The original vision of the Church Missionary Society in Aotearoa was to serve Māori, but as history tells us, mass European settlement brought colonial oppression which stripped Māori of their land, forests and taonga, despite it being guaranteed to them in the Treaty of Waitangi. The missionaries worked tirelessly to uphold Māori rights but the wave of settlement eventually saw the Church side with the Crown, forgetting its original missional calling.
Reawakening ourselves to that missional calling was the kaupapa of Ministry Leaders’ Family Camp, held recently at El Rancho Christian Holiday Park in Waikanae, and attended by over 400 people, including leaders from our diocese, and from Anglican Missions, New Zealand Church Missionary Society and other dioceses and hui amorangi, and our families.
Keynote speaker Jay Ruka, author of Huia Come Home, believes that this can only happen when we rediscover the story of the Church in this land. He told us of a time when God said to him: “the church has amnesia.” Revelation 12:11 (NIV) says “they overcame [the accuser] by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony,” and Jay challenged us: “what is the word of your testimony but the apprehending of your memory?” He went on: “if you have amnesia, and you have no memory, you have no testimony. My Bible tells me that my testimony is one of the greatest tools I have to confront injustice, to confront evil.”
Throughout the camp, Jay told us the story of the early missionaries, and told us that now is the time to remember these stories, and to rediscover our original calling. He told us of Henry Williams and his wife Maryanne. Henry was the man responsible for the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi into te reo Māori, and travelled around Aotearoa encouraging chiefs to sign it. They felt called to serve Māori and see them rise to a place on the international stage, and they were well respected amongst Māori as peacemakers. But as British colonial rule took root and the “growing evil” of land alienation expanded, Henry found himself targeted as a traitor to the Crown. Heartbroken, he was believed to utter the words “How cruel, how cruel” on his deathbed.
His reputation was further besmirched in 1972 when an academic by the name of Ruth Ross blamed him for the problems that arose from the Treaty, by incorrectly comparing his translation of the Treaty with his earlier translation of the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Wherever history is taught in New Zealand, he still gets the blame for everything that went wrong.
In the 1830s, the Christian mission to Māori was fruitless. But Williams and his wife came and focused on literacy, serving Māori and understanding their worldview. The Bible was translated into te reo Māori and a series of events (which you can read about in Jay’s book) saw the explosion of the Gospel in Aotearoa. At one point, 64,000 Māori were in church every Sunday, and they were hungrily devouring the Good News and spreading it amongst themselves.
Because of the trusted relationship that Williams had built with Māori, the chiefs were happy to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, believing it would genuinely protect their rights and privileges. It was a document never before seen in colonial history – thanks to Christian advocacy in England, indigenous people were offered citizenship of Britain. And some of the words used to translate concepts into a Māori worldview were neologisms derived from the Bible – for example, sovereignty was kawanatanga: kawa means law, kawanatanga was used to describe the governorship of Pontius Pilate over the Jews in the time of Jesus. Jay put it this way: “the Treaty of Waitangi is the history of the church in New Zealand that the majority of the church does not know.” It was a world-first opportunity to “do a nation together.”
Remembering our story means remembering the uncomfortable bits too. As settlement grew, missionaries were forced to take sides, and they sided not with Māori, but with their homeland – abandoning their missional call and focusing on the settlers instead. Jay told us a list of laws that were passed that oppressed and excluded Māori, ensuring further alienation of their land. This was done at the hands of Christian political leaders, too. “Does that sound like oppression?” he asked us. “Even though there was revival, there was an awful oppression because of the cultural blinders on the minds and hearts of Christian political leaders. The orientation of the Church shifted – and it hasn’t shifted back.” Christianity is now generally seen in te ao Māori as a synonym for colonial oppression.
With the learning of our history, there appeared to be a sense of empowerment throughout the camp, but for some – bewilderment. “What now?” seemed to be the collective wondering of the group. For some, there may have been a call to action but for others, there may have been a struggle to reconcile this information with life as we know it in our land. Jay was clear that the time is now for these stories to be remembered, and reclaimed by the church. Much as a rower looks backwards to where they have been in order to direct their boat’s path, those of us gathered at camp were called to remember our stories in order to direct how we might become missional again in this land.