comes into my head that I wouldn't normally think and I think where did that come from? Either it could be some strange mental process or it could be God. I had one of those 'could be God' moments which was saying: 'I am going to be with you; it's going to be fine. The actual real issue here is do you have the courage?' That was for me and for the church, in some senses, and that stuck with me really strongly."
Duckworth's life has been peppered with "if only people could see me now" moments. There was the time he awoke in a tepee in Golden Bay, next to a Buddhist with a tea towel on his head chanting.
And the time, during their six-month sabbatical in 2007, when Jenny volunteered the family to walk from Birmingham to Liverpool in the Lifeline anti-slavery march. They were yoked together and wore black T-shirts saying "So sorry". "I couldn't believe how much it impacted me, getting chained to my children and walking around the English countryside. It was profoundly humiliating."
And then there are times like these, when he stands before 25 people gathered on a sunny Sunday at St Paul's church in Waiwhetu – a bishop in the mainstream church he's spent his life avoiding.
Robed up and perched on his wooden throne, Duckworth could almost be mistaken for any old clergyman. Those trademark dreads are tucked into the chair's high wooden back, his bare feet barely visible beneath the opulent scarlet tepee of robes. But when he opens his mouth there can be no mistaking his world of difference.
If the Anglican Church is a mildewed King James Bible, all thees and thys and filthy lucre, Duckworth is its edgy modern translation.
Duckworth's sermon is about Peter's denial of Christ. Jesus, he says, had invited Peter to "come and hang out. Turn up to church, you might even get a free feed. You might even see some decent preaching.
"If I was Jesus, which my wife often thinks I think I am ... " Duckworth continues, raising one of several laughs.
But interspersed with the dubious grammar and street-speak is discussion about the exact meaning of the original Greek wording. It's typical of Duckworth's remarkable ability to bridge worlds – he might be down with the kids but he's no theological slouch.
Even the church elders seem sold – as he processes out, carrying his shepherd's crozier and too-broad grin, an old codger turns to his mate: "What a refreshing change."
But with declining church congregations worldwide and New Zealand census figures showing Anglicans fell from 584,793 in 2001 to 554,925 in 2006, is revitalising the Anglican Church a bridge too far?
Brought up in "dog-eat-dog" Stokes Valley, Duckworth wasn't raised on a diet of religion. He went once to Sunday School, and that was once too often.
His mother, Claire, an art teacher at Taita College, struggled with mental health problems, sometimes landing in hospital. His parents split when he was about 10 and his father, Les, moved north and on to Melbourne, before returning this year. But Duckworth doesn't play the victim card. His mother, he says, was incredible, the sole parent bread-winner fighting to keep her life in balance.
It was his teenage years that brought him to God – that unhappy constant jockeying to be in the right peer group. He went looking for hope, reassurance and a sense of purpose and found it at Youth for Christ, a group of young people "who actually had fun together and it was relatively upbuilding".
"I've always been captivated by the idea that I want to meaningfully contribute ... I started to explore God and it seemed to work out quite good, so I took another step."
There were no half measures. At about 15, he underwent full immersion baptism in the Waikanae River in freezing May and began to lead youth camps at El Rancho, at the same time as leading his school soccer team.
Good at maths and science, but "horrendous" at English, he figured he'd study at university and get a regular job like his peers. But throughout his science degree at Victoria, followed by honours in philosophy, a post-graduate in theology through Melbourne and a masters in development studies through Massey, Duckworth continued doing youth work, determined to help the next crop navigate teen angst.
At 27, he was married, studying, fostering three or four teenage women, running a home for troubled teenage girls in Newtown and about to have his first child, Luca, now 18. It was the first of the family's 20 years of shared homes.
To be a supportive man in lives devoid of male role models was "beautiful", Duckworth says. But it comes with obvious caveats.
"Your home no longer has the total freedom of your traditional home. You are on show and you have to learn to live an incredibly disciplined life. What has been lovely is me and Jenny have done everything together. What she loves I love. The people she cares about I care about. The people she pours her life into I pour my life into. That's a beautiful way to do marriage."
Money has always been tight. Jenny worked part-time as a primary school teacher. The couple worked for the council's summer city programme, roping in their young charges to help.
In their book Against the Tide, Towards the Kingdom, Jenny recalls her mother's joy that, at 20, she was seeing "a nice young man".
"The fact he didn't wear shoes, had something of an afro, and earned money in odd ways was clearly just a student phase.
"At the point where I took the beautiful new grandchildren to live in a dodgy end of the city squashed into a dark office space with no hot water, she stepped back from thinking we were moving out of this phase."
It was in those dingy upper Cuba St digs that Duckworth set about building relationships with street people, from prostitutes to glue-sniffers who posted themselves to bed in clothing bins. He would set out at 9.30pm and walk a circuit, returning at midnight.
"I didn't know what I was doing. The circuit included the working women and then the transvestites. I didn't have the confidence so I'd sort of go, 'How are ya?' and mumble a comment. Years later I met one of them who said, 'Oh, are you a Christian? Is that what it was about? We always thought you were a pimp.' "
They would invite streeties for meals, support them in court, visit them in jail. But they weren't all miraculously cured of their various afflictions. Far from it.
"You get one or two wonderful success stories, but most of the time people are just people and they're messy and they're fragile. If you choose to give your life for people who are fragile and vulnerable then your heart will be constantly broken. You're dreaming if you think you're gonna cure the world. But that doesn't still mean compassion and care isn't valid."
But doesn't failure shake his faith?
That, says Duckworth, is one of the reasons people become disillusioned with religion. Because they are under the illusion of a "triumphalistic view" that they can change the world by being "successful". Duckworth argues that Jesus only transformed the world through redemptive suffering.
"So I think that's what I signed up for. What other plan do I have? That's the only one that seems to offer much hope."
When Resink conceived the fantastical idea of nominating Duckworth for bishop, he worried he'd be laughed out of church. He saw the church as too institutional, too business-like.
"I saw in Justin something that was quite radical, different, crazy. But I also saw somebody who was very authentic about the best of the ancient tradition of the church as well. He really practises what he preaches; he's a natural leader; he talks well and he talks out of real life. And he's theologically very articulate."
When he mooted the idea to close confidants, their response was: "You've got to be kidding". But a day later they'd changed their minds.
Duckworth wasn't entirely outside the church, having been ordained a priest in 2006 after recognising he needed to join the club to have his views heard. But when the election process began, he remained the rank outsider, Resink says.
"But that was also the attraction, because when people looked at it, they thought 'this is either crazy, or there's something really in this'."
The night Duckworth found out he'd been elected, he barely slept, excited and terrified at the ramifications. A year and an awful lot of sausage rolls later he's almost assembled his leadership team and is primed for change.
So, how bad is the state of the church?
"I think we're moving into a place of more appropriate humility in the church. We're not that flash, we're not always getting it right in many cases. And we can no longer believe in a Christendom where the church must be the centre of society. That's well and truly gone. I think it's good for the church to stop resting on its history."
Despite ageing church populations and census figures showing more than one third of all Kiwis now profess no religion, Duckworth doesn't believe young people have lost interest in faith. The question is, are they finding God at church?
"At this point in history talk is really cheap. As a church we have to be people who actually live what we proclaim," Duckworth says. And where better to start, he tells the Waiwhetu congregation, than with the living wage campaign. Those with generous, or scandalous, salaries should share with those who struggle. It's a campaign that will inevitably bring conflict with moneyed, old-school Anglicans.
"Some people are reacting to that," he admits. "But on a simple level the living wage campaign is a no-brainer. If you've got two coats and somebody else hasn't got one, you give them one of your coats. That's what it says in scripture."
A bishop has no fixed term, and Duckworth's predecessor, Tom Brown, retired at 69. However, seeing himself as a pioneer and averaging five-year "seasons" in the past, Duckworth will stay only to achieve his goals.
"Years from now we will get to the point with the diocese where we've done what we can do and we'll have no problem at that point leaving it."
Duckworth does want to see the Anglican Church radically changed. But not in the way some fear. "It is about helping the church to move one or two degrees back towards true north."
The church would, he says, be revolutionised if every parishioner had two shared meals every week, one to support a church member and one to spend time with someone on the edge.
Someone like the grey-haired woman being confirmed for the first time at Waiwhetu. "I have walked alone through this life since 18 months," she tells the congregation. "I struggled through school. I decided God hated me, so I hated God. I ended up in an alcohol centre. I lived up the road from this church and God said come to my house. Yes, I still find life a struggle. The difference now is that I'm not alone."
Ngatiawa was largely born out of frustration at how hard it was to encourage addicts to change in the central city, where geography worked against them.
"We dreamed of getting a place where it was easier for people to live a healthy life, and harder for them not to. Here you're an hour and a half's walk from the shops. The only trouble you've got is what you bring."
On Ngatiawa's blackboard plotting the comings and goings of the waifs, strays, strugglers and youth groups who use the community as a base, the weekend is given over to a group of Anglican Studies students. As bishop, Duckworth invited them to learn at Ngatiawa to see faith at work, continuing his personal philosopy of always "anchoring study in context".
But what of his children – didn't he worry they would be damaged by exposure to so much fragility? Not to mention the physical hardship – the dew on the bunkhouse pillows in the morning, the houses with no hot water. Duckworth says they were always careful to debrief their kids, to help them understand what they were seeing.
They don't appear to have suffered terribly. Luca has just left home for a 6-month trip volunteering in Thailand and Mozambique. At the end of the year, when Jesse, 17, finishes school, Duckworth, Jenny and 14-year-old Maya will leave Ngatiawa to concentrate their efforts on the diocese. That will be the next challenge for the family – to leave the community they pioneered and reinvent themselves in Wellington.
The next chapter for the church will be equally fraught, with the looming decision about whether or not they will perform marriages for gay couples.
Duckworth won't say publicly where he stands on the issue, believing it would distract from the conversation. "We need to discuss what we all think, not what the bishop thinks".
But he will say that, in his theological division of beliefs into type 1 – the -negotiable fundamentals, and 2 – the arguables or nice-to-haves, same sex marriage falls into type 2.
"Recognising that although many of my dear friends believe that it is a type 1 issue, for me it's a type 2 issue. I don't need people to agree with me on this."
Back at Waiwhetu the congregation stands for the final hymn: "Rise up church with broken wings, fill this place with voices again". That will only happen, says Duckworth, if the church comes to see a different way of doing things, as "a group of family and friends on a wonderful mission", rather than a corporation.
The service's parting words could be a mantra for Duckworth's life. "May God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe you can make a difference."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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