Interview: Bishop Justin Duckworth

By Catherine Masters

Bishop Justin Duckworth and his wife bought the Ngatiawa community so 'streeties' could have a place that felt like home. Picture / Mark Mitchell
Bishop Justin Duckworth and his wife bought the Ngatiawa community so 'streeties' could have a place that felt like home. Picture / Mark Mitchell

The next Bishop of Wellington was chosen to help change the image of the Anglican church

After prayers every evening at a little wooden chapel in a little community nestled in a valley of lush green hills outside of Wellington, there is a brief time of thanksgiving.

God might be thanked for the beautiful weather. Or the interview with the Herald. Or a wish might be imparted to Him that the Herald not be mean to the next Anglican Bishop of Wellington in the subsequent article in the Herald.

But if they are mean, the next Bishop of Wellington has that covered, because after thanksgiving there is a period where people can confess whatever they like either out loud or in silence.

People might say, "God, I'm sorry I was mean to so and so today," and if they do say this out loud, the others might murmur "Amen and, yes, you were," and it's all fine.

The next Bishop of Wellington - just call him Justin - throws back a head of tied-back dreadlocks and laughs. "So if it's a bad article I'll pray for forgiveness for my bad thoughts about you."

This is probably as bad a thought as the new Bishop of Wellington gets.

His name is Justin Duckworth and he is officially the most unlikely-looking Bishop-to-be in the country.

I don't know what you expect from a Bishop - flowing robes, a bald head and weighty answers? - but this laid-back Bishop-elect with his dreadlocked hair wears shorts and is usually barefoot or in jandals.

And here he is, in shorts and jandals this chilly morning, literally shaking from the cold as the photographer takes pictures of him outside. But he keeps chatting and doesn't complain, only to say at the end "are you finished, cause I'm freezing".

There was only one tiny bit of ever-so-mild grumbling during this interview, and grumbling is going too far. Actually, interview is probably going too far.

Really, this was a wide-ranging and congenial chat with a 44-year-old who lives and breathes God, where just about every answer to every question can be related to God and where you get the feeling every conceivable discussion about God has already been held, and more than once, around the big kitchen table where this community of roughly 20 permanent residents and its frequent guests gather for meals.

Here the wood fire is kept burning, giving off a warmth matched only by the next Bishop of Wellington.

What was the mild grumbling? Duckworth didn't like the part of a media report which called Ngatiawa, the community he and wife and best friend Jenny founded about 10 years ago, a commune.

It's not a commune, he says. It's a contemporary monastery. He says this without defensiveness, he just wants to get the point straight.

"Our byline would be we're a community of prayer and hospitality so our focus is on giving hospitality to people and having a bit of prayer."

And they're not that secluded, he says. After spending more than two decades fostering teenage girls and living and working with the street community in Wellington, they (he and Jenny) deliberately bought a place which was no more than an hour from Wellington so people could come up and back in a day.

Eleven hundred people came through last year, some of them with traumas and struggles. The new Bishop and Jenny also wanted a place with an environment healthy enough for those, say, struggling with addiction, to be safe and to have a good chance at recovery and life.

While he understands that as the 11th Bishop of Wellington he may in the future need to leave this place, he hopes he never has to change.

In fact, the diocese which elected him is clear they don't want him to change either, telling him: "We want you to help us change but we want you to be who you've always been."

An insider described the vote which elected Duckworth as Bishop as having plentiful grey heads who were "hungry for Justin", not just because of his track record in walking his talk with the marginalised of society, but precisely because he is so un-Bishop like.

Anglicans, it seems, realise the church must change the way it is perceived in order to survive into the future, and Duckworth, who appeals to young and old, is seen as a way of helping achieve this.

It's easy to see why when you meet him. To get to Ngatiawa you head up the Kapiti Coast and turn right at Waikanae. There you depart the main road and head down windy country lanes and past prime lifestyle blocks with animals which practically glow with health and well-being.

Bishop-to-be Duckworth, or Justin, calls a friendly hello and begins with a tour. We walk first to the main building he calls the "big house," past an ancient black and white dog fast asleep on what looks like an equally old red sofa on a deck.

He says he's always a little surprised Socks makes it through each winter. The dog was here when they bought the place. "We joke to people we loved the dog so much we bought the property in order to get the dog."

Ngatiawa was built as a camp in the 1960s by Presbyterians but Christian camps have struggled in recent times and the place was pretty run down.

It was beautiful, however, and the perfect place for the supportive accommodation for young people and families they wanted to set up.

At the doorway to a big hall with comfy couches, a spinning wheel and a big loom a resident bought recently off Trade Me, the Bishop says this was the first room they did up when they arrived.

He, Jenny and their three children came from Cuba St in Wellington, the equivalent of Auckland's K Rd, where they had lived "between the working women corner and the transvestite street".

"The first wedding we had in this room was a couple of streeties got married here, so it was beautiful."

A lot of things are beautiful to the Bishop; it's a word he uses a lot.

"We bought this place," he continues, "so people like the streeties would always have a place where they could come which felt like home for them."

He heads out through another door on to a wooden deck looking down on a river bubbling below with a couple of goats in the paddock next door.

This is the Ngatiawa River which the Presbyterians named the camp after, and we pause to look at the tranquil view.

On the way around the big house to the kitchen, the Bishop says his life has been a busy one, but being in demand by the media is pretty new.

It's interesting, he muses good-naturedly, how interested they seem in his hair and not his involvement over the last 20 years with people who are struggling on the edge of society.

Now that he's raised the dreads, let's get them out the way. The story goes that Jenny likes him in long hair but it gets knotty and is a pain, so he decided to turn to it into dreads. They're just functional, and no, he doesn't plan to cut them off now he's going to be a Bishop.

The diocese, or the district he will look after, stretches from around Ohakune to Wanganui, Palmerston North, across to Pahiatua and down to Wellington.

He is still figuring out the job but will be pastor of the "flock", including the other priests, and will oversee the machine of the church and any crisis situations.

But he says one thing he will have to work out is a way where he still relates face to face regularly with people who are struggling and marginalised, "because that's important to me, that's my anchor, that's where I remember what reality is all about. So I've got to make sure I continue to do that."

There was no thunderbolt for Duckworth. He makes a cup of tea in the kitchen and tells how he once rebelled against church.

He was only five, or thereabouts, and his parents had tried to send he and his brother to Sunday school.

"I said, 'look, you guys don't go to church, why would I want to go to church ... I thought 'there's some strange hypocrisy here, there's no way I'm going'."

Looking back, he thinks his parents, who split up when he was 10, were religious people, they just weren't church-going people.

His mum, art teacher Claire Duckworth, struggled with mental illness but did everything for her boys and later in life was supportive of he and Jenny when they fostered teenage girls.

"But she would do the naughty thing and smuggle them - I'd like to say lollies - but she smuggled them cigarettes." He bursts out laughing.

"She was a bit naughty like that but it was lovely for the girls to have a grandmother who cared."

Claire died of lung cancer when they were still living at Cuba St.

Duckworth reckons he probably believed in God at 12 but it wasn't until he went to a Christian youth group aged 14 that he went "deeper and deeper with God", even if he did go along at first because he was interested in the young woman who invited him. "Isn't that what every 14 year old goes for?"

He loved the environment and later was involved in a junior leadership programme which made him realise he had abilities and could pull a group together.

At youth group he got to explore what it meant to actually follow God. By the age of 17, three things were drummed in, he says, and one was that if you are going to follow Jesus, you actually have to do what he says.

"So you can't just hang out with Jesus and say you're a follower but actually not do anything about it. You have to do something about it."

He was surprised to find when he went to local churches that apparently this was optional, "that you could go to church and not do those things".

He is not judgmental about those people, but says he is sad for them because they are missing out.

Jesus did not say turn the other cheek and give the shirt off your back, because he wanted people to live painful, sorrowful lives of penance, but because it's a great way to live.

Or so the new Bishop believes, wholeheartedly: "If you actually start caring for people you find that life is a lot more meaningful. If you stop being so obsessed about possessions you're actually going to have a better life."

You can't force people to believe, Duckworth says, but as Bishop he would like to help people re-engage with the life he says God has promised them: "If I can help people in church and everyone in society re-engage with a meaningful, passionate life, a life full of service, a life full of beauty and wonder, then I'm up for that."

He has doubts, of course he does, he says, and sometimes even he wonders if God is real or if he, Duckworth, is simply delusional.

Faith doesn't mean you don't doubt, it just means that through the doubt you continue to choose to believe, he explains.

If you don't have faith, how can you have doubt?

- NZ Herald

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