Encounters between Christianity and Tāngata Whenua in New Zealand

Research is fascinating and no more so when we delve into waters to lift the pebbles to discover things that have been invisible to us.  The symposium which examined the encounters between the Christian Church and the Tāngata Whenua in New Zealand, recently held at Salmond College, Dunedin, offered a tapestry where the threads of Maori and Pakeha Christian interconnection and its ever evolving understandings is  beginning to form a clearer image.  

From a Presbyterian perspective this symposium begins to redress the paternalistic telling of Presbyterian movement into Maori mission found in the official histories of the Church.  Sadly the most recent 1990 sesqui-centennial history Presbyterians in Aotearoa  did not pick up the challenge, although Prof. Dr. Ian Breward notes in the preface that aspects of the Church’s history were treated inadequately and specifically notes the impact of ‘the deep seated racism and insensitivity in the Presbyterian Community to issues of justice raised by recognising  the Treaty of Waitangi…’  As with the writing of women’s history where women had to take the initiative and challenge to make their voices heard so with Maori Church history.

The papers presented by 13 presenters definitely revealed and made visible things long hidden.  I was surprised and humbled at my range of emotion as I listened to papers telling the beginning stories of the Catechists on the Whanganui River,  Maori prophets Rua and Ratana, workers among Maori in the Urewera, relationships with various denominations to the present day phenomenon of the Destiny Church.   It was disappointing that Robert Joseph was unable to attend for us to hear of the Mormon Church’s movement into Maori missionary work.  His work will give another voice to balance the voices of the mainstream denominational missions to Maori.

At a personal level I was excited and challenged by the papers that covered Maori and Presbyterianism.  Lachy Paterson’s  work into the Presbyterian Deaconesses who went into Maori Mission, Hone Te Tire oral history project, ‘Hīhita me ngā Tamariki o te Kohu’, Kathy Irwin’s exploration of V. Rev. John Laughton’s long and dedicated ministry , Dr. Murray Rae’s theological view of the thought of Prophet Rua , Rev. Wayne Te Kaawa’s deconstruction of the Covenants between Maori and the Presbyterian Church and Dr. Hugh Morrison’s peep into the sentiment expressed of Maori through the text and images found in the two Presbyterian children’s missionary magazines. 

The aim of my presentation was to investigate how the theological understandings behind the missionary focus of ‘women’s work for women’ in the early decades of the 20th century translated into a sisterhood between Pakeha and Maori women. I wanted to discover whether the members of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union [PWMU] developed a continuing relationship with Maori women whereby they confidently acknowledged them as co-workers for the ‘Kingdom of God’.   As this research begins to unfold I am challenged and I must say a little uncomfortable with  the sense of ambivalence that prevails throughout the resources. 

The papers will be published during 2010 and I am confident that they offer a rich contribution towards our bi-cultural journey and  will offer a deeper historical and theological analysis that will continue to make visible what is yet to be told.



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