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Century of deaconesses chance to ponder future church

By Paul Titus

While their calling often puts them in touch with our most marginalised and damaged people, it cannot be said that deacons and deaconesses are grim.

When they gathered with friends and families in Christchurch last month to mark the 100th anniversary since the founding of the Methodist Deaconess Order of New Zealand, good humour and laughter were in abundance.

The four day event began on September 16th and coincided with the annual Diaconate Conference. It was a chance to look back at some of the accomplishments of the Deaconess Order but also to look ahead at where the Methodist Church is going.

Former deaconesses at the memorial in Rapaki to the prisoners from Parihaka who were transported to the South Island.
Things kicked off with a Sunday evening memorial service at Durham Street Methodist Church written by Rev Marcia Baker. The service was a light-hearted look at the serious work of the Deaconess Order, which ended in 1979 and was replaced by the Order of Deacons.

The service highlighted some of the personalities and events in the deaconess movement, and the stories were interspersed with hymns and ditties rewritten for the occasion.

It touched on the forerunners of the deaconesses in Aotearoa NZ. It was in 1907 that the Durham St Church bought a house on St Asaph Street to house and train deaconesses.

In 1923 a larger Deaconess House was established at 25 Latimer Square (the site of the Connexional offices today). A hostel for training college students was later added to ‘Deak House’ and one evening of the anniversary celebrations was given over to former residents to reminisce about their experiences.

The final dialogue of Marcia’s service sums up the deaconess movement well:

“What a band of women – dedicated and hard working. Some were serious, some fun-loving, some daring, some strait-laced. There were rebels and conformists, the studious and the down to earth. They’ve travelled our country and overseas, on horseback, trains, cars, pushbikes, motorbikes and canoes and tramped many miles on foot.

“They’ve worked in soup kitchens, orphanages, old people’s homes, overseas missions, city missions, Maori missions, Maori circuits – preaching, teaching, rescuing and pioneering, nursing the sick, cleaning up homes, influencing State policy, peddling books, selling old clothes, translating scripture, sleeping in prisons, appearing in courts, and writing many books.

“But always, no matter what the job, taking the love of Jesus Christ.”

Rev Diana Tana (left) and Sister Rona Collins cut the centenary birthday cake.
Marcia says when she began to prepare the service a year ago she uncovered so much material, she ended up writing a book. Entitled ‘For Others with Love’, it was available at the celebration.

A strong contingent from Te Taha Maori attended the event, including women from Northland, Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland), Waikato, and Taranaki. Tumuaki Rev Diana Tana gave a presentation on the theme ‘keeping pace with a changing world’.

In it she too looked backward and forward. She discussed some of the elements in a Maori response to the Gospel – knowledge of tradition, whakapapa, a sense of place, Te Triti o Waitangi, and a political history of land confiscations, protest, and legislation.

“We cannot afford to sit in our comfortable places and expect people to respond to what we think is right and good for them. We have to be the face of change for a better society even if that means being challenged in ways that make us feel uncomfortable,” Diana said.

She chalked out a way forward and described some ways Te Taha Maori adapts to the changing needs of people and understandings of God. They include listening to grassroots people, giving support to the marginalised, remembering the Church’s bi-cultural partnership, kotahitanga (being strong together), and being accountable.

MCNZ president Rev John Salmon also addressed the conference. Some of his remarks are included in his presidential column on page 5 of this publication.

In addition to the presentations, conference goers also enjoyed a bus tour that visited some of the churches where deaconesses did their training.

To receive a copy of ‘For Others with Love’ contact Marcia Baker on 03 352 2671.