Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Tribute to my Dad: Peter Atkins

Sue Atkins (Taylor) remembers her father Bishop Peter Atkins' life and ministry in a eulogy shared at his funeral in May 2022.

Sue Atkins (Taylor)  |  31 Aug 2022

I feel very privileged to pay tribute to my Dad, Peter Atkins. I’m very proud of Dad and very grateful to him for the way that he inspired me and shared his wisdom with us. He was a great role model, teaching me so many life lessons and ways to lead and support people, often without me being conscious of the lessons I was being taught.

When I look back on Dad’s life, it was a wonderful blend of rich faith, family, high quality standards, being there for people, inspiring people, being an agent of change and contributing to the wider community.

Family bonds are strong, even though miles often separated family members. Dad was one of four – two brothers and a sister. By adulthood, one brother was in Canada, (greetings Uncle Brian) one in Sydney and his sister in Wellington, yet they kept in close contact. The top of Dad’s bishop ring is on the back of the service sheet. It was very special to Dad that Brian designed the crest. Special times with cousins in both the UK and Ireland, nephews and niece were also important.

Dad was born in Bantry, West Cork, in Ireland, in his maternal grandmother’s home. This home would continue to be a place that he’d return to often, spending war years there, as well as holidays. Although spending much of his childhood in England, Dad always had a special connection with Ireland. As a boy, he even travelled alone on the cattle transporters over the rough Irish sea. Cows would be groaning beneath him, and he’d have to lie in his bed feeling sick under the watchful eye of a governess. No wonder he hated boats.

The son of an army colonel, the family moved often in his younger years. At six months, he moved to Gibraltar, with the Spanish Civil War next door. By age three, he returned to England on a military boat filled with army families. There were several German attempts to bomb the boat to damage British morale. By the time they arrived in Liverpool, Dad recalls the docks were on fire. The family quickly went to the safety of Ireland, a neutral country, so it meant no contact with their father who continued in the war effort. When recently asked about these experiences, Dad commented how the world had lost unity and this gave rise to these events that significantly impacted everyday people. So many parallels to what is happening in our world today. 

Dad’s strong childhood family bonds laid a great foundation for his strong partnership of marriage with Mum, Rosemary. It began with Mum eyeing the new curate of St Mary’s Karori across the room– but Dad had his eyes set on teaching at the Theological College in Siota in the Solomon Islands. They exchanged Christmas gifts – and of course, it would be rude to not send a thank you letter. From there, they started writing letters which continued until Dad was soon to leave the Solomons. Mum visited him to see his life there. Dad proposed under a frangipani tree – so romantic! 

Married life was founded on faith, family and fulfilling their ministry in every place they lived. Hospitality was always key – can I please have a show of hands of all of you who have been invited to share a meal, a celebration, or a cup of tea at Mum and Dad’s over the years? A testimony to their hospitality. 

Growing up, immediate family was small – Mum, Dad and me – but our lives were rich. Dad often finding ways of involving us as a family in his work and travel. Dad supporting me by being involved in my activities. We also enjoyed some great times overseas – be it to the UK when Dad was working there, or to Fiji when Mum and Dad led a retreat for clergy, or later trips to France and Italy with my husband and girls. 

Dad was very proud of being a Poppa – he loved spending time with the girls. Be it Mainly Music when they were little, taking them to swimming lessons or going to Grandparents day at school. Mum and Dad always seemed to adopt grandchildren for the day when their own couldn’t come. Dad enjoyed spending time with the girls as they grew, talking about what was important to them.

As well as being from a military family, Dad spent time in the military himself. He completed his compulsory service with the Irish Guards. He was even part of the Queen’s Coronation procession down the Mall. Later, he joined his father’s regiment, the Kings spending time in Germany. The King’s Regimental Hat Badge is included on the service sheet, in recognition of this strong family linkage with the regiment. This time in the military shaped a number of Peter’s habits: his beautifully polished shoes, his attention to detail, his organisational skills, which helped him be both a very efficient Diocesan Registrar and a highly organised bishop. And even, his ability to sleep just for one hour. Exactly, one hour later, he’d wake refreshed – a very useful skill when supporting families with sick relatives in hospital.

Dad had a real passion for education – and quality education at that. This began with his mother’s dedication taking the family from the bottom of the South of Ireland to Enniskillen in the North so his older siblings could receive the best of education. He later received a bursary to attend Merchant Taylor Crosby – still consistently one of the top dozen schools in Britain. From there, he knew he needed a scholarship to attend university. If you’re going to get a scholarship, why not to University of Cambridge. I asked him recently about it, and he said it was grim determination and work effort that made it possible. A trait I saw come through many times in his life. 

His love of education and teaching has continued to shape his life. From time teaching at the Theological college in Siota in the Solomon Islands, to training new priests for ministry, to being Dean of St John’s Theological college. There Peter worked with the University of Auckland and the other theological colleges to find common ground and extend the course options available. During this time, Peter was also on an advisory board for the NZ Qualifications Authority. Dad talked about shaping NCEA, as well as tertiary standard frameworks.

After retirement, Peter continued to be an academic supervisor. He enjoyed the mental stimulation of the discussion as well as the opportunity to share some of his perspectives.

Being there for people was a key part of Peter’s ministry. Peter always remembered that he was first ordained deacon – from the Greek word – helper. On the back of the service sheet is the Paton and chalice from his travelling set that he used to take communion to so many people over the years. Caring for people was key to Peter – people who were sick, had lost a loved one, had recently moved into the area, or just needed a helping hand – Peter made it a priority to create time for people. He was a very practical and knowing pastor. Often going the fourth mile for people , often unseen by others .

Peter was also there as a mentor, a coach. He had a quiet way of making suggestions or framing questions in a way that made you explore what might be possible.

Being an agent of change was a key part to Peter’s ministry.

  • He was proud of the churches that he helped to plant or extend – the Tamatea Community Church in Napier being one of those.
  • He was part of the prayer book commission to write the Prayer Book we’re using today.
  • He played a part in strengthening the role of women and Maori in ministry. Thank you Bishop Kito, Kerry, Katene and the team from St John’s for making the Mihi Whakatau so special today.  The pounamu taonga on the back of the service sheet was treasured by Dad. It was given to him when he left Waiapu.
  • He helped strengthen the Church finances – be it raising money by running community events to replace the church roof in Waipukarau – there was an extra tune in the church the night Dad was inducted from the noise of water dripping into buckets as the rain came down! To the Diocese of Waiapu Registrar. To the work on the Pension Board. To managing Church Trusts. I recently found the research paper he wrote from his study in the UK – it’s entitled “Ethical investment in times of high inflation.” Want to take a read as it feels very relevant to now.
  • The 1970s-80s were a time of high change in the church structure and Peter contributed to this. He was a robust synod presenter and debater. Always playing the ball and not the person. 
  • Peter often took a national and world wide view, giving global context for local missions but also contributing internationally, particularly in his work to plan the Lambeth Bishop’s Conference of 1988.

Peter was a well prepared and thoughtful liturgist , as well as being a liturgical writer. There were the well planned Sunday services so worship was positive and caring; intercessions were topical, pertinent and helpful and if he was preaching, Peter would be up and down the aisle, asking people to contribute. A bit of wit, a lot of message, and not too long!

Creating events that would be memorable for people was also a key part of his ministry:

  • I remember the ecumenical services for Christmas in Havelock North – the well-behaved donkey, the sheep, the community gathered all over the lawns of St Luke’s to give the people a Christian experience of Christmas. Dad’s bishop’s staff also on the service sheet and is next to Dad now, was carved from a branch of the Oak Tree at St Luke’s which came down in a storm. An on-going connection to this special Parish.
  • He organised a dawn service for 1990 – as the sun came up in Tairawhiti, there was a crowd gathered for a service, which was filmed by TVNZ for broadcast.
  • Dad wanted lots of people involved in his consecration as Bishop. There was a mass choir organised with each of the church choirs from across the Diocese. This also captured his love of classical music – some of which is being played today.

It was also important to Dad that he always was involved in the community. Be it as a member of Rotary fundraising for different causes. Or working with Dr John Loughlin to establish the Hawkes Bay Trust for the Elderly. Or being a founding member of the HIV Aids Council.

I haven’t mentioned Leader yet but it’s certainly intertwined in much of Peter’s life. To many, he epitomised servant leadership – long before this was a commonly used term in leadership handbooks.

After retirement, Dad took up writing. He wrote a number of theological texts to share his perspective. However, it was the children’s prayer books that he wrote with Mum that he was most proud of. Tens of thousands of copies of Kid’s Prayers, and Cool Prayers were distributed in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain.

Dad was proud that some of the profits from the books are being used to help Warner Wilder in his work to build the new church for the new community in Flat Bush.

Thank you all for participating and coming today to make this a very special service in honour of Dad.

I leave the last words to Dad, In the last few days before Dad died, he said to me:

“Everything that needed to be done, was done. This life is coming to an end. Very good 86 years. Thanks very much.”

Dad, it’s been such a privilege being your daughter and I will miss you terribly. Loves ya – always.

I know you are now at Peace, because you love and serve the Lord.