Presbyterian Church to offer future land sales to iwi first

The Presbyterian Church has reached a milestone decision to offer any future church-owned land for sale to local iwi before anyone else.

The first right of refusal policy was voted with an overwhelming majority in support, with 121 votes for and just 12 against.

It comes as the church reckons with its colonial past and seeks to build even stronger relationships with tangata whenua.

"We have a bicultural relationship with Te Aka Puaho, which is a Māori synod, and this is just part of that ongoing relationship," said Church Moderator, Right Rev Hamish Galloway.

The Presbyterian Church is a big landowner in New Zealand. Its assets, including more than 400 places of worship, are estimated to be worth $1.5 billion.

Much of their land has been acquired through land sales and gifts, but other areas are thought to be inherited by the Crown following the New Zealand Land Wars.

"I would think that there will be places where Presbyterian Churches were established, especially in the confiscation area, immediately after land wars," said Religious Historian Professor Peter Lineham.

"Because that large territory in northern Waikato, there are plenty of Presbyterian Churches there, and so they must've acquired that land from Crown, which got it in a totally unfair procedure."

"Those confiscations are a very black mark against the New Zealand Government and all that inherited the land."

Right Rev Galloway acknowledged the Church's role in colonisation.

"By the year 1900 the Presbyterian Church was the biggest denomination in the country so clearly we have a role in this, and in the history of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand."

Rev Dr Wayne Te Kaawa said the church now wanted to be on the right side of history.

"Some of our ministers were chaplains to the forces in the New Zealand Land Wars and they gave eucharist and blessings to all those soldiers who fought there.

"We've been on the other side of history as a church, but this time, we're taking a different stance and have decided issues like justice and the treaty, and honouring the Treaty and our Māori partners [are important]."

"Those confiscations are a very black mark against the New Zealand Government and all that inherited the land."

—   Peter Lineham, Religious Historian Professor

Some land that was gifted to the Church by Māori has already been returned for free, including land at Maungapōhatu belonging to the people of Tūhoe.

But attempts to create a formal policy on this have so far failed.

Rev Te Kaawa said the purchasing agreement was a positive step in the right direction.

"I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and I also felt a tinge of sadness, thinking back to all of those Māori in the church who have raised land issues, and its never gone anywhere.

"I heard the word 'decolonisation' being used quite a lot. In this discussion and other discussions, [I've heard people say] that it was time to look at what decolonising at the Presbyterian Church means."

The Presbyterian Church's efforts are putting the spotlight on other churches that have their own fraught histories to grapple with.

"I think its easier, probably, for the Presbyterian Church to address these matters than it is for the other churches because their complicity is probably less, much less, especially than for Anglicans," said Professor Lineham.

"That is a very difficult one for all churches to resolve, [to ask] what are the obligations that we have?"