Project Canterbury

A History of the English Church in New Zealand

By H.T. Purchas

Christchurch: Simpson and Williams, 1914.

Chapter XII.


The inward life must not be separated in practice from the external unity of the body of Christ. The law of unity is the essence of its strength, its purity, and its holiness.--Bishop Selwyn.

THE urgent necessity of mutual communion for preservation of our unity . . . maketh it requisite that the Church of God here on earth have her laws." So wrote the judicious Hooker in that immortal work which came to Bishop Selwyn as a legacy from his great predecessor, Samuel Marsden. The bishop himself was well aware of this necessity. We have seen how he tried to bind the missionaries to himself by calling them together in synods in 1844 and in 1847. The canons which were passed by these gatherings were doubtless of some importance, but their chief value lay in the spirit of unity which they were calculated to evoke.

Legitimate and natural, however, as such gatherings must seem to us, they threw the Committee of the Church Missionary Society into "transports of alarm." In England the synodical action of the Church had been so long silenced, that any attempt to revive it was regarded as an act of priestly assumption, and an affront to the supremacy of the royal power. But Selwyn's action was only a little in advance of the time. In all the colonies, men were feeling after some form of church government by which laws could be made and unity preserved. The bishops were sent out from the mother Church with Royal Letters Patent, which seemed to confer upon their holders almost absolute power, but the colonies possessed no machinery by which this power could be enforced; and it was evident that some method must be devised by which the different members of the Church could be brought together, and enabled to make laws for its governance and well-being.

The method followed by Bishop Selwyn was that which he derived from the primitive Church. The bishop and his clergy formed a "synod" which could enact "canons" for the regulation of the faithful. But something more was evidently needed; and this, too, seemed to spring into existence in the memorable year 1850, which marked in so many ways the turn of the tide in the New Zealand Church.

The self-same month which witnessed the departure of Henry Williams from Paihia, beheld his great antagonist, Sir George Grey, laid upon a bed of sickness at New Plymouth. There is no absolute proof that the archdeacon's case was consciously before the governor's mind, though it is hard to think that it was not. But it is certain that his thoughts were drawn at this juncture to the question of the government and unity of the Church. As Bishop Selwyn put it long afterwards: "There was something more touching in the origin of that constitution than persons are generally aware of. The first draft of the present constitution was drawn by Sir George Grey on a sick bed at Taranaki; and it was the fruit of those feelings which come upon the mind in sickness, when a man sets aside thoughts of government and the cares of this world, and knows, as a Christian man, that he has something better to think of than the perishable things of this life. His Excellency has produced what has been of great spiritual benefit to the Church in this country."

The chief point about the governor's scheme was the inclusion of the laity in the government of the Church. Of course this was not an altogether original feature. It had already been adopted by the American branch of the Anglican communion. During the years that followed the promulgation of Grey's scheme, American theological halls were echoing to such sentiments as this: "The power of self-government is advocated over all the Colonial Churches of the British Empire. Why is it that the Churches in New Zealand and New South Wales are demanding synodical action and lay representation? It is our influence and our example." The American origin of the Grey document is clearly shown by the term "Convention," which was used to describe the proposed legislative body. The bishops were to sit apart in one house; clerical and lay representatives were to sit together, but to vote separately, in another. The provisions of the document were simply but clearly drawn, and they foreshadow in most points the completed constitution of 1857. One matter of detail was allowed to creep into the fundamental provisions: church pews might be appropriated, but not charged for!

When Selwyn received this draft, he at once expressed his willingness to adopt it if it should be supported by a considerable number of churchpeople. The governor therefore set himself to secure signatures to a letter urging its acceptance upon the bishop. In this he succeeded beyond his expectations. In Auckland the letter was signed by "the General, the Chief Justice, the principal military officers, by all the clergy in the neighbourhood, by all the principal merchants who are members of our Church, and by a large number of other persons." The total, in fact, reached 94; and the column is headed by the simple signatures, "G. Grey," and "Wm. Martin." A good body of signatures was appended from Taranaki, Wanganui, and Nelson; none from Wellington or the eastern district. The names of the brothers Williams, of course, do not appear, but some of the other missionaries were found willing to sign--Kissling, Maunsell, Morgan, Ashwell, and Taylor.

With this document the bishop sailed for Sydney, to attend the meeting of bishops already referred to. The Australian prelates were entirely in favour of synodical action, but they were not prepared to follow the Grey scheme in its entirety. Their plan was for bishop and clergy to constitute a "synod" (as in ancient times), but that lay representatives should at the same time hold a "convention," which should have the right of veto on certain of the decisions of the "synod." As the name "G. A. New Zealand" appears among the list of signatories, it may be presumed that he concurred in this rather clumsy scheme; but in the following year he acted in the opposite direction by inviting Mr. Godley and another layman to sit in conference with the clergy of the diocese of Christchurch.

The points of difference between the rival schemes do not appear in the next act. In 1852 the bishop put forth a pastoral letter, in which he called the attention of the churchmen of New Zealand to the absolute necessity for providing some church authority. The colony had just received its civil constitution: the Church must have one too. As to whether laymen should sit with the clergy or not, the bishop leaves the matter open. But he adopts a proviso upon which both Sir George Grey and the Australian bishops had insisted, viz., that whatever convention or synod might be set up, it should have no power to alter the doctrine and ritual of the Church of England, or the Authorised Version of the Bible.

No point in the final constitution of the New Zealand Church has been more criticised than this. What was the precise object of its insertion? Of course, the natural conservatism of the churchly mind would account for much, but not for all. What national church ever before tied its own hands in this deliberate way? But was the Church of New Zealand to be a national church? That was exactly the point which had chief influence with the statesmen and lawymen to whom the constitution is mainly due. To them the Royal Supremacy stood first. Nothing must be done which could in any way infringe upon the prerogatives of the Crown. Only in the possible case of a separation of Church and State in England, or in the case of a political separation of New Zealand from the Mother Country, could there be any liberty in these all-important points. Then the liberty might be absolute and complete.

But there was one man in New Zealand who saw farther than the rest. Godley would have none of the Grey scheme, and he persuaded his fellow churchmen of Canterbury to put forth a protest against it. Any plan for the government of the Church should emanate (they argued) from the episcopate, and should be dutifully accepted by the faithful. They themselves would therefore refrain from any detailed suggestions, but they strongly maintained the right of even the infant Church of New Zealand to deal, if necessary, with questions of doctrine and ritual, and even of the translation of the Scriptures. Cordially as they were attached to their Prayer Book and to their Bible, they yet could foresee a time when occasion might arise for change.

What Selwyn's own feeling on this matter might be, it is not easy to discover. But as, in their conversations at Lyttleton, he and Mr. Godley always found themselves in agreement, it seems not unlikely that on this point also the minds of the two men were in accord. But the bishop could not do as he would in this as in many other matters. The Committee of the C.M.S. had already taken alarm at a step which seemed likely to separate the colonial Church from that of the Mother Country, and they sent out instructions to their missionaries forbidding them to take part in the proposed convention. [Even as late as the year 1866 the Secretary of the C.M.S. (the Rev. Henry Venn) could write out to New Zealand: "If all the colonial churches are to be made free, the Church of England would be ruined as a missionary church. The people of England would never send out missionaries to be under Free Bishops."] This was one of the reasons which prompted the visit of the bishop to England in 1854. Before he set sail, however, he had called meetings in all the different centres of population; at these meetings he had laid his scheme before the Church, and he had carefully codified the criticisms which were offered. In most localities the draft was accepted as it stood. Auckland seems to have devised the idea of uniting bishop, clergy, and laity in one chamber. Christchurch had lost its man of insight through Godley's departure, and it now swung round into a merely conservative position. It joined with the rest of the settlements in insisting upon the principle of the Grey scheme, by which the Prayer Book and Authorised Version of the Bible were declared to be outside the powers of any New Zealand synod.

The disappearance of Godley, with his visions of independence, made the task of the bishop more easy when he confronted the Committee of the Church Missionary Society. He was able to assure these cautious men as to the inoffensive character of his proposals. "The Committee now understood," writes their historian, Dr. Eugene Stock, "that no separation from the Church of England was intended; that the Queen's supremacy was recognised; that questions of doctrine and ritual would be excluded from the purview of the synods; and that the interests of the Maori Christians would be cared for." They accordingly withdrew their former instructions, and now signified their approval of the missionaries joining with the bishop in the proposed organisation of the Church.

This concession formed the answer of the Committee to Selwyn's proposal to found the missionary bishoprics mentioned in the last chapter, and it removed one of the most formidable obstacles in the way of a constitution. Another obstacle, hardly less formidable, disappeared of itself during the year after the bishop's return. This was the difficulty of obtaining State sanction for the proposed authority. Many attempts had been made by Mr. Gladstone and others to procure such sanction from the Imperial Parliament; but in 1856 the English legal authorities discovered, what seems so obvious now, that no State authorisation would be needed if the system could be based simply on voluntary compact. If any colonial Church wished to make rules for its own government, it was quite at liberty to do so, provided that these rules were held to apply only to such persons as were willing to be bound by them. Thus then it happened that, as the moral and personal obstacles were removed by patience and Christian wisdom, the legal ones fell of themselves, and now there remained no hindrance to the calling of a conference for the final settlement of the matter.

The conference met on May 14, 1857, in the little stone chapel of St. Stephen, near the residence of Sir William Martin, at Auckland. The occasion was felt to be one of extreme importance. Never before had the different elements of which the Church was composed been brought face to face together. Christ-church sent its new bishop and the Rev. J. Wilson. Archdeacon Abraham stood for the Selwyn type of clergy. Sir William Martin's thoughtful face was absent, but his views would be voiced by his friend Mr. Swainson, the former Attorney-General. Now that the Church was to be separated from the State, and organised on a voluntary basis, it is somewhat surprising to find the government of the day so strongly represented. The Premier (Stafford), the Attorney-General (Whitaker), and Mr. H. J. Tancred, the Postmaster-General, are all there. To balance these new men, we see the missionaries Maunsell, Brown, and Kissling. But still something is needed. Where are the leaders of former days? A sense of satisfaction is experienced when at last the brothers Williams enter together and take their seats. "All were very kind," wrote Archdeacon Henry, "and we were much pleased with the benevolent countenance of the Bishop of Christchurch."

The sittings of the conference lasted for five weeks. The long preliminary discussions had cleared up most of the points in advance: there was no question as to the desirableness of laymen taking an equal part with bishops and clergy in the proposed synods, nor was there any hesitation in pronouncing unalterable the provision which exempted the formularies of the Church and the Authorised Version of the Bible from synodical handling. But there were two points on which opinions differed widely. Canterbury insisted on diocesan independence, and the power of managing its own property. This claim was not thoroughly dealt with by the conference, and was destined to give trouble in the future. The real struggle lay between the group of Auckland laymen and the president, on the qualification to be required of those who should represent the laity in synods, and of those who should select them by their votes.

Two views were held, then as now, on this important matter. One side would limit the Church to such as are in full communion with her, and are actively interested in her welfare. The other would embrace within her fold as many as possible, even if their churchmanship and their Christianity should be but nominal. Bishop Selwyn took the former view, and in this attitude he would doubtless be supported by the missionary representatives, who were accustomed to a strict discipline in the Maori Church. Canterbury also stood on the same side. Godley himself had been its ardent advocate, and on this point at least his principles were not abandoned after his departure. They had even been accentuated by the Canterbury declaration of 1853, in which it was urged that the ecclesiastical franchise should be confined to persons who should not only declare themselves communicants of the Church, but should also disavow membership in any other religious denomination. This stringent requirement probably arose from an experience which Archdeacon Mathias mentions in a letter to Lord Lyttelton. Many had come out at the Association's expense as "Church of England" members, who yet turned out to be "professed dissenters," and some of them "dissenting preachers." The religious unity of the settlement was thus rendered impossible, and one of the aims of its founders defeated at the outset.

On this point therefore--a point of far more importance to the Church than the property question, which attracted the greater attention at the time--the bishop would be supported by the missionary clergy and by the Canterbury representatives. But he met with firm resistance from the Auckland laymen. These were men of "a fine conservative temperament," and they would agree to no proposal which should make the Church in New Zealand less comprehensive than the State-governed Church of the Mother Country. Their view is thus expressed by Carleton: The bishop "would have made the Church of England a close borough, to which formal admittance under rules prescribed would be required; the laymen, on the other hand, held that every baptised Englishman enjoyed church membership as a matter of course and right, until he should think fit to declare dissent."

Both of these opposing views have much to say for themselves; for both of them great names may be quoted in support. At the Auckland Conference, as throughout the whole after-history of our Church, it was the lay (or Arnoldian) view that triumphed: "The bishop, seeing no eagerness on the part of the laity, but, on the contrary, much quiet and thoughtful criticism, gave way upon every main point of difference, gracefully enough. Failure of cherished schemes had changed him much. But he was bent upon carrying something, and by gentle management he did. A scheme of fair working promise, with little to take exception to, was the result."

The document which was solemnly put forth on June 13th, 1857, as the "CONSTITUTION for associating together, as a Branch of the United Church of England and Ireland, the members of the said Church in the Colony of New Zealand," carried at its foot seventeen signatures, which are not the least interesting part of the whole. To those who follow the history of the Church, both before and after this promulgation of her authoritative act of government, what thoughts are suggested by the first four names of the list: "G. A. New Zealand," "H. J. C. Christ-church," "Henry Williams," "William Wiliams"! What controversies past and future, what agonies of mind, what silent heroism, what spiritual conquests, what believing prayer!

A word must be said, however, on the legal aspect of this constitution. As the early Christian congregations in the Roman Empire sometimes found it advisable to register themselves as burial clubs, since only thus could they obtain any legal status, so, in order to obtain a recognised position in the eyes of the law, the Church in New Zealand found it necessary to appear simply as a holder of trust property. Bishop Selwyn had prepared for this move by procuring the passing of an Act by the Legislative Assembly in 1856, which enabled any body of trustees to be incorporated in proper form. In 1858 the Church of New Zealand was formally brought under this enactment. This fact accounts for the rather conspicuous place which the property element holds in the constitution document. It was the one legal basis which was possible in the circumstances of the case. The endowments of the Church are held on condition of the observance of the provisions of the constitution by those who enjoy any of the proceeds of that property. In the eye of the law, the Church of this Dominion stands on precisely the same footing as any other body for which any property is held in trust.

Now that the Church had been set upon her feet (to use Mr. Gladstone's words to Godley), after the stilts of government support had been knocked away, it remained to be seen how she would walk. The first duty was to carry out the concordat which Selwyn had made with the C.M.S., and to found the missionary bishoprics. The scheme had been disallowed in 1854 by the Colonial Office, but now the way was open. The proposed diocese of Tauranga, indeed, was never pushed forward, but the others were soon set on foot. The new diocese of Wellington was offered to Archdeacon Hadfield, but his continued ill-health prevented his acceptance. The bishop therefore proposed the name of his talented and cultured friend, Archdeacon Abraham. The proposal was at once accepted by the Wellington churchmen, and the archdeacon proceeded to England for his consecration. Nelson also claimed a bishop of its own, and for this difficult post Selwyn recommended his friend Edmund Hobhouse, then Vicar of St. Peter-in-the-East at Oxford. This devoted man was also a fellow of Merton College in the University, and he had narrowly missed being appointed to the see of Christchurch two years before. With great physical strength, which enabled him to walk 30 or 40 miles a day, Hobhouse was yet a constant sufferer from headache, but his deep piety and his solid learning well qualified him for the episcopal office. The two bishops-elect were consecrated together (still under Letters Patent) on Michaelmas Day, 1858, and arrived in New Zealand during the first General Synod, which met under the new constitution in the city of Wellington in the month of March, 1859.

The most interesting feature of this gathering was the inauguration of a fifth bishopric--that of Waiapu. In this case the bishop's original plan was carried out in its exactitude, for no one but the "episcopally-minded" William Williams could well be thought of for such a post. The Letters Patent were brought out from England by Bishop Abraham, and the consecration was held, during the course of the session, in the little St. Paul's Church, on Sunday, April 3. [It is a matter for regret that the scene of this first episcopal consecration in New Zealand can no longer be pointed out. The church stood, opposite the Museum, on government land which now forms part of the grounds surrounding the Parliament buildings. But portions of the structure were removed to the Bolton-street cemetery, and still form part of the mortuary chapel there.] A unique feature of the service arose from the fact that the four consecrating bishops were all younger than the veteran upon whom they laid their hands. The new bishop was "one whose age and experience," said Selwyn in his opening address, "has often made me feel ashamed that I should have been preferred before him, and to whom I have long wished to be allowed to make this reparation, by dividing with him the duties and responsibilities of my office." "It was a most delightful day," he afterwards wrote, "and one that I little expected to see when I first came to New Zealand. All seemed to be so thoroughly happy and satisfied with the appointment of the new bishops, as much as if each settlement had chosen its own bishop from personal knowledge. ... I shall now go back to Auckland light in heart . . . and I hope to be enabled by God's blessing to prosecute the mission work with more vigour in consequence of the cutting off of the southern portions of New Zealand." This day of happiness marks the end of a distinct epoch in our history. The decade which began in 1850 amidst confusion and disunion, had brought year by year some healing strengthening power, until it closed with a united Church, an increased clergy, and a multiplied episcopate.

Not a day too soon was the constitutional fabric finished. Already the clouds were gathering which heralded the coming storm.

Project Canterbury