Bishop and the turbulent priest

RELIGIOUS DISPUTE: The Rev Graeme Davidson, right, says the Right Rev John Bluck, the retiring Bishop of Waiapu, is reluctant to grant him a priest's licence because he has questioned church policy.
RELIGIOUS DISPUTE: The Rev Graeme Davidson, right, says the Right Rev John Bluck, the retiring Bishop of Waiapu, is reluctant to grant him a priest's licence because he has questioned church policy.

A war of letters has erupted between an Anglican priest and a bishop, with the priest saying the bishop is reluctant to grant him a licence because he publicly questions the church's "apartheid" model.

The Rev Graeme Davidson was the honorary assistant priest at Wellington's St Mark's Church till January, when he and his wife moved to Havelock North.

A frequent contributor to the Religion and Ethics column in The Dominion Post, Mr Davidson wants to work from his new home as a writer. He would also like to officiate within the Waiapu (central and eastern North Island) diocese, and has asked the Right Rev John Bluck, retiring Bishop of Waiapu and also a frequent contributor to the Religion and Ethics column, if he might grant a priest's licence to do so.

Mr Davidson wrote to Bishop Bluck on November 27 asking for the licence. In reply, the bishop said he had concerns about Mr Davidson's opinions on the church's model of "three tikanga".

The model, adopted in 1992 when the Anglican Church revised its constitution, was designed "to provide for three partners to order their affairs within their own cultural context". The partners are tikanga Maori, tikanga Pakeha and tikanga Pasifika. It was seen by many in the church at the time as a way of honouring the Treaty of Waitangi.

Mr Davidson does not like the three-tikanga system - it was the subject of a column published in 2005 entitled "Does the Anglican Church practise a benign form of apartheid?" He repeated his feelings in a column titled "A three-ghetto church based on politics rather than Christianity", published on January 28 this year.

This prompted a second letter from the bishop, who registered his dismay at the article and the offence it had caused in the Waiapu diocese. "My plea is that you withhold judgment until you are able to do justice to the experience of partnership in this part of the church at least," the bishop wrote.

Mr Davidson replied, saying he was "under the impression the Waiapu diocese welcomed diversity". He said many people agreed with him and suggested the bishop use his column to explain his view. "My aim was to encourage open and honest public debate."

But the bishop did not buy that, writing to Mr Davidson that they were a bishop and a priest before they were columnists and that, while he welcomed an open and honest debate, he would rather have it in conversation than in a column.

Mr Davidson said the three-tikanga model divided Christians, and brought the church into disrepute. He compared it to the system used by the Dutch Reform Church in apartheid South Africa - for which the church later confessed.

"The New Testament knows only one type of division - between believers and unbelievers. There's no mention of cultural or ethnic division, or being a nationalist," Mr Davidson said.

"The model hasn't worked at pew level as it has created a three-ghetto church. You have to make an effort to find out what's happening in the other tikanga."

He said the bishop could technically withhold his licence under the church's canon, which forbids a minister from promulgating any doctrine contrary to those of the church.

However, Mr Davidson believes he is upholding the gospel as outlined in the New Testament and the articles of the Anglican Church as practised till 1992. "Many people have written or spoken to me in support of my columns, but there seems to be no room for open public debate on the topic," he said.

Bishop Bluck said he was not withholding Mr Davidson's licence. "He hasn't even had a conversation with me about licences yet. He's only just arrived in Waiapu. I have invited him to a have a conversation with me and I have only this week got a letter from him saying he would like to talk to me, so we will be having that conversation.

"I haven't even met him yet and the first thing bishops do when they license priests who come into their diocese is they have a conversation with them. That conversation is an entirely confidential one between a priest and a bishop. Whether a priest is licensed in a diocese is a bishop's prerogative and no one else's business," Bishop Bluck said.

The pair may have differing views on the three-tikanga model, but whether that was enough to deny a licence could be resolved only in conversation, he said. "I've got to talk to the man first."

THE RIGHT REV JOHN BLUCK

Aged 64, born near Wairoa, and has degrees in literature and theology from Canterbury and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Worked as a journalist and teacher for Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Was director of communications for World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Has also been a freelance broadcaster and is the writer of books on media, communications and the ecumenical movement. Was dean of Christchurch Cathedral from 1990 till 2002. Is retiring and moving to Rotorua in June.

THE REV GRAEME DAVIDSON

Aged 65, born Palmerston North, and has degrees in psychology, philosophy, theology from Victoria and Oxford universities. Worked as clinical psychologist before training for Anglican priesthood at St Stephen's House and Linacre College, Oxford. Ordained since 1970 and has worked in parishes in Britain, southern and northern California and in the Wellington diocese. Worked as a journalist producing news and documentaries for NZ and Australian networks. Has written several fiction and non-fiction books, including 7Q, a religious thriller published in Russian.