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Children of a forsaken marriage:
a history of the Uniting Church mov’t in NZ

Laurie Barber

The metaphor of a betrothal that never led to marriage is an image Rev Dr Laurie Barber uses to good effect in his thesis that provides a historical account of the uniting church movement in NZ.

The thesis was completed in 2007 to fulfil the requirements for a diploma of Scholar in Theology from the Ecumenical Institute for Distance Theological Studies (EIDTS). It details how the movement for church union grew in this country but ultimately fell apart. It also assesses where the NZ Uniting Church movement is today and what its prospects for the future are.

Laurie has had a long career in both the Church and academia. Born and bred in Manawatu, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, served as a military chaplain in Singapore and Vietnam, and is now in full connexion in the Methodist Church.

Much of his working life was spent in the academic world, however. From 1975 to 2000 he lectured in history at the University of Waikato, becoming associate professor of history and dean of humanities.

Laurie was drawn to write his study of the uniting church movement because, since he retired from the university, he and his wife Petra served as ministers in Union Parishes in Kaeo/Kerikeri and Opotiki. His thesis is based on archival research, interviews with key figures in the uniting church movement, and a questionnaire sent to all 160 of NZ’s Uniting Congregations.

The titles of the chapters in the thesis tell much of the story. ‘You should get married’ discusses how opposition to church union in the 1930s and 1940s shifted to enthusiastic support for the notion in the 1950s. ‘Beating the gun’ (a euphemism for sex before marriage) discusses the congregations that formed Co-operative Movements despite the lack of a formal union of the parent churches.

‘Jilted at the altar’ considers the final refusal of the Anglican Church to enter into organic union and its consequences. ‘Making do’ explores the sense of abandonment and uncertainty the Co-operative Venture movement felt in the aftermath of the failed marriage plans. Finally ‘Where are your parents now?’ looks at the current situation facing Co-operative Ventures in terms of oversight and inter-church relations in the era when inclusiveness is challenged by differing attitudes towards homosexuality.

In his conclusion Laurie examines the choices the Uniting Congregations face on the road ahead. He says they are:

1) The status quo – continuing to pay levies to parent churches despite the fact that many CVs no longer have strong allegiances to those churches.

2) Individual parishes opt out of Uniting Congregation status – they would be reabsorbed into the parent churches.

3) Minimise linkages with the parents – finding support from other local or regional alliances.

4) Create a Uniting Congregations denominational church.

5) Align with the Uniting Church of Australia – unlikely due to the presence of Anglicans here but not across the ditch.

6) Seduce or shock the parents into reconciliation – also unlikely given that in the post-modern era the parent churches are more focused on survival in an increasingly secular society.

Laurie believes the best way forward is to keep the status quo but, he says, the uniting parishes should pressure the parent churches to resume ecumenical activity and respect the traditions of each of the participating churches.