Breaking the Waikato's stained-glass ceiling

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 10:36 23/12/2013
Helen-Ann Hartley
Peter Drury/Fairfax Media

READY: Helen-Ann Hartley believes the Kiwi ethos of fairness and justice has helped women bishops.

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Helen-Ann Hartley has already had a fitting for her mitre, a paper version being used to make sure the head size is correct. The real thing, the traditional hat of bishops, will soon be presented to her in Hamilton, in the Anglican Cathedral Church of St Peter, and she will sit in the impressive, carved cathedra, the bishop's chair, for the first time.

She points out the chair in the cathedral on a Monday morning. But pointing is as far as it goes. "I won't sit on that until I'm installed." Hartley is delighted there's a box of toys parked underneath it. She likes the informal touch, hopes they'll stay there.

Becoming a bishop is something she would never have thought about when she was growing up in England.

"An emphatic no. I never thought I'd be wearing a mitre, even just a few years ago."

Her church only authorised the ordination of woman priests in 1992; there was a lack of role models and opportunities. And still plenty of opposition to the notion of women bishops.

CALL ME HA

Fast-forward to Hamilton, February 22, 2014, and the Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley will be installed as the seventh Anglican Bishop of Waikato, the first woman to hold this office. She is currently described as Bishop-elect Helen-Ann, which, as she says, seems a bit of a mouthful. "A lot of people call me HA, I'm fine with that; Dad always called me HA."

She says it's been a big year, which is something of an understatement. She turned 40 in May, was named as the new bishop in September, moved this month to Hamilton from Auckland, where she's been Dean of Tikanga Pakeha students at St John's Theological College. She landed at her new home in Flagstaff in perfect time to be invited to a neighbourhood Christmas barbecue.

On Christmas Day, on Wednesday, she will be back in Auckland, saying farewell at St Andrew's in Epsom, the parish church she has been attached to. She and husband Myles will have lunch with the vicar and his family. They'll be a long way from their families and their previous lives in the United Kingdom, which they left almost two years ago, but Hartley says her Christmases have always had an international feel to them.

Her father, Jim Francis, a retired Anglican clergyman, looked after international students when he lectured at Sunderland University, in the northeast of England, and he always invited those far from home to his place for Christmas. "I kind of find myself in that situation now."

TURBULENCE AHEAD

A little ahead of Christmas, Hartley's at her new cathedral for an interview and photoshoot, cheerfully moving from the pulpit to the pews, as requested.

It brings to mind an interview she did in 2010 for New Yorker magazine about the battle within the Anglican Church to allow women to be bishops. The photoshoot for that article took five hours, and the attractive black ruffled top she wore was subsequently criticised on American website beautytipsforministers.com as being too feminine. One commentator carped: "She isn't wearing the jacket; the jacket's wearing her."

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Hartley laughs, tells this story as she poses in Hamilton. She mostly wears tailored clothes, and a dog collar, removes the dog collar when she wants to be anonymous, perhaps at the supermarket and on aeroplanes.

"I've had a few interesting pastoral situations on planes during really bad turbulence."

A while back, she was on a small plane from Christchurch to Dunedin. A woman sat down next to her with a medical bag on her lap, a prayer book on top of it, turned to Hartley (wearing her dog collar), and said: "Thank God."

Hartley has a fund of stories, she moves seamlessly between humour and seriousness, emerges as a likeable and capable woman. She was possibly an unexpected choice to succeed Archbishop David Moxon as Bishop of Waikato, but it may turn out to be an inspired decision.

She is Gen X, born in 1973, she's a Brit, largely unknown in the Waikato, she's a woman, only the third in New Zealand to hold the post of Anglican bishop, which is way ahead of the situation in the UK. She has a fine academic record, and although she's had three years of fulltime curacy in rural parishes in Oxfordshire, and done other parish work, she has not actually been vicar of a church.

So it's not an old-school appointment, and it's not your average career move for women of Hartley's generation. But you sense she will give it her all.

A FAMILY OF FAITH

She is the fourth generation of her family to enter the clergy. Her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were Presbyterian ministers. So, in fact, was her father, but he switched from Presbyterian to Anglican when Hartley was aged 14.

This was after her mother became ill, spent time in hospital and benefited from regular communion from an Anglican chaplain. She started attending the local Anglican church; Hartley and her father followed suit. Her father was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1987.

Hartley's father has a PHd in New Testament studies. His daughter has, too. Before coming to New Zealand, she was director of biblical studies and lecturer in the New Testament at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, near Oxford. She studied theology in the UK and the United States, and completed her doctorate at Oxford. She is a former religious adviser to the BBC.

Hartley shies away from the academic label. "People might think, crikey, she's got a PHd. I can see that. But all my studies are grounded in ministry which is very outward facing. It's all about people."

She says she's not a very good "library person", she's much more at ease with people. "While I value all the studies I've done, it only makes sense if it is communicated in a way that has meaning."

Her studies have given her the tools for how to make sense of the Bible, make it accessible, and she's written a book on this subject. Her passion for the gospel will underpin her work in the Waikato, and her desire to communicate that to the widest congregation.

NOT ABOUT 'BUMS ON SEATS'

The church, foHartley, is not about bums on pews, more about providing a spiritual heartbeat for people wherever they are, ensuring there is something in it for them, irrespective of age and gender. She mentions the inclusive skills and abilities of late South African president Nelson Mandela, and the impact and grief of his death, across the world, across the generations. "What can the church learn from that?"

Hartley has been learning all her life, she's keen to start sharing in the Waikato. Her first task will be to listen to what has been achieved in the diocese so far, and its potential. At her installation, she will be given three objects that symbolise her role, the work ahead.

The pectoral cross represents teaching and proclaiming the faith, the episcopal ring indicates that the bishop is a sign of unity for the church, the crosier (staff) is the symbol of the bishop being pastor to the pastors, providing pastoral care to all clergy in the diocese and, through them, to the people.

Her installation will be the culmination of a confidential process that started in April when Hartley was approached by people from the diocese and asked if she was willing for her name to go forward to theWaikato Electoral College - attended by 200 people - which was selecting a replacement for David Moxon, after he became the worldwide Anglican Communion's ambassador to Rome.

After consideration and prayer, Hartley said yes. The process took its course. "And here I am." She broke the news of her appointment to her parents on Skype. There were tears from her mother, it was a happy moment. Her parents, her aunt and her husband's mother will come to New Zealand for her installation.

THE GLAMPING BISHOP

Hartley will work in tandem with the Bishop of Taranaki, Philip Richardson. She points out that the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki is unique in the Anglican world, with two equal bishops sharing jurisdiction across the whole large diocese. Richardson is also Archbishop of New Zealand. He has welcomed Hartley's appointment, says she will bring new strengths and gifts to a strong and diverse diocese.

Elizabeth Bang, who chairs the Waikato- Taranaki Diocesan Trust Board, but was not involved in the selection, says they're very lucky to have Hartley in the Waikato; she will complement beautifully where Bishop Moxon left off.

"She is so grounded, she has a very good theological knowledge, and is an excellent preacher. She also has a really good sense of humour. She will know when to be firm but will also know when to be compassionate."

Before the ceremony in February, Hartley plans a mini-pilgrimage to parishes at points north, south, east and west on the compass to introduce herself. She will also preach at the cathedrals in Hamilton and New Plymouth on this road trip.

Because of the distances involved, the pilgrimage will be largely done by car, with a little bit of walking. She adds it will be a bit like the "glamping" (glamorous) version of camping.

Jokes aside, she's serious about getting to know the diocese, and Hamilton will be her home for a long time. "You will be keeping me. The role is one that requires a significant investment in terms of time and place."

BEHIND EVERY GOOD WOMAN

Hartley says she is fortunate that her husband, Myles, is so supportive and encouraging. He is an organist and church musician, a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. He is still in Auckland, has loads of bookings for weddings at present. But he will move to Hamilton, probably retain some work in Auckland, will explore possibilities in the Waikato.

Hartley and her husband met when they were both at Worcester College, Oxford University, in circumstances with potential to go pear-shaped. Hartley was doing post- graduate studies, Myles was a music student and Worcester College choir-master. She auditioned for the choir, she didn't get in.

"But he wrote me a nice letter and took me out for dinner. I've forgiven him."

Hartley adds, that to be fair, Myles was looking for altos. She's not an alto, she understood why she was turned down.

This, like other stories, signals Hartley's good humour, her warmth. It is her modus operandi to remain cheery and upbeat, and in England she's had a few diehards say they've changed their minds about women in the church because of their association with her.

"I've just been myself, and they've observed me over time, thought, maybe it's all right for a woman to be wearing a dog collar. I can't be anything other than who I am. I'm happy to be female, that's pretty important."

THE STAINED GLASS CEILING

It may not be too long before women are wearing mitres in her home country.

In November 2013 the General Synod of the Church of England finally endorsed a compromise proposal to permit women bishops that includes protections for congregations and clergy opposed to them. Legislation on this could be adopted by the synod next July. More than two decades behind the appointment in New Zealand of Penny Jamieson as Anglican Bishop of Dunedin. 

Hartley thinks the Kiwi ethos of fairness and justice, and the church here not carrying the same weight of history and baggage as in England, has played a part in this.

When Hartley's turn comes, she will be one of 28 Anglican women bishops worldwide, including the newly installed Bishop Pat Storey, the first woman to be elected by the Church of Ireland as Bishop of Meath and Kildare, in the Republic of Ireland.

While Hartley doesn't offer her personal views on the more difficult - and long- standing - topic of ordination of gay priests in her church, she says she is part of the process of thinking and talking about this issue, enabling a lot of different opinions and voices to be heard.

She doesn't know where that will lead, but it's important to keep people in conversation with each other.

"I'm part of that process, the role of the bishop is to keep that unity. This may sound frustrating but it is very important that I listen to all those voices."

While there are some gay Anglican clergy currently practising, as bishop Hartley could not ordain someone known to be in a same-sex relationship. "I would not seek to act outside where the church is at. It is important that we act together."

Talking and listening, getting to know people and understanding who they are, coming closer together, is key for Hartley on this issue, and others.

"I don't expect people to agree with me the whole time but if we can look one another in the eye and realise we do have something in common as Christians, or some fundamental beliefs, that's important."

It seems a good basis on which to proceed. Come February, Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley's ceremonial mitre and cope, made specially by the cathedral's Loft group (Ladies of the Order of Fine Things), should sit pretty comfortably on her head and shoulders. Along with her new responsibilities.

- Waikato

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