Service, spirituality and sport

Service, spirituality and sport

25 May 2016

Rev James was on the other side of the world when he got the call.

“We as a family were working in Africa on the Zambia-Congo border. We were setting up schools there,” James recalls. “I had a phone call from Grant [Headmaster Grant Lander] saying they were looking for a Chaplain at St Paul’s and they would like me to apply.”

The call came out of the blue.

“We were going to stay in Africa, so we couldn’t come in the short term, but then Africa got to the stage where we needed to leave, so we headed back to England for a short time, had a formal interview with Grant, then accepted and came out.”

James, his wife Abbie and their children Theo (8) and Maisie (6) arrived at the School in July 2015.

James, 39, had been recommended for the role by Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley of the Anglican Diocese of Waikato, who had taught him Theology in the UK.

As well as being devoted to religious teaching and education, James is an accomplished sportsman, representing Great Britain in both rowing and triathlon. He attended Harrow School in England as a sports scholar, then Oxford University. He had the perfect credentials for the job as someone who would “become involved in all areas of school life and who could connect with the students.”

The experience so far has been “fantastic,” he says. “It is going really well. I have been heavily involved in all aspects of the school since the moment I arrived.”

He spoke to me just before leaving with the St Paul’s rowing team to Maadi Cup in Twizel.

One of his first initiatives as the School’s new chaplain has been introducing a three-tiered service programme. The idea came about after he reflected on what the students had to offer the community.

“Our expertise within this school is schooling. There are 700-odd students who know schooling better than anyone else. So why not utilise that massive resource in our local area?"

“Students have contacted primary schools and asked ’how can we help you?’”

“Fairfield Primary School, and Bankwood School have accepted the offer. We’ve termed it ’over the fence ministry’ so the idea of literally stepping over the fence and serving the community around us.”

In Term 2, students will visit the schools during either breakfast or lunch time.

“They may just play football with them, they may just eat lunch with the students and if asked they may read with the students or they may set up a Kapa Haka group or a drama group.”

The second tier will require Year 11 students to contact Hamilton charities and dedicate a week or two as a volunteer. The ’pinnacle’ of the scheme would be an international trip.

“We would raise money in order to send a group of students abroad to make a meaningful contribution wherever that may be.”

Rev James explains service needs to be a “transformational experience, not just a transactional experience,” for students to get the most out of it.

He has a unique style in chapel service as his way of connecting and engaging with students.

“Students, by the time they are teens, can build up a pretty negative response to having to sit in a building like that and attend to religious matters. So I try to liven up the mood as much as possible.”

“We have had some screaming and shouting, we have had those crazy clips on TV, and people hammering nails into wood, people acting things out on stage, and people running around reenacting refugee situations.”

“The school chapel is a Christian place, and I am an Anglican priest. But, in terms of engaging with the students we must be clear that we are nurturing their spiritual journey.”

James can also draw on the experience of high level sport, having represented Great Britain in rowing and triathlon. It is a remarkable story of triumph, heartbreak, and hard work. He was showing promise as a top rower in the late 1990s but a serious back injury saw him require multiple surgeries which left him lying on his back for the most part of a year.

After years of rehabilitation he decided to give rowing another go.

“I borrowed a friend’s boat and I went rowing in that boat on my own for about 18 months, every day.”

He made it into the Great Britain lightweight rowing team and raced from 2004-2007 in World Championship and World Cup events until another very bad injury saw his back “split in two” requiring multiple surgeries again.

He swam to regain strength which led to him taking up triathlon, for which he represented Great Britain in 2008.

A return to study to become a priest saw him take up rowing briefly and he made Oxford University’s rowing crew. He retired from rowing when the family moved to Africa to help establish schools.

James and his family are making the most of what New Zealand has to offer.

“We love exploring the outdoors. We have already walked the Abel Tasman track with the children, canoed down the Whanganui River and been up to the Coromandel and Bay of Islands and camped around New Zealand."

(Source: Monica Holt Network magazine)