Retro righteous indignation, Paul Morris

Shaping Godzone: Public Issues and Church Voices in New Zealand 1840-2000
Laurie Guy
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736413


This is a 600-page, somewhat pious, lament for the New Zealand churches. These individual and collective Christian voices once heard right across the land used to play a significant role in the public debates and life of our country. Laurie Guy’s busily written study is a near-final epitaph for Christian New Zealand, the story of “a game of two halves”, as he puts it. The first half lasted more than a century during which the churches were major institutional players at a local and national level. We are now late in the second half, which began in the 1960s when church influence was in decline and which all but ended with the 1998 Hikoi of Hope, leaving only the echoes of the shrill moral crusading of the fundamentalist fringes.

Guy is not particularly enlightening about why this seemingly dramatic transition took place. He has little to add to existing studies of secularisation in New Zealand and of the decline of mainstream denominational churches both here and overseas, but then those are not his real focus. His primary interest is to recover something of the moral high ground of the past: for example, the missionary support of Maori that led to the Treaty of Waitangi, and the opposition to the 1981 rugby tour. He rightly insists that without the missionaries the Treaty would not have been signed and that this support drew on Christian moral teachings and concerns. Of course, to affirm the importance of these Christian voices is part of a revisionist history that in hindsight has elevated the role of the churches at the time, particularly the Anglicans, paralleling the newly risen status of the Treaty itself.

Marx contended that it was unhelpful to judge one era by the morality of another, so it transpires that until the shortest while ago we were all racist and chauvinist to some considerable degree. Guy, however, appears continually perplexed by the incomprehensible, shameful “Christian” attitudes and actions of the past when judged from his own contemporary Christian perspectives, and even goes as far as to suggest what they, as Christians, should have done at the time. He claims not to be able to distinguish New Zealand anti-Asian racism in the 1870s and 1880s from Rwanda in the 1990s. Repeatedly he expresses his own moral indignation and disappointment at the moral failures of Christians and the churches at Waitara, Parihaka, Pukekohe and elsewhere; at how the churches and churchmen so quickly seemed to capitulate to the settler and racist views of their day in ways that he understands as fatal compromises of their Christian faith.

The nearest Guy comes to addressing this directly is when discussing the failure of local clergy to engage with explicit racism, a failure he attributes to either “a lack of courage or a lack of a sense that this was an issue with which they ought to be involved”. Unfortunately he just leaves it there and moves on to the next, just as fascinating, topic and reiterates the churches’ intentions and limitations. I would have liked to read much more about the ways in which Christians theologically justified themselves and about the debates at the time on Christian values which clearly differed so markedly from those of many of the churches today. My own view is that Guy has most expertly highlighted a situation infinitely worse than he appreciates. It is not only that our own situation is the legacy of bigots, racists and flawed human beings (how could it be otherwise?) but that the issue for Guy (and us) is not really to do with the behaviour and attitudes of the New Zealand Christian “sinners”, those evil men and morally reprobate women in our history, but to do with our “saints”: that is, our leading clergy, our declaredly Christian officials and parliamentarians and their now so unacceptable views and actions.

The book is arranged thematically and includes the ever-popular topics of alcohol, gambling, sex and leisure time (the Sabbath). Each issue in turn is explored in terms of the first and second halves of New Zealand Christian history as the successes and failures of the responses of the major Christian denominations are gauged. The first half explores the different churches and their public and denominational concerns, and demonstrates that even when their moral campaigns failed, as they mostly did, the churches’ interventions left a lasting legacy of restraint, regulation and enforced conformity. In the second half, the overly tight, bounded, social norms unwound with great rapidity as many of the churches have come to focus on a gospel of social justice rather than individual sexual and behavioural morality. The short-lived triumph of liberal Christianity alongside the emptying out of the pews has given way to the rise of Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic elements within, and beyond, the denomination. The consequence is that the stress on sexual morality and “family values” has, albeit in new forms, returned. Except that at the end of the second half the church voices are mere shadows of their former selves and defined largely by their marginality. It is interesting to note that the New Zealand Council of Churches, the umbrella organisation of Christian ecumenism, has collapsed and that there have been attempts by conservative Christian voices to speak out on behalf of the churches on public issues. The churches have moved from the social and political centre to the very edges of New Zealand society.

Guy informs us that the focus of his book is “church and society interactions” or the “relationships between church and society” or “church and nation”. These distinctions are impossible to demark with any precision and sensibly he doesn’t try to do so. You could insist on looking at the social and political role of the churches as institutions or only look at clergy, but he consciously rejects these options in favour of analysing selective clerical and individual Christian interventions, sometimes sanctioned by churches, and sometimes not. Where is the line between nation or society and Christian to be drawn? Until the 1960s more than 90% of European New Zealanders declared themselves to be Christian. Almost all attended school assemblies with Bible readings and hymn singing, received Bible instruction at school or denominational religious instruction; many attended Sunday schools for a number of years. As Guy notes, “people unwittingly inhaled Christian influence as part of the air of society”. If you add christenings, confirmations, marriages, funerals and public events, you come to understand Christianity as the New Zealand religious and cultural default position.

So if Christianity cannot be detached from society with any precision, what is the real focus of Shaping Godzone? The language of church and society is significant. “Church” in the singular is a theological rather than political or sociological category. There are only churches, in the plural, often competing and at odds theologically with each other. The use of the singular over and against “society” is part of a very particular theological discourse concerned with the “Church” as witness and the role of the “Church” as prophetic voice. Guy’s study is, in fact, theology, masquerading as social history. It is this covert theological agenda that dictates the selection of historical themes and shapes the analysis and conclusions in the attempt to retrieve the Christian prophetic voices that alone will provide New Zealand with a much needed moral compass.

As theology, this is a most enjoyable, readable book that evidences the author’s public concerns and interests for our society and his deep anxieties about our collective future. He reminds us again and again about our new freedom from the constraints of the colonial past and the parallel need for greater social cohesion and moral guidance in a world seemingly governed solely by a focus on cost-benefit analysis, increasing GDP and export returns. As we move from one moral crisis to another, a bit of fine, reflective theology should be on everyone’s reading list, and this is a good place to start.


Paul Morris is a professor in the Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Review
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