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A portrait of Bishop Selwyn, by George Richmond.
The Right Reverend GA Selwyn at the time of his appointment as first Bishop of New Zealand, by George Richmond, RA. The original is in the collection of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Hallo again to all.

On Boxing Day 1841, a ship named the Tomatin left Plymouth, Devon, to begin a journey of more than five months to New Zealand. On board was a small group of men and women at whose centre was George Augustus Selwyn. Only 32 years old, he had just been consecrated Bishop of New Zealand in October and was taking up that appointment with enormous energy, convincing a number of his friends -- all fellows of St John's College, Cambridge -- to join him and his wife.

'Muscular Christianity' is often used to characterise the attitudes and actions of the Victorians in their missionary zeal, but happily Bishop Selwyn combined a supple and brilliant intellect, linguistic gifts, and a winning personality with a rigorous physical constitution (he was a superb swimmer and oarsman). Much of the five-month voyage he spent in learning not only Maori but Tahitian and Rarotongan. Near the end of the voyage, Selwyn noted 'I can now converse with Rupai [a Maori sailing with them] fluently in New Zealand: and catechise him always in his own language'*. Arriving in Auckland on 30 May 1842, his first 'visitation' began 10 days later. 'It took six months, covering about 2,300 miles, one-third of which he walked, travelling the balance by ship, horseback, boat and canoe'§. One sailor commented that 'to see the Bishop handle a boat was almost enough to make a man a Christian'¶.

Whilst there was undoubtedly an overlay of 'bringing English Christian civilisation to backwards peoples' in the world in which he laboured, Selwyn was unusual in that he championed Maori rights, which brought much suspicion on him, even to his being thought disloyal to the Crown. He defended the Treaty of Waitangi and condemned land confiscations by the pakeha. He also argued for a church in New Zealand that would be independent of the state -- a frighteningly radical idea for a colonial bishop in Victorian England -- and he worked to frame a constitution that was a mutual and voluntary compact. In 1857, Bishop Selwyn achieved his goal: a constitution that enabled a governing general synod of bishops meeting together with clergy and laity, each voting in separate houses. The general synod was empowered to frame canons of the church 'to suit the circumstances of the settlers and Maori people'.

In 1868, he reluctantly agreed to leave New Zealand to become Bishop of Lichfield, after much pressure, and held that office till his death on 11 April 1878. It is said his last words were in Maori, and that they meant 'It is all light'. official corporate symbol of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

It is a relatively simple exercise to find examples of Christian missions gone all wrong and causing far more harm than good. In many cases, Christian missions become a kind of Christian occupation. This did not happen in New Zealand. One could say that George Selwyn was changed and affected as much by Maori culture as that culture was affected by him. There was a respect, honour, and an interplay of perspectives. There was learning and enlightenment: on both 'sides'. The present day Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia seems to embody much that George Selwyn hoped it would. In its remarkable tikanga structure and its synodical government, it has much to teach the Anglican Communion about living with difference and respecting 'the other'.

Recently the Right Reverend Te Whakahuihui Vercoe, after a long and distinguished career, was elected Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, the first Maori to hold that position. In an interview shortly after his election, Archbishop Vercoe made some remarks that straightaway vaulted him to the front-pages of national newspapers. The primate's views were thought rather extreme even by people who characterise themselves as conservative and he later attempted to downplay them, rather unsatisfactorily, from what we can gather. No matter where one stands with regard to the primate's points of view, we very much hope that the special genius of the Church in New Zealand -- to live amongst difference with grace and goodwill -- will not be battered by strife in the church. Its gift has been to show the rest of us how to live in Christ's love amidst cultural complexity. The Communion needs that now, more than ever.

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 20 June 2004

* From Selwyn's Legacy: The College of St John the Evangelist 1843-1992, by Allan K. Davidson, 1993
§ From The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
¶ Ibid.

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