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Nelson Bishop heeds call to Africa

For immediate release May 4, 2006

Nelson Bishop heeds call to Africa

The Bishop of Nelson, Derek Eaton, is resigning in order to return to Egypt.

Bishop Eaton, who will turn 65 this year, will stand down in October, after more than 16 years in Nelson.

Early in the New Year, he will move to Egypt, to become the assistant bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, North Africa, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

In a very real sense, Bishop Derek and Alice will be returning to their first love. For much of their early adult lives, Derek and Alice Eaton lived in North Africa, and they raised their family in Tunisia and Egypt.

In 1983 they decided, when Derek was the Dean of Cairo Cathedral, to return to New Zealand for the sake of their three children’s tertiary education and to encourage the nationalization of the Egyptian church.

“In one sense,” says Bishop Derek, “when we returned to New Zealand, we felt our ministry in that part of the world was being interrupted.”

God, it seems, intended a lengthier interruption than they envisaged. In 1985, Derek Eaton was made the Vicar of Sumner and Redcliffs in Christchurch, and in 1989, he was elected as the Bishop of Nelson.

“I said I would be Bishop for a minimum of 10 years, and I have stayed for 16. They have been 16 fantastic years, some of the most exciting and challenging of my ministry. But the diocese is in good heart and hands – and I feel I have given all I know how to give. It’s time to step aside.”

While the Eatons have not lived in North Africa for more than 20 years, they have maintained close links with the church there.

Derek Eaton was elected as the Bishop of Nelson because, he says, the diocese “wanted someone to lead them in mission and evangelism.”

Those two areas have been hallmarks of the Eaton years, and ten folk within the Nelson diocese have chosen to spend extended ministry stints in Egypt during that time. Bishop Eaton himself and Alice have returned regularly for short visits.

Next year’s return – which will be for a minimum of two years – is at the request of the The Rt Rev Dr Mouneer Anis, the Bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt, North Africa, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Bishop Eaton says he believes Egypt “has a crucial role to play” if there is to be hope for peace in the Middle East – and the Anglican Church has a significant role to play within Egypt. It is, he says, a trusted broker between the much larger Coptic Church, and the various protestant denominations, and between Christians and Muslims.

“There is,” says Bishop Eaton, “a lot of good Christian-Muslim dialogue – and whereas in New Zealand there tends to be a lot of hedging in those discussions, over there it’s much more direct. Good, direct dialogue doesn’t have to be confrontational.”

One of his aims in returning to Egypt will be to free Bishop Mouneer to become more involved in this dialogue, and in his vast and growing diocese and the wider province.

Bishop Eaton says neither he nor Alice is unduly fazed by the dangers of the Middle East.

“Going into a risky region,” he says, “has never been our first consideration. We’ve lived through an attempted coup in Tunisia, and the assassination of President Sadat in Egypt. By the time each of our children were 12, they had seen people shot in the streets.

“Death does not frighten us: we are not stupid or irresponsible, but we do have hope. The bottom line for us is obedience.”

One of the characteristics of the Eaton’s ministry has been the way churches in their care have grown. When they returned to New Zealand in 1984 and were asked to lead the Sumner Redcliffs parish in 1985, it was a parish ready to grow. By the time they left, in 1990, Sunday attendance had grown to more than 400.

Church attendance in the Diocese of Nelson itself grew more than 40% during the first 10 years of Bishop Eaton’s leadership, and although that growth appears to have leveled out now, there are other significant elements of renewal in place.

The Nelson diocese now has some of the youngest and most academically qualified clergy per capita in the Anglican Church in this country.

Derek Eaton was raised in Christchurch, educated at Christchurch Boy’s High and was, in his youth, a national swimming champion. He met Alice at the Christchurch Teachers’ College in the mid sixties, and they both went to Bible College in Tasmania.

It was there, he says, that they “felt a call to the Islamic world”. During a stint as students in London they were advised to head to Tunisia where, in 1968, they enrolled at the University of Tunis to study Arabic and Islamics.

When the chaplain of the local Anglican Church fell ill and had to leave the country, Derek was asked to stand in for a few weeks. That relieving arrangement continued for more than a year. During that time the church in Tunis grew significantly and Derek, then in his mid 20s, was approached by the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Rev George Appleton, to train for ordination.

Derek did further theological studies in Britain, and returned to Tunisia in 1972 as the vicar, and chaplain to the expatriate community. The Eatons also worked with Tunisian students and other local people.

They lived in a large, rambling Arab-French house in the slums of Tunis, and their home became a mecca for students, travelers, hippies and young people struggling with drug addictions. During the Eaton’s remaining seven years in Tunisia, around 500 young people stopped over at their place – some for just a night, others for up to three years.

During this time too, Derek Eaton also did further post graduate studies in Lebanon and the USA.

In 1978, he was called to be Provost (or Dean) of All Saint’s Cathedral in Cairo, where the family remained until returning to New Zealand in 1984 – with Derek now bearing a QSM, which was awarded for his work in Egypt.

One of the young students who stayed with the Eatons in Cairo was Peter Carrell – now The Rev Dr Peter Carrell, Director of Studies at Nelson’s Bishopdale College, the diocesan centre for theological training.

“Wherever they have lived,” says Dr Carrell, “Derek and Alice have been outstanding in their service to the church. The Diocese of Nelson has benefited enormously from Derek’s visionary leadership, his passionate commitment to theological orthodoxy, and his superb skills as a Bible teacher. We will miss them. But I know they will be warmly welcomed back into Egypt.”

Bishop Eaton says he and Alice have been asked to spend five years in Cairo. They have committed themselves to two years, with a possible extension.

“We have grandchildren,” he says, “and I want to see that our being in Egypt really does work. I want to be satisfied that we are making a vital contribution.”

And when their time in Egypt finally is completed, the Eatons will be returning to the other significant place of their ministry. They will retire in Nelson.


Editors’ note: Anglican Church rules stipulate that the vacancy created by Bishop Eaton’s resignation is filled by an Electoral College, presided over by the Archbishop or his appointed Commissary. The members of the college are the licenced clergy of the diocese, and the elected lay representatives of the Nelson Diocesan Synod. Once the Electoral College has chosen a person that nomination is subject to an approval process by the whole Church before any announcement of an appointment can be made by the Primate. The proceedings of the Electoral College are confidential and only members of the College are able to be present. The most likely timing of the Electoral College is in September or October 2006.

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