George Augustus Selwyn was born on 5 April 1809 at Hampstead, England, the second son of William Selwyn, a noted constitutional lawyer, and his wife, Laetitia Frances Kynaston. His education began at a preparatory school at Ealing, where J. H. Newman, the future cardinal, was a fellow pupil, and continued at Eton College, where he earned praise both as a student and as an athlete. He was a strong swimmer and an expert oarsman, later representing Cambridge University in the inaugural Oxford–Cambridge boat race in 1829. At Eton began his lifelong friendship with William Ewart Gladstone and others who were later to be influential promoters of his cause in both New Zealand and Melanesia. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1827, where he studied Classics, coming second in the Classical tripos in 1831. He graduated BA in that year, MA in 1834, and was elected a fellow of his college, a distinction shared with William Martin and Thomas Whytehead, both of whom came to New Zealand through his influence.
On leaving Cambridge, George Selwyn took an assistant master's position at Eton, together with a private tutorship for the sons of Lord Powis. During this time, possibly influenced by H. J. C. Harper (the future bishop of Christchurch), he made the decision to enter the ordained ministry, although aware, in his own words, that among the professions 'this will in future be the most laborious and the least lucrative'. He was ordained deacon on Trinity Sunday 1833, and priest exactly a year later, in St George's, Hanover Square. While at Eton he became part-time curate to Boveney parish, and then Windsor, where his energetic ministry attracted attention, including that of Prince Albert. On 25 June 1839 at the church of St Giles in the Fields, London, he married Sarah Harriet Richardson, whose father, Sir John Richardson, was a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.
When the archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, sought to make an appointment to the newly created bishopric of New Zealand, the post was offered to Canon William Selwyn, George's elder brother, who declined. Within the week Selwyn himself was offered the appointment and promptly accepted. On 17 October 1841 he was consecrated bishop of New Zealand at Lambeth Palace Chapel by the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of London, Lincoln and Barbados. Both his own university and Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.
Selwyn arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, on 30 May 1842 aboard the brig Bristolian, while the Tomatin, on which his party had embarked in England, proceeded more slowly from Sydney, New South Wales, with Sarah Selwyn and a number of clergy. Selwyn's prodigious energy and all-round accomplishments impressed both Māori (whose language he had begun to learn on the passage out) and settler. His first visitation tour began only 10 days after his arrival at the Bay of Islands. It took six months, covering about 2,300 miles, one third of which he walked, travelling the balance by ship, horseback, boat and canoe. He became a competent mariner, mastered the art of navigation, and in his small schooner, the Undine, undertook coastal passages in ill-charted waters, as well as ocean voyages to Melanesia. One sailor commented that 'to see the Bishop handle a boat was almost enough to make a man a Christian'. However, he was much more than the legendary muscular Christian. He was a high-principled idealist as well as a far-sighted man of action, a combination which was experienced by some as inflexibility rather than resolution.
Selwyn established his base at the Church Missionary Society station at the Bay of Islands. The society had supported the establishment of a bishopric even though it tended to be suspicious of episcopal authority. Selwyn's presence and policies soon caused tension. Minor ritual changes brought exaggerated responses, and the bishop's policies concerning the stationing of mission clergy, and their availability to Europeans as well as to Māori, seemed to intrude on CMS autonomy and commitment to the Māori people. Selwyn wished to see an integrated mission activity springing from the whole church, and under episcopal oversight. Within 18 months misunderstanding had grown to the point where he quit the Waimate North mission house rented from the CMS and removed to Auckland, leaving Henry Williams as his archdeacon in the north. But his relations with Williams deteriorated. After the northern war of 1845–46, Governor George Grey made the accusation that the 'pretended' land purchases by the missionaries had caused Māori enmity and would be secured only by a 'large expenditure of blood and money'. This unsupportable charge was injudiciously supported by Selwyn and the CMS committee in England, and led to the dismissal of Henry Williams. Selwyn subsequently regretted the affair and lobbied for Williams's reinstatement, but the hurt, and the legacy, remained.
Selwyn seized the opportunity to shape the life of the church in the colony on the basis of principles of conservative reform which had much in common with the Oxford movement. He condemned party spirit in the church and rejected the Tractarian label applied by his detractors. Selwyn affirmed the corporate nature of the church as an organic body able to determine its representative institutions independently of the state, and believed that the shackles of the Church of England could be removed in the freer colonial setting. But there were legal impediments, and even his calling together of clergy in synods in 1844 and 1847, and his appointment of archdeacons, had been questioned by some in England. After attempts in Great Britain at legislation which would give the church in the colonies the power to adapt to new circumstances failed, Selwyn was left free to frame a constitution on the basis of a mutual and voluntary compact.
Meetings with laity and clergy throughout the colony, the Sydney conference of Australasian bishops in 1850, close consultation with William Martin, George Grey, William Swainson and John Robert Godley, together with discussions in England during Selwyn's visit in 1854–55, all culminated in a constitutional conference at St Stephen's Chapel, Judges Bay, Auckland, in 1857. The constitution of what became the Church of the Province of New Zealand provided for a governing general synod of bishops meeting in council with clergy and laity, each voting in separate houses. The general synod was to have the power to frame rules for the church to suit the circumstances of the settlers and the Māori people, provided that the fundamental provisions were observed by maintaining the doctrine and sacraments of the church as contained in the Authorised Version of the Bible, the Prayer Book and Ordinal, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Diocesan synods were provided for on the same principles as the general synod.
In 1858 the further subdivision of Selwyn's diocese to form bishoprics in Wellington, Waiapu and Nelson, in addition to that of Christchurch, formed in 1856, could proceed. The first General Synod met in Wellington in March 1859. Selwyn, now with the status of metropolitan, presided over Bishops C. J. Abraham, W. Williams, E. Hobhouse and H. J. C. Harper. The essential shape of this constitutional settlement has endured, and must be ranked as one of the major achievements of Selwyn's episcopate.
The constitution had preoccupied Selwyn during the first 15 years of his episcopate, but not to the exclusion of his work as a diocesan bishop. He visited every part of the country, even the Chatham Islands in the east, and Ruapuke and Stewart islands in the south. His visitation journals record baptisms, confirmations and marriages of whalers, settlers and sawyers, Māori and Pākehā. He taught and preached in both languages, selected church sites, established schools, administered trusts, fostered isolated mission stations and confirmed lonely settlers. His advice was in demand by governors and politicians, Māori elders and teachers. Selwyn's voyages to Melanesia afforded some relief from the heavy demands placed on him. His letters patent defined his northern boundary as Lat. 34° N. Whether this was intentional or a clerk's error (as he sometimes joked), he took the mission to the Pacific islands seriously. His first Melanesian visit, aboard the Dido in 1847–48, confirmed his conviction that New Zealand could be the centre of a web of Anglican missionary activity. In 1849 he returned to the islands in the Undine and brought back the first of many young Melanesians for education in Auckland. He made 10 such voyages with, however, little visible result. Selwyn's greatest contribution to the Melanesian mission lay in his vision, in his initiatives which ensured the eventual establishment of the bishopric, and in recruiting John Coleridge Patteson, whom he consecrated in 1861 as bishop of Melanesia.
Sarah Selwyn, known among Māori as 'Mata Pihopa' (Mother Bishop), never wavered in support of her husband, although she had a lonely time. Selwyn was away for long periods, sometimes for as much as 10 months a year. In 1848 William and in 1853 John, their two sons, went to England to school. Their daughter, Margaret Frances, born in 1850, lived for no more than a few months; Selwyn saw her for only 12 days. Sarah Selwyn suffered a good deal from ill health, and had few friends; only Mary Martin and Caroline Abraham were close to her. She found life much more agreeable after her return to England with Selwyn in 1868. She lived a long and contented life at Lichfield, until her death in 1907.
In 1838 Selwyn had published a provocatively titled pamphlet, Are cathedral institutions useless?, in which he proposed that the moribund cathedrals become centres of church education. He adapted this concept to the education of young Māori, so they might adjust to a settler society 'without distinction of persons'. Thus emerged the bishop's plan for a composite institution, St John's College, comprising a theological college, collegiate school, native teachers' school, native boys' school, infant school and hospital. Selwyn's reach exceeded his grasp, for the complex project foundered on financial difficulties, inadequate staff, and settler opposition to equality of race. The college closed in 1853. Only the theological college remains today, including some of the original buildings, with the notable chapel of 1847 exemplifying the dignity and humble elegance associated with the 'Selwyn style' of architecture.
Selwyn's advocacy of Māori rights brought bitter reproaches, including charges of disloyalty to the Crown, from many settlers. In 1855, at the suggestion of Governor Thomas Gore Browne, he attempted to mediate in Taranaki. After first publicly condemning Katatore for the killing of Rāwiri Waiaua (who had proposed selling disputed land), Selwyn preached to a settler congregation on the subject of Naboth's vineyard, rebuking them for their covetous greed for Māori land. His sermon led to furious attacks in the local press, to which he responded in a pastoral letter. He spoke what he saw to be the truth and was prepared to suffer for it. But during the 1860s he was close to despair for the toll of human suffering, the setback to the growth of a just and equal society, and the divisions within his church. His role as mediator, he wrote to Gladstone, was now ignored, and his advice and warnings were 'received in a thankless spirit by all parties alike, including the Duke of Newcastle, the Colonial Politicians and the Māori Chiefs'. He continued to defend the Treaty of Waitangi and condemned the 'fatal mistake' of land confiscations.
However, by 1863 he was unable to see any alternative to the military campaign in Waikato. This was an ironic and tragic outcome. His action in associating with Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's forces as a chaplain brought a bitter legacy which remains with the church to this day. After an engagement which resulted in the deaths of women and children in a burning whare at Rangiaowhia on 21 February 1864, it was charged that the bishop had treacherously misled them into believing the village was a safe haven. Other stories claimed that Selwyn assisted in the massacre and blessed the troops involved. A pamphlet, Ngā minita i roto i te whawhai (The ministers involved in the war), contains Māori testimony which exonerates Selwyn and confirms his presence on the fateful day at Te Awamutu, where he rendered assistance to Māori casualties from nearby Hairini. His acute sense of duty, and his desire to bring compassion to both sides, blinded him to the ambiguity of his presence with the military. He was pained by these charges, and by the damage done to the standing of the church among Māori. But he retained his sense of purpose. In 1865 he pictured himself sitting 'among my own ruins, not moping, but tracing out the outlines of a new foundation.'
Before long, events were to put some strain on his earlier foundation, the structure of the church. In 1865 he asked C. T. Longley, the archbishop of Canterbury, to suggest a candidate for the proposed diocese of Dunedin. This was the first mistake, for the Rural Deanery Board of Otago and Southland, mindful of the shortage of endowment funds, had not endorsed the proposal, and was to refuse to endorse it. The second, and greater, mistake was the archbishop's; Longley not only offered the post to H. L. Jenner, but consecrated him in 1866. Next year the scandal broke; Jenner was observed participating in ritualistic forms of worship.
While this controversy was warming up, Selwyn visited England to attend the first Lambeth Conference, in 1867. He was offered, and after considerable pressure accepted, the see of Lichfield, and was enthroned on 9 January 1868. He returned to New Zealand later that year to preside over his fourth and last General Synod, which, with Selwyn's concurrence, requested Jenner to withdraw. Nevertheless, on board ship to England, Selwyn still asked the rural deanery to withdraw its objection to Jenner. This untidy matter was settled, after Selwyn's departure, by the Dunedin synod's rejecting Jenner. This episode shows the difficulty even its creator found in working with a constitution that provided for a high degree of clerical and lay participation.
On 20 October 1868, after the conclusion of the General Synod in Auckland, a farewell communion service in St Paul's began at 3 p.m. and did not end until 5 p.m. The final communicant to receive the bread and the wine from the bishop's hands was the venerable Ngāti Hao chief Patuone. A public holiday was declared to farewell Selwyn. The press of people in the streets was so great that the horses were taken out of the shafts and the carriage drawn to the wharf by young men. The streets were decked with bunting; steamers sounded their whistles; naval vessels fired their guns. Selwyn arrived in England on 31 December.
Selwyn was a vigorous bishop of Lichfield. A number of missionary bishops were recruited from Lichfield for the colonies, including S. T. Nevill, the eventual bishop of Dunedin, and W. G. Cowie, Selwyn's successor as bishop of Auckland. The killing of J. C. Patteson, first bishop of Melanesia, was a cruel blow to Selwyn; his son, John, succeeded Patteson in 1877.
Within his diocese Selwyn devoted himself to pastoral care, and especially to the training of the clergy. On a wider front, he twice visited the United States and Canada, in 1871 and 1874, playing an important part in the drawing together of the world wide Anglican communion. In 1877 Selwyn became Prelate of the Order of St Michael and St George. Not long before the second Lambeth Conference was due to be held in 1878, Selwyn became unwell. He died at Lichfield on 11 April. It is said that his last words were in Māori, and that they meant 'It is all light'.