New Dean’s fall into grace

Digby Wilkinson, newly appointed Dean of Wellington Cathedral

Wellington’s Anglican Cathedral has a new dean. He is the Rev Digby Wilkinson, 49.

His appointment was announced to the cathedral community this morning, and the team charged with finding the new dean are celebrating Digby’s acceptance of the job.

They’re also freely acknowledging that he’s an unusual choice.

For a start, he’s just completed six years leading Palmerston North’s Central Baptist Church.

And although he is an Anglican priest – he was ordained in 2006 – he’s spent the larger part of his 20 years in ministry in Baptist churches.

Then there’s the fact that, 10 years ago, when he was serving as a Baptist pastor in Tauranga, he fell from grace.

He was sentenced to a community service term on a charge of theft, two of insurance fraud, and one of burglary. The surface problem was his addiction to buying mountain bikes, which led to spiralling debt – and arrest and conviction.

That chain of events, he has written, left him “jobless, characterless, close to friendless, alienated, disenfranchised and without hope.”

Paradoxically, he says, it also led him to experience “the full force of real grace”.

“In a strange way,” he has written, “I needed to experience grace and disgrace together. What I learned is we never fall from  grace, we can only fall into  it – with God, at least.”

After his conviction, he spent two years in Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Tauranga: unable to face people, he’d help mind the crèche where his baby daughter was being cared for, and then slip into church for the Eucharist, which fed him when all else had failed.

At the end of those two years he was asked by the vestry to become a “preaching associate” – and a short time later, Bishop John Bluck asked him to offer himself for ordination.

By this time, too, he was also being sought by Palmerston North’s Central Baptist Church – and with the growing sense that it was important to “finish well” with the Baptist Church, he heeded that call.

Frontrunner

Janet Brown, who is the Dean’s Warden, and who has worshipped at the cathedral for 25 years, says Digby stood out as the obvious choice among the candidates.

“All of us on the nominating team,” she says, “were of one mind about that.”

Digby began his working life as a fitter and turner, had reeled in his MA Hons in Social Science along the way to his successful leadership of the Palmerston North church – and Janet says the nominators saw a “wonderful mix of strategic depth and the pragmatic” in him.

“We also saw the breadth and depth of his intellect, his grasp, his reading, his thinking. We loved his work growing worshipping communities, particularly young adults and families, and we loved the way he does that work with his wife Jane.”

Janet acknowledges that in the light of Digby’s past, some may raise their eyebrows.

“Because of my professional background – I come from a discipline that requires you to manage risk – I’ve thought carefully about those things. We, the nominators, are confident in our choice.

“And if we cannot see and hear and understand the power of redemption in a story like his, then in my view, we should shut up shop.”

“It’s been a long journey for Digby. And it’s been done in the most extraordinary state of humility and faith – having overreached himself, and made major errors, he has grown enormously, not just into grace, but into his abilities.

“And he would not have grown into that grace, nor developed those abilities, had he not had the crisis and been broken in that way.”

The Bishop of Wellington, Justin Duckworth, is also convinced that Digby has the goods:

“He caught us out of left field, really.

“I’m confident that Digby will honour the solid foundations of the cathedral’s past and present, and he will build on them. He is the person to lead the exploration of what being a cathedral in the capital city means in the 21st century.”

And the man himself? He says the idea of becoming the Dean blindsided him, too:

Exactly one year ago this Saturday, he was in the throng in Wellington cathedral at Justin Duckworth’s ordination. He couldn’t see what was going on up the front. So his mind wandered – and out of nowhere, a question formed in his head:

“What would it be like,” he wondered, “to be the Dean of a cathedral?”

It was a question, he says, that wouldn’t go away. And he didn’t even know, then, that his predecessor, Frank Nelson, had resigned.

The great task facing the church

So what is Digby Wilkinson’s vision for being Dean?

“I’ve always been of the mind that before making grand plans, you need to know all those things that God has placed in your hands. You need to know the people, the issues, the context and the culture. Understanding those will be my first, prayerful task.

“Cathedrals are complex communities: on one hand they provide a ‘sacred space’ for the city, and on the other, they are a distinct worshipping community.

Aligning “the public face and inner life of the Cathedral,” is a key, he thinks.

He says he also sees the need to “continue and enhance” the Cathedral’s worship and education – to see that the mix of the cathedral congregation reflects the city at large. Reaching out to children, youth, young adults and families, he says, “will run alongside current ministry and not replace it – though, over time, it may inform it.”

“The great task of the Anglican Church in New Zealand is to take the very best of Anglican liturgical tradition,” he says, “and to make it accessible to a new generation.”

Digby and Jane Wilkinson have three children: Mitchell, who is 20, Elliot, 17 and Lucy, 11. Digby will continue his ministry at Palmerston North Central Baptist until Christmas Day, and he will be installed as Dean of the Cathedral of St Peter in January.