In memory of Archbishop Sir Paul Alfred Reeves, ONZ, GCMG, GCVO, CF, QSO. 1932 – 2011.

 

It was only a month ago that Sir Paul Reeves announced that he would be withdrawing from public life following a diagnosis of cancer.

It was about the same time that a so-called “once in a decade” polar blast blanketed our islands in snow.

This Sunday past, 14 August 2011, Sir Paul died. He was surrounded by his loving family.

And the Antarctic winds blew again, and drove the snow across the country, even to the northern-most reaches of our land. This was a once-in-50-years, and in some cases a once-in-80-years event, they said.

I guess that my people would say it was no coincidence. It was an event symbolic of the great mana and prestige that Sir Paul possessed. You could say that his ancestral mountain, Taranaki, was casting it’s blanket of snow across our islands in a show of deep mourning and respect at the loss of one her greatest sons.

He was a great man.

The Anglican Taonga has been posting some of  the best coverage of Sir Paul’s tangi – you get a real sense of the mana of the man and the deep respect that the nation and the Church had for him.

Sir Paul was a loving husband to Lady Beverly Reeves, and beloved Father and Papa to his daughters and grandchildren.

He was a Bishop, Archbishop, and Governor General of New Zealand. He was also a diplomat – working in the United Nations, and alongside Governments in Fiji, Guyana, and Ghana. His achievements are too numerous to mention here, and yet he remained kind, humble, and approachable.

In his own words, he remained fundamentally an Anglican Priest, saying “… and if I had to distill what it is that I’ve done, I think that I’ve tried to help good people do good things.”

He understood good people because he himself was a fundamentally good person. That’s the way it seems to me.

It is testament to his immense grace and dignity that he could go so easily from mixing with Monarchy, Presidents, and Prime Ministers, to mingling with everyday people like you and me.

There was no arrogance about this man.

I remain amazed at just how many people he connected with during his life and ministry. Sir Paul was always warm and generous, and had an amazing capacity for remembering names. And he wouldn’t just remember your name, he would remember names of spouses, and children, and almost any story of family and place that you told him.

It wasn’t simply niceties and platitudes, Sir Paul actually cared about what you had to say.

I first met Sir Paul in 1997 when I was a student at The College of St John the Evangelist. My wife and I, and our fellow students, were attending an open day at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell where he was based at the time.

Sir Paul was showing us around the “vast edifice”, as he called it. The Cathedral had just installed a new audio speaker system high in the ceiling above the main stage. The speakers were mounted in a large bright red contraption that resembled a lotus flower. The entire mount of which was adjustable and motorised, able to ascend and descend to alter the acoustics in the building.

Sir Paul called it “The Baboon of God.”

I’ve never been able to look at that thing the same way since.

As we gathered to hear the Dean of the Cathedral speak, my wife and I ended up sitting next to Sir Paul, who was playfully interrupting the Dean whenever he felt that the Dean needed to “clarify what on earth he means.”

My wife leaned over to me and quietly asked “Don, who is that old man sitting next to you again? He looks familiar.”

Sir Paul heard her.

Motioning an introduction, I replied “Um, this is Sir Paul Reeves. He’s been an Archbishop and a Governor General …”

“Oh, don’t listen to your husband, my dear” Sir Paul beamed, “I’m just another silly old man!”

We were instantly endeared by him. He would always make time for a quick hello and catch up whenever we saw him around St Johns College or at Church events.

I remember one year, after an end-of-semester dinner, I was showing my Father around the St Johns dining hall which was replete with portraits (some in priceless oil paintings) of Bishops and Deans of the past.

My Father noticed Sir Paul Reeves’ photo hanging at the back of the hall among other former Deans, and noted it was placed lower than others.

“That’s no good, boy” he said, “That photo should be above all the others”

I’m sure there was no disrespect intended. The photos were placed in chronological order in even rows, top-to-bottom, and Sir Paul had served only recently.

Of course, I wasn’t going to argue with my Dad. So we repositioned Sir Paul’s photo to the top of the pile. My Dad smiled in cheeky approval.

Unbeknown to me, Sir Paul had spotted our mischief, and later remonstrated with me in his own inimitable way: “You do know that I can neither approve or disapprove what you have done?”

I was momentarily confused.

“Say hi to your Dad from me.”

I did.

A couple of years after I graduated from St Johns, I became director of TORU, the Anglican Centre for Youth Ministry Studies, and invited Sir Paul to be a keynote speaker at one our leadership training events.

He never hesitated to say yes to such things. Even if it was just a simple church gathering in a rural back-water, if he could make time, he would make time. His heart was for the Church.

As we sat and listened in to his stories, we couldn’t help but be impressed by his simple grace. His humour was infectious, and his ability to playfully give away all the inside gossip, without actually giving away the secrets, kept us enthralled.

He never pulled punches though. If he didn’t like something, or someone, he would say so. But it never came across as toxic or bitter. He came across as just being truthful.

The last time I saw him was just over a year ago. We were hosting the General Synod-Te Hinota Whanui of our Church here in Gisborne, and Sir Paul was attending to present a report, alongside fellow reviewer Ms Kathryn Beck, regarding the future of St Johns College.

I was helping to ferry delegates from the airport to the venue, and was sent to pick up Sir Paul.

“Hello Don!” He said, “How’s Kisa and the kids?”

There it was again, that amazing capacity to remember. It’s not like we were around him frequently at all – we only got to see him about every year or so. I guess it’s easy to remember names when you have a genuine heart for people.

He helped himself to the copy of the New Zealand Herald I’d just bought, but hadn’t read.

“This must be complimentary for distinguished guests, right Don?”

I just smiled. Here was a master at work.

I listened to his Synod presentation. There was a lot of feeling amongst the delegates regarding St Johns College, and what it could and should be doing. I got the sense that no one cared more for it than Sir Paul himself. He believed that education was a key plank in the continuing liberation of our people. He believed that St Johns College was a great taonga of our Church, and needed to be nurtured and protected.

After his presentation, I drove him back to the airport. He asked me what I thought of St Johns College. As a former student, grateful for all the opportunities that St Johns College had afforded me, I told him exactly what I thought.

“St Johns changed my life for the better, Bishop” I said, “and I hope we keep St Johns College thriving so that it can change other peoples’ lives too.”

“I feel pretty much the same way” he replied.

After checking in his luggage, we shook hands, and he gave me one last Bishop-to-Priest command:

“Don,” he said, attempting a mock frown, “I want you to tell Kisa that the Silly Old Man said ‘Hello and God Bless!’ … and you be grateful young man, your wife has married far below her station!”

Only Sir Paul could insult you and make you smile at the same time.

His passing has saddened me, much more than I care to admit. In all honesty we’d have to say that we barely knew him, not like his family knew him, or the many leaders and dignitaries that he lived and worked with.

But he always made you feel like you were part of his beloved family. There are dozens, and perhaps even hundreds of everyday people like me who got to meet Sir Paul, talk with him however briefly, and leave feeling like you’d just caught up with a good friend.

So I mourn his death. I mourn the loss of such a great human being and a Servant of God. His passing has left an immeasurable void within the Church, within Māoridom, and within our Nation. I hope that from among our younger generations God will raise up another like him to take his place. And another. And another.

Nō reira,
Haere atu koe e Ta Pāora,
Ka rukuruku nei a Taranaki maunga ki ōna rinena,
he korowai aroha mōhou;
Moe mai ra i raro i te whakamarumarutanga a o tipuna,
moe mai ra i roto i a te Karaiti;
Kia tāoki koe i te raukura o nga Manu e rua,
Kia arā koe i runga i te korōria. 

When Sir Paul arrives at the Heavenly Gates, I believe God will say “Well done thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Sir Paul will no doubt have something cheeky to say in reply.

May God bless Sir Paul, his wife Lady Beverly, their daughters Sarah, Bridget, and Jane, and their children.

Walking the faith ain't easy, even if you are an Anglican priest. So I keep my family first, stay grateful, and try to live a little.