William Garden Cowie was born on 8 January 1831 at St John's Wood, London, England. His parents were Alexander Cowie, an advocate, and his wife, Elizabeth Garden, both originally from Aberdeenshire, Scotland. William Cowie was a scholar of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, taking Latin and English prizes, and passing first class in the civil law tripos and the voluntary theological examination. He gained his BA in 1855.
Ordained deacon in Ely in 1854 and priest in 1855, Cowie was curate of St Clement, Cambridge, in 1854 and of Moulton, Suffolk, from 1855 to 1857. He was appointed a chaplain to the British forces in India in 1857 and served in India until 1866. There he 'made lifelong friendships with some of the most distinguished soldiers of the Victorian era', including Lord Roberts. He was present at the siege of Lucknow in 1858. While he was stationed at Bareilly between 1858 and 1863 he founded the Outram Institute and 'a native Christian village, since known as Cowiegunge'. In 1863 he served as chaplain to Viceroy Lord Elgin's camp, and participated in the Afghan campaign from 1863 to 1864. He was chaplain in 1864 to Bishop G. E. L. Cotton, metropolitan of India, who described Cowie as 'a sensible & interesting preacher, a good man of business, & a sound & devoted minister of our English church, but free from party prejudice & vehemence.' In 1865 he served as chaplain to British residents in Kashmir and wrote Notes on the temples of Cashmere. He returned to England in 1866, becoming a curate in Doncaster and rector of Stafford from 1866 to 1869.
Cowie had his MA conferred in 1865 and his DD in 1869. Selected by G. A. Selwyn, formerly bishop of New Zealand, to become the first bishop of Auckland, he was consecrated at Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1869. On 20 July he married Eliza Jane Webber at Spring Grove, Middlesex. They arrived at Auckland in February 1870. Their six children were born within the decade.
Cowie's long episcopate in New Zealand was marked by regular visits throughout his diocese, often under difficult conditions. Under his leadership the number of clergy increased from 28 to 85 and many churches were built. He created the Home Mission Fund to support church extension and also sometimes served as a parish minister to supply vacant parishes. Lay leadership was encouraged through the bishop's licensing of lay readers and the support he gave to the Lay Readers' Association. He started the Church Gazette in 1872. Published monthly and initially edited by Cowie, it was an important means for sharing information throughout the diocese.
Bishop Cowie encouraged the training and appointment of Maori clergy, ordaining 25 between 1870 and 1899. However, his attempts to provide adequate financial support for Maori clergy were never satisfactorily resolved. He supported the development of the Maori church boards, consisting of Maori clergy and lay representatives. Presided over by the bishop or his commissary, these boards, particularly the one in the north, gave Maori an active role in discussing church affairs. During Cowie's episcopate Anglicans re-established contact with Waikato and King Country Maori who had been alienated from the church during the wars of the 1860s.
Active in education, Cowie was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879 to 1902, and he served on the Auckland University College council from its foundation in 1883. Under his presidency, the College of St John the Evangelist (St John's College) was moved to Parnell for 20 years in order to bring ordination students into closer contact with the university. He advocated the need for religious education in schools, supporting the campaign in 1895 to use Irish national school books.
Bishop Cowie was also involved in a variety of community organisations, including the YMCA, the Auckland Institute and the Parnell Shakespeare Club. He organised the establishment of the Auckland Sailors' Home in 1882, serving as president of its council, leading the appeal for the erection of a new home and laying its foundation stone in 1887. Together with the Reverend Joseph Bates he founded the Association of the Friends of the Blind which merged with the Jubilee Institute for the Blind in 1890. He was involved with Eliza Cowie in establishing the Women's Home.
Described as a 'loyal Anglican Churchman', Bishop Cowie avoided the party labels within the church of his day. In an age influenced by a sectarian spirit he co-operated with people from other churches when this was possible. He was strongly opposed to the relaxation of the divorce laws but supported women's franchise within both the church and society.
In 1872, following the murder in the previous year of J. C. Patteson, bishop of Melanesia, Cowie visited Norfolk Island, ordaining three Melanesian deacons and publishing his journal as Notes of a visit to Norfolk Island. In 1888 and 1897 Cowie attended the Lambeth Conferences of Anglican Bishops. His Our last year in New Zealand was written in anticipation of a visit to England in 1888 to provide information 'concerning the Church and the State of New Zealand'. It gives a significant personal insight into the work of a colonial bishop. Elected as Anglican primate of New Zealand in 1895, Cowie announced his intention to resign as bishop shortly before his death at Parnell, Auckland, on 26 June 1902.
Bishop Cowie was noted for his careful, conscientious oversight of his diocese and his involvement in education, social work and community organisations. His ability was as a pastor and not a preacher. Farewelling Bishop Cowie before his departure to England in 1888, the Maori clergy of his diocese indicated their appreciation of his ministry: 'The sheep of the flock, of which you are shepherd, are of two colours – European and Maories, and you have fed us all alike, impartially; none have been starved. For this we thank you.'
A big man with a handsome face, long beard and fine figure, Cowie was approachable despite his military bearing. His achievement was in helping the Auckland diocese in the post-Selwyn era consolidate and expand both its Maori and Pakeha work.