This article has been prepared by Christine Larkin from a talk given by Robert to Canberra Friends

I was born the elder of twins in Napier, New Zealand. Dad was adopted by the Howell family and brought up in the Salvation Army. Bert Howell (my grandfather) was a converted binge whiskey drinker and owned a laundry which was passed on to Dad. When Dad died there were many people at his funeral who spoke of his integrity and personal kindness to them through their financial and other difficulties.

Robert and Gael Howell

Robert and Gael Howell

I went to university at Wellington in the 1960s, graduating with an MA in philosophy. I met Gael there because we both went to SCM. In the 1970s I worked at the Wellington Hospital Board with a management consulting team to help improve efficiency and effectiveness. I did a postgraduate diploma in Health Management, and a PhD in Community Health (with a planning and management focus).

Early in our marriage Gael and I both became voluntary marriage guidance counsellors. I counselled for 10 years and supervised for 4. I consider the marriage guidance training to be just as important in my personal development as the academic focus.

In the early 1980s I became City Manager in Napier, brought in by a reforming mayor. Despite a divided Council, there were significant innovations made that eventually became standard in local government in New Zealand. Later that decade the Labour Government reduced the number of authorities from 250 multi-purpose and around 350 single purpose authorities to less than 90.

In the 1990s, building on an English language school created by Gael, I started an agricultural college (a cross between a high school and TAFE) to provide English language and practical agricultural and horticultural experience to mainly Japanese students. During that time I also linked up with Massey University to teach a local government course, and began an extensive review of the local government reforms with a Massey colleague. Publications that resulted were influential in assisting later reforms. One of my interests was in governance, and I interviewed people from a range of authorities to show that governance issues had not significantly changed because of the reforms. In the mid 1990s we moved to Auckland and I taught and consulted in strategic planning, organisational design and governance matters.

In the 1980s I read the work of Adam Curle and became very interested in doing some work in international peacemaking at some stage. When we shifted to Auckland I saw pursuing this interest as a possibility. I explored different ways of doing this and eventually had a concern adopted by Aotearoa New Zealand Yearly Meeting.

It was during this process that I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Just as important for me as the appreciation of the peace making history, was the intellectual richness of Quaker theology. Since my early university years I had always considered Quaker theology as “mush’”. In the 1980s it was the insight that Quakers do not call their theological disputes and considerations “theology” but “history” that opened this rich vein of thought for me. (My Quaker Theologies is a written outcome of this period of spiritual growth [1].)

This led in 1997 to a 12-year project working with a team in Gadjah Mada University to introduce non-violent conflict resolution training to the Indonesian Police [2].

In the late 1990s I became interested in ethical investing. I initiated and headed up a working party for the CCANZ (New Zealand’s equivalent of the National Council of Churches) on Church investments that later morphed into the Council for Socially Responsible Investment (CSRI) in 2004. This was a charitable trust but not limited to religious investors.

The interest in ethical investment led to an involvement with the Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF), a Quaker North American based think tank, and Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand (SANZ), a charitable trust aiming to promote sustainability in New Zealand. These three initiatives, CSRI, QIF, and SANZ, changed my life.

This period led me to think critically about the ethical principles that are necessary for a life-giving human-Earth relationship. It also led me to develop further the spiritual basis of a human-Earth relationship. The Indonesian Police Project had been a time of spiritual growth as I learnt about testimonies, leadings and concerns that tested my beliefs and practices. The QIF and SANZ projects posed for me questions about the ethical and spiritual basis of my human-Earth relationship.

Keith Helmuth, a colleague from QIF, wrote in 2001 what has been my learning through these Projects.

There is a growing recognition that the state of Earth’s ecological integrity is not just one more concern to be added to an already long list of concerns. There is a growing sense that to continue representing the ecological issue in our corporate forums as a “special interest” is to remain unresponsive to a central spiritual task of our time: readapting human settlement and economic behavior to the biotic integrity of Earth. The ecological situation is not a concern in the usual sense of the word, nor is it a special interest. It is the foundation of all concerns and the most general and comprehensive interest possible. … Justice, equity, peace and spiritual well-being have no other home than the human-Earth relationship in which to flourish or wither, as the case may be [3].

Susannah Brindle wrote that

Healing Earth and ourselves at the same time is the peace challenge for us as we move into the 21st century. … Currently Quakerism does not yet pose a serious moral challenge to the non-indigenous, materialistic status quo in Australia. … For this to happen we have to set aside our preconception of a Spirit limited to the service of humanity alone [4].

One of my learnings during the time here prompted by aboriginal religion and culture, is the issue of place. The land for Aboriginal people is a vibrant spiritual landscape. It is peopled in spirit form by ancestors who originated in the Dreaming, the creative period of time immemorial. The totemic ancestors, marvellous beings, travelled the country, creating the people and the natural features of the land, and established a code of Life, the Dreaming, the Law [5]. European invaders called Australia terra nullius, the empty land, and it is only relatively recently that white Australians have begun to recognise the value of Aboriginal culture, and to learn from it.

This experiential spirituality based on place, be it wilderness or garden, traffic jams or tidal waves, is in contrast to my Aotearoa New Zealand experience. In the late 1980s, the Māori Commissioner of Names, gave the Aotearoa New Zealand Religious Society of Friends a Māori name: Te Haahi Tuuhauwiri. A rough translation is The people/group/tribe that stand swinging/buffeted/shoved around by and in the wind of the Spirit. I have seen the Spirit as universally available regardless of place and time.

But in This We Can Say it states “We affirm that the Spirit is shaped by the mysteries and contrasts of the ancient Australian landscape, the climate, our rivers and ocean” [6]. This suggests that the Spirit is not an unchanging universal influence. It suggests that place and connection to that place is important for developing a spiritual respect for the Earth. And that Spirit is vulnerable and fragile. It is not enough to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one [7]. I have been challenged by the writings of Susannah Brindle, to develop a way for whitefellas to fit into the dot paintings [8].

Thomas Berry wrote:

We must be true to the earth in the place or community where we live. If we are in the desert, we live in a desert community. If we are in a valley, … we live in a valley community. … We make our home in these communities, with all the other modes of being, and if these communities do not survive, we do not survive. … We do not get a second chance. If we kill the earth it is all over [9].

My journey during the last decade or so has led me to recognise the dreadful destruction we are doing to our Earth, that this in large part is because of the way we think of and run our economy, and that this is because of the values we have. One of my leadings has been to look at the way we invest. I have tried (unsuccessfully) to find ways of encouraging the production of economic scenarios and plans for a transition to an equitable and ecologically secure world. Of all the issues this is the most pressing but it is related to developing a spiritual connection to the Earth. The learnings I take back to New Zealand include the importance of place. In this I have been blessed by my time here. But the way is not clear for any future leadings for me except to continue listening and pondering the questions.


[1] Howell, R (1998). Quaker Theologies. Extension Committee for the Northern Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Aotearoa/New Zealand.


[3] Helmuth, K. August 2001. Ecological Integrity and Religious Faith. Friends Journal.

[4] Brindle, S and McIntosh, A. 2002. Kinship with Creation. Quaker Green Action.

[5] Morton, J. 2000. Aboriginal religion today. In The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Eds s Kleinert and M Neale. OUP.

[6] This We Can Say. Australian Quaker Life and Thought. AYM 2003.

[7] Quaker Faith and Practice. Britain YM 1995. 19.32

[8] Brindle, S. 2002. Coming Right Way. Yearly Meeting Indigenous Concerns Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia.

[9] Berry, T with Thomas Clarke. 1991 Befriending the Earth. Twenty-Third Publications.

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