Susan J. Thompson: Knowledge and Vital Piety: Education for Methodist Ministry in New Zealand from the 1840s. Auckland: Wesley Historical Society (NZ), 2012; pp. 212 + 65.
Article first published online: 26 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Religious History © 2013 Religious History Association
Journal of Religious History
Volume 37, Issue 1, pages 155–157, March 2013
How to Cite
O'Brien, G. (2013), Susan J. Thompson: Knowledge and Vital Piety: Education for Methodist Ministry in New Zealand from the 1840s. Auckland: Wesley Historical Society (NZ), 2012; pp. 212 + 65. Journal of Religious History, 37: 155–157. doi: 10.1111/1467-9809.12020
- Issue published online: 26 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 26 FEB 2013
This detailed study of theological education among Aotearoa/New Zealand Methodists indicates that the University of Auckland Best Doctoral Thesis prize on which it is based was well deserved. Originally appearing in 2010 as Proceedings 90 and 91 of the Wesley Historical Society (NZ), here it is repackaged in an appealing format with a wealth of colour and black & white images to illuminate the text and a series of attractive side-bars on the contribution of key persons and places. The stories of Maori, Pacific Islanders, and women are heard, drawing on oral history as well as archival materials. Curriculum lists and descriptions of lectures and class notes give insight into the shape of theological education during different periods. A series of very helpful Appendices provides comprehensive lists of heads of schools, teaching staff, and students, including Maori students and those who trained away from the College in the circuit or home setting.
The title is drawn from a line in a hymn by Charles Wesley — “Unite the pair so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” Sadly much of the story of Methodist theological education in New Zealand involves tension between these two elements. The scenario of conflict between those who favoured an educated and theologically literate ministry and those who feared that such would lead to a loss of spiritual fervour and evangelistic effectiveness is certainly not unique to New Zealand Methodism or even to Methodism itself. A very similar story could be told of every Protestant denomination from the late nineteenth century onwards.
In chapter 1, “Early Beginnings (1845–1875),” the origins of Methodist theological education are identified with the establishment of the Wesleyan Native Institution in Grafton in 1845. As a missionary agency, set up to train Maori as teachers and ministers, its purpose was evangelistic. Given its Maori origins it is disappointing that the Grafton institute did not result in well-trained Maori clergy being considered as ministers in their own right. The European sense of cultural superiority kept indigenous culture at arms length and ensured that Maori were only seen as “assistants” to Pakeha ministers. Ministers were trained under an apprenticing model with little stress on formal academic training.
The second chapter, “Training on the Move (1876–1928),” focuses on the Three Kings Institution and Prince Albert College. The Wars of the 1860s had negatively affected Maori training but both Maori and Pakeha ministerial education was strengthened in the ensuing period. A more “liberal evangelical” approach emerged with an openness to modern criticism of the Bible, coupled with a deep spirituality and ongoing evangelistic concern. “Reverent Modern Scholarship” typifies the period from 1929 to 1940, covered in chapter 3. After the establishment of Trinity College in 1929, a period of more settled institutional training began. New Zealand Methodists had gained independence from the Australasian Connexion in 1913 and the establishment of Trinity as a focus of national Methodist identity became significant. Students were isolated from the major social and political currents of the period and their training was focused on developing competent Methodist ministers equipped for circuit work.
The fourth chapter, “Being a Practical Wesleyan (1941–1962),” recounts the disruptions of wartime and subsequent consolidation of the training programme. The Methodist Conference declared that it would accept women into the ordained ministry in 1948, but only three women candidates entered Trinity between 1954 and 1962. A focus on worship and pastoral studies was introduced alongside the more classical theological curriculum. The training of Maori ministers remained a relatively small part of Trinity's activity. Not until the mid-1950s, a full century after the first Maori ordination, would the first Maori ministers gain equal status with their Pakeha counterparts.
The period from 1963 to 1970 is characterised by Thompson as “Shaping a Therapeutic Ministry.” The Principal David Williams sought to connect Freudian psychology with pastoral work through the “client-centred” approach of Carl Rogers. Evangelical Methodists became increasingly concerned about this emphasis as students became less and less involved in more traditional evangelistic activities, an approach deemed unsuited to a new emphasis on person-to-person engagement. The radical theology of the 1960s had some impact on Trinity, but does not seem to have introduced any widespread revolution in thinking or teaching.
The period from 1971 to 1979 saw Methodists “Becoming Ecumenists” as they entered into partnership with Anglicans at St John's College, Meadowbank. Trinity seems very much to have been the junior partner in this arrangement and Methodists found themselves frequently on the defensive to maintain their own identity. Methodist Maori withdrew altogether and adopted a mode of training more suited to their own indigenous needs, rejecting ordination as an unwelcome hangover from the colonising era. During this period students became more politically aware and active. Feminist theology, anti-nuclear protest, opposition to the Vietnam War, and a greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people often led to divisions in campus life which were a microcosm of what was taking place in the wider Methodist Church.
The seventh and final chapter, “Training Field Theologians” covers the period from 1980 to 1988. A period of increasing pluralism and multiculturalism in New Zealand society, the 1980s was a time of division and conflict for Trinity College. A stress on contextual theologies, spearheaded by Jim Stuart and George Armstrong, left some students feeling that they had not been sufficiently well grounded in the classical sources of the tradition, a concern shared by the Principal Keith Rowe.
A brief but solid set of conclusions ends the narrative. No doubt there were “tensions between the denomination's Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist traditions” that led to uncertainty about what emphases needed to be in place in ministry training (p. 205). Too much weight should not be placed on this as an explanation for the differences, however. Wesleyans, though undoubtedly more concerned about their own prestige and institutional development, were themselves divided over whether knowledge or vital piety should be given priority in ministerial training. Though Primitive Methodists are usually considered more on the revivalist end of the spectrum, it should be remembered that the English liberal-evangelical Arthur S. Peake, whose 1919 Commentary placed him at the centre of controversy in Australasian Methodism, was a Primitive Methodist. Division between liberal and conservative Methodists has been a pan-Methodist phenomenon rather than something that played out on strictly denominational lines.
Ending as it does in 1988, the book does not take into account the emergence in 2000 of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand which came into being partly as a result of discontent about the liberal theology at Trinity College and its move away from classically Wesleyan emphases. The Wesleyan Methodist Church, under the leadership of Dr Richard Waugh, established links for ministerial training with Laidlaw College and Carey College and has more recently begun discussions with Indiana Wesleyan University about a Pacific campus in Auckland. Its annual Stream Theological Symposium, hosted by East City Wesleyan Church, has drawn on international academics and practitioners to extend informal theological education to both clergy and laity. For both the older Methodist Church of New Zealand and fresh expressions of Methodism, finding the balance between knowledge and vital piety is likely to be a continuing challenge. Susan Thompson's book provides a solid historical account that can inform that process.