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90 years ago, on 2 December 1928, Frederick Augustus Bennett was consecrated bishop of Aotearoa, the first Maori bishop in New Zealand’s history. He is thus a worthy subject for today’s keen individual who inspires and surprises. Quote.

Frederick Augustus Bennett was born on 15 November 1871 at Ohinemutu, Lake Rotorua. His mother, Raiha Ratete (Eliza Rogers), a high-born woman of Ngati Whakaue section of Te Arawa, gave to her son the culture and whakapapa of her race. His father was Thomas Jackson Bennett, a storekeeper, who had emigrated to New Zealand from Ireland in 1849. He had a splendid command of the English language and was a keen church worker. Frederick’s dual ancestry equipped him powerfully for his life’s work.

His early years were spent in Maketu, where he was baptised by S. M. Spencer. He attended Maketu Native School, and, on the family’s return to Rotorua, Ohinemutu Native School. In 1883 he gained a scholarship to St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School in Auckland, and in 1884 studies were continued at Te Wairoa Native School at Lake Tarawera. The Pink and White Terraces there were the centre of the tourist trade; consequent problems developed with liquor traffic and a temperance organisation was formed. Frederick, at 14, was secretary of this society, and the interpreter for guests. It was here that Bishop A. B. Suter of Nelson met him. With parental consent he took Frederick back to Nelson to continue his education at Bishop’s School, then Nelson College where he was a prefect and member of the First XV. He sang in the Nelson cathedral choir, taught Sunday school, and assisted at services in outlying areas.

In 1893 Bennett accepted a post at Putiki, Wanganui, as lay reader under A. O. Williams at the Maori mission. Anxious that others should have the advantages of education, he immediately began to raise funds to build a school. He had returned to Nelson by the end of 1895 to engage in further study. He was ordained deacon in 1896, completed his licentiate in theology and was ordained priest in 1897. As assistant curate at All Saints’ Church he organised the choral singing, but his ministry was far flung. Bennett was influential in building a church at Motueka, and a school at Whangarae Bay, Croisilles Harbour.

From the 1890s Bennett was associated with Te Aute College Students’ Association (precursor of the Young Maori Party). He attended their conferences and resolved to devote his life to mission work, supporting the association’s aims of improving the physical, intellectual, social and spiritual condition of Maori people. […]

The rise of T. W. Ratana’s influence from 1918 brought difficulties for the Anglican church and for Bennett’s own ministry. He was caught between the disillusionment of Maori which had given rise to the movement, and the arrogance of the settlers and their church, of which his ministry was a part. The Anglican church was initially supportive of Ratana, but when he proclaimed his own church in 1925 he and his followers were regarded with hostility. For Bennett and many others the duty to remain loyal to their priestly vows was to cause them great personal distress.

Partly in response to the formation of the Ratana church, in 1925 it was suggested at General Synod that a Maori diocese be established with its own bishop. Progress became deadlocked over the issue of the bishop’s race. The Pakeha church and its bishops insisted that a Pakeha be the first bishop, while the Maori section of the church, under the leadership of Apirana Ngata, was just as insistent that the bishop be Maori. This issue caused tension between Ngata and Bennett, who was prepared to accept a Maori-speaking Pakeha bishop. The deadlock remained until the 1928 General Synod, which passed a compromise statute creating a titular bishopric of Aotearoa but without any territorial jurisdiction of its own. The bishop was to be an assistant to the bishop of Waiapu.

The choice fell on Frederick Bennett. On 2 December 1928 he was consecrated bishop of Aotearoa, the first Maori bishop in New Zealand’s history. His work was to minister to Maori in all the dioceses of New Zealand, under licence from diocesan bishops, but many bishops refused to license him. They preferred to carry on Maori pastoral work themselves, a sad hindrance to Bennett’s vision of a reorganised Maori mission. (These conditions were to survive until 1978, when the bishop of Aotearoa was licensed by the primate.) […]

In August 1946 Bennett celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. In 1948 he attended the Lambeth Conference in London, and during this visit preached at Westminster Abbey. He then proceeded to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam. Along with these overseas commitments he was engaged in the revision of the Maori Bible. In the New Year’s honours in 1948 he was made a CMG. His work was complex and beset with difficulties, calling for talent, infinite patience and an ungrudging sacrifice of time. Bennett’s loyalty to his church never flagged and he maintained a constant faith, a catholicity of outlook, and a quiet, unruffled calm. […]

Frederick Augustus Bennett died at his home at Kohupatiki, Hawke’s Bay, on 16 September 1950, survived by his second wife and 18 children. He was buried beneath the sanctuary of St Faith’s Church, Ohinemutu, a stone’s throw from where he was born. End quote.


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