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Has the revised Anglican Church in New Zealand instigated a benign form of religious apartheid?

by Graeme Davidson, September 2001

Parishioners have an uneasy sense that they belong to a Church that has instigated a benign form of religious apartheid with the three tikangas acting like church Bantustans — doing their own thing, in their own way, under the control of their own bishops and a remote General Synod.

A decade ago governance of the Anglican Church in New Zealand was dominated by the white majority. In 1992 its constitution was revised to rectify this. The Church was split into three seats of power or tikanga (cultural streams). These are Maori, Pasifika (Polynesia), and Pakeha (the rest, who are predominantly white with a sprinkling of other ethnic groups).

Each tikanga is an equal partner in the Church's governing body, the General Synod. Each exercises missions and ministry within its own culture.

There is also a tacit assumption that this Anglican partnership would serve as a model for how New Zealand should be governed in a bicultural partnership — an issue General Synod members will wrestle with this November.

A sense of unease
For those in the pews the tikanga partnership has been confusing and difficult to comprehend. There is an uneasy sense that they belong to a Church that has instigated a benign form of religious apartheid with the three tikangas acting like church Bantustans — doing their own thing, in their own way, under the control of their own bishops and a remote General Synod.

The question is often raised as to how this official cultural separation fits with St. Paul's comments in his letter to the Galatians that there is 'neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus'. For many the revised constitution seems to suggest the opposite.

While there is a common recognition to have ministries customised to meet cultural needs, there is grief that ordinary parishioners in each Tikanga are not mixing and a sense of loss from not having direct exposure to the richness of what each culture has to offer. In his August letter to Clergy and Vestry Secretaries Bishop Tom Brown of the Wellington Diocese comments on some of the benefits of the three tikangas. He then adds, 'By way of contrast a lament has sounded across the Diocese in all sorts of places that we see little of each other as Tikanga, and that is loss'.

Yet others are happy to live and let live. They don't want to be disturbed by the 'goings on' in the other tikanga - except, perhaps, when it comes to sharing money and property.

Where do we meet?
Unless you are a seminarian at St. John's College, make the effort to visit the other two tikanga or a special get-together is organised, the only real place to benefit from the diversity is at General Synod — a few days once every two years and three levels of church government representation remote from the people in the pews. This rare opportunity to be involved with the Church as a whole is reserved for bishops and the elected few.

This came home in the 1998 Hikoi of Hope, when, as a consequence of a General Synod resolution, Anglicans from all three tikanga and others from all over New Zealand walked to Parliament to highlight poverty and social injustice throughout the country. The Prime Minister of the time, Jenny Shipley, received a delegation, but many Anglicans felt disappointed and betrayed when issues of Maori sovereignty dominated the presentation. People raised the question whether Maori sovereignty was the key agenda for tikanga Maori.

The original missionaries to New Zealand discouraged Maori from practising their form of spirituality. Over 150 years later Maori gods and spirituality have started to come out of the closet. The Maori tikanga and liberal academics and clergy who sense the need to provide diverse forms of spirituality and different entry points to Christianity have given encouragement. There has also been a reaction to the dominance of first world theologies that encapsulate the culture, history and preconceptions of the Northern Hemisphere.

In an article in the 2nd of September Sunday Star Times entitled Maori gods find church approval, the head of the Maori tikanga, Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, is quoted as saying ,'I think any other gods are emanations from the one God. That's what we are saying in Maoridom'.

Comments like this create a suspicion that the integrity of the faith is being corrupted. Incorporating Maori animistic gods like Tane (god of forests and birds), Tangaroa (god of water) and Tawhirimatea (god of winds and storms) within a mainstream Christian Church raises the question of how far the Church can go before compromising the first of the Ten Commandments.

This question is not unique to New Zealand and the South Pacific. It is an issue the Church constantly faces when interfacing with other cultures and spirituality, whatever age it finds itself. What is permissible and what isn't? When is the local spirituality helpful to understanding Christianity and when does it become unhelpful or even heretical?

Does the Treaty apply?
In the past the Church has been guilty of riding roughshod over indigenous cultures. In New Zealand the early missionaries interceded between Maori and the European colonists on the nation's founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the British Crown.

There is much debate as to the interpretation of the Treaty in its two languages, and particularly about the question of sovereignty and the preservation of Maori culture. Obligations under the Treaty were invoked when the Revised Anglican Constitution was being developed. But it is doubtful whether the Treaty would apply to the governance of a voluntary organisation like a church. It is also difficult to understand how the Treaty is relevant to tikanga Pasifika, which includes the countries of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Other churches in New Zealand haven't adopted the tikanga lead of the Anglicans, so it is very unlikely that it will receive groundswell endorsement from the public as a model for the governance of the country. It appears that the church has enough difficulty convincing its tripartite self.




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