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Hikoi finds church support

By Joanna Davis

The banner read ‘Methodists supporting the hikoi’, and Methodist President Lynne Frith took her turn carrying it as she and a small group of Pakeha members of Wesley Wellington Church made their way to the steps of Parliament last month. There, they added their voices to the 15,000 strong protest against the Seabed and Foreshore Bill.

Lynne says the legislation before Parliament amounts to confiscation. “It’s a mistake. It removes a legal avenue for Maori. There’s already a process through the Maori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal for matters of title and possession and these processes have worked adequately up to now. I can’t see any reason to change it.”

She says that churches have previously been silent on the matter but opposition to the legislation was a natural response. “The Methodist Church has always held a principled stand on matters relating to the Treaty of Waitangi.” Lynne attributes this to the historic role Methodist missionaries played in facilitating signing of the Treaty in the 1800s. “The Methodist church was not just a settler church. We came to offer Christianity to Maori.”

Lynne describes the hikoi as “a most amazing and moving” experience. “The general attitude was very peaceful and well-intentioned. What struck me was the apparent unity among Maori. There was no heckling from bystanders, just lots of support.”

Earlier that day parishioners from Wesley Wellington Church served cereal and toast to more than 100 protestors from Northland and Dunedin who spent the night sleeping in the Wesley church hall.

Before the hikoi reached Wellington, former Trinity-St John College lecturer George Armstrong walked the Auckland Harbour Bridge with Maori students from the college. He agrees this is an important issue for the Christian church to agitate over.

“It’s a matter of Christian theology; it’s not political. In the Bible, the second testament is strong on the whole concept of a new relationship or covenant between God and humanity, between men and women and between different ethnic groups.”

George says the debate is one of politics as well as theology. “This hikoi was completely in line with the earlier hikoi of hope, although this time the focus was more on fundamental issues of equitable sharing of resources. The legislation would mean that Maori customary title wasn’t given the same weight as private title. You could argue that it’s racist.”

George found the mood on the day one of calm and resolve. “There had been so much hype from people opposed to walking the bridge but it went so beautifully. It was exhilarating that there was no opposition, no problems.”

Te Taha Maori member Bella Ngaha walked the bridge too. She says this hikoi fights the same battle as the 1975 Land March. “Our people are much more attuned to what is happening and being done to them at a political level, and are prepared to stand up and be counted. We have a responsibility to ensure we are informed and discuss the issues that confront us.

“We marched to show this Labour Government our outright rejection of this Seabed and Foreshore legislation – in case they haven’t got the message from the regional consultation hui of 2003.”

While Maori church members and most church officials oppose the Seabed and Foreshore legislation, members of congregations may not be so supportive.

Last month Touchstone canvassed opinion from congregants at Stoke Methodist Church in Nelson. While most supported customary rights for Maori, they also wanted the seabed and foreshore in crown ownership. The statement “It should be owned by the whole country,” sums up their views.

Christian World Service director Jonathon Fletcher says this major divergence of opinion between the two Treaty partners shows more consultation and discussion are needed before legislation is enacted. “In terms of working in partnership, it’s no good if one partner is going off and acting arbitrarily,” he says.

Jonathon calls for a resumption of dialogue instead of what he describes as hasty efforts by the Government to bring legislation to Parliament. He hopes the public submission process at select committee stage will “allow the cool voice of reason to be heard”.