Antipodean saints - part 2

Who are the heroes of the church in the Antipodes? When I was a child growing up in New Zealand, I learnt (I’m not joking) of Saints George, Patrick, and Cuthbert, but only fleetingly of those connected with the Pacific. Even then we were more likely to be told of the founder missionaries such as Samuel Marsden, Bishop Selwyn, or the Williams’, rather than any home grown converts or people of faith.

How things have changed, and so they should. A glance today at 'A New Zealand Prayer Book' 1997, Harper Collins, the admirable multi-cultural book of the Anglican Church in New Zealand and Polynesia, reveals immediately that though the church there is universal in its concerns, now it is grounded firmly in the southern hemisphere.

The founder missionaries are not forgotten, but alongside them, as equals, are Maori and Pacific Island people “who have provided inspiration and an example of Christian living in the history of this country [i.e. New Zealand] or contributed to the development of Christianity.” (A New Zealand Prayer Book p10). The names won’t mean much to English eyes, but include the martyrs of Japan, Papua New Guinea and of Melanesia, with more familiar names such as Francis Xavier, and John Coleridge Patteson. Patteson was killed in the Solomon Islands in 1871, probably in response to the growing slave labour trade, not his faith, though his death had the effect of his being portrayed as a martyr, on whose sacrifice the Melanesian Church was built.

The New Zealand Church Calendar now celebrates Te Whiti o Rongomai and Te Kooti, who only thirty to forty years ago we regarded as having been dangerous militarists, not heroes of the spirit. These men were prophet-warriors, who adopted Christianity and developed biblical interpretations which helped the Maori to adapt to the tumultuous changes in their society and culture. A modern historical interpretation characterises five components in Maori conversion:

  • European missionary Christianity
  • Maori Christianity
  • Maori biblicalism (emphasising the Old Testament and Judaism)
  • the prophetic movements
  • and a floating adherence or adherence to two or more of these positions

(James Belich, in Making Peoples, 1996, Allen Lane).

‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’ sets out its Calendar. After Principal Feasts and Holy Days, and Saints’ Days, it lists local feasts, and regional commemorations, it refers specifically to:

people whose lives and work give special encouragement to others of all ages, and to those engaged in various aspects of the Church’s life and witness. They are not all from remote history. Modern times have also produced men and women whose lives have excited other people to sanctity and deeper discipleship.

Does the experience of the New Zealand Church in developing a Calendar of Saints (in the broadest sense) have anything to teach the Church of England? Of course we cannot adopt en bloc the Saints, martyrs and spiritual heroes of the Antipodes and other regions as our own, nor should we do so (though people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu are modern global ‘saints’). Yet are we too reluctant to recognise and celebrate spiritual heroes to join our exalted saints of the Church’s Year? Who are the contemporary figures we could celebrate and from whom we could learn?

Roger Cowell

Antipodean saints part 1
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd October 2000