What a divine irony. At the same time that remnants of the country's first mission school were being excavated in Kerikeri, St Heliers School decided to remove religious education classes from its school day - part of a slow but seemingly inexorable trend to purge Christianity from the remaining crevices where it is found in our state institutions.

It seems that the aggressive moral outrage from the serious-sounding Secular Education Network was sufficient for the St Heliers School's Board of Trustees to capitulate on the long tradition of Bible in Schools. This is how far we have come, as a nation, in two centuries: from all the schools in the country being organised by various Christian denominations (first Anglican and Methodists, and later Catholics) to the insistence that no Christian instruction at all be permitted in our state schools, and that to do otherwise becomes an urgent matter of human rights.

On the surface, the arguments for removing Bible in Schools seem sensible, even noble. The separation of church and state is a worthy principle, the role of schools is not to indoctrinate pupils, and as we live in a much more diverse society than in previous generations, those professing different faiths (and indeed, those with no faith) deserve equal respect.

Of course, looking over the curriculum for Bible in Schools, what is most striking is how entirely innocuous it is - so much so that it makes its critics appear self-righteous and doctrinaire. However, the emphasis of those opposed to Bible in Schools seems to be on the absolutism of individual rights as an abstract dogma, ignoring in the process the strong historical and cultural legacy of Christianity in our state schools.


Christianity played a central role in the development of our state education system. By the 1820s, New Zealand's mission schools were the only source of primary schooling in the country. In some of these schools, lessons were taught by missionaries solely in te reo Maori, and there was an emphasis from the outset in providing free education to Maori as well as European children. Reading materials in te reo were printed by missionaries, and by the early 1840s, the Anglicans and the Catholics were both producing thousands of texts for the fast-growing Maori literate class.

Funding for these schools (based almost completely on donations from overseas churches) was often difficult to obtain, and they sometimes operated in extremely hostile environments. But the desire by missionaries in this period to educate and evangelise the nation's children resulted in an expansion in both the number and geographical spread of schools, initially radiating out from the Bay of Islands.

Only gradually did the state acquiesce to pleas by missionaries for support for schools. The 1847 Education Ordinance offered funding for mission schools, and specified that Christian instruction "shall form a necessary part of the system".

By 1867, legislation had firmly put many schools under state rather than church control, but the element of religious instruction remained. It was widely accepted in the 19th century to be beneficial for children, and despite the secular basis of state education in the country - which had been confirmed by the 1877 Education Act - the special place for Christian instruction remained.

By 1930, Catholics and Protestants united in advocating for Bible readings in state primary schools, and in the following decade, the Bible in Schools League encouraged the non-denominational "services" in schools. All the time, the vast majority of New Zealand parents saw the roughly 30 minutes a week spent on Christian instruction as either harmless or beneficial: a half-hour of innocent stories or a fortification of children's moral fibre.

Now, the agitation of a small minority of parents has abruptly turned this legacy into an issue of "human rights" - an appalling manipulation of the term that would offend those who have suffered genuine human rights abuses. And in the process, another part of our history is being discarded for the sake of an abstruse argument on rights.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and author of several books on New Zealand history.
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