Obituary: Manu Bennett

By Geoff Cumming

By GEOFF CUMMING

Churchman and Maori leader. Died aged 85

Bishop Manu Bennett was a passionate yet conciliatory voice for Maoridom at a time Maori set out to challenge their role as benign, second-class citizens in New Zealand society.

As Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa from 1968 to 1981, he promoted Maori language, education and culture while urging Pakeha to cut ties with Mother England and forge a distinct New Zealand identity.

From his Rotorua base, he fostered employment opportunities for Maori in tourism and encouraged inclusion of the language and culture in the city's entertainment industry.

When radical Maori began to use Waitangi Day to highlight grievances over the treaty, Bishop Bennett queried the appropriateness of the celebrations before moving to help to resolve the growing discord. He served on the Waitangi Tribunal from 1986 and continued to advise the tribunal after his warrant expired in 1997.

For all this, on being awarded the Order of New Zealand in 1989, he said his most useful work was as a prison chaplain, counselling young Maori and Polynesian offenders at Waikeria from 1964 to 1968.

Manuhuia Augustus Bennett, of the Te Arawa tribe, was one of 18 children born to the first Bishop of Aotearoa, the Rt Rev F.A. Bennett. Among his brothers, Charles (later Sir Charles) would become the youngest commander of the Maori Battalion in the Second World War, a high commissioner to Malaysia and president of the Labour Party. Another, Henry, became medical superintendent at Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital. Waikato Hospital's acute mental health facility is named after him.

Born in Rotorua but raised on a rural pa in Hawkes Bay where money was scarce, Manu Bennett considered a career in finance before opting for the ministry.

A science graduate of Victoria University, he believed education held the key to Maori advancement.

He served on an educational advisory committee and was the first president of the Association of Maori University graduates.

His first posting was to St Stephen's Church, Opotiki, in 1939.

In the Second World War, he was a chaplain to New Zealand troops in the Middle East and Italy. After secondment to Hawaii in the mid-1950s, he became vicar of St Faiths, on the lakefront in Rotorua.

He rallied against alcohol and drug abuse among Maori, at one time opposing a liquor licence in Ngongotaha, on another declaring a rahui, or ban, on drug taking.

He was appointed Bishop of Aotearoa in April 1968, as Maori radicalism and race relations were emerging as issues.

He supported the 1970 All Black tour of South Africa despite the "crime of apartheid", claiming the best way to promote understanding was to meet under any circumstances.

"Human relationships are a pretty important factor in the world situation."

But by the end of 1980 he opposed continued sporting contact with South Africa.

He queried the need for a Race Relations Act, saying it forced people to live together, rather than doing so by choice.

"When our relationships with each other have to be protected by law, then there is something wrong with our relationships."

Within the Anglican Church, he tried to "negotiate new terms of partnership" for Maori and called for Maori people to elect their own bishop.

But he will be best remembered for his commitment to conciliation and his long involvement in treaty issues - culminating in his years as a senior member of the Waitangi Tribunal.

After Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake was jostled at treaty celebrations in 1980, he questioned the appropriateness of the event. The following year, he convened a three-day hui at Turangawaewae Marae to try to resolve difficulties over the treaty.

Changes made in 1981 to the format of the celebrations, creating a less formal atmosphere, were welcomed by Bishop Bennett.

"The treaty has not served us well in the past," he said.

"If we have a future that guarantees a better deal for Maori, there will be no protests."

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