Story: Interdenominational Christianity

Page 1. Protestant collaboration

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The tone of cooperation between Christians and churches embraced all Protestant churches, and was suspicious of Catholics. From the late 19th century, different branches (denominations) of Protestant Christianity throughout the English-speaking world, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, began to work together where they found common cause. Later, Catholics also participated. This movement – called interdenominational, non-denominational or ecumenical Christianity – has contributed to many areas of New Zealand society.

Initial shared parishes

Nineteenth-century New Zealand settlers expected to have a church in their district, but often individual denominations struggled to provide a full network. Settlers from different Protestant faiths often combined to build small community churches, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists providing a Sunday school and services in different weeks. The Catholic Church did not usually join in such arrangements. Since the Second World War this pattern of combined churches has revived, especially in new suburbs and in rural areas.

First interdenominational organisations

New Zealand’s earliest interdenominational organisation was a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society established in Auckland in 1846. It raised money to distribute bibles in New Zealand and overseas, and played a significant role in providing bibles to Māori. Many later organisations also sold and distributed religious literature, among them the Scripture Gift Association, the Bible Tract and Book Society, and the Scripture Union. The distribution of the bible and constant discussion of its meaning has long united and divided Christians.

Missions to Māori

The original missionary goal of converting Māori remained a shared vision of many denominations. In 1936 the United Maori Mission was established by former students of the Bible Training Institute. Their first missioner was Norman Perry on the East Coast. Māori have since contributed to various religious organisations and developed their own groups.

Missions to the poor

Other missions sought to reach out to the poor.  Following the British model, ardent individuals sought to found city missions in poorer suburbs, while others sought to reach people in the 'back blocks'. Most of the larger missions had a denominational origin, but they transcended this in their operation, appealing to a simple common Christianity. The most famous missioner, Colin Scrimgeour and his colleague Thomas Garland, left the Methodist Social Service Mission in Auckland and founded the non-denominational Fellowship of the Friendly Road which gained a great following through its radio broadcasts and choir.

Anti-Catholic conspiracies

Charles Chiniquy was a priest in Quebec, Canada, who left the Catholic Church and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about what he regarded as its evil influence. He claimed, for example, that Catholicism was behind the assassination of US president Abraham Lincoln. In 1880 Chiniquy visited New Zealand during a world tour. He was welcomed by the pro-Protestant Orange Lodge and several Protestant churches. Police attended his meetings to prevent disorder, and when churches withdrew support his visit was curtailed. After his lecture in Coromandel, a journalist wrote, ‘the feeling was one of disappointment … The desire to sell his books and receive money apparently superseded his advocacy of what in his opinion is true Christianity.’1

Anti-Catholic groups

Protestantism in the 19th century often regarded Catholicism as its enemy, and various Protestant associations emerged to combat Catholic influence. The first of these, the Orange Lodge, was set up in Auckland in 1843 and spread widely around New Zealand. The Protestant Political Association, founded during the First World War by Howard Elliott, was the largest and most extreme of these bodies. Anti-Catholic campaigners also visited New Zealand from overseas, notably the notorious former priest Charles Chiniquy in 1880.

Liberal advocates

Although Protestantism was changing internationally as the Enlightenment and new scholarship challenged traditional doctrines and practices, the New Zealand denominations tended to be conservative. Some Protestants had a more open attitude. A prominent early liberal was Samuel Edger, who arrived in New Zealand as chaplain to the Protestant Albertland settlement on the Kaipara Harbour in the late 19th century. When Albertland failed to develop, Edger set up in Auckland the independent Lorne Street Hall. In the 20th century the Unitarian Church and other independent churches embraced liberal religious ideas before these were accepted by other Christians.

Footnotes:
  1. Evening Post, 17 January 1880, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter J. Lineham, 'Interdenominational Christianity - Protestant collaboration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/interdenominational-christianity/page-1 (accessed 21 October 2018)

Story by Peter J. Lineham, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 9 Aug 2018