A devil for the detail

By Carroll du Chateau

Every morning at 7.30 a small group gathers at the Holy Trinity Cathedral chapel. It's a simple service, just the Gospel, confession, offertory and communion. The chapel, with its simple wooden cross (no figure of Christ) behind the altar, is small and cosy, compared with the cavernous cathedral outside. Lit by a small suspended lamp and two fat altar candles, it offers pews, padded kneelers and plush carpet. But the most interesting thing on this chilly winter morning is the evident piety of the officiating priest, the Anglican Dean of Auckland Richard Randerson.

There is no sign of the "agnosticism" Bishop Randerson has been explaining over the past few months. He skips the affirmation of faith but, this is the service of a believer: "Go to love and serve the Lord," he says as the worshippers depart.

Later, in his rather spartan office, the bishop says that despite his many scholarly articles people still do not understand his position on faith. Sitting there in a brown v-necked Rodd & Gunn jersey over his purple cassock, and wearing a pair of shoes cleaned so many times the black leather wrinkles like parchment, Bishop Randerson explains he used the word "agnostic" only when debating the theories of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He was asked if he could scientifically prove that God exists. And he says, "you can't prove God by science."

On the other hand, the bishop believes passionately in God "as in the person known as Jesus Christ.

I endorse that 100 per cent. That's what my whole life has been about."

It is Bishop Randerson's careful theology, his dedication to truth and bridging the gap between science and religion that has led him into controversy over and over again. He does not accept the literal meaning of the virgin birth - and many of the other stories of the Old Testament.

"It can be very upsetting for people who think, 'well that's the truth: it's a gynaecological miracle that I believe in'," explains Bishop Randerson. "Yet often in the process of that [belief] they are missing what that story is about - which is that the divine and the human meet perfectly in Jesus. The miracle can distract people from the deeper understanding."

Similarly with the story of Adam and Eve, which he explains away as one of many "symbolic stories" attached to the Bible. "Adam in Hebrew means humankind," he says. "Eve means life. When we're talking about Adam and Eve, we're talking about the generic meaning of life. They're generic stories about the truths of human life."

He has also stuck his neck on the chopping block over gay marriage (he would welcome it if the church did).

The bishop's modern ideas may have an appeal. Holy Trinity still draws 150 to Sunday communion and around 80 to evensong. Although the controversy over their leader's agnosticism may have upset some of his flock, many more "on the margins" got engaged in the argument.

Bishop Randerson's attitudes, delivered in a warm, measured voice, may make the Anglican Church far more acceptable to the educated than insistence on literal, blind faith. As he says, bringing the church into the scientific era has been his life's work. "That's what it's all about - that's what I've had a passion to do ... There are many people who'll say 'if I've got to believe that Jesus was literally born from a virgin I have to rubbish the whole Christian thing just on the basis of that'."

Richard Randerson grew up in Takapuna in the 1950s when it was Sunday school for all. His father, Brian, a branch manager with the BNZ and son of a Presbyterian minister, was confirmed in the Anglican church after he married so the children would have both parents in the same faith. The "very bright" Ngaio, was a stay-at-home mum. Their other two sons went into banking and law. Tony Randerson is the senior judge of the High Court.

Richard was 17 and in his last year at Takapuna Grammar when he signed up for the priesthood. Randerson majored in Greek and Latin at Otago then went on to three years at St John's College in Meadowbank. By then many of his colleagues had already come off those rails. "Of the 15 who applied just over half made it to ordination."

Even he had a crisis of faith. He was in his mid-20s, a couple of years into his first official placement at Papakura and newly married to high school teacher Jackie. The youth revolution that had been stirring in the US when he was ordained in 1964, was now raging in New Zealand, and the church was suddenly uncool. "People were leaving in droves," he says. " I had to do some major wrestling to find my way."

That rethinking brought him to the wider life of the church in society. In 1968 Randerson won a scholarship to do his Masters In Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, followed by a year with the City Ministry. It was the time of Black Power, Vietnam and youth revolt. Next came a year as industrial chaplain at Teesside, in Britain, where Rebecca (now 37) was born, before being called home to direct first, the Industrial Mission for Auckland City, followed by 12 years as inner-city vicar at St Peter's in Wellington.

It was an interesting life. The family lived in a succession of parish houses. Randerson was an involved father. He took Jeremy (born 1976) to his first day at school and took his turn on the Playcentre roster.

By the mid-1990s, Randerson - who had been the Anglican Social Responsibility Commissioner for four years - was known for his opinions on the new-right government policies of the time. He had written two books criticising monetarist policies and was often in the media. "The 'new' virtues of individualism and self-help resulted in an erosion of community responsibility and compassion for people on the margins of society," he growled.

Even now, he says, an over-emphasis on individual effort - "you deserve it, work hard, play hard" - is working against a sense of community - as evidenced in the Muliaga case. "I think society is way out of kilter."

His values, ethics and financial judgment propelled Randerson to Australia for six years as Assistant Bishop in Canberra. Next came his appointment at Holy Trinity twinned, two years later, with the assistant Bishop post.

Then came a major seminar on climate change at Holy Trinity and last month Bishop Randerson was a core member of the third Asia/Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue, which he points out with a wry smile, "was not about watering down Christianity with a dollop of Islam" but grew out of the need for keeping communities peaceful.

"It started with the bombings in Bali and attacks on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. And Helen Clark called on different religious groups to work together to build peace within our own communities."

As he sees it, achieving the starry-eyed diverse communities our politicians want may not come easy. "This is the big issue of the 21st century. If we see our identity threatened we get anxious, then upset, then angry." And no, he does not believe we should assimilate other peoples' values at the expense of our own. "We need to learn to be a culturally diverse community while recognising that we live in New Zealand under a common law."

As for the prayer before Parliament, the man who wants to usher people into Christianity rather than exclude anyone, believes we should keep the prayer but omit the specific reference to Jesus at the end.

Possibly because he goes into immense detail, the media constantly get Randerson wrong. "There have been five mistakes about me in the Herald this year," he says. And another glaring one in Metro magazine which accuses him of introducing a Hindu altar cloth to the cathedral altar. Not so, says Randerson. "That cloth is in Christchurch cathedral - and commissioned by their dean."

NOW, AS he heads into the last few weeks of his ministry, Bishop Randerson is quietly happy with his achievements, not even slightly frustrated that he never made archbishop - and seriously regretful that he won't be in the driving seat when Christianity becomes hot again.

Later this month he and Jackie head to their second, personally owned house in Haitaitai so they can be near their children and grandchildren: Rebecca is now a Johnsonville GP and mother of two; Jo, a successful writer/actor and former Winston Churchill Fellow; Jeremy, actor and co-owner of the Foxton Fizz soft-drink company.

In retirement he will probably write his reflections on the past 50 years - documenting the huge changes in church and society.

"I actually think it's a great time for the church right now," he says. "For the 40 years since I was ordained, people have been distancing themselves from Christianity. Now people are looking for values - what gives life meaning and purpose - and revisiting some of the great spiritual dimensions. If we can connect with the wider community it's not an opportunity we want to miss."

Which brings us back to the debate over agnosticism. As the dean says, it sparked a huge response from people on the edge of the church. "They were saying, thank God someone's saying something intelligent and that makes sense about spirituality."

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