A sermon which explores some contours of the church's involvement with political processes. It was originally from Falling into the Centre of the Universe, Seven Sermons on Uncommon Subjects.


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Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake  eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more

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The Church and Politics

We are going to look at the influence of the wider Church, since the colonial period, in three key areas of New Zealand life. These areas are politics, society, and education. Peppered throughout will be some tentative predictions about the Church in the decade ahead. It is certainly within the scope of the preacher’s task to discern the patterns of the past and prophesy the patterns of the future. The basic tool of the trade to do this is the discipline of Church history.

In recent years I have come to appreciate social history as much as the history of science and natural theology. Yet, it is a fact, some, maybe many, people tune out and switch off when they hear the phrase Church history. Surely it is the most boring subject of all? I think not. In fact, it is an intelligent way, almost without peer, into both deep theological and pastoral insight.

For example, some here will remember Sir John Marshall, “Gentleman Jack”, as he was often called, who was Prime Minister for a brief time after the Holyoake era. Just a name to some while to others a highly respected figure, yet if we want to understand how the Church influenced politicians then we can do no better than consider Gentleman Jack. He was an ordained Presbyterian elder, and held the post of Session Clerk all the while he was Sir Keith Holyoake’s Deputy Prime Minister.

One night, about 11.00 pm, Jack Marshall knocked on the door of his minister’s manse. He asked if he might come in. Yes, indeed. With very great regret he said he had to resign from being Session Clerk of the Parish. Why? Because just an hour or so ago the cabinet had elected him to the post of Prime Minister. He held the Church and his minister in such high regard that he was always scrupulous in attending to religious duties. As a story it has a rather nice ring to it. Very few clergy will have had a Prime Minister drop in like that.

I was fortunate enough to be told the anecdote while in Christchurch. This was a very happy coincidence. The two cities in New Zealand where the Church has always expected to be taken more seriously in politics, at both a regional and national level, are Christchurch and Dunedin. These places were primarily religious settlements in colonial New Zealand. Christchurch was a Church of England settlement begun in 1850, while Dunedin was founded upon the theology and praxis of the Free Church of Scotland in 1848. But within a couple of decades the mood of these bastions of Church settlements had become secular. Elements were there from the beginning accelerating the trend to secularism. Not all the settlers were religious. They resented the imposition of old Church culture on their freedoms in a new land.

As for Auckland, the mood was acknowledged as decidedly secular. It was well summed up by the founding father of the city, Sir John Logan Campbell who wrote, “The whole & entire object of everyone here is making money”. However, despite the Aucklanders’ love of mammon, the first institutional buildings to be erected were Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Wesleyan Methodist Churches. The two questions that need to be asked are, how deep were the roots of egalitarianism and secularism in New Zealand’s colonial history, and did the Churches nurture those roots? Certainly Church and state were separated from the outset, and certainly the search for abiding values goes on in both Church and society as if they were separate. Yet despite all this, they were subtly intertwined until about thirty or so years ago. Churches were an integral part of welfarism, and this ensured their place within the corridors of power.

The rapid rise of religious pluralism in the last two decades, while weakening the privileged position of Christianity, seems to have simultaneously strengthened a felt need across society to search for personal spirituality. The work of Rev Dr Alan Webster, in a Massey University survey of the values held by Kiwis, highlights this trend.

For those interested in the history of the influence of the Church on politicians and on the political process there are two excellent resources: Allan Davidson, Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand, and Allan Davidson & Peter Lineham, Transplanted Christianity, Documents Illustrating Aspects of New Zealand Church History. Two citations in Davidson’s survey illustrate how the Church achieved certain levels of influence, by appealing to a common social conscience among Church members.

In 1922 a number of recommendations were presented to the Methodist Conference concerned with “stimulating personal religion and the corporate welfare of the Church”, promoting its “extensive influence”, and “fulfilling the world-wide mission of the Church”. Principles, irreducible bedrock, were announced. Political change was expected in areas like “covered industry, wages, sweated labour, holidays, constitutional change, poverty, brotherhood and citizenship”. Eventually these principles became the standing Social Creed of the Church. They continue to be printed in the Methodist Church Lawbook, but I do not imagine they are read by any except a handful of people.

J K Archer in his presidential address to the Baptist Conference in 1918 had said even more bluntly:

We must take the machinery of government out of the hands of the robbers. We must cease sending them to Parliament. We must transfer from private to public hands the business of producing and distributing the necessities of life. We must organise society on the basis of mutual aid instead of mutual plunder. We must replace competition by cooperation. Prayer will not produce the change. Some devils cannot be cast out by prayer. Voters alone can deal with them.

So the ideas and concepts of radical social change were effectively spread through denominational structures. Church leaders spoke out. The clamour for action intensified in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash, and as the effects of the Depression worsened. By 1932 the conservative Presbyterian Church trenchantly criticized unemployment relief and charitable aid as inadequate to solve the main problems of unemployment, and set up a committee of economists to study the whole subject. This kind of analysis initiated from within the Church influenced new generations of National and Labour Party leaders, such as John Marshall, and Arnold Nordmeyer. However, the ability of the New Zealand Churches to influence governments on issues like wealth and poverty, inequality and equality, injustice and justice, depended largely on influencing individual Christians who held political office.

In more recent times, the Methodist Church pinned a great deal of hope for the future of the nation on Labour Prime Minister David Lange, along with David Caygill, who was later to be the Finance Minister. Many times after the 1984 Labour landslide win I would hear Methodist parishioners declare that they felt “safer” under a Labour government, and that Lange would “put things right” after the Muldoon mess. I was unafraid to take a contrary point of view. Adulation of Lange turned out to be problematic for the Methodist Church. Any criticism of Labour’s stewardship was treated with withering contempt, even though that administration was unleashing a version of right wing economics that would cause the poor to get poorer and the rich richer at an alarming rate. As a result, the stratification of society based upon wealth became much more visible.

The old social egalitarianism seemed to be weakening and conspicuous consumerism was by now rampant. Once, the importance of an individual was measured by how he or she contributed to the common good, i.e. how well individual virtues typified the virtues common to all. In the new society, the importance of an individual is measured by his contribution to personal wealth creation. One is tempted to conclude that finally the original Auckland values triumphed over the original Church settlement values. What is certainly true is that elections are now won or lost in terms of the Auckland vote, and its economic health.

The Methodist Church simply bought into the political agenda of the Lange administration, which, incidentally, chose to ignore its historical and philosophical baseline. Principles gave way to pragmatism. As far as I am aware, at that time no one from the Methodist Church attempted a rigorous theological critique of the government’s policies.

Some months into Labour’s first term of office I wrote a critical letter to the national Church newspaper, Focus. A minor storm of protest followed. More letters of complaint were received, I was told by the editor, than on any other subject during his time in the job. This included a major debate on homosexuality. In retrospect, it is astonishing how an insignificant young minister could so trouble the mind-set of New Zealand Methodism. It was out of this first skirmish that I saw how intolerant Methodist leadership could be to contrary points of view. Leaders would come and go over the intervening years. Yet, the intolerance factor remained constant. It infected the new leaders. It seemed to me as if a systemic demon were embedded in the Connexional psyche. It has never been exorcized.

During the Lange years, the economic stewardship of the nation came to be known as Rogernomics (after Roger Douglas), and it eventually brought down the second-term government as irreconcilable differences arose between the two factions of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance. Lange’s often quoted remark about the nation stopping for “a cup of tea” was anathema to Douglas, who insisted upon the programmes of economic reform carrying through unabated. Douglas went, replaced by Caygill. The Methodists were now curiously silent. The Church had wanted the kudos of having a Methodist Prime Minister. It had one for some years. However, nothing had changed for the denomination. Its slide into irrelevance continued unabated. Methodism no longer had a catholic spirit.

It is true that after the second world war the Churches were increasingly ignored in every sector of society. Apart from Roman Catholicism, no denomination kept growing at a rate near that of general population growth. Despite some small gains for a couple of decades, the Protestant Churches were obviously failing to make headway. Then decline began at an alarming rate, particularly for the Methodists. So, in terms of the shape and values of a “Christian society”, there has since been little necessity for politicians to take note of what Churches say or do. The best shot at influence lay in denominations shaping the religious and moral values of future political leaders from within their own ranks. Here Jim Bolger’s personal commitment to Roman Catholicism comes to mind. Also, Jenny Shipley’s Presbyterian allegiance.

There is the nub of the matter. There are the ministers of the Crown and the Members of Parliament who serve the people through the mechanisms of the state. And, there are the ministers of the Gospel who serve the people through the Church. Both groups attempt, in their saner moments, to serve wider interests to the best of their abilities. Although Church and state are separate, to what extent can the Church legitimately influence the political process and politicians?

These issues were paramount during the All Black tour of South Africa in 1960. This was when Maori were excluded, something that was not to happen again. The Presbyterian Church declared in 1958 “that the people of New Zealand, Maori and Pakeha, are one people before God and the law”, and asked the Rugby Union to draw the team together on merit alone, not on a racial basis. This kind of example from some 45 years ago shows us how much New Zealand society has changed.

The Church was obviously right to resist the explicit racism. Equally, the reason it gave is wide open to dispute today. The contemporary Church that tries to speak for one people in Christin reality has to contend with a myriad of races, languages and cultures. Within Maori society there are differing points of view of whether they want to be one before the law, let alone one before God. In this respect Maori and Pakeha are alike. They hold and value divergent views.

Issues like the Treaty of Waitangi settlements have become exceedingly complex and simplistic solutions and slogans are inadequate. I believe, however, we need to continue to stand firm for belief in democracy and the due processes of law. The Treaty and the law are intertwined in the contemporary righting of past injustices and that is a very principled position.

For the alternative to law within a democracy is dictatorship, whether in Church or society. More importantly, we have to stand up for human rights everywhere.And beyond that when justice has been done and been seen to be done, then as Shakespeare put it, 'the quality of mercy is not strained.'

The Church has, at times, flirted dangerously with undue influence, in the political process. In the 1970s there was the disastrous “Clergy for Rowling” campaign. Later on there were campaigns, with varying degrees of success, by Church leaders over issues such as the Treaty of Waitangi, rugby tours to South Africa, land occupation at Bastion Point, the anti-nuclear crusade, as well as promotion of SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child), and SPCS (the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards). The latter two were well known Roman Catholic causes that attracted a host of theologically conservative people from other denominations. Yet, as secular New Zealanders observed, by what right does the Church impose its standards on others who view matters in a different light? All the Churches were inevitably polarized around these issues.

Harold Coop, a leading Anglican layman in Auckland, made a telling observation from the conservative Christians: “Certain sections of the Church, and its general leadership, have great culpability in this matter, through having down-graded the basic and timeless message of Christianity in favour of many modern ‘isms’, especially activism.” (Cited by Davidson.) Was he right?

In certain respects the whole question of Church and State came to a head with the appointment of Sir Paul Reeves as Governor-General in 1985. The then Primate (i.e. Anglican Archbishop of New Zealand) was an inspired choice for the role. But, as the New Zealand Herald claimed at the time, there was potential for conflict between religion and the exercise of political power. As it turned out, the editors need not have worried.

Reeves was a superb ambassador for those Christian values which also turn out to be the best values of all religions and all human causes. His term was without any hints of denominationalism, any excesses of activism or fundamentalism. His was often a genuinely prophetic voice for the aspirations of ordinary New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha alike, seeking justice, compassion and a fair society. I suspect in the long run, Paul Reeves did far more for promulgating Christianity as Governor-General than ever he could have as an Anglican Archbishop.

All clergy worth their salt know that the Church has a prophetic role in society: they have the mandate of the Gospel to speak out. Responsible people of faith - whether Christian or otherwise - are concerned with the imago dei, the image of God, in all humanity. We dispense with the prophetic voice at our peril. The Church has to be fearless in politics and the political process. Whenever harm is done to the image of God in anyone, we must speak out, we must find the moral courage to take appropriate action. To do less is to lose the Gospel hope we proclaim to others. The Church’s influence rises above party politics to make clear to all the love of God and the judgement of God. We need to see all the Churches as seedbeds for future politicians of every shade of opinion.



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