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

A man for all seasons

In its spring 2006 issue, Taongamagazine ran a profile on the newly-elected Archbishop David Moxon. He spoke then of the revelation that drove him to drop the convinced agnosticism of his student days.

Lloyd Ashton  |  31 Dec 2013

In the eleventh century, Danish invaders under King Canute were battering the Anglo-Saxon communities in the north-east of England. 
In the face of repeated strikes, the English army, under Ethelred the Unready, collapsed. These were dark, fearful times, and it was every village and borough for itself.
But one such borough, on the north bank of the River Don in South Yorkshire, was able to repel the invaders – by rallying behind a leader called Moec. 
Moec’s deeds won him the lasting gratitude of local folk, and Mexborough is now a town with a population of 15,000, whose latter-day sons include the actor Brian Blessed, and the late poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Moec, ancient defender of Mexborough, had other sons, too. Geneaological research shows that he is the tupuna of all whose surname honours his memory. ‘Moec’s son’ became, in the fullness of time, Moxon. In other words, Archbishop David Moxon, the man Tikanga Pakeha has chosen to defend the ancient faith, is Moec’s direct descendant.

Lloyd Ashton has been talking to him.

David John Moxon was born in September 1951 in Palmerston North, the eldest of two boys and two girls, to John and Joan Moxon.

John was an accountant and Joan (nee Lancaster) was a nursing sister. John’s parents had migrated from England, while Joan’s birth family had arrived in New Zealand five generations earlier.

Both families have superb Anglican credentials. The Moxons can trace their Anglican connections for centuries; while on David’s mother’s side, the record’s not too shabby either.

His great, great, great grandfather James Preece came out to New Zealand in 1831 with Samuel Marsden on one of his voyages. James and his wife Mary were sent out by the London Missionary Society; they were the first missionaries in the Urewera, later continuing their church-planting at Puriri, south of Thames.

David himself was baptized at All Saints, Palmerston North, he was confirmed there, and he belonged to the All Saints’ youth group, choir (together with his father and grandfather) and to the All Saints scout troop.

He was a comfortable achiever at school – first at Hokowhitu Primary, then from 1964-69 at Freyberg High, where he rounded off his time as Head Prefect.

He reeled in the Duke of Edinburgh Gold award in 1969, and he spent the following year in Fiji, on Volunteer Service Abroad, introducing the Duke’s scheme to high schools in the western districts of Viti Levu.

When he could, he’d also make his way to St Peter’s, Lautoka, where, at the age of 18, he became the choirmaster. At last year’s episcopal ordinations in Suva, he pointed out that he shared history with each of the Polynesian bishops: Bishop Jabez himself, Gabriel Sharma (the present vicar at St Peter’s), Api Qiliho and Winston Halapua had all spent significant periods there.

The VSA experience also had other lasting consequences, and we’ll trace those threads in due course.

In 1971 David enrolled at Massey University, and the next year he headed to Canterbury to complete his bachelor’s degree. He returned to Massey in 1974 to do his master’s in educational psychology and sociology.

Given his intensely Anglican formation (“I had grown up with a strong sense of the church, and God in Christ”) and the role he now plays, his future might have seemed obvious. He was headed, surely, for a life in the church.

There was, however, one small obstacle to such a steady progression. At university he lost his faith.

“Studying the sociology of knowledge,” he says, “makes you deconstruct knowledge systems. I got into that, and I gradually found I could no longer adhere to what I had been brought up with.

 “I came to believe everything is relative. There are no basic truths – it’s all constructed. I became agnostic. Quite a strong agnostic.”

An unexpected encounter
In 1974, when he returned to Massey to tackle his master’s degree, he’d long since quit going to church. But a mutual friend introduced him to a young English curate serving at All Saints in Palmerston North.

Church or no church, over a period of about a year David and Roger Burt struck up a friendship. The student became more and more intrigued by what he saw in the young curate.

“I thought I knew the Gospel,” says David, “but he had a new way of presenting and imaging it.”

Part of the appeal, says David, was that Roger “showed me, rather than told me” the Gospel. Roger also gave him his first taste of Franciscan spirituality.

“The God he showed me,” the Archbishop recalls, “is not ‘up there.’ God is the ultimate dimension. If you have eyes to see, you will see God’s grace everywhere.

“I really, really enjoy that way of being Christian. Roger showed me that, and it’s stayed with me ever since.”

“And he also, like the Friars, put the whole of his life on the line. He lived and breathed the Gospel, and he was joyful and generous about it.”

Presumably, too, the young curate could parry every thrust of the young academic’s intellectual rapier?

Actually, no. He’d come out to New Zealand as an agricultural cadet, to work on a pig farm before he tested the call to ministry here.

But he wasn’t, apparently, the least bit worried about engaging with the young intellectual.

“He didn’t get into my academic objections at all,” says David. “It was like playing tennis into the bushes…

“I couldn’t dismiss him, though, because he lived the thing so happily and holistically. He was totally unthreatened. He was a paradox to me.”

Roger Burt didn’t persuade David Moxon back to the faith. But as the Archbishop now looks back, he believes Roger played a significant role in preparing the way for his homecoming.

Even the most dramatic conversions, he says, show someone, at some level, has been preparing the soil.

And just as it was for Paul as he set out on the Damascus road, so it was for the young Palmerston North graduate.

He was about to have an encounter with God that was potent, vivid and life changing.

In late spring of 1974, at the beginning of the long university summer holiday, David was working at Borthwick’s Freezing Works, near Feilding. He was bottom of the pecking order: a blood sweeper, and brisket puncher.

This particular day he’d returned to his parents’ home after work, showered, and gone out to water their garden. It was a spring evening, near sunset, with the scent of jasmine heavy in the air.

“I could see my parents inside the kitchen. They’d just switched the light on. I turned away – and suddenly I had this overwhelming sense of the presence of God. In me, and around me, and in the Creation.

“It was unexpected, totally uninvited … and truly unmistakable. My whole being felt it. It was an extraordinary feeling.

“It wasn’t in a church service, or because of a church service. It was, nevertheless, an overwhelming sense of God in the world, and God in people.

“I think I stood there for about 20 minutes. I suppose I could have seen it as a rush of blood, or a bit of romantic imagery of some sort.

“But the feeling didn’t go away. When I went back inside, I still felt it. I felt it for days. Then I thought it would never happen again because it was perhaps one of those odd things your nervous system does to you.

“But the lovely thing, which I’m still so grateful for, is that it happens a lot. Even now. Again, unexpectedly.

“I’ve since read books about this sort of thing. It’s actually quite common. I would say now that it’s because we’re made in the image of God, and we can never entirely escape that. We do live and move in the being of God, and sometimes this reality is revealed to us.

“From time to time, that just comes through, naturally. Wordsworth used to talk about it. St Francis did. So did Julian of Norwich, Hildegaard of Bingen and many others.

“It’s a sense of Creation charged with the glory of God. Creation can be mess, and it can be violent and cruel – but nevertheless the Creator Spirit is active, in and through it all.”

The experience in the garden stood young David Moxon’s world on its ear.  “I immediately found,” he says, “that God was more important than anything else.”

Blessed are the pure in heart…
If David Moxon’s love for God was born in that Palmerston North garden, his renewed love for the church was born in Russia.

In 1974, not long after his garden epiphany, he was invited to join a World Council of Churches’ student trip to Soviet Russia. These were the Breshnev years; no doubt the Marxist state saw the students’ visit as a public relations opportunity.

The church in Soviet Russia was largely underground, and faced relentless harassment from a police state.

“We were told,” he says, “that there were classes in atheism in every Russian school. There is no God, the students were taught. There is no heaven. There is no transcendent being. No numinous. It’s all material and molecular.

“They used to get a cosmonaut to go round these classes: ‘I’ve been up there,’ he’d say, ‘and there’s nothing. It’s empty. It’s black. No God.’

“And when we were there, we were told of the daughter of a priest who had stood up in the question time and said: ‘Excuse me, comrade, but are you pure in heart?’

“In Matthew’s gospel, in the Beatitudes it says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’”

The young Kiwi student was humbled and inspired by the endurance of the Orthodox Christians, and by their steadfast witness to their faith.

“I came away with a sense of what the church could be – a witness for justice, a witness for hope in impossible situations.”

His affection for the Orthodox Church remains: a couple of icons adorn the interior of St Peter’s Cathedral in Hamilton, and Bishop Moxon is a member of the Society of St Alban and St Sergius, a small group committed to “hospitality to the Orthodox, and to the journey both ways.”

A sapling grown from an old trunk
His epiphany in his parent’s garden, and the trip to Russia meant that earlier thoughts he’d entertained about a career in diplomacy, or in academia, flew out the window.

Instead, he offered himself to the Anglican Church.  That decision, to stick with the faith of his forebears, wasn’t hard for him.

“By reason of whakapapa and spirituality,” he says, “the Anglican expression of Christianity is me. I had rediscovered God in a new way – but also in the terms of the church I had been brought up in. I was like a young sapling growing out of an old trunk. I wasn’t growing from another trunk, or in another part of the forest. It was the trunk I knew.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, he remains grateful for his agnostic period, when he rejected the faith he’d grown up with. “Because after that, I could choose it for myself; choose it out of a lot of other options. That is important to me.”

In 1976 his bishop, Paul Reeves, sensing his promise, sent him to Oxford University, where he nailed another BA, then a second MA, this time in theology.

He returned to New Zealand in 1978, was deaconed and then priested the following year.

He served as assistant curate in Havelock North from 1978=81, and in October 1980, at Waipapa-a-iwi Marae in Mohaka, in Hawke’s Bay, he married Tureiti Hawkins (Ngati Kahungunu) whom he’d met while he was curate and she was a youth worker for the YMCA in Napier.

In a way, the good soil of that relationship had been prepared during his year in Fiji.

“Growing up in Palmerston North, I’d not had much contact with Maori and Polynesian people. The VSA experience reoriented me – after VSA, Polynesian and Maori friendships became very significant for me.”

With Tureiti, of course, his explorations of Te Ao Maori took on another dimension. In 1990 the couple took this further still: they both completed diplomas in te reo at Waikato University, and in the course of his ministry he is now frequently called to speak on the marae.

His experience and comfort with the Maori and Polynesian dimensions of New Zealand life also means that when the Anglican Church here adopted its new constitution, it was, in a sense, adopting a way of being that he’d embraced for his adult life.

“The three-Tikanga church,” he says, “is a delight for me. It’s exactly what my experience teaches me that God delights in. I think it’s amazing.”

We’ll hit the fast forward button now. The young Rev Moxon served as Vicar of Gate Pa, in Tauranga, from 1981-86; on the commission that produced the New Zealand Prayer Book from 1981-90; and he was appointed Director of Theological Education by Extension for the Province in 1987.

This was a Hamilton-based post he filled until October 1993, when at the age of 41, in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Hamilton, he was consecrated as the sixth Anglican Bishop of Waikato and Taranaki.

And in May 2006, at the church’s 53rd General Synod, he was selected as the senior bishop of Tikanga Pakeha; and therefore, as one of its three co-presiding bishops. 

His lifelong love of the Franciscan way

Bishop Moxon is the bishop for Anglican religious in this province. In particular, he has a love for the way of St Francis, and he encouraged the Brothers of the Anglican Society of St Francis to establish their Friary in Hamilton.

So what, exactly, is it about Franciscan spirituality that appeals to him?

“St Francis,” he says, “has a way of expressing the gospel which is at once transformational, radical and incarnational – yet all in a very simple way.

“The Brothers do stand up for that, and they do try to live that. I think that is very important, very relevant, and it has been very influential for me.

“Firstly, I think St Francis saw that the Trinity is a love field. So that God the Creator has left an imprint in what has been made. Even though it’s fallen and been marred, the Glory of God can be seen in what God has made.

“Secondly, Francis tried to live life like Christ, the second person of the Trinity, and be at one with the Father, the Creator.

“Thirdly, he would follow every creative impulse of the Holy Spirit, no matter what it meant, or where it led.

“The Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Creating, Redeeming and Sanctifying – is a love field, and St Francis and St Clare lived in that field.”

And the people who choose to walk in the way of Christ somehow seek to embody that?

“Exactly. We stand ‘in Christ’. We can’t fully encompass God the Creator, we can’t control the sovereign power of God the Holy Spirit – but we can seek to follow in the footsteps of God in Christ, to some extent, to serve the reign of justice and righteousness Christ came to bring.

“Christ is our way of being in the love field of the Trinity. Christ is our place in the Trinity. Being ‘in Christ’, as St Paul says, is being in that love field of the Three in One.”

But surely some would argue that a person cannot be ‘in Christ’ without repentance, and a conversion crisis?

“If you regard the Trinity as a love field,” David Moxon says, “you can enter that field, or be enveloped by that field, in a thousand ways. And there are many ways of repentance and conversion. Some people come through the glory of God’s creation. Farmers and gardeners often do.

“Others come through the powerful expression of Christ in a sermon. Or they feel strangely warmed by the Spirit in the Pentecostal way. Others gently evolve into faith through their life. Others have a dramatic, Damascus road experience.

“God is a field of love, God is personal, not a philosophy or an ideology. God is a living reality.”

OK... but what does Archbishop Moxon mean by ‘love field’?

 “I mean a field of divine energy, creative, holy energy – God is a sacred presence, a personal being, a happening. I think it was Augustine who said: God is a circle, whose circumference is nowhere, whose centre is everywhere.”

Arriving at a crossroads

Anyone who knows Bishop Moxon will also be familiar with his use of the word: irenic (“…aiming or aimed at peace. Gk: eirenikos” Oxford)

So what does that mean, in an Anglican context?

“Irenic, I think, is the Anglican principle of discourse.

“To me it means scholarly, prayerful discussion and dialogue where respect and big-picture thinking are present and where the most difficult debates can occur, relatively calmly.

“On a good day, that’s a principle of Anglican dialogue and debate. On a good day. As soon as you lose that principle in discussion and dialogue, you can expect trouble.

“Because people react out of their bird-brains, instead of their cerebral cortex. We all do. I do. If somebody verbally abused me in a debate, I would feel quite chemical about it. I would loose the quality of the debate.”

Archbishop Eames is a classic example of gracious, happy irenicism. Rowan Williams is another. Archbishop William Temple was an icon of irenicism. Mother Mary Clare SLG and some of the women in charge of Anglican religious orders are like that. I lived with some nuns in Oxford who were like that.

“I think Anglicanism does have an ethos, and a really clear identity, and irenicism is one of the key hallmarks of that.

If that’s the case, then how can it be regained in fractious circumstances?

“I think (as a Communion) we’re at a real crossroad about that. We will either get chemical. or get irenic. It’s a choice.

“The thing that the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to hold up, which I totally believe in, is that in any discussion about the Bible, and in any discussion about Christian lifestyle, the first principle is: Christ in the room.

“The living Christ in the middle of the room. You meet, and you recognize, the living Christ in the middle of everything. The centre.

“And you might spend a lot of time just enjoying that. Maybe in Bible study, worship, contemplation, prayer, eucharist – and then you have your discussion, in the light of Christ in the room.

“Rowan’s putting much of his vocation, as the focus for Anglican unity, on that principle.”

So what keeps Archbishop Moxon going when he’s confronted with trouble and dissension in the church?

“I think, in the end, we are called to believe in God, and not in the institution. We use the institution as scaffolding, and it’s necessary, and it’s got to be safe, strong, well-constructed, and we spend a lot of time doing that.

“But in the end, the scaffolding is not the point.

 “The point is a spiritual building, or a Living Temple, as Jesus said, of Living Stones.

“That’s why we’re here. And if we get hurt by the scaffolding, a bit hits us on the head, or we fall off it, that’s very unpleasant, but it’s not a disaster.

“The real point is the spiritual building, the temple of living stones that God is building.

“Having said that, we all occasionally get stressed and hurt by the institution. Everybody does. That’s inevitable, with scaffolding. But scaffolding isn’t the final reality.

“The Body of Christ is much bigger and deeper than the institution. I try to remember that.

“But I would say, though, that it’s taken me a long time to take a more measured and prayerful view of the stressors in the church. It’s taken me a long time to handle that a little better than I used to.”

“Major passions of mine”

Glance at the Diocese of Waikato website and you learn that Bishop Moxon has been “heavily involved in liturgical education and development.”

He’s taken a lead in the development in Local Shared Ministry, and he presently co-chairs this country’s Anglican /Roman Catholic Commission. He also represents New Zealand on the Australasian Committee of St George’s College, Jerusalem, and the Australasian Advisory Council on the Religious Life.

As well as being the liaison bishop for Anglican religious in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, he also represents the bishops on the Tikanga Pakeha Anglican Care Network.

“All of these things,” he reports, “reflect major passions of mine. None of them is a duty: they all are a joy.

“In fact, there are two things that the church needs to do most urgently: warm up the liturgy in creative ways, so that it offers people a multi-dimensional experience of the Spirit of God; and secondly, we need to become much more engaged with our communities in service and prophetic action.”

His tupuna’s treasure

The more I learn about Archbishop David Moxon, the more I sense that experiences from his past – even from generations past – have not been random, chance phenomena. Nothing of value has been discarded.

His boyhood Anglican formation, his early experience of multicultural things; his introduction to Franciscan spirituality, his studies in psychology, even his loss of faith during his student years – all have contributed to the making of the man we see now.

He agrees: “One of the lovely things I’ve found as I get older is to discover my taproots. For example: I’m developing a deeper and deeper love for my mother’s great, great grandparents, James and Mary Preece, the Urewera missionaries.

“I’m amazed by them and treasure their example. They had terrible lives. They’d lost children, they had been very ill, misunderstood, and suffered terrible loneliness … they had planted three missions, and each did well in their own way, in spite of difficulties.

“Bishop Selwyn refused to ordain James Preece because he couldn’t read New Testament Greek. Somebody said I was his revenge…

“And at the end of his life, just before he died, James Preece wrote in his journal: ‘I would do it all again, for the privilege of sharing the immeasurable riches of Christ.’

“That sums up my psychology of being Christian. We are earthen vessels, which hold this amazing treasure. We might be cracked pots, or half-baked pots … but we hold this amazing treasure. That’s how I can live with myself, and how I hope I see other people.”