A visit to the Seventh Interfaith Conference   in Christchurch proved to be an interesting weekend.  It opened up a whole new world: people from religious groups I was familiar with and from unfamiliar ones; from established churches and from other communities of faith, temples, synagogues and mosques, and from the margins of Christianity not normally considered orthodox among Presbyterians.  Presbyterians themselves were well represented from three main centres in New Zealand.  It seemed to me that the Christians came mostly from the progressive or liberal wings of the churches.  There were talks and opportunities to discuss what we were hearing from each other.  The theme of the conference was Keeping Faith in the Modern World.  There was a lot to share in common as being religious minorities in a secular society.  Many religions share an agreement that religious activism in modern society is based on spiritual values.  Interfaith groups cannot create a just society, however, they can work together to remove injustices from the societies in which they have been placed.

His Grace, Archbishop Liston being greeted by the Moderator Mr. Norman Perry at 1964 General Assembly

The Archives contain a documented history of interfaith and ecumenical exchanges.  During his time at St. John’s in Wellington at the beginning of the twentieth century Rev. Dr James Gibb wrote a paragraph to the Dominion that offended a representative of Judaism, presumably about Mission to the Jews, which the writer mentions several times: “I gather that you are a Conversionist who seeks to traduce Jewish Youth from its ancient Faith.  A Faith which in its Simple Purity and Nobility of Moral Teaching stands second to none.  None whatsoever.”  The writer introduces a thirteen page letter critiquing Christian Belief.  The letter is a photocopy of an original held at the Alexander Turnbull Library.  It seems the letter impressed Gibb sufficiently that it remained in the collection of his papers.  The original article or any reply to the letter do not accompany the photocopy.

The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand became involved in overseas mission early in its history, beginning a mission to the New Hebrides, and later to India, China and Indonesia.  This exposed New Zealand Presbyterians to indigenous religious traditions that they would not have encountered at home.  Missionary letters and reports recorded the rise of the John Frum movement in New Hebrides/Vanuatu.  One of our missionary went on to become an authority on Sikhism as a world religion. 

 In the latter part of the twentieth century the Presbyterian Church worked closely with the Methodist Church of New Zealand.  Overseas mission work, and international and ecumenical affairs came together as the Council for Mission and Ecumenical Co-operation (COMEC).  The Public Questions Committee worked jointly with its Methodist equivalent and became the Churches’ Agency of Social Issues (CASI) also including the Religious Society of Friends and the Associated Churches of Christ.  Parishes from both churches amalgamated together as part of a church union movement.  Church leaders, with others, protested New Zealand’s sporting contacts and investments in South Africa during the apartheid era.  Sadly, differences in polity decisions, especially affecting leadership, pulled this co-operation apart.

 When a Catholic priest was drowned on Otago Harbour in the nineteenth century the Presbyterian periodical of the time acknowledged that he was a saintly man and his loss was a blow to the community.  Roman Catholicism was an old rival of the Presbyterian Church.  Presbyterians reacted strongly to the Ne Temere decree of 1907 insisting that mixed marriages involving Catholics must be Catholic marriages and the families raised as Catholic children.  They felt that such a ruling was interference in their freedom.  In 1912 Rev. John Dickson’s book Shall Romanism and Ritualism Capture New Zealand? led to an exchange of letters and opinions between the Otago Daily Times, the Outlook and the Tablet.  General Assembly established a Romanism and Ritualism Committee that lingered on under various names until 1934.

 In the new ecumenical situation after Vatican II the Roman Catholic Commission on Ecumenism invited the Presbyterian Church to dialogue with each other parallel to dialogues with the Methodist Church.  This began formally in 1982 in Dunedin.  Discussions ranged widely covering the role of sacraments, shared history, relations between parishes and the establishment of the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand.  It led to the Presbyterian Assembly in 1990, falling from belief in anti-Catholic statements in the Westminster Confession, one of the subordinate standards of the Church.  The collection covers nine years and is inconclusive as the role of the Dialogue is continuing.

 These collections reflect the history of the Presbyterian Church and its involvement in interfaith and ecumenical issues.  Some of them have become inactive.  Their activities have passed to other churches and inter-church organisations.  Whether the Presbyterian Church picks up these initiatives again will be the decision-making of its members.

 By Andrew Smith: 6/3/2010

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