Story: Anglican Church

Page 4. Church and community

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Anglican public leadership

The diocesan (regional) structure, which gave bishops considerable authority over their clergy and lay followers, at first greatly limited the direct national influence of the Anglican church on public issues. After Bishop G. A. Selwyn’s departure in 1868, the primates (national heads of the church), the diocesan bishops and their synods were noticeably silent on many public issues, Māori concerns in particular. The three-yearly General Synod or national conference (these became two-yearly from 1964) and the lack of a strong national committee structure restricted the Anglican voice in national politics until the 1970s.

The public profile of the archbishops (senior bishops) varied. Their leadership was often mild and focused on their own church, rather than on society in general. To what extent archbishops, bishops, clergy or synods spoke on behalf of the whole Anglican constituency was always uncertain. Archbishop Paul Reeves was forthright on some issues before becoming governor-general in 1985. His successors have largely avoided controversy, and since 1992 three bishops have shared the title of Archbishop of New Zealand, each aligned with one of the church tikanga (Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika).

Failed exhortation

In 1914 a bill was introduced to Parliament to ensure some Christian religious instruction for all pupils. The Anglican Church supported the bill and its bishops sent a letter to all members of their church encouraging them to vote accordingly. ‘We, therefore, your spiritual guides, deeply convinced of the paramount value of religion to any nation, in relation to the prosperity and happiness of its people ... do under these circumstances earnestly and unhesitatingly exhort you to make the religious interests of the country the first question by voting only for Members of Parliament who will pledge themselves to vote for the Religious Instruction Referendum Bill.’1 The bill was not passed.

Social reform and religious education

Historically, Anglicans prided themselves on representing the middle way between what they saw as the extremes of Protestantism and the authoritarianism of Catholicism. They were a significant force in authorising mainstream views on public morality. Apart from individuals and small groups, Anglicans avoided extreme views on issues such as gambling and Sunday observance. Some were active in the largely Protestant campaigns to prohibit alcohol (around 1880 to 1920) but many remained on the sidelines or even opposed prohibition.

Few Anglican women were prominent in the leadership of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Eveline Cunnington in Christchurch was exceptional as an Anglican woman social reformer.

When the Education Act 1877 determined that state education in New Zealand would be secular (non-religious), the Anglicans were slow in joining with other Protestants in the Bible in Schools campaign for religious education. Archdeacon David Garland from Queensland led the campaign for a referendum on this question in 1914, but the First World War diverted concerns. Instead, much energy went into Sunday schools which provided religious education for children.

Lifelong intent

In 1970 the Anglican Church altered its rules so divorced people could marry under certain conditions. ‘The marriage of a divorced person may be solemnised by a Bishop or Priest notwithstanding that the other party to a prior marriage is still living, where there are good and sufficient grounds to believe that: any divorced person intending marriage sincerely regrets that the promises made in any previous marriage were not kept, and both parties to an intended marriage have an avowed intention to abide by the lifelong intent of the proposed marriage.’2

Divorce and abortion

Along with Catholics, Anglicans upheld the sanctity of marriage and vigorously opposed divorce. The realities of life in their communities and the liberalisation of divorce led Anglicans to change their position. From 1970 it was possible for divorced people to be married in Anglican churches with the permission of the bishop. From 1984 this permission was no longer necessary. From the 1980s society’s acceptance of unmarried couples living together and the use of secular marriage celebrants further undermined the church’s traditional attitude towards and role in controlling marriage.

Anglican submissions to the McMillan Committee on Abortion in 1937 opposed the practice, regarding both abortion and birth control as part of a general moral decline. The church’s submissions to the 1974 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion showed a considerable shift from this earlier position, with a range of opinions on abortion and an attempt to balance religious care for the mother and the rights of the foetus. This diversity indicated a lack of an authoritative Anglican Church position on such issues.


Some Anglican leaders and synods joined in supporting homosexual law reform in the 1970s and 1980s. The church’s Provincial Public Affairs Committee endorsed the successful reform of the law in 1986. Debates over the role of gay people in church leadership, and gay marriage, disrupted the Anglican Church and other denominations. St Matthew’s Church in central Auckland has hosted the Community Church for gay Christians since 1980.

  1. ‘Pastoral from the Anglican bishops to the members of their flock in the present crisis’, supplement to Church Gazette, December 1914. Back
  2. Church of the Province of New Zealand, Proceedings of General Synod, 1970, p. 101. Back
How to cite this page:

Allan K. Davidson, 'Anglican Church - Church and community', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2022)

Story by Allan K. Davidson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2018