Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day

Waitangi literally means ‘water of tears’ – a name which can infer both grief and tearing apart, as well as the healing of grief (of which tears are a part).  It’s also a name which underlines the importance of water for life, for journeys and trading, for healing and refreshment.  It’s a good name for a National Day, a day to recognize both the trials of the past and the tasks before us, as well as the gifts we have as peoples of this land to bring healing, to widen our vision, and embrace the new and challenging.

How we come together is always evolving – hopefully for the better.  One of the values we have as a church is communal wellbeing.  So, we create, promote, and support events and opportunities where groups and communities can gather, share, and be empowered.  Rather than be content with people siloed in liked-minded clusters, our vision of communal wellbeing is where those barriers to participation and leadership like race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, are dismantled enough to allow everyone, and particularly the vulnerable, the opportunity to flourish and participate.

To expand that vision of communal wellbeing to Aotearoa New Zealand is to commit ourselves to the values of fostering empowerment and participation for all, and dealing with the barriers.

Joan Metge’s use of the metaphor of a plaited rope, he taura whiri, I have mentioned before.  The metaphor is used by Maori orators to express the art of peoples – as strands in the rope – coming together, keeping their uniqueness but combining their strengths, in order that the community as a whole becomes stronger.

Making ropes the traditional way, Maori twisted and rolled strands of scraped flax together to make longer strands and then plaited as many as sixteen together to make ropes, some round, some square.  The strands might vary in thickness and colour, and new ones were easily spliced in.  A rope thus made was many times stronger than any of its strands alone.

At its best Waitangi was and continues to be about bringing the strands together, without loss of mana and integrity.  It is about welcoming other cultures being spliced into that rope.  It challenges us to value the skills of rope-making, weaving diversity without losing identity, making decisions without any one culture dominating.  The Waitangi vision for this country is not a melting pot of races stirred into an amorphous mix.  Rather it is about strong, independent cultures working together, sharing their strengths, and valuing the conciliatory art of talking and translating across difference.

He taura whiri is a great metaphor but, as Joan knows well, the art of bringing cultures together, with all the historical, political, and other luggage, is no simple thing.

For three decades I was involved at various levels with the evolving national governance structure of Te Hahi Mihinare/the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Although each denomination has its own story of governance and the adaptation of that governance to sociological and political changes, the re-writing of the Anglican constitution in 1992 (from the 1857 original – signed down the road in Judges Bay), was significant in its desire to address the disparities between the cultural streams within that tradition.

It created a unique structure at its national governance (in our language Assembly) level, where there were three ‘cultural’ streams – Pakeha, Maori, and Pacifica.  By ‘cultural’ I don’t mean racial, but rather the general norms of operating.  Our Assembly for example uses an adaptation of the Westminster system of governance, whereas Te Aka Puaho uses an adaptation of Ngai Tuhoe governance.  In the Anglican General Synod there were Pakeha ministers who were immersed in and operated within Te Hahi Mihinare (the Maori Anglican tradition) – a bit like Sister Annie Henry and John Laughton did in our denomination in Ngai Tuhoe – and Maori Anglican ministers within the Pakeha Anglican Westminster system.

By the time I joined the General Synod in the late ‘90s (and there were only 4 clergy seats from the Auckland Presbytery equivalent), the new ways of operating were bedding in.

On one level there was not too much change at all.  Like most national church governments ¾ of the business was dead boring.  Those with too much to say, said it or tried to.  The elites – clergy, laity, and lawyers – were still there, and still trying to hold sway.  Back room deals still happened.  It was just like every other denomination in this land.

But on another level, there had been a fundamental shift.  It was like there now was this big pause button that any of the three cultural streams could push.  So, some debates were decided by a simple voice, hand, or ballot vote.  But other debates could be paused, and inter- and intra- cultural conversations would be had.  Voices that the old majority-rules system could ignore, now had to be heard.  Many issues, unbeknownst to many in the Pakeha majority, had cultural nuances.

One of the biggest debates back then for example, a debate we know well, was about the ordination of clergy in same-gender (sometimes called same-sex) relationships.  In the old system, people like me, would visit, talk, exhort, and count the numbers of who would vote for change.  We would argue from the basis of science, Bible, and logic.  In the new system… well it was just different.  Maori and Pacifica had an in-built respect for their elders (which could sometimes work against or for change).  Maori in particular had a strong desire not to repeat patterns of marginalization (like the experience of colonization).  And Pacifica had a deep respect for the leading of Maori as tangata whenua in this land.

So. Pacifica not wishing to support the notion of gay ministers in their islands (the Pacific Synod territorially included not only New Zealand, but Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and smaller islands), but wishing to respect the tangata whenua status of Maori here in Aotearoa, would abstain.  Pakeha were divided, but the numbers shifted in favour of change as we entered the new millennia.  Maori waited out of respect for an old kaumatua, and then – to the surprise of nearly every Pakeha I knew – voted as a block for change.

The length of time this took was frustratingly long.  But the by-product of that was learning how to listen to each other – not just words and arguments – but culture and values, tradition and history.  As trust developed the pain of the past was talked about, and very slowly a vision of the future – and the reallocation of resources to undergird it (always the testing point!) was grappled with.

The Anglicans are still on a journey and I am not suggesting our Assembly tries to replicate theirs.  We have our own history and ways of doing things.  But I have seen in my seven years at General Assembly, time and again, what might be called ‘cultural deafness’.  I have also seen us mired in an overly legalistic version of the Westminster governance model which makes people and parishes into either winners or losers.  It’s a system that I don’t think any longer serves us well, and it is certainly ill-equipped support a missional church in the developing cultural and cosmopolitan landscape of Aotearoa. 

I’m talking about this example of national church governance on Waitangi Day to simply say that democracy is both difficult and evolving.  Democracy used to be something only the wealthy engaged in.  You had to own land, and have individual title to it (which disenfranchised most Maori).  It was something also that men did and women didn’t.  Time and again lobby groups – like those lead by Kate Sheppard or Wiremu Ratana – tried to bring change and eventually did.  They wanted a place at the table, but once there it became obvious that the shape of and customs around the table needed to, and slowly did, change.  And it will continue to.

The recent debates and changes in local government concerning Maori wards is an example of evolving democracy.  The one person one vote principle is maintained, but councillors from a Maori ward have a mandate to find solutions that are not only best for everyone but are cognizant of a Maori world view, and can push a cultural pause button (if the majority of councillors then choose to pause).  I hope other significant cultures in our land might also consider forming wards.  I see this as strengthening our democracy, strengthening our cultural literacy, and strengthening our nation as a whole.

As our moderator, the Rt Rev Fakaofo Kaio, said this week, “Our history, in the nearly two centuries since the signing of the Treaty, records stories of deception, distortion, abuse and manipulation. Grief and pain will never pass. This is always the case in treaties with land and control of people at the core of such an arrangement.  How do we face this? We must learn the Treaty of Waitangi story, remember and honour the Treaty, with respect for one another.  We must move forward as a nation, united in love, honour, and respect.”