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Colonial Church Histories: New Zealand

Containing the Dioceses of Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Waiapu, Wellington, and Melanesia.

By Henry Jacobs

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1887.

Part II. The Period of Organisation.


The Era of Church Organisation--In what sense Bishop Selwyn was Author of Church Constitution--Address of 1850--Pastoral of 1852--Proposed Principles of Church Constitution--Remarks on these.

The decade from 1850 to 1860 may be termed the era of Colonial Church Organisation, though the process cannot be said to have reached any approximate completeness until the cessation of the issue of Royal Letters Patent for the consecration of colonial bishops some five or six years later. As the several colonial communities became more settled, such of their people as had been nurtured in the bosom of the Church of England began to feel their anomalous position, retaining, as they did, none of the privileges, but only the clogs and hindrances of a State connexion. They felt as if they had been cast off by their mother, and thrown upon their own resources. The necessity of some system of self-government, in which the three orders--bishop, clergy, and laity--should each have their due place, and exercise their rightful functions, was apparent at every turn. Then the annually increasing number of colonial sees, and the similarity of position and interests among those which were contiguous to each other, suggested the necessity of grouping them into provinces, and thus widened the area of the problem. So that in several [186/187] widely-separated parts of the globe at the same time, in Canada, in South Africa, in Australia, and in New Zealand, it became the prominent question among Churchmen, How to organise themselves into effective self-governing committees, on sound Church principles; how to secure the advantages of cordial cooperation, of free deliberation, and a readily applied discipline, without impairing unity with the mother Church, without violating any law of the mother country, without jeopardising endowments, and without infringing the liberty of such of their own members as did not perceive the necessity of any new organisation, or suspected some lurking motive actuating it, or some hidden mischief underlying it.

In their discussion of these questions men drew their precedents mainly from two sources--the one nearer at hand, the other further off. The first was the organisation of the branch of the church in communion with the Church of England in the United States of America; the second was the position and history of the Catholic Church in the primitive ages. We do not, of course, speak of these as independent sources, since the American Church, in constituting herself, as she was compelled to do, independently of the mother Church, on the declaration of the independence of the United States, deliberately followed to the best of her judgment, and as far as circumstances permitted, the precedents of the ancient Church.

In ascribing to Bishop Selwyn the authorship of the Church Constitution of New Zealand, we must [187/188] not suppose for a moment that it sprang, Minerva-like, from his individual brain. On the contrary, among the main excellences of the great bishop were his love of united counsel, and his power of eliciting and harmonising the views and efforts of various minds for the attainment of a great result. Though so thoroughly original, he valued exceedingly the advice of the wise and experienced, the acknowledged experts in their several departments; neither was he above learning a lesson from an opponent, or listening to the suggestions of a comparative novice. His self-abnegation and single-minded determination to subordinate everything, even his own strong will, to the glory of God and the advancement of the interests of His Church, combined with his genius for organisation to erect that worthy monument to his name, the constitution of the Church of New Zealand.

It is in keeping with these remarks that, in appearance, the movement originated with others, not with himself. As early as 1850, a letter, which has been alluded to before, was addressed to him signed by 96 inhabitants, both lay and clerical, of the Auckland district, 17 of Taranaki, 47 of Wanganui, and 110 of Nelson, [Footnote: It is noticeable that there are no signatures from the Wellington district. This letter, as well as many other documents of that period, was printed, as the title-page testifies, "at the College Press, Bishop's Auckland,"--a name which did not attain longevity.] declaring their "earnest conviction that a peculiar necessity exists for the speedy establishment of some system of Church government which, by assigning to each order in the Church its [188/189] appropriate duties, might call forth the energies of all, and thus enable the whole body of the Church most efficiently to perform its functions"; and setting forth in clear and tolerably full outline a scheme for the summoning of a general convention, "resembling in many points," they say, "that which we are informed has proved so beneficial to our brethren in America, and which we should all be satisfied to see adopted here." "We have felt the less hesitation," they add, "in submitting these our views to your lordship, because we are aware that you have long been most anxious to see an efficient system of Church government established amongst us, and that this subject is one which has not only always occupied your own earnest attention, but which you have on various occasions commended to the serious consideration of the members of our Church." The fundamental principles of this scheme, it should be mentioned, are those which underlie the Church Constitution, as finally adopted and now existing. The signature of Sir George Grey stands at the head of this historic document, and amongst the other signatures from the Auckland district are those of "Wm. Martin," the Chief Justice, and "William Swainson," the Attorney-General; and, although there is nothing in the letter itself to guide us as to the authorship, we should not, probably, be far wrong in ascribing it to these three.

Armed with this expression of the views of the leading clergymen and laymen of New Zealand, the bishop went, as we have already related, to the conference of bishops at Sydney. We have seen already [189/190] how largely his time and thoughts were occupied during a great portion of the ensuing year, 1851, by his three visits to Canterbury, and his mission tour in company with the Bishop of Newcastle in the Border Maid. The first lines of the next document we have to lay before our readers prove sufficiently, notwithstanding, that the question of Church Organisation had not been suffered to sleep during that year. That document is a "Pastoral Letter of the Bishop of New Zealand to the Members of the Church of England in the Diocese of New Zealand," dated, "St. John's College, April 19th, 1852," to which is appended a schedule of "General Principles proposed as the Basis of a Constitution for the Church of New Zealand." This pastoral explains so briefly and clearly the difficulties of the Church's position at that time, and is so illustrative at the same time of the cautious yet resolute manner in which the bishop proceeded in this great enterprise; and the appended principles, which are themselves an expansion of those sketched out in the address of 1850, are so essential to a right understanding of the history of the Constitution, that no apology can be deemed necessary for giving both in full:--


"St. John's College, April 19, 1852.


"The reports which I have received from England, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tasmania have convinced me that the time has come when it is my [191/192] duty to press upon you the necessity of applying to the heads of the State and of the Church in England for authority to frame, under their sanction, such a form of constitution for our branch of the English Church as may define the privileges and duties of all the members, whether clerical or lay, and secure to them a due participation in the management of its affairs.

"The necessity of this measure arises mainly from two causes: First, that the Church in this colony is not established by law, and consequently that a large portion of the ecclesiastical law of England is inapplicable to us; Secondly, that the church in this colony is dependent mainly upon the voluntary contributions of its members. It would be impossible, within any reasonable compass, to trace out the necessary differences of system resulting from these causes, which must exist between our colonial branch and the mother Church, as it is in England, established by law, and supported by permanent endowments.

"We can scarcely expect that such a revision of the ecclesiastical law as would meet our wants will be undertaken in England, because the convocation of the clergy is no longer allowed to meet for deliberation, and the British Parliament is no longer composed only of members of the Church. Our own colonial legislature for the same reason cannot he considered competent to enact laws for the government of the Church.

"It follows, therefore, that we must either be content to have no laws to guide us, or that we must [191/192] apply for the usual power granted to all incorporated bodies--to frame bye-laws for ourselves in all such matters as relate to our own peculiar position, reserving to Her Majesty and to the heads of the Church in England such rights and powers as may be necessary to maintain the Queen's supremacy, and the unity and integrity of our Church. I, therefore, submit the following statement of a few fundamental principles which, with your approbation, might be made the basis of an application for a charter of incorporation, to be granted to our branch of the English Church. It would be reserved for the convention itself to decide upon all the minor details of our Church Constitution, so far as we may be left free to legislate for ourselves.

"Commending you to the guidance of Him who is able to give you a right judgment in all things,

"I remain,

"Your affectionate friend and pastor,
"G. A., New Zealand."


"1. That the bishops, clergy, and laity shall be three distinct orders, the consent of all of which shall be necessary to all acts binding upon the Church at large.

"2. Subject to the foregoing principle, that each order be at liberty to conduct its deliberations separately, or to unite with the others, at its own discretion. [192/193]

"3. That, provisionally, till a definition of Church membership shall have been agreed upon by a General Convention, every person shall be deemed a member of the Church of England who shall make a written declaration to that effect to the clergyman of his parish or district.

"4. That every adult Church member, who shall have been duly registered, be entitled to vote at the election of lay representatives to the first General Convention.

"5. That it shall rest with the General Convention to decide how and by whom all patronage shall be exercised; and in what manner all persons holding Church offices shall be removable from the same; and also to fix the amount of all salaries, fees, and other allowances.

"6. That it is necessary that the Church body, constituted as above, should be legally incorporated, and that all sites of churches, burial grounds, schools, and lands for endowment of the Church, &c., should be vested in the General Incorporation.

"7. That, in order to maintain the Queen's supremacy, and union with the mother Church, a draft of the Constitution proposed for the Church in New Zealand be submitted to Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, through the Metropolitan Bishop of Sydney, with a petition that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to direct the necessary steps to be taken whether [193/194] by Act of Parliament or by Royal Charter, to secure to our branch of the English Church the liberty, within certain limits, of framing laws for its own government.

"8. That neither the Doctrines nor the Ritual of the Church of England, nor the Authorised Version of the Bible, shall in any way be subject to the decision of the General Convention.

"9. That the Bishop of New Zealand be requested to embody the above resolutions in the form of a petition, and to take such steps as may be necessary for carrying into effect the wishes of the memorialists."

We may venture to make one or two brief remarks on some peculiarities in the foregoing documents, chiefly because these contain in them the germs of subsequent controversies. In the first place, the reference is exclusively to General Convention; there is an apparent ignoring of diocesan synods or conventions. Secondly, it is laid down as "necessary" that all sites and endowments should be vested "in the General Incorporation." This was, from first to last, a very strong point with the bishop; but it has not commanded universal assent. Thirdly, the broad statement of the necessity of an Act of Parliament or a Royal Charter "to secure to the Church the liberty of framing laws for its own government," calls for some explanation at the present day, The most eminent English lawyers of that period were divided in opinion as to whether the famous Act of Parliament, generally known as [194/195] the Act of Submission of the Clergy, 25 Henry VIII., cap. 19, was or was not applicable to the colonies, and did, or did not, prevent colonial bishops from assembling synods or conventions of their clergy and laity for the purpose of legislating on Church matters. In a debate in the House of Commons in 1852, on Mr. Gladstone's Colonial Bishops' Bill, which was one of three notable attempts made in as many successive sessions of the British Parliament to remove these supposed disabilities, the Attorney-General (Sir F. Thesiger) said, and Sir R. Bethell concurred with him, that there was no need for legislation whatever, and that no embarrassment was caused by the Act of Henry VIII. On the other hand, Sir W. Page Wood, afterwards Vice-Chancellor, and better known as Lord Hatherley, though he did not directly contravene this statement, declared his conviction that the case was not clear one way or the other. In this position of uncertainty, the bishops of colonial dioceses, bound as they were personally by the terms of the Royal Letters Patent, as the conditions on which they had accepted their appointments, felt that they were powerless to move, without at least a Declaratory Act to the effect that "no legal impediment existed to prevent them" from convening their clergy and laity in synods. There was, moreover, on the part of a large number--probably a majority--of the laity who took an interest in these questions, a nervous dread of any action being taken, which might separate them from the united Church of England and Ireland as established by law.

We have mentioned one attempt to remedy the [195/196] grievance complained of, namely Mr. Gladstone's Colonial Bishops' Bill, which originated in the House of Commons in 1852. In the following year the Archbishop of Canterbury (Sumner) introduced a Bill into the House of Lords, entitled The Colonial Church Regulation which was carried through the Upper House, but was lost in the House of Commons, partly because it was brought in too late in the session, and partly because it entered too much into detail, and was thought to interfere too much with the principle of self-legislation. A result which was a grievous disappointment to many at the time, but for which we, at this date, can hardly be sufficiently thankful.

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