When anti-popery ruled, Nicholas Reid

Bishop in the dock
Rory Sweetman
Auckland University Press, $39:95,
ISBN 1 86940 160 3

Henry Jacobs — A clergyman of calibre
Helen Garrett
Shoal Bay Press, $39:95,
ISBN 0 906704  54 2

Doing theology ourselves
Neil Darragh
Accent Publications,$18.00,
ISBN 0 9583454 0 6

First sketch of a good historian: a good historian is like an entomologist, turning over a harmless-seeming stone and watching the ugly insects wriggling beneath. 

Rory Sweetman’s harmless-seeming stone is the placid, respectable New Zealand of 75 years ago, decent, tea-drinking and law-abiding. The wriggling insects are ugly words of sectarian bitterness, hysterical protestations of imperial loyalty and political controversies that would be only a dim folk memory were it not for this historian’s diligent research.

Specifically, Bishop in the Dock is an account of the sedition trial of James M Liston, newly-appointed assistant Catholic bishop of Auckland, in 1922. On Saint Patrick’s night of that year in the Auckland town hall the 40-year-old Liston made a 25-minute speech to a Catholic and Irish audience, commenting on the state of Ireland. He spoke of his Irish parents having been “driven” from their home by eviction, he described the 1916 Easter rising as “glorious” and he characterised the reprisals of the Black and Tans as the work of “foreign murderers”. He also prayed for peace and asked his audience to forgive past wrongs — but that wasn’t the part of the speech that caused the trouble.

New Zealand Herald reporter Gordon Stanbrook produced a brief, garbled account of the speech which had Liston describing all British troops in Ireland as foreign murderers. This was the version reported throughout the country, to the delight of Irish nationalists but to the fury of most editorialists and writers of letters to the editor. Sweetman devotes a chapter to examples of their flag-waving British patriotic fervour.

Auckland mayor James Gunson was a level-headed chap and by no means a bigot but he seems to have had parliamentary ambitions. He wanted to curry favour with the Protestant Political Association (PPA) which then had a degree of influence over the ruling Reform Party. Liston’s speech, at least as misreported in the Herald, seemed to be just the ticket. Gunson declared Liston should be prosecuted for sedition, just as some prominent trade-unionists and anti-conscriptionists had been prosecuted in the recent World War I. The Crown Law Office scraped together a case involving some less-than-impressive witnesses and it came to court six weeks after the speech.

The trial itself is something of an anti-climax in this book. The bishop doesn’t reach the dock until p198 of a 280-page text and his acquittal becomes certain once defence counsel (the capable, histrionic Patrick O’Regan) is able to prove how inaccurate the Herald report was. As it happened, there were no Catholics on the jury. But the presiding judge, Thomas Stringer, delivered a body-blow to the prosecution case when he remarked that “everybody knows” British auxiliary police in Ireland had committed murders. He was in effect endorsing Bishop Liston’s version of recent Irish events.

There are, to be sure, some elements of farce in this affair. The Herald’s misinformation gained credibility because the Auckland Star’s reporter, an Irish Catholic, was nursing a post-Saint Patrick’s Day hangover so he simply cribbed the Herald’s account when filing his own report. When the heat was on, a number of Catholics fell over themselves in letters to the editor to protest their imperial loyalty and dissociate themselves from the bishop. Likewise, before O’Regan took up the defence, some Catholic lawyers ran for cover rather than take up such a controversial case. The Crown Law Office hastily rescheduled the date of the trial once they realised Liston might appear in the dock over Easter. For the defence the symbolism of the date was irresistible.

If all this sounds funny, there are grimmer ironies. As Sweetman makes clear, both the public and the jury would have given Liston a far less sympathetic hearing if he had made his speech a few months later. It was made in the comparatively brief lull between the Anglo-Irish “treaty” and the outbreak of civil war between Irish Free Staters and Republicans. From Dublin Michael Collins was persuaded to write a note to Winston Churchill on Liston’s behalf. By the end of the year, Collins himself had been murdered and expatriate Irish were less inclined to see the ongoing Irish struggle in purely heroic terms.

On the New Zealand front, there was another big irony. If any Catholic deserved to stand trial for sedition in 1922, then it was probably Dr James Kelly, editor of the Tablet, whose bellicose, intemperate, Anglophobic editorials were written with the deliberate intention of angering British protestant imperialists. In print, he regularly said far harsher things about Britain than appeared in Liston’s speech. In fact, as Sweetman proves, the British press itself loudly criticised British conduct in Ireland. It says much about the insecure, censored, more-British-than-the-British nature of our dailies at that time that Liston’s reported words caused so much stir.

This, indeed, is the chief impression I gain from Bishop in the Dock. In one sense it is the chronicle of a very silly molehill which even some of the prosecution rapidly regretted turning into a mountain. (In later years it appears Mayor Gunson was a close personal friend of Bishop Liston, the trial having been tactfully forgotten).

But in another sense it demonstates vividly what an alien, intolerant society New Zealand was eight decades ago. Patriotism was measured in terms of loyalty to King and empire, there was a strong undercurrent of anti-popery and the notion of pluralism was still in its infancy. In passing, Sweetman notes that the National party, linear descendant of the true-blue protestant Reform party, is currently headed by a Catholic of Irish descent. Sectarian political loyalties, such as they are, are quite different now. Besides, New Zealand Catholics no longer think of themselves as Irish and other New Zealanders no longer think of themselves as British.

Second sketch of a good historian: a good historian makes the dead walk again.

I grew up in a house six doors way from the Catholic cemetary that contains the impressive tomb of Bishop Henry Cleary. Climbing over his cruciform monument on the way to school was a favourite childhood game. Cleary (Liston’s superior — absent overseas during the controversy) flits briefly through these pages, characterised by Sweetman as an “erratic genius”.

Liston I remember from a school prizegiving as a wizened little octogenarian, with a remarkably firm handshake and a distinctive drawl that we all mimicked. Here he lives again as the ascetic, disciplinarian rector of Holy Cross seminary and as the young prelate whose “romantic emotionalism” (Sweetman’s phrase) about Ireland coexisted with a “calculated approach”. Certainly he was both stubborn and wily enough to defend himself without retracting a word of his speech. One understands why even a leftwing agnostic like John A Lee had a surprisingly high regard for the man, much as Lee raged and fumed about the right-wing politics of Liston’s newspaper, Zealandia.

But Rory Sweetman’s most impressive resurrection is a most unexpected one. Bill Massey was an Ulsterman, a Freemason and an erstwhile member of the Orange Lodge, with no love for Catholicism. (Bishop in the Dock contains photographs of Massey and of the Governor-General Viscount Jellicoe in their masonic aprons). But Massey was no damned fool and didn’t get to remain Prime Minister for 13 years by playing the bigotry card, much as the PPA hoped he would. Sweetman comments: “Most historians … have denied Massey credit for escaping the restraints of his Orange heritage”. As Prime Minister during the events this book recounts, Massey emerges as a more tolerant and responsible figure than the worst of the flag-wavers.

Bishop in the Dock is a scrupulous and solid work, engagingly illustrated and thoroughly endnoted. In pre-publication form, it won the 1995 Keith Sinclair History Prize.


On the cover of Henry Jacobs — A Clergyman of Calibre there is an eponymous photograph. It shows a Victorian gentleman with neatly brushed hair, a high forehead, a round face, a benign smile and lively eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Altogether a benevolent, almost cherubic, face. He could be a character from the parsonage in a novel by Anthony Trollope. Looking at this face, I wanted to go behind the eyes to discover what exactly made him tick. Isn’t this the prime function of biography? It would, I anticipated, be intriguing to find a real man behind the surface stereotype of genteel Anglicanism.

I am not satisfied that Helen Garrett’s book has given me a real man. Garrett (born 1916) is Jacobs’ granddaughter. Her forebear’s CV is promising as the subject of a biography. Born in 1824, Jacobs was captain of the school at Charterhouse, took a first-class MA at Oxford, then came to New Zealand in 1850 as one of the clergy in the Canterbury Association’s first four ships. He was the founder headmaster of Christ’s College. Later he was the first dean of Christchurch cathedral, which took a painfully long time to build. He edited the New Zealand Church News for 14 years and achieved some distinction as an historian by writing the first full account of New Zealand Anglicanism, A History of the Diocese of New Zealand. He also wrote a quantity of fairly terrible verse (“The Lay of the Southern Cross”, etc), some of which is quoted here. He died in Christchurch in 1901, almost exactly 50 years after his arrival.

Garrett gives us all the externals of his career: the dates of promotions, transference from one parish to another, engagement in church politics and local government matters. But this is a career filmed in long shot with very few close-ups. Jacobs’ English childhood covers a total of eight pages. He married twice. By his first wife, Emily, he had two children who both died in infancy. A year after his first wife’s death Jacobs, then 47, married another Emily, aged 22, and had another eight children.

These domestic matters were presumably central to the emotional reality of the man but they are passed over in a few brief paragraphs. It is thus doubly frustrating to read on the third-to-last page that Jacobs’ daughters (including the author’s mother) lived “without a father figure in their lives. The dean had been more of a grandfather figure”. What domestic unhappiness lies behind these phrases? We are never told.

As for the intimate man, so for the theological man. Where Jacobs stood in the lively religious controversies of his day has to be inferred from a few scattered references. Like everyone else of his generation he must have been aware of the High Church and Low Church tensions that were pulling nineteenth-century Anglicanism in various directions. We are told he was ordained by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, one of the foremost controversialist churchmen of his day. Later we hear that Godley, the leader of the Canterbury “pilgrims”, had Tractarian leanings and that Mountfort, architect of Christchurch’s cathedral, was a Puseyite.

Jacobs himself had a very minor role in chasing away Jenner, the ultra-ritualist first Anglican bishop of Dunedin, who was never allowed to take up his see. He also seems to have taken a very dim view of the Rev H E Carlyon, the most ritualistic Anglican clergyman in Christchurch in the 1870s. And he was authoritarian enough to attempt to sack the matron of a church-run women’s refuge when she turned Plymouth Brethren (his bishop wisely overruled him).

But in a full text these and a few other anecdotes are about all we hear of Jacobs’ own theological inclinations. His churchmanship is assumed rather than analysed. He is the industrious Anglican functionary who welcomes the diocese’s first bishop, fears the secularisation of education and hopes Christ’s College will develop as a tertiary institution. So once again it is frustrating to have Garrett refer to his “romantic evangelical approach” 20 pages from the end in the context of Jacobs’ reaction to Anglican sisterhoods during a visit to England. How did this leaning influence his personal relationships with others? We are never told.

I appreciate that this lack of intimacy and lack of a theological dimension may be a function of the sources at the author’s disposal. Jacobs does not seem to have kept a diary and in a brief author’s note Garrett modestly declares that her scholarship is “not immaculate”. There is an extensive bibliography but only three pages of the most general endnotes.

Even so, we might reasonably ask what sort of biography we are being given here. First and foremost it emerges as a memorial by an admiring descendant. A handful of criticisms appear. There is Bishop Harper’s testimony that as a teacher Jacobs was not very good at classroom control. Garrett quotes an anecdote in which somebody describes the old Jacobs as “one fourth angel and three fourths unmitigated bore”. She herself judges him guilty of “ungenerosity, verging on misrepresentation” in the way he dealt with Henry Sewell, New Zealand’s first Prime Minister, in his historical writings. (It was Sewell, incidentally, who referred to Jacobs as “a clergyman of calibre”). But this is the sum total of the book’s negative comment.

In the main, an approving public portrait of Jacobs has been imposed upon what is really a general history of the Canterbury settlement. The Canterbury Association’s reluctant retreat from being a wholly Anglican enterprise; the fact that Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s colonisation schemes began to unravel almost as soon as they were put into practice; the material progession of Christchurch with the building of the Sumner road and the Lyttelton tunnel; the development of a city which had by the 1860s 20 churches, 44 pubs and 23 brothels: this “background’ is what provides the real interest of the book. Indeed the context often overwhelms the book’s ostensible subject and Jacobs himself disappears for many pages.

His mother-in-law Mary Thompson’s account of distributing Protestant Bibles in Italy? Samuel Butler’s anti-Darwinian articles in the Press? Julius von Haast’s discovery of moa bones? Each is somehow tenuously connected with Jacobs and its inclusion justified. But the strain shows when Garrett writes “interested as Jacobs must have been in all this….” after two or three pages on the career of Professor John Macmillan Brown or when she resorts to “he had missed one or two interesting events in the life of the cathedral” and then proceeds to an account of things in which Jacobs was not involved.

I thoroughly enjoyed many of the book’s anecdotes, from Wakefield nursing his prize bull and heifer en route to New Zealand to Jacobs catching naughty schoolboys stealing hot pies to Bishop Julius being hoisted up the cathedral spire in an armchair. But I found a general lack of focus and rigour. For me Jacobs remains a gentle, stereotyped clergyman out of Barsetshire.

This softback is a very fine piece of book-production, with ample margins surrounding the text and with the singular virtue of all its many archival photographs being related to the text on the pages on which they appear. But there is one unfortunate lapse in the proof-reading. Four times (to be precise on p40, 68, 120 and 191) nineteenth-century dates are accidentally given as twentieth-century dates — “1950” instead of “1850”, etc.


People who “do” theology rather than studying it tend to be the same people who “critique” things rather than criticising them. But to be fair to Neil Darragh, I did not once catch him “critiquing” in Doing Theology Ourselves.

In 80 pages of text Father Darragh sets out to raise consciousness and make implicit theologies explicit. He avers in the opening sentence of his preface: “My experience as a priest and as a teacher of theology has led me to the conclusion that nearly everyone does theology”. I agree, although I am not sure that this means anything more than that everyone has an opinion, no matter how ill-informed or deformed that opinion may be.

Father Darragh follows a step-by-step recipe for clarifying our values and making decisions. First you look at your own context and interrogate your own experience by “telling your story”. From your story will emerge “themes”. The themes become “issues” demanding a “pivotal question”. At this point, if you are christian you can consult scripture, although all the time making the necessary cultural and hermeneutical adjustments so that you don’t mistake the biblical context for your own context. Then you can go ahead and make your moral decision. And you will have the added bonus of having articulated what you merely assumed before.

There are many attractive points to Darragh’s exposition. I liked his determination that there be a “close intertwining of theory and action”. He wants theology to have a practical impact on the world and his reading list shows a bias towards liberation and contextual theology texts. I liked his insistence that theology is communal. He does not envisage solitary individuals receiving solitary inspiration from solitary perusals of the Bible. There is a sturdy pastoral commonsense to much of his pithy advice. “Do not ask the scriptures questions they cannot answer,” he says, in an obvious hit at fundamentalists. Or again: “Many of us carry a cultural assumption, perhaps related to or caused by a traditional scientific mindset, which holds to the view that all problems are eventually solvable.”

But there are deep flaws in the methodology. I am not as confident as Darragh appears to be that “issues” will so spontaneously emerge out of “stories” unless somebody has been imposing abstrctions upon lived experience in the first place. Lurking behind this book is the post-modernist assumption (yep, it has reached the theological colleges, folks) that everything can be reduced to individual viewpoint. But with it goes the fallacy that an acknowledgement of viewpoint will inevitably lead to a clarification of values.

A theology graduate, Nicholas Reid is still trudging through a post-graduate degree in church history.

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