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Debates on the place of Māori in the Anglican Church.

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Lachy Paterson
04 June, 2021

Churches are cultural and social spaces as much as they are spiritual ones, and Māori have generally felt more comfortable in congregations where their tikanga, reo and identity have been the norm.  However, for much of New Zealand’s history, Māori have been subject to Pākehā expectations that both races would amalgamate as “one people”, although within a society and culture that would remain essentially Pākehā in nature.  This was also the expectation and goal of many of the Pākehā Anglican leaders, but which some Māori within the Church also stoutly resisted.

This struggle, of course, was ongoing from the nineteenth century through to 1994 when the Māori Church became fully-self governing as one of three tikanga [the Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika streams] within New Zealand’s Anglican Church.  This long story is brilliantly covered in Hirini Kaa’s award-winning book, Te Hahi Mihinare.[1]  The kōrero below covers the debates through the 1940s, in particular through the Church’s various newspapers, at a time when the push for combination was particularly strong, but when the efforts of the 28th Māori Battalion were also fueling a sense of ethnic pride.    

The debates on the future of the Māori Church reflected wider developments outside the church at the time, but also a history that tainted the prospect of a union and fellowship between the two races.  Māori were seen to be becoming more “modern”, migrating to the cities, and increasingly using English as their every-day language. Māori and Pākehā church leaders grappled with the questions: were these changes sufficient to break down the barriers between Māori and Pākehā Anglicans so that they might worship together?  Or should a separate Māori Church and clergy still remain to cater to their people’s different characteristics and needs? 


The First Bishop

The first Church Missionary Society missionaries arrived in 1814. They no doubt believed their goal would take many years, until the eventual end of “mission” when Māori converts and their descendants would take over the running their Church, maintain their own parishes, and initiate their own missionary activity.  This was the vision of Henry Venn who largely ran the CMS in London from 1841 to 1872.  During his time as the Society’s honorary secretary he developed a theory for missions, arguing for the “three selfs”, self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating Indigenous churches.[2] 

When George Augustus Selwyn arrived in 1842 as Bishop of the new colony, he set to taking control of all Anglican activities, including the CMS missions. This included his own missionary work in New Zealand and the Pacific.[3]  In 1858 Selwyn’s bishopric was subdivided to allow more Pākehā bishops to be appointed, who each took responsibility for the mission activity within their own sees.  ‘Although Maori Anglicans remained for the most part loyal to and were embraced by the Mihinare (missionary) Church, real ecclesial power and influence ultimately resided within the episcopal authorities present only in the settlers’ Anglican Church.’[4]  Māori continued attending their own mission churches, especially because most Māori and Pākehā congregations not only lived apart, but worshipped in different languages.[5]


Arguments for Merging

By 1940, there was increasing calls within the Pākehā side of the church that Māori and Pākehā should be mixing more. Some Māori within the Church also echoed these sentiments.  The issue, at least in the recorded discourse, was less about whether combination should occur, but when and how. 

There were a number of arguments underpinning the aim to unify the two races.  In particular, Church leaders believed that education, and the increasing use of English, would see the eventual demise of the Māori Church.  At a meeting of Wellington diocesan Māori church workers (Māori and Pākehā), Pākehā clergy, and the Bishop of Aotearoa in March 1938:

It was felt by all present that, with the advancing education of Maori youth side by side with the Pakeha young people, and the increasing intermingling of Maori and Pakeha in every walk of life, the time must come when the two races will be drawn together in a closer Church fellowship. 

However, the meeting also agreed that ‘for many years to come there will be a large proportion of older people whose spiritual needs can only be provided in the Maori language and in a Maori environment.’ 

Proponents of unity also argued on the basis of practical efficiency.  As the Wellington Mission’s superintendent, W.G. Williams stated, ‘The Maoris are scattered through the Dominion, so that each Maori clergyman must of necessity have a huge geographical area to cover.’[6]  In most dioceses, it was difficult to attract Māori clergy to fill the gaps created by deaths and retirements, particularly outside of two strongest regions, Auckland and Waiapu.[7]  Clergy who ministered to Pākehā and Māori could fill these gaps.

A more ideological argument was that merging the two churches was a good thing in itself.  Many Pākehā saw the state’s policy of assimilation, of attempting to make Māori more like Pākehā in both language and habits, as desirable for the nation’s progress and race relations, as well as being beneficial for Māori themselves.  If this was a positive development within the wider society, then it made sense that it should also apply in the Church.   This was also couched in a theological frame, that the Church’s ultimate goal ‘must be the uniting of Maori and Pakeha in one communion and fellowship.’[8]

If it was not practicable just yet for Māori and Pākehā to fully combine, then small steps could be made along the way.  The Auckland Diocese, for example, encouraged members of Māori Mothers’ Union branches, mostly from Northland, to attend an annual festival at Auckland Cathedral, and the Mothers’ Union of St. Saviour’s in Kaitaia hosted several garden parties for Māori branches.[9]  At the 1939 garden party, the vicar dedicated a banner as ‘a token of the bond of unity which binds Maori branches to the Pakeha branches of the parish’.[10]   

At a Wellington Māori Mission conference at Ōtaki in 1941,

It was felt that the gradual merging of Maori and pakeha in one national entity, and one church organisation, would follow the ordinary course of events, and that nothing could be gained by passing resolutions on the question. It was, however, felt that where the opportunity offered occasional combined services, in which both Maori and pakeha clergy and Maori and pakeha worshippers united, would help to prepare the way for a more permanent uniting of the two races in the future.

Putting this into practice, a combined service was held at Ōtaki on the Sunday, and ‘a large congregation of both races filled the fine old Maori church to capacity for the morning service’.[11]

The Church periodicals generally reported positively on occasions where Māori and Pākehā adherents mixed together, but how receptive were Pākehā congregations to this? Perhaps sensing Pākehā disinclimation for sharing pews with Māori, Archdeacon Oulds, superintendent of the Māori Mission in the Waikato Diocese, in 1944 ‘made an appeal that Maoris who attended European services should be made welcome and that no distinctions should be drawn.’[12]


The Impact of the Māori Battalion

Many young Māori men joined the army once war was declared, with Māori elders, politicians, and recruiting officers ensuring a steady flow of recruits for the 28th Battalion.Between 1941 and 1945 the Māori Battalion forged an outstanding reputation on the battlefields of Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy.’[13]  The Church was proud that Māori Anglicans formed the core of this unit.  In December 1941, the Waiapu Church Gazette reported ‘it is an interesting fact that of the four Maori Battalion Company Commanders, three are sons of our Maori Clergy, and the fourth is a son of a loyal Church family from the Waipawa district. All of them have passed through Te Aute College’, that is, the Anglican Māori boy’s college.[14]  In 1946, the school was able to boast ‘that 80 per cent. of the officers and decorated men of the Maori Battalion were Te Aute College Old Boys.’[15]   For some, the military service underpinned a growing sense of ethnic identity.  As Frederick Bennett, the Bishop of Aotearoa, stated in 1946, he was convinced ‘the Maori had certain characteristics that could not be eliminated.  The Maori Battalion had cemented such feelings that would endure so long as the race existed.’[16]



As the war was coming to a close, the mainstream Protestant Churches were meeting together as the National Council of Churches to see how they might cooperate and potentially combine. A Maori Sub-Commission was appointed to look at the place of Māori in the Churches.  At a meeting in December 1944, the Māori delegates accepted that demographic change would lead to ‘towards the ultimate end of unification of the two races’. This statement is surprising, given that the Anglican Māori Church eventually did become self-governing, but it may have just followed widely-held beliefs of the time. Nevertheless, it was also clear that any such development was many years into the future.  At the hui, chaired by Bishop Bennett, the delegates pointed to the ongoing ‘strong and definite reawakening’ among Māori, ‘brought to a full realisation during the present war, by the unique opportunity of racial self-expression and leadership presented by the Maori Battalion under its own Officers.’   This meant maintaining a Māori Church: ‘we recognise and welcome the need for continuing many distinct Maori congregations, worshipping in a characteristic Maori atmosphere, and wherever possible under a qualified Maori ministry.’[17]  While this continued, ‘Maori congregations should be organised with the fullest possible measure of independent Maori leadership.’[18] 

A questionnaire was also circulated to prominent church leaders, including a question asking ‘In Church life do you favour the blending of the two races?’  Or should separate Maori churches remain?  Rēweti Kōhere, a former clergyman, highlighted the different needs of Māori youth and elders, although like others saw the need for Māori services for older people for some time to come.  Sir Apirana Ngata, perhaps the leading Māori Anglican layman, considered that the questions were skewed ‘in favour of hastening the Europeanisation of the Maori’.  The Church, he said, had suppressed Māori culture in the past.

I suspect that to-day they would be prepared to see the Maori surrender the last vestiges of individuality, and custom, the need of protection there is in his tribal system and comfort in his social customs in order that “differences between Maoris and pakeha may be eliminated” and “the blending of the two races in Church life” may be achieved.[19]

The debate simmered.  At a Wellington Maori Synod the following year, Rev. Pāora Temuera asked whether the time had now come to decide to establish a separate Māori diocese, or to merge with Pākehā.  He preferred the latter, as the majority of Māori he encountered no longer spoke or read te reo Māori.  This received little support from the other clergy there.  Bishop Bennett asserted that te reo Māori was a gift from God, and Rev Hōhepa Taepa stated that Māori youth also wanted to preserve the language.  Bennett also claimed that attempts to combine the two races had never been successful, and that it was ‘dangerous . . . even to suggest that the time has come for giving up our own characteristics as a race and merging completely with the pakeha.’[20]


Smothering the Maori Church in the North?

Hirini Kaa indentifies the Auckland Diocese, with its large number of Māori members in Northland, as where Pākehā church leaders attempted to force the two sides of the Church to combine, with John Simpkin, Auckland’s Bishop from June 1940, as a principal villain.[21]   But it is clear that this was also occuring in various dioceses to some extent, with Māori and Pākehā clergy working together to cover both communities.  In Wellington in 1939, the diocese asserted that it would develop ways ‘for drawing some of the parochial [Pākehā] clergy into closer contact with the Maori side of the work.’[22]  And when Rev Hōhepa Taepa was ordained in 1939, he was sent to work under the Pākehā vicar at Masterton, ‘while devoting the greater part of his time to work among the Maori people in the Wairarapa and Wellington districts’.[23]  Similarly Rev. John Tamahori served under the Pākehā minister at Tauranga.[24]  These moves mitigated staff shortages, and provided mentoring for new Māori ministers.

Certainly, Simpkin spoke most openly about his desire for a more combined Church, proclaiming in 1941, ‘outwardly there is unity, but we want the unity of one family’.[25]  In 1943 he posed the question to his Synod ‘Is the Church to maintain the present policy of segregation?’, arguing against Māori clergy being licenced to minister just to Māori.  This, he believed, limited the scope for Māori development within the church.  He supported his argument with the Māori Battalion, that ‘the qualities which have enabled young Maori men to rise to such positions of responsibility as the command of a whole battalion in actual modern warfare’ could be utilised within an integrated Church. He also employed both the practical argument, of Māori youth not understanding the Māori language of Māori services, as well as a theological argument.  ‘How . . . can a Church which professes to be the universal fellowship, where there is neither Greek nor barbarian, be true to its origin if it fails to unite Maori and pakeha in its communion?’[26] 

In reality, little changed for ordinary Māori adherents of the diocese at this time: Māori priests still ministered to Māori congregations, and Māori mothers attended their own Mothers’ Union branches, the youth their own Bible Classes, and their children their own Māori Sunday Schools.  Simpkin moved, however, to eliminate the Māori Church Boards in which Māori clergy could plan and discuss matters relating to the Māori Church, and to force more coordination between the Māori and Pākehā parishes, seen by some as subordinating Māori ministers to Pākehā control.[27] 

Matters came to a head in 1948 at the Triennial Meeting of Maori Church Boards, in effect a Māori Synod of the Waiapu Diocese, where issues affecting the Māori Church again surfaced. The hui had particular concerns about the marginalised status of the Bishop of Aotearoa who was unable to minister to Māori if not permitted by the bishop of the diocese.  Ngata was prominent at the hui, providing his own vision of the future, of ‘the two communities in the Church advancing side by side, but retaining freedom to deal with their own problems in the manner best suited to their own needs’.  He also took the opportunity to attack Simpkin’s system in practice in the Auckland Diocese as ‘an attempt to smother the Maori Church in the North’, and for the lack of ministers and hostels being provided for the growing Māori population in Auckland city.[28]  Ngata was supported by James Hēnare, a Northland layman and former commanding officer of the Maori Battalion, whom Ngata congratulated for ‘having emerged from behind the iron curtain’.[29]  Rev. Pera Kena, who had recently left the Auckland diocese, also painted a disturbing picture of the Māori Church in Simpkin’s see.[30]

The Auckland diocese was quick to respond.  Percy Houghton, Archdeacon of Waitematā, argued that ‘there is no attempt in the Diocese to smother the Maori church, and in the sense of a separate body there is no such thing as a Maori Church anymore than there is a pakeha Church.’ Māori priests still ministered to their own people, but ‘by close association with his Pakeha colleague he gains experience in organisation and administration of his pastorate and the benefit of fellowship in service.’  Houghton explained that Simkin was enabling the Māori priests to attain more prominent positions by being licenced to minister to both races, and ‘he will tolerate no sign of the colour bar which some would erect between Maori and Pakeha’.[31]  The inference was that it was other dioceses that were holding Māori back.

Rev. Mangatitoki Cameron (Kamariera) also weighed in.  As a Māori priest who had served as a curate under a Pākehā vicar, he had recently been appointed the Vicar of Hokianga, a mainly Pākehā parish.  He critiqued Ngata for wanting Māori inclusion in the secular world, but insisting on separation in the spiritual realm.  Cameron also argued the theological line that the Church should strive to combine Maori and Pakeha in communion, and limiting Māori priests to just Māori congregations ‘produce[d] in them a very limited conception of the Catholicity of the Church of God.’[32]  However to what degree Cameron felt induced to support his Bishop is unknown.  It is clear, however, that the Māori ministers of the Auckland Diocese preferred to have their own organisations, and several years Simkin’s retirement in 1960 their church boards were reinstated.[33]



The church in many ways has reflected developments in mainstream society.  In the 1930s and 1940s racial fusion may have appeared inevitable, even if this would not be achieved for many years.  This was not only through intermarriage, but through the mixing of the of two peoples in work, education and sport, and therefore in church.  Separate Māori parishes may have existed because Māori and Pākehā did not live near each other or speak the same language, but the erosion of te reo Māori among the youth, and the gradual demographic shift into the towns and cities only reinforced the idea that it was only proper that Māori and Pākehā would worship together at some point in the future.

Liberals within the Anglican Church, Simpkin among them, argued for “equality” for Māori but this was to be achieved through all people travelling the same, predominantly Pākehā, pathway, just as Māori were expected to assimilate into the Pākehā secular world in order to succeed.   The Church encouraged Māori and Pākehā coming together, even if just for occasional events. It also employed a theological argument that all people were of one family and when the time was right should share communion together.  Simpkin also argued that Māori priests should be treated equally within the Anglican hierarchy, and not be restricted to just Māori work.

Māori were not overly enthusiastic on the whole about Pākehā visions of unity.  First, as Ngata had written in reply to the Church’s questionnaire, ‘the Maori cannot easily forget the loss of their lands or relax vigilance against further inroads into the remnant of lands and culture’.  Māori were expected to give up much to assimilate within Pākehā society. Was this to be the same in the Church  especially if ‘the practical interpretation of the Christian order by the pakeha is to be the form and standard by which the Christianisation of the Maori is to be judged’?[34] 

The Māori language was in decline in the mid twentieth century, but the extent varied from place to place. Māori youth may have been better educated in Pākehā knowledge and speaking te reo Māori less, but this did not mean that they also wanted to forgo the cultural familiarity of their own church, where they worshipped and could stand proudly as Māori among their own people.   Their sense of being Māori was not based solely on linguistic proficiency.

Māori were also well aware that nominal equality under the law did not mean that racism and a “colour bar” did not exist.  There was no expectation that the general ignorance of, or lack of sympathy to Māori would be any less within the Church than outside it.  In the 1940s, other than the Bishop of Aotearoa, it was Pākehā who held the senior posts in all the dioceses.

By the 1970s it was clear that the predicted racial fusion had not come about. Māori were critiquing the assimilationist policy (now called “integration”) that had been imposed upon them for the past century and more. Pākehā were slowly becoming more aware of the Treaty of Waitangi and its importance.  Reflecting these changed times, the Maori bishopric, that Bishop Bennett had endured as an assistant bishop to the Bishop of Waiapu, ‘was inaugurated as a semi-autonomous body with representation in the General Synod for the first time’ in 1978.  The Church also changed its constitution in 1992 to create a system, closer to Venn’s “three selfs”, through which the Māori Anglican Church gained equality with the Pākehā Church.[35] Although this may not have met everyone’s high expectations,[36] it was still a better “present” for Te Hāhi Māori than its “future” had been in the 1940s.


Image: “Maori Ministers in Conference Today”, Auckland Star, 2/8/1941: 8. At Bishopscourt, Auckland. Front (Left to right) Rev. W.N. Papapa (Chaplain to Forces), Rev. M.P. Kapa, Rt.Rev. F.A. Bennett (Bishop of Aotearoa), Rt.Rev. W.J. Simpkin (Bishop of Auckland). Rev. E.E. Bamford. Back row: Rev. P. Tipene, Rev. H. Paraone, Rev. H. Harawira, Rev. P. Kena, Rev. M. Te Paa, Rev. M. Cameron, Rev. W. Matene, Rev. H.K. Pou, Rev. W. Maioha, Rev. W.N. Patuawa and Rev. E. Riiwhi.



[1] Hirini Kaa, Te Hāhi Mihinare: The Māori Anglican Church, (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2020).  See also, Jenny Plane Te Paa, “From ‘Civilizing’ to Colonizing to Respectfully Collaborating?”, Theology Today, 62 (2005): 67-73.

[2] Wilbert R. Shenk, “The Contribution of Henry Venn to Mission Thought”, Anvil, 2, 1 (1985): 34.

[3] Warren E. Limbrick. 'Selwyn, George Augustus', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24/5/2021).

[4] Te Paa, p. 67.

[5] For more discussion of the Māori work within the dioceses, see “Community Work Within the Māori Anglican Missions”,

[6] Church Chronicle, 1/8/1939: 273.

[7] See “Community Work”

[8] Church Chronicle, 1/11/1938: 156.

[9] Church Gazette, 1/12/1938: 18; 1/12/1939: 12; 1/12/1943: 21.       

[10] Church Gazette, 1/12/1939: 12.

[11] Church Chronicle, 1/5/1941: 345.

[12] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/8/ 1944, p.12

[13] 28th Maori Battalion, (accessed 3/6/2021).

[14] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/12/1941: 3.

[15] Church and People, 2/9/1946: 13.

[16] Church and People, 1/8/1946: 13.

[17] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/2/1945: 8.

[18] Church Gazette, 1/3/1945: 14.

[19] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/3/1945: 8.

[20] Church and People, 1/8/1946: 13.

[21] Kaa, pp.85-86.

[22] Church Chronicle, 1/4/1939: 220.

[23] Church Chronicle, 1/12/1939: 345.

[24] Church Chronicle, 1/6/1939: 247.

[25] Church Gazette, 1/9/1941: 6.

[26] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/11/1943: 3.

[27] Kaa, p.86.

[28] Church and People, 1/5/1948: 2.

[29] Northern Advocate, 13/4/1948: 2.

[30] Church and People, 1/5/1948: 2.

[31] Church and People, 1/6/1948: 2.

[32] Church and People, 1/7/1948: 2.  Interestingly Cameron became the minister for the Lynfield Community Church in Auckland in 1971, which served all the Protestant communities of the area. See Lynfield Community: The First Twenty Five Years, 1967-1992. (accessed 29/5/2021).

[33] Kaa, p.93.

[34] Waiapu Church Gazette, 1/3/1945: 8.

[35] Karen Webster & Christine Cheyne “Creating Treaty-based local governance in New Zealand: Māori and Pākehā views”, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 12, 2 (2017): 155.

(accessed 29/5/2021).

[36] For example, see Te Paa, pp. 72-73.

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