The Rātana cosmology
The Rātana Church embraces other Christian denominations and expresses tolerance towards other faiths. The Rātana cosmology includes the Christian trinity; te Matua, te Tama and te Wairua Tapu (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), adding ngā Anahera Pono (the faithful angels) and sometimes Te Māngai (the mouthpiece) to prayers. Its central book is the Bible, although the Blue Book, written in Māori and containing prayers and hymns (many composed by Rātana), is used in all church services.
The main tohu (symbol) of the church is the five-pointed star and crescent moon, the whetū mārama (shining light), worn on the lapels of mōrehu (the scattered remnant, Rātana followers) and at pivotal points on church buildings. The golden crescent moon (symbolising enlightenment) can face different parts of the coloured star: blue represents te Matua (the Father), white is te Tama (the Son), red is te Wairua Tapu (Holy Spirit) and purple is ngā Anahera Pono. Te whetū mārama represents the kingdom of light or Māramatanga, standing firm against the forces of darkness (mākutu).
Rātana had envisioned a magnificent temple embodying deep biblical truths along with his own revelations. Te Temepara Tapu o Ihoa (the holy temple of Jehovah) with its two imposing bell towers was opened on 25 January 1928, Rātana’s 55th birthday. Officiating was the Japanese bishop Juji Nakada – Rātana and his party had stayed with him in Japan in 1924. At the opening, Rātana stated that his spiritual mission was complete, and church apostles and officers would take on the work.
In forging the 1936 alliance between the Rātana Church and the Labour party, Rātana handed Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage symbolic gifts. The first was three huia feathers projecting from a potato, representing alienated Māori food-growing land. The second was pounamu (greenstone), symbolising lost Māori mana. The third was a broken watch, representing shattered Crown promises. The last was a pin of Te Tohu o te Māramatanga (the symbol of enlightenment) on which is found the star and crescent moon, the emblem of the Rātana Church. Savage was profoundly moved by the gifts.
Rātana’s focus was more political from this point. Rātana harnessed the support of ngā mōrehu to gain representation in Parliament for his koata e whā (the four quarters of his body – symbolic of the four Māori Parliamentary seats). In 1932 Eruera Tirikātene became the first Rātana MP. He was joined in 1935 by Rātana’s son, Tokouru. In 1936 the Rātana movement and the Labour party forged an alliance: the Rātana Church pledged itself to Labour, in return for Labour backing Rātana electoral candidates. By 1943 Rātana had captured all the Māori seats, a stranglehold only broken by the New Zealand First party 50 years later.
In the early 21st century the Rātana Church was the largest Māori denomination in New Zealand, with a 2018 membership of more than 40,000. The movement’s head (tumuaki) is typically a direct descendant of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. In 2016 the seventh leader was his grandson, Harerangi Meihana. The church’s governing body is the Kōmiti Haahi Matua (the head church committee) and a synod of church leaders meets every Easter to discuss church matters. Rātana has 127 parishes in New Zealand serviced by 160 registered apostles. There is also an Australian branch which serves several thousand Rātana faithful.
T. W. Rātana gave hope to his people that they were custodians of an important pan-tribal legacy that would help shape New Zealand. They were encouraged to look to te Wairua Tapu (Holy Spirit) and the angels so they would continue the legacy of bringing comfort and healing to the people.
Annual birthday celebrations
The annual January celebrations of Rātana’s birth attract thousands and are a real spectacle. Rātana’s ‘garden of flowers’ gather at Rātana Pā, including the roopu raupō (psalmists or custodians of the mysteries) brightly adorned in gold, the āwhina (sisters) in purple and white habits, the apotoro rehita (registered apostles) in purple and white robes, the apotoro wairua (lay-readers or spiritual counsellors) in blue and red robes, and the ākonga (disciples) in gold and white. Seven brass bands, each with their own distinctive uniforms, welcome guests, and alongside them are choirs which play an important part in church services.
The celebrations are also a political forum, with politicians queuing up to be welcomed and to speak on the marae. Whereas in the past Labour politicians dominated proceedings, since the early 2000s politicians from other parties have also attended. The event signals the beginning of the political year and affirms the importance of the church in national life.