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‘I don’t mind being damned for what I believe’

The Anglican Bishop of Wellington may be famous for his dreadlocks and jandals, but says he prefers talking about the things that matter.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins
Photo/Hagen Hopkins

The spiritual leader of ­Wellington’s Anglicans, Justin Duckworth, is easily New Zealand’s most ­recog­nisable religious leader. Video footage of his installation in 2012 as the 11th Bishop of ­Wellington shows the Anglican clergy in their ­ecclesiastical finery – embroidered robes and mitres – against the backdrop of an older, mostly Pakeha congregation.

The long-haired Duckworth, in a simple white robe, enters St Paul’s ­Cathedral accompanied by a younger, diverse group of family and friends.

Duckworth and wife Jenny lived and worked for many years in troubled communities of Wellington’s young before pio­neering Ngatiawa, a contemporary monastery inland from Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast that opens its doors to those seeking comfort, solace or spiritual renewal. The three children they raised there are now young adults.

Duckworth recently joined the loud protests outside Wellington’s TSB Stadium during a defence industry conference sponsored by military hardware giant Lockheed.

Does it bother you that some fellow Anglicans, and other Christians, are likely to have been at the defence industry conference?

It is a tension and I do feel that. In the end, I have to put a spotlight on the principles that I think reflect the ­kingdom of God. Once we put a spotlight on the principles, people have to work out how to live them. There is a place to say, hold on, is this all right, as followers of non-violent Jesus, to have this massive weapons industry in the world? We are all complicit in it and how each of us works it out will probably be different.

I don’t believe people inside the conference were any worse than those ­outside it, but we do need voices ­constantly from the outside saying we are not happy with it. So many of today’s wars involve the deaths of non-combatants, and it is not all right that innocent people are killed. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the past 100 years.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said he would attend the same-sex marriage of his children if they were gay.  Where do you stand on this highly contentious issue?

My role is to help the Anglican Diocese of Wellington come to a point where we can live together with our ­different views. We need to find a way forward to live with diversity of opinion. My personal view is less important than this. I support Archbishop Welby’s line and would obviously also ­support my children if the situation arose. Your kids are your kids – you love them.

A view along the route; the dreadlocked bishop. Photo/Getty Images
A view along the route. Photo/Getty Images

You and Jenny walked the Camino de Santiago two years ago. What was it like?

It was a significant time of living in joy. It anchors me when I look back on it, and I have an ­overwhelming sense of gratitude. It is a lovely, disarming time when you are walking with people, day in, day out. You have unguarded conversations and that is what we really enjoyed. It is a great leveller. We all got blisters, we all got sore legs, we were all tired, and in the end you talk about the things that matter.

You have a different look and background to most bishops – having lived in a commune – and yet you’re at the centre of the Anglican church. How did you find that transition?

First, we never say commune, we always say community. A mate of mine said, “When you become Bishop, first, you’ll never get a bad meal again in your life and second, no one will ever tell you the truth again.”

There is obviously a sense where there are conversations that go on about me, but don’t include me. I realise I am partly public property and I don’t mind being damned for what I believe, but it annoys me that I am damned for things I don’t actually believe.

LS0216_36_Bishop_Justin_Duckworth_19What’s the significance of the dreadlocks?

I keep the dreadlocks shorter, because they get heavy. They were always only about my wife liking me with long hair, but I couldn’t stand all the upkeep – it drove me crazy de-knotting my hair – so ­dreadlocks were the low-maintenance choice. It was never a political statement of identity; it is just long hair.

Probably the dreadlocks don’t do me any favours in a business meeting or a meeting with politicians, but then again, they do break down some ­barriers when I am meeting other people. My view is that once you have met ­someone for 30 seconds, you’re past the appearance at that stage. You’ve either got something to say, you’re genuine or you’re not.

Have you become more guarded since you became a bishop?

You’re always aware that every conversation can be construed in certain ways. We all make mistakes and you just have to assume people have a certain amount of grace and you must have a certain amount of grace towards them.

Nobody is ­perfect; you try to do your best and are always learning.

What do you read?

Someone lets us use a place near Taupo where we take a break and I get to read. There is not much time for reading other than while on holiday or on planes.

I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, while walking the Camino. It’s a delightful book, about a journey. I enjoy long books, I like to lose myself in stories of adventures, featuring a strong character. I read The Lord of the Rings a lot when I was young. It is a long, epic story with great themes of power, betrayal and good, the small, the edge ­interacting with the power of the centre, the corruption of the centre; the little people of the world doing their thing, that really was significant.

I am also reading a bit of leadership and management stuff. I found Jim ­Collins’ Good to Great very good and Patrick ­Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team very informative. At the moment, I’m not reading ­fiction; I’m reading ­theology. It affirms the life I choose to live, grounded in the call from the Bible. Theology’s not dry, it’s energising.

The original Bible stories, about ­Christmas, still have resonance. The Christmas children were slaughtered; Jesus was born in a poor part of town and his family escaped as refugees. The story is very gritty, but it’s beautiful and has meaning in today’s world.

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