There is something counter-cultural about going for a walk. In a society dedicated to reaching your destination in the shortest possible time in maximum comfort, to take the harder, longer, sweatier option and walk is downright perverse.
Yet more and more people do. And in this bicentennial year, pilgrimage is becoming a popular way of reconnecting with our much-neglected missionary beginnings.
Two big Christmas services at Oihi, where Marsden and Ruatara began the church we enjoy today, will launch our best-known pilgrimage walk, but there are dozens of other journeys undertaken, some led by bishops on foot, even one in a kayak.
Natural medicine advocates advise you to walk barefoot to reconnect with the energy of the earth. Even with shoes, I feel recharged by a pilgrimage like the one we made recently around the mission stations of the north.
There is something still powerful about sites such as Pakaraka, Waimate North and Russell, even though they speak more about dreams defeated than realised. But they all offer us a story we can make our own, however long we have lived here.
It’s a spiritual story of faith forged under hardship with great courage. But it’s also a very practical handmade story.
Mitre 10 claims DIY is in our DNA, and the missionaries began that breeding strain. They had to design, build and grow everything they needed with very little to work with. As William Williams said, if you wanted a fire you had first to learn to make bricks to build a chimney.
The mission stations are as much about flour mills, orchards and vege gardens as they are about catechisms and hymns.
The Marist brothers at Pompallier House in Russell offered up a lot of prayers. They also produced 40,000 prayer books in the first eight years, all bound in leather, made from hides tanned on the ground floor below the printery.
The Christianity that planted in the north, that we still harvest, was sown by hand. It was as embedded in the ships and shoes the missionaries made and above all in the pages they printed, one by one, after they had translated the biblical words, one by one.
That hands-on style of mission inspired me again on this recent pilgrimage. Glimpses of it abounded.
The hoard of slate pencils found near the Marsden Cross – from New Zealand’s first schoolroom. The country’s first “hard-faced” doll – treasured possession of a missionary child. The puriri trees around St Michael’s Church at Ohaeawai that once provided defensive screens hard enough to deflect British canon balls.
St Michael’s was built by local Maori to honour the huge number of Pakeha soldiers who fell in that battle.
That gesture holds a sign of the most important achievement of these early missionaries. Despite much hesitation and many mistakes, they learnt to forge friendships with Maori, just as Marsden had done with Ruatara.
Time and again, a missionary success story – the founding of a school, the ending of a feud, the building of a church – happened because of a friendship. Through all the ambiguity and self interest of early Maori and Pakeha relationships, they found in each other genuine respect and affection.
The descendants of those first families still talk proudly of that achievement.
The same bicultural trust that built the beginning of our church also brought about the monumental rewrite of our Anglican constitution back in 1992. Without the strong personal bonds that bound Maori and Pakeha commissioners, synod members, bicultural educators and teachers in the leadup to the reform, the legislation would have failed to pass as it had failed for a hundred years before.
Right now in the lexicon of contemporary bicultural politics, friendship is not a noun you hear very often. Back then in the early 1800s, it was a more familiar word. It’s one more piece of the missionary legacy we need to rediscover again, because it’s as basic to our New Zealand DNA as DIY.
Bishop John Bluck lives in Pakiri, Wellsford.