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Influential Educator critical, constructive

By Cory Millar

Dr Jennifer Plane Te Paa has been recognized as the 20th most influential Anglican on the planet, and she has now received a distinguished alumni award from the University of Auckland.

Early in March, Jennifer was one of six high-achieving graduates who were recognised for contributions to their chosen field, their community, and the nation.

Jennifer Plane Te Paa

The London Daily Telegraph has recognised her as an influential voice in Anglican liberal circles for her outspokenness in condemning homophobia and for her active role in social justice.

She is the first lay, indigenous and single woman ever appointed as the head of an Anglican theological college.

Jennifer has worked as the ahorangi (principal) of Te Rau Kahikatea at the College of St John the Evangelist in Auckland for the past 15 years.

"In the beginning I found myself unexpectedly anointed to step out on a pioneering professional pathway fraught with risk and with profound uncertainty," says Dr Te Paa

Alumni orator Brian Boyd says she is one of those extraordinary New Zealanders who few other New Zealanders know about. "She has had so many firsts that when the pope dies I expect her to be the first woman pope," he says.

Despite her 20-year career at St John’s College, Jennifer remains one of a handful of women who hold leadership positions within the Anglican Church.

"There is still a dearth of woman, lay or ordained, holding key leadership roles across the Church," she says. "For now I am one of those oddities, richly blessed by the deposit of faith first received and then bestowed by my greatest of Maori grandparents here in Aotearoa.

"It is not just a job but a blessing," she says. "It has also been challenging, overwhelming and at times uncertain.

"In spite of my struggles I have learnt to love St John’s and yearn for its future progression as teacher, mentor and leader."

Jennifer says becoming the principal of an Anglican theological college was never in her wildest dreams.

"Why would it be when there was no inspirational role model for me to aspire to?" she asks.

"Why would any Maori woman do so, when there is the double and at times triple whammy of racist, sexist and clerically structured oppression to overcome?"

Even now she often has the repeating mantra "Why me" playing in her head.

"It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who reminded me why, with his divine sense of humour," she says.

"You do believe in a God who sides with the least of us? Then why not choose you- the complete antithesis of Anglican theological leadership," said Tutu.

"In these increasingly strange ecclesial times it is harder to stay single minded about theological education," says Jennifer.

She observes that the global Anglican Church is at risk of being old-fashioned if it forgets to be human.

"I recall the awesome memory making it momentous to be alive at the turn of the century, when more than 200 leaders emptied their purses to help alleviate human suffering, she says.

All manner of minority interests were being thought of in the spirit of justice, in a caring open-minded, openhearted concern for the minority other, says Dr Te Paa.

But since 2001 and the growing unrest in the Middle East we are now far from this time of hope, she says.

Conservatives in the church have become increasingly aggressive and aim to undermine the ‘ungodly’ liberalism of the mainstream churches.

"These are the ones who have led to indiscriminate inhuman behaviour and who refuse to dialogue. They want to influence the public so that only certain genders, ethnicities and sexualities are in control of the church."

The situation is not hopeless says Jenny, but it is serious.

She says the Anglican Church is ailing moderately. It is not incurable, it just needs a course of anti-venom, and then a gentle reorientation back toward its prior call to love justice, show mercy, and walk ever more humbly with God.