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Averill, Alfred Walter


Anglican archbishop

This biography, written by Warren E. Limbrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Alfred Walter Averill was born on 7 October 1865 at Castle Church, Staffordshire, England, the son of a pharma­cist, Henry Alcock Averill, and his wife, Sarah Ellen Wootton. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Burton-on-Trent, took an honours degree in theology at St John's College, Oxford, and then prepared for ordina­tion at Ely Theological College. Angli­cans of liberal Cath­olic beliefs such as Charles Gore were influential in his theologi­cal formation.

Averill was made deacon in St Paul's Cathe­dral, London, in December 1888, and ordained priest the follow­ing year. He served cur­acies at the fashionable St George's Church, Hanover Square, and then from 1891 at Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, on the fringe of London's East End. Averill was nominated as vicar of the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, New Zealand, on 3 October 1893. He married Mary Weir on 30 November 1893 at Paddington, London; they were to have four sons and one daughter. The Averills came to New Zealand in 1894.

Averill affirm­ed the distinc­tive traditions of the Anglican church, which he believed to be both scrip­tural and catholic. Although influenced by the Anglo-Catholic revival, he avoided identifying with party enthus­i­asms or extremes. It was said of him that 'He made one feel the roominess of the Christian faith, which does not cramp and fetter the mind'. His preach­ing style was simple and direct and his sermons were fre­quently report­ed in the press. Averill actively sought ecu­meni­cal understand­ing, but three addresses pub­lished in 1895 as Hin­drances to the re-union of Christendom led to a sharp pamphlet exchange with John Grimes, Catholic bishop of Christchurch, and another anonymous Roman Cath­olic author. In 1930, at the Lambeth Conference of bishops, he was to par­tici­pate in the group which produced a far-reaching report on the unity of the church.

While at St Michael's, Averill developed effective par­ochial organis­ations includ­ing those providing social ser­vices. He supported the initiative of Nurse Sibylla Maude in provid­ing home nursing care for the poor, and was later elected to chair the Dis­trict Nursing Associ­ation. St Michael's was regarded as a model of Anglican parochial ministry in a mixed urban population, and Averill's leadership in the diocese was acknowledged in appointments as canon of Christchurch cathedral, arch­deacon of Akaroa (1903–9), archdeacon of Christchurch (1909–10), and diocesan repre­senta­tive on the General Synod.

Alfred Averill was consecrated as bishop of Waiapu on 16 January 1910. It was an ener­getic if short episcopate. The Māori mission in the Bay of Plenty made significant advances, many parishes built new churches and new parishes were established. The Church of England Men's Society and the Mothers' Union were established. The bishop's personal finan­cial support of the new diocesan newspa­per, the Waiapu Church Gazette, ensured its contin­uance.

Averill's robust constitution and apparently tireless energy were soon coveted by the diocese of Auckland, whose last two bishops, M. R. Neligan and O. T. L. Crossley, had retired prematurely due to ill health. Auckland's electoral synod of 1913 persuaded him to accept translation, and he was enthroned on 14 February 1914.

Acutely con­scious of the human tragedy result­ing from war, he sought to relate the Christian faith to peace, social justice and respon­sible citizenship. An advo­cate of collec­tive security, by 1937 he thought the League of Nations shameful­ly betrayed by the self-interest of its 'supposed friends'. Even as Europe again moved towards war he affirmed the moral force of public opinion and the international conscience. In 1925 he had been elected arch­bishop and primate of New Zealand, and he used the synodical addresses to treat matters of international as well as domestic or ecclesiastical concern. He suggested (unsuccessfully) that the triennial General Synod could meet annual­ly, and devote more time to consider­ing 'spiritual, moral, economic and social questions'.

As his experience of collaboration with Māori clergy and people deepened, Averill's early paternal­ism was transformed. He became responsive to the Māori desire for self-determination in church and society, and supported the creation of the bishopric of Aotearoa in 1928. A moderate in reform, he supported amendment of the church's constitution so that it would enjoy full autonomy from the Church of Eng­land.

Averill's diocesan role was extremely demanding in the post-war years and those of the depression of the 1930s. The establish­ment of the diocese of Waikato in 1926 relieved some of the pressure of administering the huge Auckland diocese, which ran from the King Country to North Cape. The founding of the Auckland City Mission, extensions to orphanage facilities, the consolidation of educational institutions such as St John's College, Diocesan High School for Girls and King's College, and the renewal of buildings all lent particular urgency to the pastoral work of the diocese. But Averill still had time for extra projects, such as the restoration of the historic Melanesian Mission build­ings at Kohimarama and St Stephen's Chapel at Judges Bay. He actively supported the Bible in State Schools League of New Zealand, the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, the Red Cross and the Royal Empire Society and was the first honorary member of the Rotary Club of Auckland.

Averill's publications consist chiefly of printed extracts from his addresses and sermons, and the autobiographical Fifty years in New Zealand, 1894–1944. He was the recipient of several honours, having been made an honorary doctor of divinity of Oxford Univer­sity in 1912, a sub-prelate of the Order of St John in England (1924), and an episco­pal canon of St George's Collegiate Church, Jerusalem.

Averill retired on 31 March 1940 and was given a civic farewell before moving to Christchurch. He was appointed a CMG just a few months before his death on 6 July 1957; Mary Averill had died in 1951.

How to cite this page:

Warren E. Limbrick. 'Averill, Alfred Walter', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3a24/averill-alfred-walter (accessed 28 November 2023)