In his new book, Anglican minister and historian Dr Hirini Kaa tells the 200-year story of iwi engaging with the church. Here he shares some of the threads of his life that led to writing Te Hāhi Mihinare – The Māori Anglican Church.
All of us grow up with multiple identities, multiple ways of seeing ourselves (and being seen). I was working class Ōtāhuhu Pākehā from my grandparents; middle class white boy from my school; proud Ngāti Porou descendent every holiday back down the coast; and so on.
But possibly most of all I was Mihinare – a Māori Anglican. That meant that nearly every day was being part of a religious community at Tatai Hono marae on Khyber Pass Rd, where my dad, the late Hone Kaa, was the minister. So I had aunties and uncles and cousins from Ngāti Kahu, from Te Aupōuri, from Tainui – from the north, south, west and of course, the east.
This community and its rhythms fed my life, not just on Sundays, but every day. It was conservative in many ways – disapproving of many of our young behaviours, and of much of the change Aotearoa was going through in the 1980s. It was also capable of radical, prophetic acts, such as hosting and powering the Waitangi Action Committee and the Hawke whānau after the terrible events at Takaparawhau. In my Mihinare world we would have governors general, judges, Mongrel Mob members and Asian liberation theologians all mixing and mingling. We were even spied on by the SIS during the Springbok Tour. It was transformational, often transcendent. And all having its roots in an obscure English religious cult meeting mātauranga Māori.
Then I went to university. The 90s were a heady time at the University of Auckland. Among my classes was Ranginui Walker’s Introduction to Māori Society, accompanied by his constant, prophetic and fearless voice in a hostile media environment. Graham and Linda Smith – whanaunga and friends of my parents – were powering up their transformative work on Māori education. I was in Keith Sinclair’s history classes, where he had been helping Pākehā get their heads around their own past for several decades.
But amid this amazing knowledge things started to gnaw at me. My Mihinare whakapapa was not only often not present, when it was, it was often presented as a threat. I got it, of course. The missionaries who dominated the histories were the baddies. They equated their faith with their culture and were incapable of seeing it otherwise. In so doing they also decided that our culture was inferior and needed to be eradicated and replaced. And they were key parts of Empire in making sure this happened. It was colonisation in its zero-sum fullness, where one culture would thrive and the other would die.
And yet somewhere in there I was not satisfied. My experiences as Mihinare, that community life that was the inheritor of these traditions did not equate fully with these explanations. Certainly parts of it did. I grew up seeing first-hand the often brutal racism our church could produce and amplify. Senior Pākehā in the church coming up to my Pākehā mother and saying they would pray for her being married to such a terrible man, by which they meant my father’s unwillingness to submit to their racist dictates.
And yet I witnessed such transformative, radical actions and thinking and theology coming from this community. And I knew it was nothing new, that it had always been there. I knew in Ngāti Porou we had theologians like Mohi Turei, trained in the whare wānanga; a tōhunga with the deepest knowledge of who we were, who also chose to be ordained as our first Mihinare clergy. His haka ‘Tihei taruke’, which we perform regularly, is a theological masterpiece, reconciling our deepest understandings and the full potential of Christianity. I knew our whare karakia were symbolic works of great meaning, where we found new expressions for our most ancient aspirations. I knew our love of storytelling and finding meaning in our kōrero found new delight and expression in scripture – where atua, tikanga, maunga, awa and whenua retained their power but could also respond to new contexts. We could make offerings to Tangaroa on a Saturday and worship God on a Sunday without freaking out. And I knew all of these things are still important for our people to think about, and for them to have all sides of the story so we can make informed decisions about our futures.
So I decided to bring together the rigour of university thinking with my whānau understanding. I undertook a PhD in history, exploring this story. It was a challenge. I was forced to find evidence to draw together conclusions. Some things I thought I knew turned out to be different. Others were fleshed out much more. I used archival sources – minutes, notes, letters, records, newspapers. Not because these are more authoritative than oral sources, but because they provide a different lens. There were downsides to this. The voices of women and young people are often silenced in the archives. There were however still rich and beautiful sources giving voice to mana wāhine. Archival sources are surprisingly rich. There were thousands and thousands of pages in te reo Māori. It was of course the default language for our people until probably the 1940s. Many of the church hui were entirely in te reo, and the church newspapers were extensive records not only of church life but of current events through to whakapapa. And of course the use of te reo gets the story away from missionaries and back to iwi.
Through this lens of a faith institution our narratives and tīpuna get another aspect of themselves fleshed out. Apirana Ngata was not only a leader in politics, farming, arts, anthropology and law, he was also driven by his faith. As he fills out much of contemporary Māori history so he is a huge character in the book. As are others, from 19th century military and political leaders through to the innovators of the Māori renaissance. They all in various ways had this faith aspect to them.
And faith is a big thing. Where “religion” ends and “culture” begins is unknowable. As Aotearoa enters into a new phase where mātauranga Māori takes its rightful, foundational place, non-Māori seek to access our cultural treasures, with good intentions. But our culture is not secular. You cannot acquire te reo Māori without encountering the deep meanings the language carries. You cannot do a secular karakia – it’s not actually a thing. The next phase in this evolution is non-Māori, particularly Pākehā, grappling with wairua and whakapono. It will be very challenging. It disrupts the powerful sense of omniscience that the Enlightenment bestowed on the west. I’m not saying this is about theism, nor will it necessarily be a movement back to western churches. Those bloated institutions have mostly lost their way as well, trapped either in a fundamentalist or intellectual ridiculousness, in desperate need of decolonisation.
But there are some pointers there. And that’s where the book points. Hāhi were a way we sought the other, the divine, and for many continue to be so. And that’s the story I try to tell: of a creative, often inspiring space where iwi sought new ways to encounter the divine that would transform the present and inspire our future.
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