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David Lange’s Christian aura

By Paul Titus

With his death in August and the publication of his autobiography just a week before that, former prime minister David Lange has once again been in the public eye.

Downplayed in both the public discussion of David’s life and his own retrospective was the role his Christian faith played in shaping his political career. David grew up in a Methodist household and was strongly influenced by the tradition of Methodist social action.

David’s parents both had a great influence on him. His mother was very involved in the Otahuhu community and in his book he describes her energy, her open home, and the constant stream of people she fed and looked after.

As a young man David too was active in the church. He was a lieutenant in the Boys Brigade, sang in choirs, and qualified to be a lay preacher. While studying law he stayed for a time in the hostel at Trinity Theological College, where he met future leaders of the New Zealand Methodist church.

Soon after he qualified as a barrister and solicitor in 1967 David travelled to England via India. His extended stay in England brought two major developments in his life. One was he met and married his first wife, Naomi. The other was he came in contact with the prominent Methodist socialist and pacifist Donald Soper.

Naomi came from a Methodist family, so she and David literally sang from the same hymnbook. She met him while she was working at the West London Mission.

Along with a large auditorium where services were held the West London Mission had a number of outreach programmes – groups for homeless men, a hostel for girls on probation, and a dining room that served cheap meals. It was also the preaching place of Lord Soper.

“Donald Soper broadened David’s horizons. David’s family was involved in church and helping other people. That was there from the beginning but Soper had a brilliant mind and he used what he had to speak out. He gave speeches from his soapbox at Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons, and the Labour Party appointed him to the House of Lords.

“The church needs powerful, charismatic people who speak out like that. From Soper David learned that Christian faith could be the base from which to actually go out and do things for good. The message of social justice really appealed to David,” Naomi says.

Once they were married David and Naomi left for New Zealand so he could practice law. He bought a practice in Kaikohe where they stayed of 18 months before returning to Auckland.

“Wherever we lived we attended the local church,” Naomi says. “In Kaikohe the Methodist minister was Gordon Cornwell. He and his wife Irene had been missionaries in the Solomon Islands. The church people were very good to us, and David took services in some of the congregations around the circuit.

“When came back to Auckland we lived in Freeman’s Bay and went to the Pitt Street church, later we moved to Kingsland and went to the church there. David did the odd service but he was flat tack with his law practice.”

By the mid 1970s David had becoming involved in politics. His victory in the by-election for the Mangere seat brought him to parliament in 1977.

Naomi says before Labour won the 1984 election the family had a fairly regular, though hectic routine. David was in Wellington Tuesday through Friday, then back home to Mangere for the weekend.

“Saturday he was in his electorate office, and Sunday we went to church at Mangere East. But there were always functions, phone calls, and Labour Party business to do on weekends. When Labour got into government he would return to Wellington Sunday night to be at cabinet meeting on Monday.

“David described going to church as being in a warm bath. There was no hoo-ha, just ordinary people who didn’t hassle you.”

After he became prime minister and his government embarked on its controversial economic reforms David became distant from the Methodist Church. Naomi believes both parties were responsible.

“The Labour Party and Christianity both believe some people need help in their lives so it was compatible with David’s Methodism and socialism. But the party isn’t church based, and, while the principles were still there that he got from Methodism, he was losing contact with the church. To keep a strong faith you have to work at it.

“While the Mangere East congregation always supported him, David was upset when some Methodist leaders came out and criticised the government without saying anything to him first. Methodism was like his family, and families need to support each other.”

Toward the end of his life David attended Onehunga Co-operating Church. Its minister is Rev Ron O’Grady, a long time friend of David’s. Ron led David’s private funeral service on August 17th.

Ron agrees David was disappointed the church didn’t give him pastoral support when he was prime minister. He struggled with his conscience over Rogernomics and needed more support from some quarters.

“His faith never left David. He never lost his commitment to peace. He was disillusioned with the political scene but contemplated the bigger things in life. He always struggled to make his faith relevant to life.

Ron says David began visiting the Onehunga Church about three years ago. He came off and on but his ill health limited his attendance.

“We are a large congregation with several different worship groups – Cook Island, Niuean, Samoan and English speaking – and we sing traditional hymns. David was comforted and deeply moved by the great music of the church. The Pacific Island hymns had a special place in his heart. We have a good organ and the hymns can be quite stirring and dramatic.

“Sometimes he would just sit after the service because he was so deeply moved. It was more than nostalgia. The sentiments, associations, and wisdom of hymns such ‘Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah’ brought him great joy. He selected all the hymns that were sung at this funeral.”