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Anglican Church

by Allan K. Davidson

In its first incarnation in New Zealand, the Anglican Church had Māori congregations led by missionaries, worshipping in the Māori language. The church played a leading role in early Māori–Pākehā politics. Soon Pākehā Anglicans outnumbered Māori.

Missionary beginnings

First New Zealand Anglicans

The Māori name for the Anglican Church in New Zealand, te Hāhi Mihinare (the missionary church), reveals its origins in the work of the first missionaries to arrive in New Zealand.

Anglicans began missionary work among Māori in 1814 through the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a voluntary evangelical group within the Church of England (as the English call the Anglican Church). Evangelicalism was a movement within 19th-century Protestant churches in Britain that combined humanitarian activism with an emphasis on the personal experience of sin, and the salvation gained through the death of Jesus Christ.

The CMS mission to New Zealand was begun by Samuel Marsden, the Anglican chaplain in New South Wales. He had met the Ngāpuhi chiefs Te Pahi and Ruatara when they travelled outside New Zealand, and they encouraged him to visit their country. Ruatara provided protection for the first mission station, at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands.

For the first years of the mission, intertribal musket wars hampered the missionaries’ movements and Māori interest in their message. Personal disputes between the early missionaries, and their involvement in trading muskets, also compromised their efforts. However one of the first CMS missionaries, Thomas Kendall, successfully produced the first written versions of the Māori language.

Eager to read

William Yate, one of the early CMS missionaries in the Bay of Islands, noticed Māori enthusiasm for learning to read and write. He wrote, ‘Persons who have been made prisoners of war, and enslaved by the Bay-of-Islanders, have been educated in the Mission Schools; and then, having by some means obtained their freedom, or having received permission, from the chief to whom they belonged, to depart for a season, have visited their friends; and, carrying with them their little stock of knowledge, have at once commenced the work of instruction, and have been readily and eagerly attended to by the whole people.’1

Missionary expansion and Māori conversion

The Reverend Henry Williams arrived to lead the New Zealand mission in 1823 and gave firm local leadership and new direction, emphasising evangelisation (converting people to Christianity) and peacemaking between tribes. After Hongi Hika’s death in 1828 the mission became less dependent on the goodwill and economic support of Māori.

Henry’s brother William Williams arrived in 1826 and led the work of translating the prayer book and the Bible into Māori. As Māori became literate, some also became evangelists for the new teaching. The number of Māori converts grew rapidly in the 1830s and early 1840s and Māori began to include Christian ideas in their world view. The conversion of a whole tribe together contrasted with the missionary emphasis on individual conversion.

Missionaries and Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi

In England church and state were interlinked and the Church of England had a special status guaranteed in law. Evangelicals, as loyal Anglicans, accepted this status and encouraged Māori to look to the British Crown for protection and recognition. As a result CMS missionaries, especially Henry Williams, played a leading part in encouraging Māori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

In later years this missionary support for the treaty led to increasing disillusionment among Māori as the treaty was ignored by the colonial and settler governments. The emergence of Māori religious movements such as Pai Mārire and Ringatū reflected this rejection of missionary Christianity. When the missionary C. S. Völkner was suspected of spying by Māori in 1865, the fact that he was a member of the Anglican clergy afforded him no protection, and he was executed.

    • William Yate. An account of New Zealand and the formation and progress of the Church Missionary Society's mission in the North Island. London: Seeley and Burnside, 1835, p. 240. Back

Colonial Anglicans

Settler church

After missionary work among Māori, the second major influence shaping the Anglican Church came from rapidly growing numbers of Anglican migrants. The early CMS missionary beginnings and the large number of settlers who came from England resulted in Anglicans becoming the largest of the religious denominations in New Zealand. In 1858 more than half the population was Anglican.

George Augustus Selwyn became Bishop of New Zealand (the only Anglican bishop to have this title) in 1841. He headed both the Māori and settler parts of the church. Evangelical missionaries were suspicious of his control over them and his emphasis on the authority of the church, while settlers were hostile towards his pro-Māori stance. He increasingly found himself caught between Māori and Pākehā over issues of land and sovereignty.

Bishop Selwyn and Māori rejection

In 1865 Bishop Selwyn, who had served as a chaplain during the New Zealand wars, wrote of the church’s relationship with Māori, ‘oh! how things have changed! how much of the buoyancy of hope has been sobered down by experience! when, instead of a nation of believers welcoming me as their father, I find here and there a few scattered sheep, the remnant of a flock which has forsaken the shepherd’.1

Church constitution

While Anglicans carried some of the privileges of the Church of England to New Zealand, they struggled to devise a method of church organisation which took account of their new non-establishment status alongside other churches. In 1857, after 15 years of consultation, a constitution for the New Zealand church was finalised on the basis of voluntary compact. Links with the traditions of the mother church in England were guaranteed in their worship, ministry and beliefs. At national and regional levels, bishops, and representatives of the clergy and laity (ordinary churchgoers) met together but voted separately on church matters, with each group having an equal voice. The constitution resolved problems for the settler church but failed to deal adequately with the administrative and leadership needs of the Māori church.

Regional identity

Selwyn’s diocese (the region he controlled as bishop) was first divided into sub-districts in 1856, when Christchurch became a new diocese. Wellington, Nelson and Waiapu (the East Coast) followed in 1858, and Dunedin separated from Christchurch in 1869. The Waikato diocese was inaugurated in 1926.

The Melanesian Mission in the South Pacific, founded by Selwyn in 1849, was associated with the New Zealand church as a missionary diocese in 1861, when J. C. Patteson was consecrated as a missionary bishop. Patteson was killed on Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in 1871. In 1925 Polynesia was added as another missionary diocese.

Each diocese developed its own identity. The Christchurch diocese, formed out of the Canterbury Association of colonial settlers, had a strong English element. Under its second bishop, A. B. Suter, Nelson developed an evangelical flavour which continued in the 21st century. Waiapu had missionary beginnings, holding its first four synods (official church conferences) in the Māori language. That missionary ascendancy ended with the New Zealand wars and the growth of settler influence.

Church life

The colonial Anglicans were concerned with building new churches and recruiting, funding and housing clergy. The annual rhythm of worship followed the English Book of Common Prayer, making little allowance for southern hemisphere seasons. Selwyn began a ministry training school at St John’s College in Auckland in the 1840s, but most bishops and some clergy were recruited from overseas until well into the 20th century.

The objects of the Mothers’ Union

‘Remembering that my children are dedicated to God in baptism, and that my duty is to train them for His service, I promise to try by God's help:

1. To make them obedient, pure and gentle.

2. To watch their words, and prevent evil speaking, slander and rough words.

3. To guard them from bad or doubtful companions, and immoral, irreligious reading.

4. To teach them habits of self-control, and to avoid giving them beer, wine or spirits, unless under doctor's orders.

5. To pray for them daily, and to teach them to pray and to observe the Lord's Day.

6. To learn whatever may best fit me to fulfil my part as a loving wife and mother.

7. To remember the sacredness of marriage; and that on the holy associations of home, much of my children's spiritual wellbeing in afterlife will depend.’

Women played a vital role as missionary wives and church supporters, but they were not eligible to stand for all church bodies until 1922, and only slowly made their way onto vestries (church committees) and synods. The Mothers’ Union reinforced the role of women in the church with its emphasis on maternal devotion and women’s responsibilities to home and family.

The Anglican Church was at first heavily involved in missionary schooling for Māori, and for primary school-aged children under the provincial government system. This involvement rapidly decreased with the establishment of Native Schools in 1867 and the Education Act 1877, which increased government-funded education. Involvement in education was subsequently mainly through private secondary schools. The Māori Anglican boarding schools of Te Aute and Hukarere in Hawke’s Bay and St Stephen’s and Queen Victoria in Auckland played a significant role in developing Māori leadership.

    • H. W. Tucker, Memoir of the life and episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn. London: Gardner, 1879, p. 206. Back

Anglicans in the 20th and 21st centuries

Changes in the church

The Church of England Empowering Act 1928 made it possible for the church to make changes to the entrenched clauses in its 1857 constitution. This led over time to:

  • the use of the 1928 Book of common prayer
  • the ordination of women priests from 1977
  • the ordaining of women bishops – Penelope Jamieson, Bishop of Dunedin from 1990 to 2004, was the world’s first Anglican diocesan woman bishop
  • the introduction of A New Zealand prayer book: he karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa in 1989.

Revising the constitution

The Māori prophet T. W. Rātana’s movement greatly affected Māori Anglicans and many joined the Rātana Church. The General Synod responded in 1928 by agreeing to the appointment of a bishop of Aotearoa as a suffragan (assistant) to the bishop of Waiapu. This was a compromise and did not fully meet Māori expectations. Changes from the 1970s gave the bishop of Aotearoa more independence. Constitutional changes in 1992 finally resulted in three tikanga (systems of governance) – Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika – sharing equal authority but working in partnership. Melanesia became an independent province of the church in 1975. Polynesia was given full diocesan status, with an assistant bishop based in Auckland.

Theology and practice

Unlike its parent church in England, the Anglican Church in New Zealand is not established as the country’s official church. However Anglicans traditionally take a leadership role on state occasions.

With other Protestant churches Anglicans formed the National Council of Churches in 1941, and the Conference of Churches, which included Catholics, in 1986. When other Christian denominations promoted church union in the 1960s, the Anglican Church joined in. Anglicans, however, were divided on the issue and their unwillingness to move towards church union contributed to the movement’s collapse in 1976.

The charismatic movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasised an ecstatic personal experience of religion, brought new life to many Anglican parishes. At the same time, others identified with liberal attitudes towards theology, morality and social reform. This gave rise to some tension and division within the church as protest against the Vietnam War, feminism, anti-racism, Treaty of Waitangi issues and nuclear-free activism were taken up by some Anglicans.

The Association of Anglican Women, formed in 1969, was active in matters of social concern, both directly and through the National Council of Women.

Church numbers decline

By 1936 the proportion of Anglicans in the total population had dropped from half to 40%. Anglican numbers declined more sharply from the mid-1960s. Around 900,000 people identified themselves as Anglican in 1976, 800,000 in 1981 and 580,000 in 2001. In the 2013 census 12% of the population, or 460,000 people, identified themselves as Anglicans. Anglicanism was now the country’s second largest religious denomination after Catholicism.

In parishes (local church communities) that no longer had enough church members to financially support a minister, schemes for local people to take responsibility for the tasks of ministry were developed.

Church and community

Anglican public leadership

The diocesan (regional) structure, which gave bishops considerable authority over their clergy and lay followers, at first greatly limited the direct national influence of the Anglican church on public issues. After Bishop G. A. Selwyn’s departure in 1868, the primates (national heads of the church), the diocesan bishops and their synods were noticeably silent on many public issues, Māori concerns in particular. The three-yearly General Synod or national conference (these became two-yearly from 1964) and the lack of a strong national committee structure restricted the Anglican voice in national politics until the 1970s.

The public profile of the archbishops (senior bishops) varied. Their leadership was often mild and focused on their own church, rather than on society in general. To what extent archbishops, bishops, clergy or synods spoke on behalf of the whole Anglican constituency was always uncertain. Archbishop Paul Reeves was forthright on some issues before becoming governor-general in 1985. His successors have largely avoided controversy, and since 1992 three bishops have shared the title of Archbishop of New Zealand, each aligned with one of the church tikanga (Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika).

Failed exhortation

In 1914 a bill was introduced to Parliament to ensure some Christian religious instruction for all pupils. The Anglican Church supported the bill and its bishops sent a letter to all members of their church encouraging them to vote accordingly. ‘We, therefore, your spiritual guides, deeply convinced of the paramount value of religion to any nation, in relation to the prosperity and happiness of its people ... do under these circumstances earnestly and unhesitatingly exhort you to make the religious interests of the country the first question by voting only for Members of Parliament who will pledge themselves to vote for the Religious Instruction Referendum Bill.’1 The bill was not passed.

Social reform and religious education

Historically, Anglicans prided themselves on representing the middle way between what they saw as the extremes of Protestantism and the authoritarianism of Catholicism. They were a significant force in authorising mainstream views on public morality. Apart from individuals and small groups, Anglicans avoided extreme views on issues such as gambling and Sunday observance. Some were active in the largely Protestant campaigns to prohibit alcohol (around 1880 to 1920) but many remained on the sidelines or even opposed prohibition.

Few Anglican women were prominent in the leadership of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Eveline Cunnington in Christchurch was exceptional as an Anglican woman social reformer.

When the Education Act 1877 determined that state education in New Zealand would be secular (non-religious), the Anglicans were slow in joining with other Protestants in the Bible in Schools campaign for religious education. Archdeacon David Garland from Queensland led the campaign for a referendum on this question in 1914, but the First World War diverted concerns. Instead, much energy went into Sunday schools which provided religious education for children.

Lifelong intent

In 1970 the Anglican Church altered its rules so divorced people could marry under certain conditions. ‘The marriage of a divorced person may be solemnised by a Bishop or Priest notwithstanding that the other party to a prior marriage is still living, where there are good and sufficient grounds to believe that: any divorced person intending marriage sincerely regrets that the promises made in any previous marriage were not kept, and both parties to an intended marriage have an avowed intention to abide by the lifelong intent of the proposed marriage.’2

Divorce and abortion

Along with Catholics, Anglicans upheld the sanctity of marriage and vigorously opposed divorce. The realities of life in their communities and the liberalisation of divorce led Anglicans to change their position. From 1970 it was possible for divorced people to be married in Anglican churches with the permission of the bishop. From 1984 this permission was no longer necessary. From the 1980s society’s acceptance of unmarried couples living together and the use of secular marriage celebrants further undermined the church’s traditional attitude towards and role in controlling marriage.

Anglican submissions to the McMillan Committee on Abortion in 1937 opposed the practice, regarding both abortion and birth control as part of a general moral decline. The church’s submissions to the 1974 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion showed a considerable shift from this earlier position, with a range of opinions on abortion and an attempt to balance religious care for the mother and the rights of the foetus. This diversity indicated a lack of an authoritative Anglican Church position on such issues.


Some Anglican leaders and synods joined in supporting homosexual law reform in the 1970s and 1980s. The church’s Provincial Public Affairs Committee endorsed the successful reform of the law in 1986. Debates over the role of gay people in church leadership, and gay marriage, disrupted the Anglican Church and other denominations. St Matthew’s Church in central Auckland has hosted the Community Church for gay Christians since 1980.

    • ‘Pastoral from the Anglican bishops to the members of their flock in the present crisis’, supplement to Church Gazette, December 1914. Back
    • Church of the Province of New Zealand, Proceedings of General Synod, 1970, p. 101. Back

Church debate and dissent

War and peace

Anglicans supported the country’s involvement in the major 20th century wars, and some clergy actively participated as military chaplains. During the Second World War a tiny number of Anglicans were pacifists. Archbishop Campbell West-Watson and Bishops C. A. Cherrington and Herbert Holland gave them sympathetic but cautious support.

New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War provoked both endorsement and opposition from Anglicans. Bishops Henry Baines and Allan Pyatt were among the outspoken critics.

From the 1970s the anti-nuclear movement gained increasing church support. George Armstrong, an Anglican priest, was involved in founding the Peace Squadron in Auckland to oppose nuclear ship visits. This protest contributed to the passing of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987.

Race relations

From the 1960s many New Zealand churchgoers regarded sporting contacts with South Africa as supporting apartheid. Anglicans were divided on this issue. Some joined in the protests that culminated in the fierce opposition to the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland provided a venue for anti-tour meetings, and the church’s curate, Andrew Beyer, chaired the combined protest organisation MOST (Mobilisation to Stop the Tour). Archbishop Paul Reeves, with other church leaders, was prominent in opposing the tour. In 1995 Nelson Mandela visited St Matthew’s to thank those who had protested against apartheid.

The anti-tour protests raised awareness about race relations in New Zealand. Anglicans joined with others in protesting at Waitangi about breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Clergy and theological students were among protesters arrested there during a service of worship in 1983. Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe’s dramatic sermon at the 150th anniversary of the treaty’s signing in 1990, in the presence of the Queen, was a call to honour the treaty.

Walking for change

The 1998 Hīkoi of Hope was a nationwide march on Parliament, headed by Anglican and other church leaders, to draw attention to rising poverty and social inequality in New Zealand. ‘The Hīkoi is a way of letting physical presence do the talking. It is not simply a protest march against an issue, or an exercise in partisan politics seeking someone to blame. Instead, the Hīkoi declares a hope for new policies which will address structural issues contributing to financial hardship, ill-health, lack of employment opportunities and social exclusion.’1

The Anglican Bicultural Commission on the Treaty of Waitangi in 1984 led to a revision of the constitution in 1992 which reshaped the church. Bishop Manu Bennett’s membership of the Waitangi Tribunal from 1986 to 1997 brought a notable Māori Anglican voice to its deliberations.

Social justice

Richard Randerson’s appointment as Anglican Social Responsibility Commissioner in 1990, and subsequent appointees, have helped provide national leadership on social justice issues ranging from economic wellbeing and genetic modification to environmental concerns.

Throughout the 1990s the growth of poverty in New Zealand, and the difficulties faced by voluntary agencies attempting to meet the needs of the poor, provoked church responses. Before the 1993 election church leaders issued a Social Justice Statement. Three years later the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services published An open letter about poverty in New Zealand which included 11 Anglican bishops among the signatories.

The Anglican General Synod initiated the Hīkoi of Hope in 1998. Thousands of marchers, led by Anglican bishops, converged on Wellington. They expressed concerns about housing, poverty, jobs, education and health. This resulted in regular meetings between church leaders, government ministers and politicians at which the churches’ social concerns were raised.

    • ‘Voices on the Hikoi of Hope’, (last accessed 31 March 2010). Back

Social services

Churches have been at the forefront in providing support to individuals and families suffering from poverty, hardship, and family or personal problems.

Early social services

Auckland Anglicans founded an orphanage in 1860, and Eliza Cowie set up a women’s refuge for prostitutes in 1884. This work expanded to become the Anglican Trust for Women and Children. St Saviour’s Guild took over the running of a refuge in Christchurch in 1891.

Down and out in Parnell

Eliza Cowie, the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, was well known for her welfare work among Auckland’s poor in the late 19th century. In 1884 she founded and ran a Women's Home in Parnell for prostitutes and single mothers. Its 1887 annual report said, ‘[T]he Women’s Home was opened ... to receive young women desirous to return to virtuous living. ... Sixty-one inmates were received into the Home during those first two years. Of these, 18 had returned to domestic service, 8 had been restored to their friends, 6 had married, and 12 were still in the Home.’1

Sibylla Maude started work in 1896 as a district nurse in the Christchurch parishes of St Michael’s and Sydenham. This grew to become a community nursing service named after her. In 1893 Edith Mellish founded what became the Community of the Sacred Name in Christchurch. Frances Williams’s Mission to the Streets and Lanes of Auckland began in 1894 and later became the Order of the Good Shepherd. These small religious orders were at the forefront of caring for children, women and urban poor.

Church institutions could be authoritarian and there was often a strong paternalistic spirit in church social work. Parishes and institutions at their best, however, were motivated by the compassionate principles of their founder. Financial support for church institutions from provincial governments and then the state set the pattern for later developments.

City missions

Anglican city missions were identified with strong charismatic individuals like Bryan King in Dunedin, T. Fielden Taylor in Wellington, Percy Revell in Christchurch and Jasper Calder in Auckland. Evangelical outreach was combined with social and prison work. The 1930s economic depression placed huge demands on the missions. They responded with soup kitchens, food parcels, clothing and relief. The politicising of economic distress was seen in a 1934 General Synod resolution calling on Anglicans to move beyond ‘works of mercy’ to ‘transform our social order so as to bring it nearer to the mind of Christ’.2

Changing patterns of church care

Encouraged by state subsidies, care for the elderly became a growing church interest. Douglas Caswell's Selwyn Village initiative in Auckland in 1947 gave rise to the Selwyn Foundation, which developed into one of the largest not-for-profit aged-care organisations in the country. Dioceses and some parishes also became involved in providing rest homes for the elderly. This work became financially difficult as capital subsidies were withdrawn and private companies entered the aged-care market.

The closing of orphanages from the 1960s marked a shift away from caring for children in institutions. Church social work then became involved in a range of services including strengthening families, working with women and children, drug and alcohol dependency, homelessness, budgeting and providing food parcels.

Anglican caring agencies

Anglican caring agencies developed as semi-independent regional organisations supported by state funding and charitable and church donations. The Family Centre in Lower Hutt, for example, was part of Anglican Social Services but had its own trust board. It engaged in social policy research, family therapy, community development, and education and training. In Manukau City, Anglicans were involved in Friendship House, an ecumenical social-service agency which included programmes for personal development, anger management and stopping violence.

The Anglican Care Network is a nationwide network of social-service agencies, parish-based community programmes and inter-church projects. Anglicans, together with six other Christian churches, are members of the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services (NZCCSS). This coordinates research on social policy and makes joint representations to government on the needs of children and families, housing and poverty, and services to older people.

The Anglican voice

Anglicans represent a broad range of political and theological opinions. There is considerable diversity in the social and economic status of their membership. Anglican diversity has increased through migration from the Pacific, Asia and Africa. The growing pluralistic, multi-faith and secular nature of New Zealand society means that Anglican voices on moral and social concerns no longer carry more weight than others. While the church once felt confident in speaking to society from the centre, it now finds itself more marginalised. Anglican theological teachings no longer have the relevance they once did and church members are often divided on moral and social issues.

The effect and range of Anglican pastoral ministry is considerable but hard to measure. Through its far-reaching ministry among the under-privileged, the church speaks most authentically on social issues out of its caring involvement with those who are suffering.

    • Supplement to Church Gazette, 1 October 1887, p. I. Back
    • Proceedings of the General Synod, 1934, p. 50. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Allan K. Davidson, 'Anglican Church', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2020)

He kōrero nā Allan K. Davidson, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2018