Prophet in dreads

Bishop-elect Justin DuckworthAs a result of The Reverend Justin Duckworth being elected 11th Bishop of Wellington the Media Officer for the Anglican Church, Lloyd Ashton, has précised the article on Urban Vision and The Reverend Justin Duckworth, that he wrote for the Advent 2011 edition of Anglican Taonga.

The restoration of the church will surely come from a new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe it is now time to call people together to do this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(Extract from a January 1935 letter to his brother, Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer.)

About 20 years ago, a few fired-up young Wellingtonians chose to get downwardly mobile. They moved from the suburbs into the meanest streets of the inner city. Justin and Jenny Duckworth, for instance, made the move in three stages, moving deeper into Wellington’s netherworld each time. They linked up with other young Christian activists, and together they pledged themselves to three goals: to deepen their intimacy with Jesus Christ; to journey together – and to give their best for the least. And they formed Urban Vision.

Fifteen years later, there are now some 60-odd ‘Urban Visionaries’ running homes in seven of Wellington’s toughest neighbourhoods. On any given day you’ll find them teaching English to refugees, fostering troubled kids, offering education to teenagers who’ve been spat out of the school system, doing church with the homeless, offering friendship to the mentally ill, roasting fair trade coffee, growing veges on inner city plots, running kids’ clubs, mums’ groups, tenant meetings or just sharing yet another cuppa with their neighbours.

Urban Vision’s core passions have never dimmed. But the movement has evolved from being a loose-knit bunch of young Christian radicals into a new monastic order – complete with a three-year formation and vows. Those radicals have changed in other ways, too. In the early days, they’d all quit the mainstream church – because, in the minds of most, it was fatally compromised. Nowadays, two of Urban Vision’s founding fathers (1 Martin Robinson and Justin) are Anglican priests, others in the movement are on the ordination track – and Urban Vision is now linked by covenant with the Diocese of Wellington.

What’s going on? – Lloyd Ashton, the Media Officer for the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, has been finding out.

Justin Duckworth didn’t have an easy start. He grew up in a Stokes Valley family where church wasn’t on the menu. By the time he was 10, his parents had split up, and his mum struggled with mental illness. She was an art teacher who managed, somehow, to stay teaching and support Justin and his brother, even though she was on medication. Justin went to Taita College (where Jo Kelly-Moore, the Dean of Auckland, was a classmate) and by the time he was 14, Justin was in a Youth For Christ ‘Campus Life’ club. That’s where Justin met Jenny Boland – and at YFC they learned three truths that have underpinned all they’ve done since.

“In the first place,” says Justin, “Wellington Youth For Christ (YFC) taught us that, if you claim you’re following Jesus, in the end, you’ve actually got to do what he says. “The second thing we learned was that we’ve got to do our lives meaningfully together. Community is important. “And the third was that Jesus has a special place for those who struggle.” By the time he was 18, Justin reckons those truths were ingrained in him.

But when he got involved in a local church – as distinct from YFC – he discovered that those truths appeared to be optional – “I couldn’t understand,” he says, “how we could have a deliberate-avoidance church.”

Saveloy soup

Justin moved into Wellington when he left school. He reeled in his BSc from Victoria, but his priority was running a YFC programme in the central city. Jenny was involved with that too, and within a couple of years, Justin and Jenny had married and were running Te Whare Atawhai, a home for teenage girls in Newtown. They fostered more than 40 of these girls – whose deprivation would sometimes show up in strange ways. There was a spell for instance, where every time they’d sit down to a meal, one young woman would hog all the food. It turns out, says Justin, that she’d grown up on saveloy soup. She got the saveloy one meal – and the juice the next.

As far as Justin is concerned, the years at Te Whare Atawhai were pure privilege. “Those girls would get trashed at school,” he says. “They’d come home feeling stink about themselves. So you’re always praying, reflecting, trying to tap into the right word at the right time to unlock them – to give them life, you know? “Christians would die for the conversations we used to have there. “The lessons Justin and Jenny learned at Te Whare Atawhai have shaped Urban Vision. They became convinced then, for example, of the need for ministry to be anchored in households.

Gutter to glory

After five years at Te Whare Atawhai, Justin and a friend wanted to move into the toughest parts of the city around Upper Cuba St. Jenny, on the other hand, was digging in her heels. There was no way that she was taking her two beautiful little children in there. Stalemate.

About that time, Jenny remarked to a gathering of young Auckland Baptists that the church had a habit of exalting “gutter-to-glory” testimonies. That same night she woke, shaking – because in a dream, these words had pierced her soul: ‘You talk about the gutter to the glory. ‘I’m going to take you from the glory to the gutter. ‘But I will meet you there.’

When Jenny was coming to Auckland, she’d been invited to visit a Christian community in K Rd. Because of her turmoil about Cuba St, she’d avoided that. But the morning after her dream, she went. “As soon as I got there,” she says, “I had this overwhelming sense of feeling at home.”

On the streets

Back in Wellington, the Duckworths surveyed Upper Cuba St and found a cramped office above a drop-in centre run by the Wellington Central Baptist Church. Into that space they shoe-horned themselves, their two kids, two teenage foster girls, and a couple of workers. For good measure, Justin and Jenny’s third child came along while they were there. “We were next door to a fish factory,” says Justin, “so all day long there was this refrigeration noise, and the place stank of fish. “On the top corner of our block were the prostitutes, and next block down were the transvestites.” “For the first few months,” recalls Justin, “we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. “But it was brilliant,” recalls Justin. “On the smell of an oily rag we were in there, having a go.” By this time, they knew that the focus of their ministry was changing. It was no longer just about young people. It was about sharing their lives with strugglers, whatever their age. So they quietly resigned from Youth for Christ, and with likeminded friends, officially formed Urban Vision.

Power of lament

By this time, the UV team were running four houses in the inner city, and Justin and Jenny needed more space. On the other side of the fish factory they found a mattress factory – which, because they wanted their kids to feel like they were growing up in a fairytale, they called ‘The Castle’. Some fairytale. Some castle. The place had been a drug dive. The sinks were blocked with vomit, and they had to cart out mountains of rubbish before they could move in. But compared to where they’d been, The Castle felt like the promised land. When they moved in there, the Baptists closed their drop-in centre – and Stillwaters, a church for streeties, shifted to the Castle. And in that place, says Justin, the Urban Vision team discovered the power of lament as a way of worship. “We don’t have the amazing revival story. We work with people who struggle, and we struggle.” “Some people on the street would hate us, and some who were trying to make progress would fall back – and we’d just think, what the hell are we doing?

“We’d cry out: ‘We are absolutely useless, God. What the hell are you doing with us? You promised us, and this is not true God, we are just dying here.’ “You’d see some miracles in the inner city, but you do a lot of hard yards. “People are dying here, dying there, and it’s messy. Gosh, it’s messy. And the streeties would ask to sing choruses that you’d think you just-couldn’t-stand to sing again – but for these people, they were life. “So you sang them again. And they were beautiful.”

Bank on it

About ten years ago, Justin and Jenny realised that many of the people they hung out with couldn’t change. “When you’re walking around the inner city all day, feeling bored and useless about yourself… or if you do want to get off your addictions, and everybody tries to drag you back down, because if you do get off it proves that they can’t…”So we dreamed of a place where it would be easy for people to make good decisions. “A place where we could structure life so it works for people, instead of against them.” Eventually, they found what they were looking for. The Presbyterians were about to sell Ngatiawa, an old church camp in the Reikorangi Valley, inland from Waikanae. Justin and Jenny and a friend signed a deal to buy Ngatiawa for $390,000 – and they came up with half of that in cash.

But they still had a problem. Because Justin had quit the relief teaching job that he’d relied on to fund operations at The Castle, and he was on the unemployment benefit. The banks weren’t tempted by that arrangement. Neither was their Christian mortgage broker, apparently. With settlement date looming, he washed his hands of their problem.

By this time, the Duckworths had left Wellington for a tiny barn in the valley. Their gear was in storage at Ngatiawa, Justin was hauling himself into Wellington every second day to direct a UV musical – and Jenny was crying herself to sleep every night. In the depths of this crisis, an old Youth For Christ mate asked them to come to New Plymouth to lead some training. That was the last thing they felt like. But they went anyway.

Because they had no fixed abode, all their paperwork was in their van – which was handy, because their mate put them in touch with a Taranaki savings bank lending manager, and they met her, with their paperwork, that same day. She went away. She did her sums. And came back offering them a mortgage – on two conditions – “You’ve got to promise us,” she said, “that you’ll pay it back and you’ve got to promise me that you’ll never ask for a cent off us again.” They kept their first undertaking, but not the second. About 18 months later, the Duckworth’s asked that Taranaki bank for more money for extensions. They got that, too.

Deeper rhythms

In their new book ‘Against the Tide, towards the Kingdom’, Jenny Duckworth tells of a young nun coming to stay at The Castle. She wore funky gear, mingled easily with the workers and the streeties – and before she left she changed their lives. “You have a great community here,” she told them. “But you will never survive this life unless you find a deeper rhythm of spirituality.” Her assessment grated. But as Justin and Jenny thought further, they realised the nun was spot-on. They’d come from the evangelical tradition. But they’d also seen that transformation was about going the distance – and that maintaining the fervour of evangelical prayer meetings over the long term wasn’t a goer. They needed to find a way to pray regularly that didn’t exhaust them.

When they moved to Ngatiawa, the Duckworths began going to St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Reikorangi. The Ngatiawa community began using the Anglican prayer book, and settled into a twice-daily rhythm of prayer. “At the end of one year,” says Justin, “we began to think – yeah, we actually feel at home doing this.”

The thin place

During the first years at Ngatiawa, the community met for prayers in the living room next to the kitchen. But phones would ring, and people would pile through there. So Justin and Jenny began to dream about building a separate chapel, and about four years ago an Urban Vision friend, who is an architect, drew up a plan for them. Another builder friend, who was staying at Ngatiawa with his family, built that chapel for free, with labour supplied by various Urban Vision folk. And about 18 months ago, after a week of 24/7 prayer, the Chapel of Tarore was opened.

It’s anchored by three large weather-beaten wooden telegraph posts, which represent that three-part Urban Vision creed: Jesus-centred. Belonging deeply together. And giving their best for the least.

The chapel feels deeply still and quiet – and it seems to be that way whether there are 50 people inside, or just one. “When you’re there by yourself,” says Justin, “it’s raining, the fire is on and there are candles, it is the thinnest place…”

These days, the bell on the pou by the doorway tolls across Ngatiawa three times a day, calling the community to morning prayer, midday Eucharist and night prayer. The words at a chapel service are few and well chosen: readings from Scripture and The Prayer Book. The worshippers sing Taize-style chants, too, many of which are composed by members of the community, and have Maori words. They’re sung unaccompanied, so the worship is never about performance. And for everything that’s read, said, or sung, there’s the punctuation of silence. “We back God in the silence,” says Justin. “If we create the space in our lives, God will get in. “If he’s God, he can do that. “And he’s good enough to turn up.”

New order

Urban Vision grew rapidly in the late nineties – and it developed speed wobbles. “When we were in Wellington,” says Justin, “Jenny and I were the glue across the communities. We held everybody together. We saw the issues coming, and we headed them off at the pass. “When we came up to Ngatiawa, we were too far removed to do that.”

“We were 50 adults,” says Justin, “who’d grown from having a loose organic relationship into all these diverse communities. And we didn’t have the infrastructure to hold ourselves together.” And it was that meltdown that led to Urban Vision reshaping itself as a new missionary order with a charism, a formation process, and a clear process for making decisions. An order whose members would take vows – not of poverty, chastity and obedience – but of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, belonging deeply together, and giving their best for the least. Justin tabled that missionary order idea in late 2006. Then he and Jenny took off for London, and a year’s sabbatical from Urban Vision.

In their absence, Urban Vision put that proposal under the magnifying glass. Then, when Justin and Jenny had come back, they put it to the vote. Their decision to go with missionary order was unanimous. That idea hadn’t come out of the blue. “We all know,” says Justin, “that the church is struggling. “We all know it needs to change. “What we don’t know, is how that takes place. “At the moment, most strategies for change are on an American DVD series. “Or they’re about re-inventing the 70s charismatic movement “Or getting a contemporary worship band.”

Those strategies, he says, haven’t achieved lift-off. We’d do better, he reckons, if we looked back into church history and saw how certain small, highly committed groups within the church – who were themselves reacting against compromise – became agents for the renewal of the wider church. So Justin’s interested, for example, in the way the Franciscans and the Dominicans reformed the Catholic Church. “It wasn’t that everybody became Franciscans or Dominicans,” he says. “But those orders moved the church back through one or two degrees towards true north.” In fact, Justin thinks that Catholic history has more to teach us about renewal than Protestant history does.

“Protestants,” he says, “have mission societies. But any renewal they trigger happens overseas, and doesn’t influence the local situation. “They also have parachurch organisations. But they’re always seen as competition.” The reality is that neither the wider church nor the committed small group will prosper without each other, says Justin. “You take a group like we were in the early days. We had a lot of reactive energy. “Now the wider church could say: ‘You guys are just young and arrogant’ – and give us the cold shoulder. “At that point both groups miss out. By feeling threatened, the church loses the passion and energy of the young, and any innovation they’re bringing. “But likewise, the young group won’t be able to sustain themselves. They’ll burn out, or they’ll become a sect.”

But if both parties knew how to negotiate a relationship, says Justin, they’d each benefit. That’s exactly what happened where Francis and Dominic were concerned, he reckons. They stayed within the church – and were influential in its reform. Justin Duckworth’s research into monastic renewal continues. Right now, he’s working on his PhD thesis – in which he examines Protestant communities which have taken on a monastic order identity.


The Chapel of Tarore has enriched life at Ngatiawa. Everybody sees that now. But when the chapel idea was first mooted, not everyone subscribed to Justin and Jenny’s dream – just as they hadn’t cottoned on to Ngatiawa in the first place. It’s fair to say, too, that when Justin headed down the Anglican ordination track, there was some head scratching at UV about that, too. We’ve never needed a priest before, some were thinking. So why do we need one now? What those folk didn’t see then was that, in part, Justin was pursuing ordination for UV’s sake. “I’d realized,” he says, “that part of the struggle for groups like UV is the struggle for validation and authentication. “By ordaining me, that meant the Anglicans recognized my life. “Therefore, by default, UV was being recognized and authenticated.”

Wine & cheese, please

In 2008 Urban Vision had a year of discernment about its relationship to the wider church – and at the end of that year it put out feelers to the Diocese of Wellington. They met with Bishop Tom Brown. They told him that as a movement, they wanted to be ecumenical, yet accountable.

“Bishop Tom made it easy for us,” says Justin. “He welcomed us with open arms. Anything that was important to us, he honoured. He didn’t try to control us, or impose structures on us – he just said: ‘Hey, we’re really keen, but you take as long as you like.'” Urban Vision signed a long-term covenant with the diocese in September. And the diocese passed legislation last year which provides for ‘pioneer ministry units’. These exist outside of the parish system, and report directly to the bishop.

Justin won’t fret if UV people aren’t spending all their time in church. “Their time’s too precious. They’re all self-supporting, they’ve got young people to look after, their neighbours to care for, and there’s the Kingdom of God to come. “Young faith is an activist faith. I expect our guys to be living their faith actively, and that’s their prayer. “But if we can put some structures around that, at least that forces them to stop and drink.”

The penny drops

Many years ago, Justin was shooting the breeze with a friend. They reckoned you could drive a truck through the gaps the Church was leaving. “I remember saying to him: ‘I wish somebody in our group would just get out there and just do this stuff. And we could join in!” About then, says Justin, the penny dropped he realised he couldn’t expect somebody else to risk it for him. “I resolved then: Let’s have a go.”

His decision to “have a go” has already had big consequences. And it could yet have a profound impact on the Anglican Church.

The original article appeared in the Anglican Taonga in Advent 2011. A copy of this article, in pdf format with photos is available by clicking the link: