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Hidden Country

John Bluck's autobiography is a page-turner, brutally hard to put down.

Peter Matheson   |  28 Sep 2010

Hidden Country. Having Faith in Aotearoa New Zealand by John Bluck (Pakiri, Bathgate Press, 2010; $34.95 plus p&p. Available from Epworth Books, Box 17255, Wellington 6147).

As one would expect with John Bluck, this book is a page-turner, brutally hard to put down. Its first  part, the longer one, is about the stations of his own life’s pilgrimage, the second looks thematically at the challenge of finding a voice, a place, an identity, a future, a faith for Christian life and belief in New Zealand. In short it asks: what would a spirituality grounded in Aotearoa look like? Important!

He sketches his childhood in little Nuhaka in the 1950s, the place and the people, the exciting but safe adventures in bush and river, the gatherings in his dad’s garage, vintage small-town New Zealand stuff. We walk it with him. Equally vivid is the abrupt shift to the boarding school in Napier, his ‘stalag by the sea’, its emotional coldness and cultural narrowness. This time we shudder with him!

Some fine role models, though, nourished his vocation to priesthood, so off he went to College House in Canterbury, revelling in his motorbike and the dignity and freedom of a student, while doffing his hat, though not much more, to the demands of a traditionalist formation programme.

But then Harvey Cox’s Secular City  had him hooked. Nothing for it, he must get to the States! Despite much opposition he eventually got permission and raised the wind to study at Episcopal Theological School, Boston. Here we begin to see the John Bluck we later came to know emerging.

He was pitched into the ferocious Vietnam controversies, learned first hand about racism and acute poverty, found a mate for life in Elizabeth, became a reporter for Cardinal Cushing’s Boston Pilot, swam in an ever-expanding world. Lapped it up. After a brief curacy in Gisborne, though, it was on to Wellington, as chaplain to the Polytech and tutor in the School of Journalism, getting the wave-length of NZ again.

Crucial was the ensuing Auckland experience – he edited the cutting-edge Methodist paper, New Citizen , and through St Matthew’s in the City became involved in ecumenism, issues around homosexuality and Maori sovereignty. Meanwhile, his young family grew up, loving the occasional excursions (as I was delighted to read) to Matheson’s Bay. Who wouldn’t?

Already we can begin to see the shape his later ministry would take as Dean at Christchurch, with the treasure trove of liturgical innovations, and as Bishop of Waiapu – those remarkable bicultural pilgrimages. But first he was to plunge into the international  scene as Director of Communications of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

He graphically portrays this amazingly exciting scene, hate-mail about the Programme to Combat Racism, meeting Desmond Tutu, travelling behind the Iron Curtain, preparing for the 1983Vancouver Assembly, perhaps the last time the WCC really impinged on the worldwide church.

But one senses a restlessness. He was too far from home. So when the invitation came out of the blue, as so often in his life, to the Pastoral Theology chair in Knox Theological Hall he jumped at it. 

Culturally, this again was a different world for him, a Presbyterian one. He describes the lively mixture of students, half of them Pacific Islanders, some radical, some very conservative. What he doesn’t say is that he turned the curriculum upside down in a quite genial way, with a new focus on field experience, to the delight of candidates and colleagues.

Then came his Christchurch and Waiapu periods, no doubt much better known to Taonga  readers. This is his ministry in full maturity, dynamic, effective, and – of course – much loved. What these chapters remind us, however, is how hard the struggles were. The ferocious opposition to the new Visitors’ Centre at Christchurch, for example.

Not the least of the interests in this book is to see how this quintessentially non-angular man nevertheless kept a determined eye on a few non-negotiable goals. And eventually carried the great majority with him. Fascinating! 
 The fragments of the mosaic are coming together now. The reflective second part of the book does not altogether forsake the narrative mode, any more than analysis had been absent from the first part. At times he takes no prisoners. The frustrations of finding a voice for the Christian faith in a country where the opinion-makers seem tone deaf to religion has seldom if ever been better delineated.

He is often, too, extremely funny. And moving, as when he speaks of  “… seeing the world, lit up, alive and radiant with the presence of the holy.” ‘Finding a Future‘ is about his own retirement, but equally about the future for his beloved church. The story he is telling, we begin to see, is not his but ours. In so many ways he articulates the dilemmas, celebrates the delights, spits out the hunches of all of us. 

The deceptively light touch reminds me of what, in my own Celtic tradition, we call a seannachie , a story-teller, the spinner of a web which catches us all up in its music and its musings. You put it down with a grin, and feel encouraged. A bit humbled, too.

Take his description of that first-ever No Ordinary Sunday  service in ChristChurch Cathedral; midway through it plunged the 220 people there into a silence lasting for five long minutes: “The longer it went, the deeper down you went, like diving into the river at Nuhaka as a child, the hot summer sunlight cooled and filtered through the grass-green water.” 

In our end, one might say, is our beginning. 

Peter Matheson is a former professor at Knox.

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