First woman bishop for Wellington diocese, New Zealand

Bishop Eleanor “Ellie” Sanderson becomes the first woman to serve as a bishop in the Diocese of Wellington, Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Photo: Julanne Clarke-Morris
Bishop Eleanor “Ellie” Sanderson becomes the first woman to serve as a bishop in the Diocese of Wellington, Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Photo: Julanne Clarke-Morris
Published June 12, 2017

An estimated 900 worshippers packed into the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul to celebrate the evening ordination of the Rt Rev Dr Eleanor “Ellie” Sanderson as Assistant Bishop for the Diocese of Wellington. Bishop Eleanor has ministered in Wellington diocese for 16 years, 11 of those as a priest.

She holds a PhD in Geography—which was awarded for her thesis that explores the intersection between community development and Christian spirituality, through case studies of a Melanesian Anglican parish in Fiji, and a Mothers’ Union group in rural Tanzania. She also holds a Master’s degree in Theology, is a Fellow of Public Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, and a Research Associate at the School of Religious Studies at Victoria University.

The new bishop’s diocesan and three-tikanga Anglican family installed her as a new shepherd of this Church in a two-hour festival Eucharist, which was studded with symbol and song shared by the diverse communities connected with Bishop Eleanor’s life and ministry.

Bishop Victoria Matthews sensed the expectation and excitement in the building, which broke out in spontaneous applause several times during the service, “There was a deep sense of rejoicing there, and a coming together of all ages and stages of the Christian journey. It had the sense of being the church on pilgrimage.”

The range of people gathered reflected Bishop Eleanor’s commitment to make a place for all. “We wanted to make it about family,” said Bishop Eleanor. “In this diocese when we say ‘we are family,’ it isn’t lip service, we are trying to live that in all we do.”

Locals joined overseas family and friends linked with Eleanor from African, Tongan, Melanesian, American and UK backgrounds, plus Anglican youth, children and families, and clergy from across the Tikanga.

Rev Iritana Hankins of Tai Tokerau—who presented Bishop Eleanor alongside Bishop of Wellington Justin Duckworth and Tongan Mothers’ Union leader, Amelia Tu’inukuafe—was not surprised so many turned out: “She is a very special person. She has the quality of accepting you where you are and making you feel special. She is not judgemental, she’s uncluttered, uncontaminated. When she looks at you, talks with you, you’re the special one.”

Archbishop Winston Halapua and Archbishop Philip Richardson led the liturgy, encircled by 10 tikanga Maori and Pakeha bishops, plus ecumenical guests including Catholic Archbishop of Wellington, Cardinal John Dew.

The breadth of diocesan communities was unmistakable in the evening’s diverse music and worship styles. Wellington’s cathedral choir and organist played counterpoint to visiting musicians from Blueprint Church’s Indy-rock worship band, Tongan gospel singers and a chorus of Wellesley College boys.

Including the boys in their uniforms was no mistake. Bishop Eleanor is passionate about strengthening Anglican special character in Wellington’s diocesan schools. Over the last four years as chaplain of Wellesley College she has shifted the lens on Anglican character, strengthening worship and faith formation in the school.

Bishop Justin Duckworth believes Ellie’s new role has been “God-orchestrated.” “We have talked a lot about renewing the inherited church and enlivening new expressions of ministry that are emerging. That places all of us outside our comfort zones. But we need to see that being outside our comfort zone is the new formality,” he said. “Ellie sees that, and she has different strengths to mine. As a diocese, we need to position her missionally to use those gifts.

“My expectation is that Ellie will challenge me to be the best I can at what I’m doing, and I will need to adapt to meet her gifting and abilities for what God calls her into.”

As Bishop Eleanor comes on board, the two Wellington bishops will work in tandem over the next four months, while she gains first-hand experience of the diocesan big picture. Bishop Justin will move to Whanganui in the New Year and continue work as diocesan from there, returning to Wellington each month for a week of team meetings.

The preacher at the service, Pastor Amy Page-Whiting of Cashmere New Life Church, has high hopes for Eleanor’s leadership, after working with her as a fellow three-dimensional ministry (3DM) trainee over the last five years. She believes Eleanor offers a new lens to the church. “Eleanor is a pioneering, prophetic leader who hears God, and understands what God is saying and doing around her,” said Amy. “And she is founded on the truth and justice she finds in Scripture. Her love of justice plays out in the way she carves out spaces for people who are often unheard or unseen, like women and children, and people of other cultures. She brings those to the centre who are not always at the centre.”

That happened literally in the service when women from the Mothers’ Union in Tonga brought gifts of fine mats to the centre of the liturgy, as Eleanor knelt for the bishops’ laying on of hands in ordination. At the end of the service, explosive Chinese drumming and dancing lions signalled Eleanor’s stepping out into the world as a bishop.

Bishop Eleanor’s spiritual and physical journey to Aotearoa New Zealand emerged in the symbols given for her ministry as a bishop. In her crozier, crafted by the Rev John Hughes, English oak symbolises where she has come from, while its crowning koru represents this place to which she has been called. A purple and gold ‘Blue John’ gemstone from Castleton in Derbyshire will also be placed at the koru’s heart. Bishop Eleanor’s pectoral cross is made of Whitby jet, which comes from her earliest home in the town of Whitby and recalls her love of Celtic spirituality and Saint Hilda.

With her ordination, Bishop Eleanor becomes the first woman to serve as a bishop in Wellington and the fourth female bishop to lead in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. That explains why as her diocesan crozier, she will use one gifted to Bishop Penny Jamieson by the women of Wellington at her installation as Bishop of Dunedin in 1990, an event which made her the first female diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.

But it was her cope and mitre that gave Bishop Eleanor the chance to let her supporters know how her ministry in the diocese will lead. The cope she wore at the service was made for her when she was leading worship at Wellington Cathedral. At that time, she was pregnant with her son and the women of the cathedral linen guild came to her with a treasure: some lengths of old brocade given by the parish of Pauatahanui.

To Ellie, the cloth they put before her looked like nothing more than an old set of curtains. But the women explained what they could see. They wanted to make her a new cope out of the old cloth. They felt the cathedral’s traditional copes, with their weights of lead, were too heavy for her to bear. So that she wouldn’t faint under the weight, they would make her a new lightweight cope.

“It seems to me that this image is one we need to take with us,” Bishop Eleanor said. “We must be careful to share the treasures of the old; even things we can’t see have value, like that fabric looked to me. We need to listen to our elders who may be able to show us treasures whose worth may not be visible to those who are preparing to birth the new.

“And many of the ministries in our church are like that child, as yet unborn. God is birthing new things. At the same time, we need to listen to those who are younger than us, to the children, to the young people. They see treasure in different things. We must make sure not to overburden them, by weighing them down with fabric that is too heavy for them to bear.”


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