Dr Hirini Kaa. (Photo supplied)

It was a natural fit for Dr Hirini Kaa, as an ordained Anglican minister and historian. So he set about writing Te Hāhi Mihinare — The Māori Anglican Church which has now been published by Bridget Williams Books. And, naturally, that’s prompted discussions, like this one between Hirini and Dale, about the twists and turns since 1814 when the first missionaries arrived in the Bay of Islands.


Kia ora, Hirini. You settled at your place? Got the cat on your lap, a kapu tī, your shoes off, ready to kōrero?

Pants on, too. Good to go.

Let’s start with your whakapapa please, bro. 

Yeah. Mum was this Pākehā girl from a working-class family in Ōtāhuhu, and on Dad’s side, we’re Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, and descendants of Ihaka Whaanga, the Rakaipaaka chief. We connect all through Tairawhiti, really. We’re from the Whaanga whānau in Wairoa, as well.

I was born in Pōrangahau, when Dad, Hone Kaa, was a minister there. But we moved up to Auckland when I was about two and I’ve been living here ever since. 

Hone was a larger than life character — and it feels that you were always destined to become a clergyman yourself.

Yeah. That’s what came about. My brother Nepia managed to avoid it. And Dad chose to leave the church for a little while. He wanted to do a BA like Apirana Ngata had done in the 1890s.

The church told Dad: “You don’t need that.” And Dad said: “I think I do.” As you know, he was quite contrary at times. 

So, we moved up to Auckland where Mum was a teacher. Dad became a full-time student at the University of Auckland, with troublemakers like Graham and Linda Smith, Te Ururoa Flavell, and Wharehuia Milroy. 

And then he was involved with Kingi Ihaka up at the Holy Sepulchre on Khyber Pass. Holy Sep — with Tatai Hono — became a real centre of Māori life in the city, in those times.

So, we grew up on that marae, in that church community, surrounded by Mihinare (Anglican) whānau from all over the motu. It was beautiful — and those church, educational, and political influences shaped me. 

Hone Kaa during his time as a student, with his boys Hirini and Nepia. (Photo supplied)

That dive into study at the time was quite a bold move from your old man, nē?

It was. And again, we were lucky having Apirana as our role model. He was the first Māori to go to university. He went to Canterbury in 1892, where he did a Bachelor of Arts. We had that model of: Kaua e mataku. Don’t be afraid of embracing these other ways of thinking. 

Dad had learned to be Māori doing haka in a kumara patch at Rangitukia. But he also wanted to learn what else the world had to offer.

These people that you mentioned before — they were a pretty illustrious crew of thinkers and changemakers, weren’t they? They planted a pou in the ground for our people. And we can include your father in that lot, nē?

Yeah. That’s true. But after his time at varsity, Dad went back into ministry and, from 1973, he served at the Auckland Anglican Māori Mission at Holy Sepulchre on Khyber Pass, under Kingi Ihaka.

Dad saw the hāhi (church) as working alongside people like Graham, Linda, Te Ururoa and others, to achieve mana motuhake for our people. He saw the hāhi as just another way to do that. 

Ranginui Walker would come up to the mission. Judge Mick Brown, too. All these leaders would come in, share their whakaaro, and make up this new te ao Māori that we’re living in today.

We also had the Māori Community Centre which allowed for pan-tribal interaction. Which was a bit of a rarity, back then, because a lot of our people hadn’t mixed intertribally, had they? But at the community centre we had that chance. And, at Holy Sep, we had that chance as well. 

But can we celebrate Kingi Ihaka for a moment? What do you recall of him?

Kingi was amazing. Kind of scary, too. He was always picking on our reo . . . because he was so tika, so clever, so precise. He was also a genius at bringing us together. 

He’d managed to bring the people of the north together — Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and so on. But he told Dad that this place could also be a home for Tairawhiti. For Te Arawa. For others, too. And that’s one reason he encouraged the vestry at Holy Sep to take Dad on as his replacement — even though Dad was very young then. 

I remember once as a young boy hopping out of the shower at the vicarage and drying myself — as you do — and looking down the stairs and there was like a hundred people from the Angie club practising “Toro Mai Tō Ringa”And I’m left thinking: “I should‘ve closed the curtains before I did this.” 

I think a lot of the things we now take for granted — about the place of kapa haka, for example, and of our reo — well, under Kingi that was already being nurtured through the hāhi. 

Hirini (right) with his mother Jane, brother Nepia, and dad Hone, on the day Hone graduated with his BA from the University of Auckland. He went on to gain an MA (Hons) in education and later went to Harvard where he was awarded a doctorate in ministry. (Photo  supplied)

And the influence of your dad? How much alike are you and Hone?

People often say I’m more like my mother. By which they mean I’m quieter than Dad was — although my brother and I are quite capable of displaying Dad’s qualities, too. That’s because we understand that there was a generation who experienced the full weight of this country’s racism when they first came into the cities. And that could make them angry. 

And Dad would never take a step backwards, which made for quite a challenging environment. “E tipu e rea” isn’t just a nice saying. It’s a saying for life. You will grow, you will flourish. But it won’t necessarily be easy. 

Despite that racism, our faiths remained strong. And, at the start, many denominations were pitching for our custom, so to speak. Did we Māori get caught up in the race to save souls?

Yes. Look, the history of the church is complicated. It’s messy, and often it’s not a good story. The Pākehā missionaries often get held up as the virtuous face of our churches. But they brought some terrible attitudes with them.

They thought that in order to follow Christ, you had to be Pākehā. They couldn’t separate their culture from their faith — although they had no trouble separating our culture from our faith. 

They thought their culture was universal, and they thought their culture was above faith. But Christianity doesn’t exist outside culture. Everyone expresses their faith through their cultural language. 

But there is another side to this story because Māori used this faith as a way of reflecting on ourselves. It was a way of thinking about some of our practices, our relationships — and using that as a tool for our liberation. 

So, this new faith could be used as a tool of oppression and colonisation. But it could also be used as a tool of liberation.

When we think of the Musket Wars and the mayhem that occurred for a decade or two after 1820, Christianity helped quench that desire for utu. It settled us down. Rather than warring with each other, perhaps it allowed us to take a different tack?

Yes. It’s important to remember that, in the 1830s, there were only around a dozen Pākehā Anglican missionaries in the whole country. Meanwhile, there were already about 200 Māori evangelists. 

Take Ngāti Porou, for example. This Christian message was brought to us by our own. It was a kōrero, a wānanga, that we had amongst ourselves. 

And the classic for us is the battle between us and Whānau-ā-Apanui and others at Toka-a-Kuku in 1836. After that battle we said: “Let’s not practise kai tangata. Let’s let go of some of those practices.” And we did. 

This was us using these new ways of thinking through our own mātauranga. Ideas of forgiveness, for example, which is a powerful gift of Christianity. 

A lot of cultures have ideas of forgiveness — but Christianity takes that to the next level. And that really appealed to our great thinkers, to our philosophers, to our own theologians.

Can you live believing in Jesus as well as in Rangi and Papa in the separation story? How do you roll with both whakaaro, Hirini?  

Kia ora, Dale. Most of us can work with the two, no problem at all. My Ngāti Porou grandfather was a priest. Church every Sunday, and karakia every night. He was very strict about that. And, when we went fishing, we would dedicate the first kahawai to Tangaroa.

And when my grandmother — who was a staunch Mihinare — would go into the garden, she’d take her little atua with her, and have karakia with her atua in her mara. 

Pākehā freak out about this. But this isn’t about them. They don’t know what we do. And they don’t need to know.

The great bit is that, more recently, we’ve been able to express that more clearly. So, in our latest prayer book, we acknowledge Ranginui and Papatūānuku as beings. It uses capital letters for their names. Like proper nouns. Those names are not just metaphors or images. The prayer book actually acknowledges Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Because, as Māori, we’ve never let that go. 

As Mihinare, our mātauranga has informed and shaped our faith all the way through, and continues to do so today. We never lost it. And, in some ways, I’d argue that the hāhi has been one of the spaces where that mātauranga has survived and thrived.

I’m not trying to defend the indefensible. I’m just trying to say there are other parts to this kōrero as well.

What were some of the pressures brought to bear by other faiths and denominations active at the time of the arrival of the Anglican Church?

A lot of these Pākehā denominations were pretty whakahīhī. They don’t play well with others. And, from very early on, the Anglicans had an issue with the Roman Catholics. 

I don’t think our people took that as seriously as they did. It’s more about whakapapa for us, than about organisations. So, you get classics like in Rotorua where the rangatira says: “Okay. You lot on the left, you’re going to be Mihinare. And you lot on the right? You’re Katorika (Catholic). Go for it.”

I think the saddest example, though, came after the Holy Spirit visited Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana in a most profound way in 1918. But his transformative experience and his outworking of that became a source of deep pain. 

At first, the Pākehā bishops of the Anglican Church were happy to see TW Rātana as “our good little Māori”. But when they saw him pushing for Te Tiriti to be upheld, they excommunicated him and his followers. 

That caused so much division across our Māori communities. You get places like Pamapuria, where my wife’s whānau are from. And there’s a fence dividing the urupā there. 

And that fence exists simply because of the Pākehā bishops. Whereas Apirana Ngata, who’s the source of all genius . . . he actually didn’t really care. 

He wanted a Māori hāhi. He didn’t really care for the denomination thing. He happened to be Mihinare — but he had a bigger vision than that. And I think our people still aspire for kotahitanga. 

What do you make of other Māori religious movements, Hirini? How do they feature in our religious history?

The thing is, all of us have something in common: We’re all driven by the Bible. By the Paipera. The Kīngitanga wouldn’t exist without the Bible. Ringatū wouldn’t exist without the Bible. Rātana wouldn’t exist without the Bible. We all go back to that source material. 

I don’t see Te Hāhi Mihinare as a Pākehā institution that happened to have Māori in it. I see Te Hāhi Mihinare as just as tūturu Māori as Rātana or Ringatū, for example. Just as creative. Just as strong an expression of our mātauranga. 

I think that sometimes we don’t fully understand the offerings of some of the other hāhi. Like Mihinare, like Wēteriana, like Katorika. 

And there are Roman Catholics — and then there’s Hokianga Catholics who are a world unto themselves. 

Hirini’s brother Nepia got detention on the day this was taken — his school didn’t believe he was late because his family was hosting Desmond Tutu for breakfast. From left: Bishop Manu Bennett, Desmond Tutu, Hone Kaa (later the Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau) and Bishop Paul Reeves, in the 1980s. (Photo supplied)

But getting back to the Anglican Church — some see it as very progressive, because it created three pathways. For Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā. How effective has that been for the Anglicans?

Kia ora. One of the themes running through the book is that this struggle for mana motuhake is a constant. And our hāhi was no exception. If you go back to the 1870s, there was a hui for my Hauiti whanaunga in Tolaga Bay and they’re saying: “We want a Māori bishop. Why can’t we have one?” 

We were struggling for our own leadership, our own autonomy. Our own way of expressing our faith. And we just kept at it.

And it was Apirana Ngata who single-handedly got us our first Māori bishop. That was Fred Bennett in the 1920s, which is a story in itself. But it wasn’t until 1990, when we had another outstanding group of lay leaders — like Whatarangi Winiata, Eddie Durie, Areta Koopu — that we got this new constitution.

We still share the same church. We still share the same faith. We just get to express it as Māori. We get our own leadership. We have autonomy. 

There’s been some struggle, of course. Because Pākehā kept most of the resources. But it was important to us just to be free. 

That “three tikanga” model has political implications, don’t you think?

Absolutely. This new constitution came together in the late 1980s when the Anglican Church was at its height. You’d go to our general synod, our hui a tau — and there’d be high court judges, all kinds of high-ranking business people. The elite of Pākehā society. 

So, for them to take on board this message that te Tiriti is a kawenata, a covenant, and that we needed to think about that in light of our faith, was amazing. 

And I think Te Pouhere remains a good model for Aotearoa New Zealand to consider — how to share power, what that might look like, and how it can lead to better outcomes. 

We’re seen as a nation based on Christian values. But do you think that description of us as a Christian-based society is still accurate?

Yes. I do think Christianity remains very influential. Not just to New Zealand, but within te ao Māori as well. And I think that, if we’re really honest, we like that. Ideas like aroha got new meaning, and we embraced that. 

The churches themselves were often arrogant expressions of the worst of empire. It was about owning people. You rang the bell, and they obeyed. Whereas, now, people have different options.

But I think our society still carries some good fruit from that early Christian outreach. Some of the good bits of our legal system, for example. 

And, when the prime minister started talking about kindness during lockdown, that wasn’t just plucked out of thin air. You go back to Jesus saying the most important things are to love God — and to love your neighbour. That’s what Jacinda was pointing towards. 

Hirini (left) taking a whānau baptism at the historic St Mary’s church in Tikitiki, 2009. (Photo supplied)

Hirini, I was hoping to leave some space for you to speak about an aspect of the book that we haven’t touched on already. What else might people discover about the hāhi and its contribution to te ao Māori?

Kia ora. There are a couple of things. We often think of certain people as politicians, as military leaders, or as leaders in our struggle for liberation and justice. And that’s all true. 

But there’s a faith aspect, a wairua aspect that, for a variety of reasons, particularly recently, has taken a backseat.

Take Apirana Ngata, for example. Yes, he was amazing. His contributions in farming, carving, anthropology and politics were immense. He really was He Tipua

But he was also powered by his whakapono, his faith. And I think it’s important that we think more about the place of whakapono in te ao Māori.

Again, we’ve been getting quite dismissive. But I think we need to reconsider not just the place of whakapono in our history, but in our present, and in our future as well.

We’re living in a dynamic age. And while we stomp our feet, impatiently at times, to improve our people’s lot, slowly that’s taking shape. Those changes — like introducing New Zealand history to our schooling system, are coming incrementally. And it does feel to me that we’re moving forward. What’s your assessment?

I’d absolutely agree. We are intergenerational people. We think generations behind — and ahead.

But you’re right, we do need urgent change in some things. Like, we need to increase benefits today. Because some of our whānau can’t afford kai on their table. So, just get on with it, Labour Government. 

But yeah, I reckon Martin Luther King was right when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

I think we’re also hopeful people. We know the power of our tikanga, of our reo, of our mātauranga. We know that, over time, it’s going to work on our Pākehā and non-Māori brothers and sisters. So, we should be hopeful. 

I think there’s one other element, though. Part of the challenge for non-Māori, particularly for Pākehā, is to understand that we are not a secular culture. 

They can’t just acquire our language. They can’t just talk about manaakitanga as generosity and hospitality. They have to understand that beneath that concept lies te orokohanga (creation). Ranginui and Papatūānuku underpin the idea of mana and manaakitanga.

They can’t just take the parts they like to make them feel good. They’ve got to grapple with all of it. 

But when they do, it’s going to be powerful for them as well. 


(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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