The Presbyterian Church in 20th Century New Zealand

The 20th century saw steady growth in the number of worshipping Presbyterians through to the mid 1960s, followed by a decline which by 2000 had taken numbers back to some 40,000 - roughly what it had been at the beginning of the century. Presbyterians shared with their fellow New Zealanders the experience of two world wars,  depression, economic growth, changes in gender stereotypes, and increase in cultural diversity. As presbyteries covered the country, home mission stations and work among Tuhoe sought to extend Presbyterian Christianity to every area. Social services developed including orphanages and counselling. Rivalry with Catholics was acute for some decades, and Presbyterian secondary schools were established not only because of a deep commitment to education as a form of mission, but in order to preserve identity in the face of a secular education system which still found Bible in Schools problematic.

World War I evoked imperial patriotism, but it also converted some such as James Gibb, one of the architects of the union of 1901, to pacifism. Some ministers began to question whether governments were always right, even if they were British. John Dickie at the Theological Hall, Knox College, Dunedin, introduced ministers in training to a wider world, but few knew what to say to their congregations in order to address the social and economic crisis of the Depression. Many found the theology of the young Karl Barth attractive, and it gave backbone to Presbyterian theology for many decades even if it never fully earned the trust of more conservative voices. In the 1930s numbers visited Europe or did further training in Cambridge. The Bible Class movement, and later the experience of service in World War II provided training in leadership as well as challenges to faith.

The meetings of the emerging ecumenical movement, including the International Missionary Council meeting in Tambaram in India in 1938, and the founding meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948 introduced men and women from the New Zealand Presbyterian Church into a movement whose energy and vision connected the New Zealand churches with the world church in a way which both respected its identity and utilized the talents of young leaders who had the advantage of coming from a country and a church which was of little threat to anyone.

The formation of the National Council of Churches and the post-war Campaign for Christian Order involved New Zealand Presbyterians in thinking about their relationship with other churches and the contribution of Christian faith to New Zealand society. The vision was easier to describe than to realise and not all were convinced. The Westminster Fellowship was formed to encourage a growing minority evangelical group within the church. Concerned for orthodoxy and the threat of modernism, they decided to champion the Westminster Confession of Faith as a basis of their identity. Evangelicals shared with others in the New Life and stewardship campaigns of the 1950s, and the NCC arranged visit of Billy Graham. Graham’s campaigns were outstandingly successful in bringing people to faith and in invigorating even churches which declined to be involved in the unfortunately named Crusades. Although the NCC was not able to host his subsequent visits, the first had the result both of placing evangelism on the agenda of an ecumenical body, and of encouraging the Bible College of New Zealand to adopt what might be called conciliar evangelicalism rather than fundamentalist separatism. Numbers of Presbyterian evangelicals were involved in the Bible College and their leadership, and what that involvement did in maturing Presbyterian evangelicalism, was of major importance.

In the 1950s the New Life Movement led expansion into new towns and suburbs. However as Sunday schools, youth work and church attendance peaked and began to fall away in the late 1960s, Presbyterians nationally became divided by proposals for Church Union involving not only Congregationalists, with whom Presbyterians were able to amalgamate fairly readily, but also with Anglicans and Methodists. They were also divided by a series of statements and sermons by Lloyd Geering, the Principal of the Theological Hall. Geering was appreciated by his students, including evangelicals who did not share his views, but his stark statements on the Resurrection, however thoughtful to many, were to others indicative of a dangerous corrosion of orthodoxy. Geering and Church Union provided a challenge for the whole church. Although both gave the Westminster Fellowship energising causes, neither were easy to handle. When Geering left for Victoria University, attempts at union failed, and the anti-Catholicism of some older members seemed passé, Evangelicals who had been growing in number through groups such as the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the Bible College and Scripture Union, discovered themselves divided by the promise and challenge of the Charismatic Movement.

In the 1970s the Charismatic movement served to bring an overwhelming sense of the presence of God into many lives at the same time as it presented plenty of problems with unrealistic expectations, divisions between haves and have nots, and difficulty in sorting out what was valid and what was not. If some groups and churches were badly divided, others found unexpected friends. Like the mood in popular spirituality generally Christian concern shifted from questions of truth to questions of experience and what formulas would produce and renew a sense of God’s presence. Many were torn between what seemed to work, and a Reformed sense that though a sovereign Holy Spirit may sometimes be prepared to grant more than we expect, ultimately God has the last word which may sometimes be no. The Charismatic renewal took root in more liberal evangelical and some more liturgically minded congregations, and it connected evangelicals with a broader churchmanship than they had been accustomed to, including Catholic and Anglican as well as Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren. The church nationally worked to cultivate responsible leaders to guide the movement and the Paraclete Trust sought to be a group that was both independent and accountable in encouraging and guiding the renewal. In its mature phase while the Paraclete Trust was diverted into a personal ministry separate from the Church, other parts of the renewal found a sustaining basis for their spirituality in Spiritual Growth Ministries.

The failure of church union left many disappointed, and the moment passed. Although congregations in cooperating ventures kept asking their parent churches when the marriage to legitimate their offspring might be expected, by the end of the century shared organisation no longer seemed to many to be a necessary expression of essential Christian unity and the cultural assumptions of the modern era became both clearer and somewhat distant.  These carried other implications for Presbyterians whose tradition had adjusted well to the challenges of a science-valuing, enlightenment era. If within the terms of that era, Christianity like religion in general seemed a doomed and irrelevant cultural accretion, as post-modernism emerged in the 1990s it was apparent that interest in spirituality, like the emphasis on experience which the Charismatic movement both reflected and encouraged, created a new climate for what it was to be church, how its ministry should operate, and how it should be organised. Disparate movements such as the emphasis on laity in the World Council of Churches, the emphasis on spiritual gifts of Charismatics, the pastoral and group dynamics movements, and the theologies of Vatican II and the evangelical Lausanne movement after 1974, began to promote the idea of lay ministry within the religious life of the church not just in its political, social and evangelistic mission in society.  Presbyterians had a tradition of educated male ministry, at times it had accommodated the gifts and calling of women first as deaconesses, then as elders, and then as ministers, but for them as for home missionaries, their places of power in the church were uncertain. Training was thought of in terms of dilution of an assumed ideal, rather than of building on gifts and life experiences outside the academic world. Similar issues arose with Pacific Island and more recently Asian congregations where it has taken time to realise that pakeha male spirituality, education, and styles of ministry, do not actually define what might be considered biblical norms, never mind boundaries.

In 1996 the arrangement ended by which theological education in Dunedin was shared ecumenically with Catholics as a Faculty of the University of Otago. Already moves had been made for greater flexibility of training through distance learning and by the acceptance of the Bible College of New Zealand as a provider. The reinvention of the School of Ministry in 1997 was remarkably successful. By 2000 national church structures had been reshaped and downsized and in 2008 theological formation for national ordained ministry shifted to an internship model. It may yet prove a paradigm of what it is to face reality and adjust to the diverse mission requirements of a new era.

John Roxborogh, June 2005.


Chapters by Laurie Barber, Allan Davidson and James Veitch in Dennis McEldowney, et al., eds. Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840 -1990. Wellington, 1990. 


Ivan Gore, St Albans at Forty