Essay: The constitution of the Anglican church in Aotearoa/NZ, 1857 and 1992

Felicity O’Brien

In what ways does the Constitution of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, in both its original (1857) and revised (1992) form reflect an Anglican understanding of the nature of the church and in what ways is it distinctive?

This essay examines the two versions of the Constitution of the Anglican Church in New Zealand in its 1857 and 1992 versions. It examines the hallmarks of Anglicanism contained in both versions, and comments on ways in which they are unique, both in their modernity and in their reflection of their environment in New Zealand, Aotearoa and Polynesia.

In New Zealand when the treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 the Church of England had already had considerable presence in Te Hāhi Mihinare, the Mission to Maori, with Maori evangelists and catechists[1] led by Church Missionary Society members from England.[2] However settler Christianity “acted with little regard for either the missionary contribution or Te Tiriti.”[3] George Augustus Selwyn was consecrated bishop at the young age of 32 and came to NZ in 1841.He already had ideas about how to administer the colonial church before arriving. He had a rather ‘authoritarian’ temperament which may not have helped his relations with settlers and missionaries.[4] He could only make a new Constitution of the New Zealand Church by ‘voluntary compact’ and the details of church property ownership would require careful handling.[5] Selwyn was loyal to the ‘mother church’ but saw an opportunity to start afresh, without ‘those abuses which have been encrusted upon her system.[6] Selwyn was very concerned with framing a suitable constitution for the Church of England in New Zealand. Governor Grey shared this interest and filled in time while ill by drafting a letter which would be widely distributed and signed, urging a system of Church government to be set up in New Zealand.[7]

The Constitution which Selwyn formulated was conservative and loyal to both the Church in England and the British Parliament.[8] It reflected the Anglican position of being grounded in Scripture – the central motive of the reformation[9] – and in the three Creeds, the four Great Councils and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith of the Church of England which set out a distinct Anglican position, as opposed to that of the Roman Catholic Church – see articles XVIII, XIX, XXIV, XXVIII, XXX, XXXIV and in particular XXII.[10] The position of the Monarch as Head of the Church was more problematical for the New Zealand church – English law still bound the colonial Church, which “could not seek for redress in English ecclesiastical courts”.[11] Letters patent for New Zealand bishops still had to be issued by the Crown[12] but Anglicanism was never established as the religion of New Zealand.

The Constitution of the New Zealand Church also reaffirmed Anglican ideals of an open Bible in the vernacular, participatory worship[13] and a certain freedom to formulate and express opinions.[14] The hierarchical structure of the New Zealand Church is typical for the Anglican Church, founded on the Episcopal historical succession, as compared to the Lutheran church’s emphasis on preaching or the state sanction of Erastian Protestantism.[15] The conciliar tradition is a hallmark of Anglicanism – hence the reference to the Great Councils, rather than the monarchical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.[16] The pattern of councils would continue in government “not on episcopal decree, but on the authority of a General Synod of bishops in council together with clergy and laity.”[17]

In many ways the Constitution of 1857 was distinctive. Selwyn consulted extensively with both lay people and clergy in forming it.[18] This involvement of lay people was radical for its time[19] but Selwyn realized that he needed their support, both financially and in terms of organisation.[20] Bishops would be synodically elected rather than appointed by the Crown and the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity could exercise a veto on each other.[21] The Constitution looked to American precedents[22] and would provide ideas for other colonial churches.[23] Treatment of church property is carefully set out in the Constitution. Bishop Selwyn had already procured “the passing of an Act by the Legislative Assembly in 1856, which enabled a body of trustees to be incorporated in proper form”[24] and in 1858 the Church would be brought formally under this act.[25] It is perhaps surprising in a document from New Zealand’s foundational era that so little is made of the needs of the Maori Church, which was represented by five senior C.M.S. missionaries at the convention.[26] The Maori church, Te Hāhi Mihinare, would decline alarmingly in the years to follow the signing of the Constitution.[27] The system of diocesan and general synods would be helpful to a flock so far from the ‘mother church’ – pastoral needs were dealt with as they arose and clergy then went to synod the ‘regularise’ them.[28] The Church in New Zealand would have a certain independence both from the Church in England and the Crown in New Zealand which recognized that New Zealand was an increasingly pluralistic society[29] in terms of religion, as evidenced by Parliament’s refusal in 1855 to take over paying Selwyn’s salary.[30] This independence[31] or non-establishment[32] would become characteristic of most Churches in the Anglican Communion.[33]

By 1990 the old Constitution needed to be updated. The Church of England Empowering Act 1928[34]  had been “necessary to modify the force of the ‘entrenched’ clauses of the constitution”[35] and the Maori part of the church had been trying to have a bishop appointed[36] which would take place in 1928 although with limitations. In 1978 Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa was finally set up.[37] The General Synod set up the Bi-Cultural Commission on the Treaty of Waitangi in 1986.[38] 1990 was the sesquicentennial year since the signing of the treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand was examining itself and its nationhood. In 1992 The Church of the Province of New Zealand was re-branded the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, taking into account its place in the world. The preambles[39] to the new Constitution gave a quick overview of the history of the Church, acknowledging developments since 1857, and are preceded in Preamble 3 by the mission statement of the Church, derived from the ACC-6 statement.[40] The Fundamental Provisions of 1992 re-published those of 1857, affirming the place in modern Anglicanism of Scripture, tradition and reason in a particularly ‘Anglican’ mixture[41] where they balance each other and “generate innovative thinking in dialogue with the Church’s cultural and ideological context.”[42] Canon Deborah Broome asserts that “[a]llowing for local differences is one of the key Anglican principles, one that goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the Anglican church.” [43] Preamble 17 acknowledges efforts made towards unity in the churches of the world. There is a flexibility to reframe formularies as needed[44] provided they do not conflict with the Fundamental Provisions. A New Zealand Prayer Book[45] had recently been published and demonstrates a creative and yet grounded way of worshipping in a modern context.[46] Part C of the Constitution outlines the workings of General Synod like that of 1857 where the three houses can veto each other. There are other characteristics of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which are not specified in the Constitution, but there is freedom allowed by this three-house structure – “In Anglicanism we do not have these things dictated to us: we are involved in the making of them.”[47]

The challenge of bi-culturalism[48] led to the most distinctive feature of the 1992 Constitution – the three Tikanga structure. It was not a new idea as the church had been considering a separate strand for Maori since 1925. Each Tikanga or cultural strand has a different flavour – Tikanga Pakeha is the ‘settler church’, Tikanga Maori grows out of Te Hāhi Mihinare, and Tikanga Pasifika represents all the dioceses of Polynesia. Membership is voluntary and not necessarily based on ethnicity.[49] Using the vernacular for worship and prayer affirms article XXIV.[50] The three Tikanga have equal power even though they differ widely numerically.[51] It has been misunderstood as apartheid but former Archbishop Brian Davis asserts that “what the Constitution of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia provides is a basis for cultural partnership, equal power-sharing and mutual respect within the body of Christ.”[52] The revised three- Tikanga system would entail massive restructuring, and existing common-life bodies would be replaced by separate groups for each Tikanga.[53]

Finally, another important difference from the Constitution of 1857 is part G which states that “the words “Bishop”, Priest”, “Deacon”, “Curate”, “Pastor”, “Vicar” and “Minister”, shall include both females and males.”[54] This change which affirmed the ordination of women to all levels of clergy and the bishopric, in advance of many other Anglican Churches, was one of many which had been enabled by the Church of England Empowering Act of 1928.[55] Both versions of the Constitution of the Anglican Church in New Zealand, Aotearoa and Polynesia reflect their Anglican heritage, in particular as they re-affirm the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith and the Episcopal structure. Bishop Selwyn’s Constitution of 1857 broke new ground in its involvement of laity in the synodical structure, including the election of bishops. Developments over the ensuing years, in particular to do with the Maori voice on Synod, led to a re-writing of the Constitution which has a radically new three-Tikanga structure where every Tikanga is equal, notwithstanding its numerical strength. The five Marks of Mission are affirmed, setting the tone for the whole document, and the constitution of 1992 also affirms the eligibility of women to be ordained to every level of the clergy, including Bishop, for which the author of this essay is grateful.













Anglican Consultative Council 2013 Mission – The Five marks of Mission London: Anglican Communion Office

Avis, Paul 1988 “What is ‘Anglicanism’?” in The Study of Anglicanism edited by Stephen Sykes, John Booty, Jonathan Knight. London: SPCK 459-476

Bicknell, E.J. 1936 A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England London: Longmans

Booth, K.N. 1983 “The Founding of St John’s College” in  Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand 1841-68 edited by Warren E. Limbrick Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. 51-74

Breward, Ian. 1980 “The Protestant Contribution” in Religion in New Zealand Society Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press 67-80

Broome, Deborah 2007 Te Pouhere (Constitution) Sunday Wellington: Diocese of Wellington

Brown, Colin 1989 “Church, Culture, and Identity: The New Zealand Experience” in Culture and Identity in New Zealand, edited by David Novitz and Bill Willmott. Wellington: Government Printing Office 237-259

Brown, Colin revised Booth, Ken 2012 Anglican Studies: Study Guide Christchurch: Ecumenical Institute of Distance Theological Studies Church of the Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia: Constitution 1992

Butler, Perry 1988. “From the Early Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” in The Study of Anglicanism edited by Stephen Sykes, John Booty, Jonathan Knight. London: SPCK 30-51

Church of England Empowering Act 1928, New Zealand Statutes reprinted as at 3 September 2007

The Church of the Province of New Zealand. 1989. A New Zealand Prayer Book / He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa Auckland: Collins

Colless, Brian, Donovan, Peter (eds) 1980 Religion in New Zealand Society Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press

Cox, Noel. The Legal Position of the Anglican Church in New Zealand – quasi-establishment and the consenual compact (Hilary/Easter 2012) 168 Law and Justice: The Christian Law Review62-88

Davidson, Allan K., Lineham, Peter J.1987 Transplanted Christianity: Documents illustrating aspects of New Zealand Church History Palmerston North: Dunmore Press

Davidson, Allan. 1991 Christianity in Aotearoa: A History of Church and Society in New Zealand Wellington: Education for Ministry

Davidson, Allan “ ‘A sort of cast-off step daughter’. Established but not established: Defining Anglican Sovereignty in Colonial New Zealand”, Anglican Historical Society, Newsletter 38 December 2007

Davis, Brian. 1995 The Way Ahead: Anglican Change and Prospect in New Zealand Christchurch: Caxton

Geering, Lloyd 1980. “The Pluralist Tendency” in Religion in New Zealand Society Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press 214-227

Guy, Laurie. 2011 Shaping Godzone: Public Issues and Church Voices in New Zealand 1840-2000 Wellington: Victoria University Press

Limbrick, Warren E. 1983 Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand 1841-68 Palmerston North; Dunmore Press

Morrell, W.P. 1973 The Anglican Church in New Zealand: A History Dunedin:

Anglican Church of the Province of New Zealand

Morrell, W.P. 1983 “Selwyn’s Relations with the Church Missionary Society” in Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand 1841-68 edited by Warren E. Limbrick Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. 75-93

Novitz, David and Willmott, Bill (editors) 1989. Culture and identity in New Zealand Wellington: Government printing Office

Orange, Claudia.1987 The Treaty of Waitangi Wellington: Allen and Unwin

Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathan (editors) 1988 The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

The United Church of England and Ireland in New Zealand: Constitution 1857

Proceedings of the General Synod: 47th General Synod, 1986 Accessed 21 may 2013

Atkin, Bill. Language and Anglican Canon Law – Dabbling briefly into another r\Legal World. (2011) 42/2  VUWLR 387-398


Black, Monty 2010 The Anglican Communion and A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa. accessed 21 May 2013

Cox,  Noel. The Symbiosis of secular an spiritual influences upon the judiciary of the Anglican church in New Zealand. Deakin Law Review Volume 9 no 1 2004

New Zealand Constitution act 1852, 2012‎ accessed 27 may 2013

Purchas, H.T. 1914 A History of the English Church in New Zealand accessed 22 5 13

The Thirty-Nine articles of Religion or The Doctrine of the Church of England as by Law established accessed 10 June 2013


[1]Davis 1995, 32

[2]Colless 1980, 19

[3]Davidson 1991, 28

[4]Limbrick 1983, 16

[5]Morrell 1973, 60

[6]Morrell 1973, 66

[7]Morrell 1983, 89

[8]Davidson 2007, 5

[9]Avis 1988, 466

[10]39 Articles

[11]Limbrick 1983, 39

[12]Davidson 2007, 32

[13]Avis 1988, 470


[15]Avis 1988, 465

[16]Avis 1988, 472

[17]Davidson 1991, 31

[18]Davidson 1991, 30

[19]Davidson 2007, 3


[21]Davis 1995, 33

[22]Breward 1980, 74 and see Morrell  1973, 50 for further episcopaleontology

[23]Butler 1988, 41

[24]Purchas 1914, 5


[26]Davidson 2007, 4

[27]Davis 1995, 33

[28]Black 2010, 11

[29]Geering 1980, 217

[30]Davidson 2007, 1 and see Davidson  1987, 88-89

[31]Atkin 2011, 391

[32]Cox 2004 p.15

[33]Cox 2012 p2,3

[34]Church of England Empowering act

[35]Brown 1989, 254

[36]Davidson 1991, 132

[37]Davidson 1987, 173-174

[38]Davidson 1991, 138

[39]Davis 1995, 38

[40]Anglican Communion Office

[41]Avis 1988, 468

[42]Avis 1988, 471

[43]Broome 2007, 3

[44]Constitution part B clause 5

[45]The Church of the Province of New Zealand 1989

[46]Black 36

[47]Avis 1988, 475

[48]Davis 1995, 37

[49]Davis 1995, 39

[50]Thirty-Nine Articles

[51]Davis 1995, 37

[52]Davis 1995, 38

[53]Davis 1995, 129

[54]Church of the Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia: Constitution 1992

Part G clause 1

[55]Church of England Empowering Act 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s