Stimulus Volume 21 Issue 2 - Jul 2014


Christian Beginnings in New Zealand: Some Historiographical Issues
Stuart Lange

The Place of Small Denominations in the Religious Landscape of New Zealand Peter Lineham

Strength of Religion and the Future of the Churches
Geoffrey Troughton, Joseph Bulbulia, Chris G. Sibley

Models and Metaphors: Geering, History and the Big Bang
Nicola Hoggard Creegan

The Voice: From Text to Life
Geoff New

Educated Guesses: Justice, Mercy, Humility in Education
Dianne Scouller

Freudian Slips: A Holy Stop
Sarah Penwarden

St Imulus



This year marks a significant anniversary in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. The bicentenary of Samuel Marsden’s Christmas Day sermon at Oihi in 1814 has sparked a number of projects in celebration and commemoration. This issue of Stimulus is one. It joins the fine collection of essays, Te Rongopai 1814: Takato te pai!, edited by Allan Davidson and others, and Stuart Lange’s video presentation (also Te Rongopai) of the significance of Christianity among Maori in the earliest decades of colonial contact.

Such an anniversary is also an opportunity for sober reflection on the impact of Christianity in this country. It is of course, not difficult to identify the positive role of Christian churches and the activism of those motivated by Christian faith in many layers of New Zealand society. Education, welfare, aged care, bi-cultural issues – these and more would have taken on a radically different character if it were not for the presence of Christian voices. Christianity in Aotearoa is not monolithic. Its many forms and facets require nuanced interpretations. Nevertheless, it is evident that the Christianities of New Zealand have never established the influence over the popular mind in this country that they are sometimes imagined to have done. The inherent conflicts of colonisation and the material necessities of settler life have served to relegate Christianity, to displace it from the centre of the common mind. Christian thinking has not been a prominent element in New Zealand intellectual life, and in artistic and literary spheres it has often been identified with a “puritan” strand in New Zealand Pakeha culture from which, at least since the 1920s, artists have supposedly been seeking to escape. This last caricature, however, needs closer examination, as it is not necessarily as negative to Christianity as is often assumed and, in fact, contains seeds of appreciation we might well consider cultivating.

Short story writer Frank Sargeson (1903–1982) might seem an unlikely person to whom we might turn for insight into Christian mission. He was, after all, along with such fellow writers as Bill Pearson, a key proponent of the view that “puritanism” was the principal oppressive force in New Zealand society against which the artist fought. Yet Sargeson had a sophisticated sense of what he meant by this term, one indeed arguably more pro Christian faith (or at least a version of it) than opposed. What Sargeson and others sought to escape was a cloying morality which was most damaging, not because of its religious roots, but because it had been split from those roots. This secularisation of morality Sargeson saw embodied in the contrast between the “pure puritanism” of his father, who held morality to be anchored in “heavenly absolutes,” and his mother’s “impure puritanism” which Sargeson saw as morality grounded solely in concern for “what people would say or think”. Although he favoured neither form, it was particularly this “impure”, shallow moral rectitude which Sargeson decried and which Pearson would later warn could collapse into “a dimly expectant hedonism”.

Sargeson, in fact, called for a revival of Christianity in New Zealand. By this he meant a recovery of the mysteries of Christian rituals such as the Catholic mass. Protestantism, with its emphasis on preaching, was in his view too easily corrupted into mere morality – puritanism – but ritual and mystery connected us to something deeper, richer, fuller, which he saw as lacking, at least in P keh culture. Sargeson explores this notion in some depth in a 1954 address entitled “What is the Question”. His ruminations are hardly orthodox and certainly no indication that he sought a revival based on Billy Graham-like evangelism. Nevertheless, his insights contain both a lesson and a warning for those of us committed to the future of Christianity in Aotearoa.

The reason Christianity had not achieved what it might in New Zealand, Sargeson argued, was that its rhythms were out. “It is difficult to see that the Christian religion has been successfully extended to New Zealand, when there is an apparent failure to take into account the serious break in tradition which the extension implies.” The rituals and festivals of traditional Christianity communicated their truth through their rhythmic qualities, connecting body soul and season. The problem is that in the southern hemisphere the rhythms are distorted. “I can only say that I have never been able to reconcile myself to the fact that the great springtime festival of resurrection is followed by the melancholy of autumn, and the gloom of winter.” There is surely something to be learned here. The missionaries who followed Marsden came to learn that the assumed forms of their religion might not be the most successful vehicles for its essential content. Even so, concessions to the new environment were small. Christian festivals continue to bear little relation to the seasons and it is likely that the rapidly changing ethnic and social contexts of Aotearoa New Zealand will require a substantial re-forming of our practices.

But if there is a lesson there is also a warning. This is also implicit in Sargeson’s analysis. The flip-side of the rootlessness of the “puritanism” he derided was its narrow pragmatism, its focus on the immediate and material. This New Zealand failing is, Sargeson suggests, a form of evasion, an avoidance of the challenges and complexities with which a broader vision might present us. The big questions, the Big Question, draw their power from calling us to reflect beyond the immediacy of our needs and circumstance. However, this is in itself a counterpoint to the question of the rhythms. Merely to flip Christian rituals on their heads might achieve an alignment with the rhythms of life in the southern hemisphere. The rituals and practices might even thereby become more attractive and natural. But, shorn of the particularities of the story, these newly matched rhythms would have no more power than then conventional morality of Sargeson’s “puritanism”. If the ultimate outcome of the one is a collapse into hedonism, the parallel fate of the other would be a decline into “a dimly expected” paganism.

What Sargeson was missing (or, perhaps, evading) was that the traditions of Christianity contain more than its rhythms. To employ his metaphor further, rhythm alone does not make music, any more than vowels alone create words. Without a melody, rhythm is just impulse, without consonants, vowels are mere grunts. Without the story, the rituals of Christianity are shadows; form without substance.

Missionaries and the churches which came after them were charged with bringing the Christian music to Aotearoa. This could never have been accomplished with only the rhythms which Sargeson craved. In Stuart Lange’s study of Marsden in this issue we get a strong portrayal of the man, but also a welcome consideration of his message. It is, in this regard, notable that Marsden’s key action was his sermon, examined in detail in Lange’s article. Two other pieces enable a deeper appreciation of the variations within the music. Peter Lineham brings the focus to the smaller Christian communities which have often been side-lined in the big picture. Given the prominence of the Anglican and Methodist missionaries in the Christian story in New Zealand, the gathered groups have sometimes been lost in the story. Yet they bring their unique contribution – they play the melody in a different key – which must be heard if two hundred years of Christianity in New Zealand is properly to be understood. In a very different study Geoff Troughton, Joseph Bulbulia and Chris Sibley report on data which uncovers fascinating differences in how Church affiliation and identification varies across traditions and age groups.

After two centuries it is clear that Christianity is still “becoming” in Aotearoa. It was news (rongo) in 1814. One hundred and forty years on, a sharp critic like Sargeson could see it was not embedded in local soil. A further six decades later we find the same. Christianity remains a missionary faith, forever in process.

Martin Sutherland and Fiona Sherwin
are on the staff at Laidlaw College. Their research interests include missiology, religious history, theological method, and theology and disability