A delegation from the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, buffeted by heavy wind and rain and led by four senior members of the clergy in full vestments, were welcomed on to the former site of the Otamataha Pā this morning.

The church was in town to formally apologise to Tauranga Moana iwi for its role in ancestral land being lost to the Crown 151 years ago.

The historic event, charged with passion and dripping in long pent-up pain and disappointment, began at 9am and ran for several hours.

A pōwhiri for representatives of the Māori King movement, Kīngitanga, started proceedings and the welcoming of the Anglican Church and other manuhiri followed.

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Kaumātua Huikakahu Kawe was the master of ceremonies.

The Anglican Church delegation is welcomed onto the former site of the Otamataha Pā in Tauranga. Photos / George Novak
The Anglican Church delegation is welcomed onto the former site of the Otamataha Pā in Tauranga. Photos / George Novak

The church's apology centres on a 526ha piece of land known as the Te Papa Block, which stretches from The Strand to the suburb of Gate Pā and encompasses the Tauranga CBD.

The land was handed over to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the late 1830s and was supposed to be held in trust for the benefit of tangata whenua.

However, most of the land was later yielded to the colonial government in 1867 after consistent and increasing pressure, and despite the CMS resisting and protesting the transfer.

Tangata whenua were not consulted and have long since fought to have the land grievance recognised and acknowledged.

Today, Archbishop Philip Richardson, one of the highest ranking Anglican Church officials in New Zealand, fell to his knees and held up a copy of the church's official apology.

Receiving it was Ngāti Tapu kaumātua, Puhirake Ihaka, and Ngāi Tamarāwaho kaumātua, Peri Kohu.

It was to those two hapū that the church's apology was particularly addressed.

Archbishop Richardson and Bishop Ngarahu Katene had earlier read the apology aloud, in both Māori and English.

(l-r) Bishop Ngarahu Katene, Archbishop Sir David Moxon, Archbishop Philip Richardson, and Andrew Hedge, Bishop of Waiapu. Photo / George Novak
(l-r) Bishop Ngarahu Katene, Archbishop Sir David Moxon, Archbishop Philip Richardson, and Andrew Hedge, Bishop of Waiapu. Photo / George Novak

The Bishop of Waiapu, Andrew Hedge, also said a few words.

"We have heard the call for an apology for the actions of our predecessors," Hedge told those gathered in the marquee.

"We have listened to and learned from the events of the past. We have been moved by the stories of the consequences of our predecessors' actions."

He said it had been acknowledged that the church had ultimately failed in its moral obligations, "under intense and undue pressure from the Government of the day".

"We come with solemn sadness that the events of the past have cast such a long shadow on the generations that have followed and left a legacy of injustice and controversy," Hedge said.

"We come in the anticipation that this act of repentance may help to shine a light of reconciliation across this whenua."

Ihaka and Kohu responded to the presentation of the apology on behalf of their hapū and the Otamataha Trust, which hosted the event, and both shared some of the history surrounding the land and their people.

Ngāti Tapu kaumātua and chairman of the Otamataha Trust, Puhirake Ihaka. Photo / George Novak
Ngāti Tapu kaumātua and chairman of the Otamataha Trust, Puhirake Ihaka. Photo / George Novak

"I thank you, I thank you for your apology," Ihaka said to the church representatives.

"I thank you for the korero in your document that you read out to us today. To me personally, it brings some sense of relief, some sense of resolution and reconciliation, where in the latter clauses of your document you say we have a relationship moving forward."

Kohu began his response by singing, with support from whānau, a verse from the well-known Christmas carol O Holy Night.

The act caught everyone by surprise and you could feel the mood in the room shift.

People looked on with smiles on their faces and members of the church delegation at the back of the marquee, and then others scattered around the tent, began to sing too.

Kohu followed this with a quietly spoken yet impassioned and heartfelt speech.

"My dad once said to me, 'lower your voice, and strengthen your argument,'" he said to laughs from the crowd.

Kohu acknowledged the people who had gone before him – "and I can feel them around me" – as well as the guests from the Kīngitanga, who he personally thanked.

He also addressed and thanked the clergy sitting in front of him, for the church's apology and its commitment to future support.

"I look forward to the time when we can put some meat around those bones," Kohu said, hinting at the restitution work still to be done.

Historian Dr Alistair Reese of Te Kohinga, whose research into the Te Papa Block story helped swing the church's position on it, also spoke at the event and shared his findings and thoughts.

Tauranga's Deputy Mayor, Kelvin Clout, said a short speech on behalf of the city council.

"Today we take another step in the long journey towards full reconciliation between all partners in this land called Aotearoa, and in this beautiful rohe of Tauranga Moana," he said.

Kaumātua Huikakahu Kawe was the master of ceremonies. Photos / George Novak
Kaumātua Huikakahu Kawe was the master of ceremonies. Photos / George Novak

Read more: Big Read: A church apology, 151 years in the waiting