Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.

Chapter XIII. The Later Episcopate

"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.''
--R. Browning.

Some of the more notable events of the later period of the bishop's labours have already been described in the preceding chapters, but Bishop Harper was a man whose daily life and regular work stood for much more than the occasional events by which that life and work were varied. Take away the Jenner difficulty, the Carlyon trouble, and the Property tax dispute, and there is little (except the opening of the Cathedral) for a formal history to record. Yet none of these events, nor all of them together, made up any really great part of his work. An attempt must now be made to pourtray the bishop in his ordinary routine of labour, and to sketch the quiet growth of the diocese during the last twenty years of his episcopate.

The separation of Otago in 1871 left him with a diocese which was fairly compact though still large enough to occupy the energies of the most active pastor.

Except for the Westland goldfields, it soon became easy to traverse, for the seventies saw the formation of railways through nearly every part of Canterbury. And each part was regularly visited by the bishop, who was thoroughly familiar with every parish. Very little pioneering work did he leave for his successor. The Chatham Islands (300 miles out at sea), and the extreme south of Westland (only to be reached by riding round a bluff between two successive waves) were the only inhabited territories in which the second bishop found a fresh field for his energies.

During these tours he was frequently called upon to consecrate new churches. A full list of these will be found in the appendix, but special mention must be made here of St. Mary's, Timaru. Only the nave was completed during Bishop Harper's episcopate, but this was sufficient to mark it as one of the finest churches in Australasia. Though on a smaller scale, it vies with the Cathedral itself--in some respects even surpasses it--in dignity of design, solidity of structure, and beauty of detail.

Frequent, however, as were such joyful occasions as the consecration of a church, the bishop's visit to a parish was generally marked by nothing more remarkable than a confirmation. But it was in the conduct of these quieter services that his strength lay. His love for the young and his sympathy for their trials, his intense spirituality and his genuine earnestness, his dignity and his winning gentleness--all these qualities were seen to perfection at a confirmation. He always delivered two addresses to the candidates--one before the question, and the other after the laying on of hands. These addresses never aimed at novelty or originality, they did not vary much in their substance or even in their form, but they always came fresh and living from the heart. It was on these occasions that the bishop threw off most completely his habitual reserve and revealed most clearly his inmost soul.

Needless to say that in the houses where he stayed he was ever a welcome guest. Sheep-station, country parsonage, or settler's rough shanty--in each and all the bishop's visit was an event to be long remembered and had in honour. He had an exceptional memory for faces and people, and never seemed to forget any member of a household which he had visited. The children in particular attracted his kindly notice, and were remembered in various ways when the visit was over.

The relations between the bishop and his clergy were generally of the happiest character. It could hardly be expected, of course, that no troubles would arise, but only one was of sufficient magnitude to attract public attention. This was the Carlyon case--a ritual dispute at Kaiapoi, in the year 1877. The whole subject of illegal ritual has passed into a different phase since then, and nothing would be gained now by the re-opening of an old sore.

The case stands differently, however, with a dispute which occupied much time during the last three years of Dr. Harper's episcopate. This was of so singular a nature and turned so largely upon the bishop's personal action, that some account of it must be given here.

Like the struggles between the Christchurch Synod and Bishop Selwyn in 1862-65, this was connected with the Canterbury Church endowments. The cause of the dispute was quite different, but again the bishop found himself opposed to a large section of his diocesan Synod, and again his qualities of firmness and discretion were manifested in an eminent degree.

The history of the building of the Cathedral (as given in the previous chapter) shows that loans were raised by the Church Property Trustees from time to time in order to make up for a deficiency in subscriptions. In 1879, the Synod determined on a bold course. In order to pay off the loans already contracted, and also to secure an additional sum wherewith to complete the nave, as well as to assist church-building throughout the diocese, it actually resolved to borrow in the English money market no less a sum than £50,000. This is probably the largest financial transaction ever entered into by a colonial diocese, and it is not to be wondered at if provision was not made for all possible contingencies. No difficulty was found in obtaining the money, but the lenders secured themselves with a double security. Five hundred debentures (of £100 each) were issued, with negotiable interest coupons signed by the bishop. In addition to this, three gentlemen in the colony (Messrs. Murray-Aynsley, Tancred, and Bowen) were appointed on behalf of the lenders to hold a mortgage of a large part of the Church estates, and to act as intermediaries between the diocese and the English creditors. [After Mr. Tancred's death in 1884, Mr. E. Westenra was appointed in his place.]

All went well till the year 1887, when the New Zealand Government subjected the Church estates to a property tax. The question then arose:--Who ought to pay the tax on the mortgaged lands--the diocese or the debenture-holders? The Church Property Trustees held that it must be paid by the latter. To the bishop this course seemed like a repudiation of just liabilities, and he reserved the resolution for the consideration of Synod. "It is not a question which should be decided simply on business principles, or even in accordance with a law in this country . . . but on those higher principles which we profess to hold, and which would have us in all our dealings with our fellow-men adhere strictly to our agreements with them, even though in doing so we should incur some pecuniary loss.''

For the present, however, the matter was settled by carrying it to the New Zealand Court of Appeal. Judgment was given in August, 1888, and it was in favour of the Church Property Trustees. The mortgagees were declared liable to pay the tax. The trustees therefore determined simply to reimburse these three gentlemen for the money they had privately advanced in order to keep faith with the debenture-holders, but to pay no more for the future. This did not suit the bishop. Such a course might be legal, but it was to his mind "inconsistent with that higher law of morality which the Church, the teacher of righteousness, is bound to uphold." Accordingly, he called the Synod together immediately after the judgment of the Court of Appeal, and before it he laid his case.

The Synod was in a sore state of perplexity. The members had the greatest reverence for their bishop, and sympathised with his position; but might he not be a little over-scrupulous? The trustees were high-minded men, as well as men of business: would they advocate anything dishonourable? The highest court in the land sided with them; was it necessary to be more just than the judges? So the Synod--town and country clergy, town and country laity--set itself to master the intricacies of the case in order to solve this new phase of the world-old problem, What is Justice?

The ordinary Synod fortnight passed, and still the question was undecided. At the close of the second week the bishop appealed to the members to come back on Monday and go through with their task. Many a country church must be left without services, but justice is greater even than church ordinances. So for another week the discussion went on, and its close found the question still unsettled. Again the aged bishop appealed to the members, and again they came back--or at least enough of them to form a quorum. The result was one which deserves to stand on record. In spite of the Court of Appeal, in spite of the serious strain which the funds of the Church must inevitably suffer, those poor clergy and church officers decided that the diocese should pay the tax. There was no necessity to pay it, most of them could ill afford the loss, but it seemed the right thing to do, and the bishop had asked them to do it.

For the moment everything seemed settled, and settled as the bishop wished. But the trustees determined to save the diocese from the consequence of its heroic action. Armed with legal opinions from eminent counsel in other parts of the colony, they declined to obey the directions of Synod on the ground that such an expenditure was actually illegal. Here was a new difficulty and one which made the last year of Bishop Harper's episcopate little else than a year of synods. No less than four sessions were held in this year (1889), and one of these lasted for a month (May 21st to June 21st). In a three days' session in March the Synod rescinded its resolutions of the previous year, and by a substantial majority agreed to introduce a Bill into Parliament which should empower the trustees to pay the arrears of tax but nothing more. Still the trustees were obdurate, and refused to act upon the recommendation of Synod. Again and again the matter was brought forward, but, at the end of the year unanimity seemed as far off as ever. At last the trustees themselves became convinced of the practical difficulties in the way of compelling the coupon-holders to pay the tax. The final act in this strange drama was not concluded till Bishop Harper had retired from the scene, but immediately after the appointment of his successor a special session of Synod was summoned (June 1890) which in two days settled the long-vexed question with complete unanimity and on the lines laid down by Bishop Harper from the first. The diocese went to the expense of obtaining an Act of Parliament which empowered it to tax itself for the benefit of the English creditors. Sentiment and justice were alike satisfied, and the memory of the long dispute has well-nigh faded from the minds of those whose feelings it once stirred so fiercely.

Apart, however, from the property tax dispute, the closing years of the bishop's term of office were years of peaceful activity and beneficent influence. In spite of his great age, he was able to pay his regular visits to all parts of the diocese with unfailing regularity. The only point in which his physical powers failed was his hearing. As years went by, more and more committee work was called for, and it was in this he felt his deafness most. "Business at committees" (he wrote in 1888) "is carried on chiefly in a conversational tone, and unless the speaker is near at hand and looking me full in the face, I may hear a voice but without understanding the meaning of it. As to travelling and letter-writing, and taking services and holding confirmations--this at present I feel quite equal to."

It might have been thought that the failure of his powers of hearing would have disqualified him from presiding over large assemblies like the General and Diocesan Synods. This, however, was not the case. His secretary (Rev. F. Knowles) conveyed to his ear, through a tube, the gist of every speech that was made, and when a joke had to be thus transmitted members used to watch with amused expectation for the smile which rarely failed to appear upon the old man's face. Occasionally indeed the working of this arrangement was at fault, and once when appealed to on a point of order he gave a ruling which everyone immediately recognised to be due to a misunderstanding of the question. A moment more, and both sides had tacitly agreed to drop the point altogether, out of regard for the bishop's feelings. But in this and other matters the universal reverence in which he was held more than supplied the place of the quickness and adaptiveness of youth.

Still this state of things could not last for ever. In 1887 the bishop announced to the Synod that he intended to retire at the end of the following year. Legal difficulties interposed to prevent the accomplishment of this project, and it was not till August 10th, 1889, that he actually resigned his see--the resignation to take effect on March 31st, 1890. But right up to the latter date he worked with all his own diligence and regularity. In 1888 he was called upon to consecrate a cathedral church at Auckland (Bishop Cowie being absent at the Lambeth Conference). On his return he wrote, "I was in Auckland one week--Monday, September 24th, to Monday, October 1st--and found ample employment. A parish gathering with address from parishioners and reply, lay readers' gathering, with address from myself, confirmation, ordination of two priests, address from working men, with a reply, and consecration of cathedral church with sermon. The weather was bright and cool for Auckland and I was not over-fatigued."

Yet at this time he was over eighty-six years old!

His last year (1889) was a particularly busy one. Besides the numerous sessions of the Diocesan Synod already referred to, he presided at his last General Synod in February. This Synod was held in Dunedin, and here Bishop Hadfield (of Wellington) was elected to succeed him in the primacy, though he himself did not resign the office till September 5th.

In April he paid his farewell visit to the West Coast. He was accompanied by one of his grandsons, and on his arrival at Kumara wrote the following account of the work which lay before him:--

"I came here on Wednesday last with W. Cox, for the last time, I suppose, and shall hold confirmations in this township, Stafford, Hokitika, and Boss, besides services at Goldsborough, Bimu, and Kanieri, and must bring them all within the few days ending Palm Sunday. . . . My journey hither was accomplished in the two days, in spite of some damage done to the roads this side of the pass by heavy floods, which necessitated a walk of about a mile."

In almost all of the townships thus visited, as well as in those of Canterbury, and especially of South Canterbury, the bishop received addresses recording affectionate regrets at the thought of his approaching retirement. A similar expression of opinion was embodied by the Diocesan Synod in a resolution moved by the Hon. H. B. Gresson. In reply the bishop alluded to his increasing deafness as the chief reason which had induced him to resign. There was another consideration, however, which had led him to take that step. "I feel that I have not the gifts and powers which are necessary for the effective carrying on of the Church. I came out here at a time of comparative peace, as an English clergyman knowing what was required and able to carry out those requirements. But times have changed. Under the present difficulties you want persons of greater powers and greater gifts to carry out the real work of the Church here, and to secure the true co-operation of the laity.'' These modest words showed how the aged bishop realised the importance of the changes which were impending, and, had already, indeed, begun. He had met and overcome the difficulties of the colony's early days, but he was leaving to his successor other difficulties even harder to surmount. Under his rule the whole diocese had been supplied with churches and parsonages; the number of clergy had grown from 10 to 60; the outward agencies were abundantly provided. But the democracy which was installed in office in 1890, the year of the bishop's retirement, stood outside the old religious organisation, and he felt himself unequal to the leadership amidst such new conditions.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

and he would yield without vexation or complaint to new men and new methods.

It is indeed somewhat strange to reflect that Canterbury--conservative and ecclesiastical Canterbury--should have taken the leading part in giving to New Zealand its female franchise, and its socialistic labour legislation. The authors or principal supporters of these measures were the Hon. Sir John Hall, and the Hon. W. P. Reeves--both of them men belonging to the original pilgrim element of the settlement, and more or less closely associated with the bishop. He himself was not one to oppose anything that might be for the good of the people as a whole, yet he had no great faith in legislation of a novel and venturesome kind. His ideal was character--character formed and moulded on the old catechism traditions of duty to God and man. It may be, however, that he himself had done as much as anyone to make possible such a development of democratic legislation as took place in the years which followed his retirement from office. At any-rate, he had the respect of the people at large in no common measure. "We may not come to church much," said a citizen of Christchurch, "but it does us good to see the old man walking down the street." And no one was cheered more loudly than he when the crowds gathered to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. The popular verdict was well summed up by the anonymous writer of some singularly clever verses, entitled "A Sermon to the Bishops," which appeared at Dunedin during the last General Synod over which Dr. Harper presided.

In the earlier part of this "Sermon" many a shrewd hit was made at the weak points of the other prelates, but when the primate's turn came, the satirical tone was dropped, and the last verse ran thus:--

"And thou, head shepherd, venerable pastor,
Ere long to hang thy crook upon the wall,
A life well spent in service of thy Master
Has made thee ready for the Master's call.
Thy faithful stewardship this guerdon brings;
'Be thou the ruler over many things.'"

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