By Robyn Douglass
New Zealand’s troubled Anglican theological college is back in the spotlight. The province’s three archbishops have announced that they will undertake a review of the culture at St. John the Evangelist College in Auckland during the next five months, and have invited confidential submissions to an extensive inquiry.
New Zealand’s Anglican Church is a complex settlement. The small island nation at the bottom of the Pacific has a thriving Protestant tradition that arrived with English and Scottish settlement in 1814. The church took responsibility, largely through missionary work, for spreading the gospel in the remote Pacific Islands.
In 1992, the church revised its constitution to form three partners: Pakeha (European), Maori (Indigenous New Zealanders), and Pacific, the Diocese of Polynesia. There are three archbishops to represent their constituent members and regions. Churches with histories of colonization look to New Zealand’s partnership with its indigenous people as a model.
But a theological college for the entire province has a huge challenge to educate and provide leaders for three cultural models, or tikanga, of the church.
St. John’s College has a venerable history. It was established in 1843 and has a handsome endowment in global terms, valued in 2010 at NZ $293 million (US $210 million). It cooperates with other tertiary institutions, like the University of Otago, to grant degrees, and at one stage also trained ministers for Methodist churches.
In 2012, an extensive review of the college, led by former Archbishop Paul Reeves, recommended sweeping changes to the college’s management. It found the three-college structure did not work, and a single principal was appointed, with a dean for each tikanga.
An external report of the college by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, published in November 2019, was glowing in its assessment of the college’s performance, its 10 full-time staff, and the training offered to its 114 students to equip them for ministry.
But the three archbishops have now set up an independent review. The Rev. Katene Erurea, manukura, or principal, of the college, told TLC that they would be considering the college “with a focus on its culture.”
“The college governors and faculty are committed to providing quality theological education in a supportive and encouraging environment that will prepare its students well for their future ministry in the Church,” the principal said.
“We welcome the opportunity to learn more details, to review our present culture, and to consider how we might improve so that the Church is well served in the future.”
The nature of the complaints that prompted the inquiry are not public, but the archbishops said in their letter to the college that there have been “a number of complaints over a considerable period of time.” The Anglican Church in New Zealand’s General Synod Standing Committee has backed the review, which began in March.
The college was told that the review team, led by lawyer Miriam Dean, QC, would “examine the nature and extent of current and past complaints, how the college has responded to past complaints, and review the health and safety of staff and students at the college.”
The team has invited contributions in person and in writing, and promises confidentiality to those who contribute. Dean said she aims to complete the review by August 31.
At her retirement as te ahorangi, or dean, of the college in 2014, Dr. Jenny Te-Paa Daniel praised its achievements but also spoke of her distress at the “depth and breadth of racism, clericalism, and sexism still so deeply, determinedly entrenched.”
The Maori laywoman, who had worked at the college for 23 years as dean, said, “It surely is not acceptable that such abhorrent behaviors can continue to find avenues for their expression within a household of God.”
Her criticism was particularly directed at the 1992 revision of the New Zealand church’s structure, which she said had never had a “theologically grounded, strong common undergirding.” Instead, Te-Paa Daniel said, the tikanga structure had led to division and competition between the groups, “rather than selfless gospel-driven commitment to solidarity.”
Te-Paa Daniel said it was incumbent on the college, as one of the most privileged Anglican theological educational institutions in the world, to be one of the “leading lights” in the Anglican Communion.