A Dedicated Internationalist
Growing up and being nurtured in the faith in the St Kilda Methodist Church, Dunedin, was integral to the leadership skills Vera Dowie was later to discover and develop. From teenage years she learnt to put herself back into the community life of the church, working with her peers and also as a Sunday School teacher. At that time being a good citizen and being an active Christian were virtually synonymous, especially in Methodist vocabulary. Vera fitted the model.
When she married Walter and moved to Auckland in the 1950s she quickly involved herself with St Stephen’s Methodist Church, Rothesay Bay, along with Plunket and kindergarten activities. They raised two sons who enjoyed the marine suburb to the maximum.
At that stage, the East Coast Bays was a rapidly growing community and St Stephen’s was a hive of activity. But by 1992-3, the church having dwindled to a small, mostly elderly group, a majority of the Leaders’ Meeting desired the church be closed and merged with two other smallish Methodist congregations,. Vera insisted that before any action could be taken the surrounding residents be polled to assess wider community concerns. In her late sixties she did this with some vigour. Yet out of some 600 or so questionnaires delivered, only three replies were received. In less than three decades, the community impact of St Stephen’s had reduced markedly. Gracious in defeat, Vera she said would not fight the road to closure, but nor would she participate in the building of a new church venue some kilometres away.
I mention that story to illustrate that local concerns continued to be of great importance to one of the very few New Zealand Methodist lay leaders who have worked extensively at the national and international level. Vera was national President of the Methodist Women’s Fellowship (MWF), 1970-2.
This was a springboard to becoming President of the South Pacific (1976-81), and then secretary to the World Federation of Methodist Women (WFMW). She was a representative of the WFMW to United Nations’ Convention on women’s rights in Nairobi 1985.
Her intense interest in the politics and policies surrounding women’s rights and feminist perspectives led her into local, regional and national responsibilities with the National Council of Women.
As if the agenda was not quite enough, Vera continued to actively lead in local, regional and national Methodist Church life, becoming the Vice-President in 1976, as well as chairing the key educational committee, the Grafton Hall of Residence. She registered as a marriage celebrant, and conducted services of worship.
It is a remarkable contribution, and parallel to Rita Snowden’s work, done on the smell of an oily rag. I often sat in the small lounge of the modest Rothesay Bay home, and wondered how she had achieved so much. We would talk about the interesting trivia of Auckland Synod life and then reflect on wider faith issues.
The homosexual laws reforms of the 1980s spilt over into the Church agenda of the 1990s. It was one of these large debates, a turning point in Vera’s mind about all of the liberal agenda.
Vera took a much more conservative approach on this issue, although she was more or less content to allow the normal processes of discussion, debate, and finding a middle way. Increasingly, however, she was dismayed to find the subject was leading inevitably to a deep rift in parish, synod and Connexional life. More than any other issue in church, Vera returned to it, time and again. She believed that due process was being done away with, and said so at a number of Synod meetings.
In fact, one of the first signs of trouble had come at St Kilda’s, when a number of people left in protest against the employment of gay rights’ activist, Rev Dr David Bromell, by the Dunedin Parish. Bromell’s cause as a gay man was embraced with enthusiasm by the liberal Methodist leaders. It was not, however, the view from the pews. In an unprecedented move the President of Conference, Rev Bruce Scammell, sought an indicative vote from all church members over the acceptance of gay and lesbian presbyters into Full Connexion. The results were a massive 90% rejection.
In a series of manoeuvres, subsequent Conferences took decisions during the 1990s which favoured abiding by the pro-gay human rights legislation. The lay vote was ignored or sometimes derided. Vera Dowie was distressed by the overturning of democratic procedures to the point where she lost faith in the District leadership, and questioned the Connexion she had served so well.
To some extent her fears were confirmed. When the crusading Wesleyan Methodist Movement finally broke away after the 1999 Conference, the Church was badly damaged. Despite Frank Hanson’s belief that the effects were minor, the results indicate otherwise. (See Unit 5 introduction.) There is now a crucial shortage of presbyters, a number of less than viable Methodist Districts, and continuing severe tensions at Conference among the Pasifika, Pakeha and Te Taha Maori, primarily genetated by variations on the theme of gay rights.
Vera is no longer able to participate in these debates. After conducting a wedding she decided to walk on the Mairangi Bay beach. She slipped on the rocks, and fell on her head. She suffered severe brain injuries. Her life hung in the balance for several weeks and her recovery left her with only fragments of memories.
Methodists sometimes talk about the remarkable life of Susanna Wesley and what she had to say to her sons, John and Charles. Vera Dowie and Rita Snowden might have had an instructive word or two to say to them as well. And maybe also to Susanna.
On the split over the gay issue see Terry Wall, “Managing Conflict in Methodism”, unpublished D Min thesis, Melbourne, 2006,
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