New Zealand a Christian country? Paul Morris

Shaping a Colonial Church: Bishop Harper and the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch 1856-1890 
Colin Brown, Marie Peters and Jane Teal (eds) 
Canterbury University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 1877257443 

James Michael Liston: A Life 
Nicholas Reid
Victoria University Press, $49.95, 
ISBN 0864735367 

Ratana Revisited: An Unfinished Legacy 
Keith Newman
Reed, $69.99,
ISBN 0790010577 

In May this year, Brian Tamaki led thousands at Waitangi calling for the government to formally recognise this as a Christian country. The books under review challenge any simple notion of a uniform New Zealand Christian heritage, highlighting real differences between the churches and competing versions of religion in our national life.

In an earlier review in New Zealand Books, I lamented the dearth of research on religion and the need to go beyond biographies to understand the broader influences of religion on our history. These books, totalling over 1300 pages, potentially address this. All three studies are biographical, although they do go beyond the leaders to their wider impact.

John Chitty Harper (1804-1894) was appointed in 1856 as the first Bishop of “the Church at Christchurch”, and this study of his life and legacy is to mark the 150th anniversary of his arrival in New Zealand. The impetus for these new commissioned essays was the discovery in 1988 of 28 volumes of Harper’s outward-bound letters, amounting to over 12,000 pages, and hundreds of inward letters that serve to add to our appreciation of the man and his active administrative life. The father of 14, he generated a tradition in Christchurch of middle-ranking administrators.

For more than 33 years, Harper presided over a growing diocese. His is a South Island story of comparative prosperity and peace at the time of war in the North. Under Harper’s direction the Anglican Church here, freed from being the established church, became notably more self-reliant and independent. In 1857 the Anglican Church approved its own constitution, effectively making it autonomous of the Church in England. The much higher level of the involvement of the laity made it closer to American Episcopalian than English models.

Harper turned out to be a champion of an independent Anglican Church here and, by the end of his tenure, an increasing number of clergy were locally trained and ordained, and an array of institutions had been established to service the church. Harper was an advocate of denominational schooling and was opposed to State education and the “secular” clause in the 1877 Education Act. He was a prime mover behind Christchurch Cathedral and Canterbury University College and became a major figure outside of the church. His administrative genius was to have built a team that allowed him to take over a diocese very much in the making and retire with not only the Canterbury but also the New Zealand Anglican Church well established and flourishing.

The volume’s fine essays and magnificent collection of family and official photographs, many published for the first time, add up to a real contribution to scholarship. Harper’s legacy was a strong Anglican Church that considered itself absolutely theologically and institutionally independent from the Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists. In fact, Harper stood against collaboration with other churches except on social issues, such as alcohol abuse and prostitution. On the question of whether New Zealand was a Christian country, Harper would have undoubtedly said yes, although he would have rejected the call for the government to recognise this as he held that “the state should stand in an attitude of absolute indifference to all religious communities.”

The second study is Nicholas Reid’s portrayal of another long ecclesiastical life, James Michael Liston, Bishop of Auckland (1881-1976). This is a much more conventional chronological biography although it is refreshingly opinionated at times. There is little pretence at objectivity, and Reid’s partisan study occasionally borders on pious
hagiography, such as when he lets Liston off the hook much too easily over his inaction concerning clergy sexual abuse and discipline.

Liston was a Dunedin publican’s son sent off at 11 to junior seminary and later dispatched to other seminaries, including at 19 to the Irish College in Rome. It was a hard regime, with the banning of secular literature and the censorship of mail. Young James gained his doctorate in divinity and returned home to Dunedin in 1903 to both parents dead and no future family life. He was ordained the following year. At Holy Cross, Mosgiel, he became a teacher and developed a lifelong passion for cricket. At that time rugby was forbidden due to the prohibition of boys laying hands on each other, although this rule was relaxed a little later. It was a brutal and over-disciplined life punctuated by regular “nigger minstrel shows”. At 28, Liston was in charge of the national Catholic seminary and for nine years he served as Holy Cross’s rector. Liston’s second love began during this period as he acquired a car and took to motoring.

As the majority of Catholics here were of Irish descent, the funding of Irish relief and – after 1917 – support for Sinn Fein and Irish independence became contentious issues. Bishop Liston was a passionate Labour man and an advocate for Irish self-determination. During WWI, Papal neutrality also became a factor for local Catholics, with Liston publicly justifying Rome’s position. Conscription for seminarians also was a concern for Catholic authorities. Although Liston was the least popular candidate for promotion among his fellow priests, including those that had worked with him, he was the most favoured among the bishops, and in 1920 at 38 he became the second New Zealand-born bishop.

Moved to Auckland, he helped to develop local Catholic institutions and played a role in the construction of a sort of parallel universe alongside mainstream New Zealand, ranging from educational and welfare provision to separate Catholic sports clubs. In 1922 Liston was charged with sedition for having made intemperate remarks about the 1916 Easter uprising. He defended himself in a high-profile trial and was found not guilty by the jury. The chapter on the trial and its context is excellent and highlights the identity crisis faced by those Catholics born here, the fragility of their imperial loyalty and the strength of the Protestant anti-Catholicism. Liston did much to integrate immigrant Catholics into New Zealand society and to foster their identity as New Zealanders. He became a personal friend and Sunday motoring buddy of Michael Savage who in return was a regular at Sacred Heart College sports days. John A Lee recalls Liston thanking God for the Labour Party victory in 1935.

Liston became a major Auckland figure known for his opposition to communism and his commitment to Catholic education and the development of a professional and intellectual elite. Like Harper, he turned out to be a gifted administrator and retired after more than 50 years, with the Catholic Church strong and independent but equally a wholly integrated part of New Zealand society. He presided over a largely immigrant flock and created the church as an agent of their assimilation as New Zealanders. He never understood the need for the Vatican II reforms and became increasingly out of touch with popular sentiments in the Church.

Reid’s Liston is not very likeable, and an uncompromising disciplinarian comfortable with the exercise of power. All that Reid can finally say is that he served the Church “as well as any other bishop and better than most”. Did Liston think that this was a Christian country? Yes. Although committed to a vibrant separate Catholic New Zealand culture, he increasingly saw value in the nascent ecumenical movement standing opposed to secular forces. He did much to foster a New Zealand Catholic Church, with its own contours and particular blend of home-grown and overseas traditions, that at the same time was axiomatically an integral part of New Zealand society.

The final book is Keith Newman’s study of Ratana. Ponderous and overly long, it contains too much extraneous information on the author’s beliefs, music, and record of his Ratana encounters. The last major monograph on Ratana was Jim Henderson’s 1972 book, and there is scope for a volume that incorporates recent scholarship and now available sources.

This doorstopper of a book does, however, have wonderful photographs of Ratana, Ratana Pa and Ratana events and personalities and is worth the purchase price for these alone. Ratana too was a motoring fanatic who developed a personal relationship with Savage. Ratana still awaits a serious critical biography. Newman asks us to consider Ratana’s revealed teachings as a gospel for a contemporary spiritual revival. The Maori prophetic movements, of which Ratana is heir, are critiques of settler Christianity; these restructured Christian teachings so that they had a bearing on Maori in this land. For Ratana, as understood by Newman, New Zealand is a Christian country with its own Christian prophets, and Ratana’s prophecy is for us all.

All three studies highlight the transformation of religious teachings and institutions developed in Europe as they became acclimatised to their new colonial context. What developed were new churches at home here in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Reading about these churches increases one’s resistance to reducing them to a single Christian anything, encouraging one rather to view them as important aspects of our rich and diverse religious history.


Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


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