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‘Stimulating what is lazy and quickening what is slow’

08 April 2016

Adrian Leak considers the zeal and hard work of the pioneering Bishop George Selwyn

Fitting memorial: Bishop Selwyn

Fitting memorial: Bishop Selwyn

George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878) was educated at Eton and St John’s College, Cambridge. After ordination, he served as an assistant curate in Windsor. In 1841, he was consecrated bishop at the age of 33, and sent to found a new diocese comprising New Zealand and the Pacific Isles. A man of immense energy and courage, he established the first colonial Anglican Church, independent of the Church of England. In 1867, he was appointed Bishop of Lichfield. The Church commemorates him on the anniversary of his death, 11 April 1878.


AFTER an energetic time at Cambridge, where he mixed study with swimming, steeplechasing, and rowing in the first University Boat Race, Selwyn was ordained in 1834 by the Bishop of Carlisle, in St George’s, Hanover Square. Thereafter, in his curacy, he applied the same zeal to his pastoral work as he had done to sport.

“I believe that, as clergymen,” he said, “we ought to be willing to be tied like furze bushes to a donkey’s tail, if we can thereby do any good by stimulating what is lazy, and quickening what is slow.” Eight years later, he was consecrated the first Bishop of New Zealand and the Pacific Isles.

When this new episcopal broom, or furze bush, arrived in his diocese, he had already learnt enough Maori to be able, on his first Sunday, to lead prayers and preach in the native tongue. He had put the months on board ship to good use, compiling a translation of the New Testament into the three related dialects of Maori, Tahiti, and Rarotonga. He also studied navigation, “that I might be my own ‘master’ in my visitation voyages” round the Pacific Islands.

At first, the white settlers did not know how they could accommodate a bishop in their “uncivilised” land. They were accustomed to the missionaries who had done great work in the colony, but here was something different. “What can a bishop do in New Zealand where there are no roads for his coach?” Captain Hobson, the first Governor of the British colony, asked. After all, a bishop must have his four-in-hand to make his visitation, and his lady must have her landau to make her afternoon calls.

But this bishop was no Proudie. He travelled through his diocese from mission station to mission station by any means available: on horseback, on foot, wading through swamps, canoeing down rivers, and sometimes swimming, pushing his clothes before him in a waterproof bundle. He calculated that, on his primary visitation, he travelled 2277 miles, of which he covered 762 on foot.

His diocese comprised, as well as New Zealand, more than 50 of the Melanesian islands, including New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). The inclusion of such a vast area arose from an error in the wording of the Letters Patent by which he was appointed by the Crown. Apparently, there had been some confusion over the latitudes.

“I find myself placed in a position such as was never granted to any English bishop before,” he wrote, “with a power to mould the institutions of the Church from the beginning, according to true principles.” Untrammelled by the conventions that restricted the Church of England, he drew up a constitution for the Church in New Zealand, which became a model for other colonial Churches. Central to this was the notion that the bishop must rule with the consent and co-operation of his clergy.

His first diocesan synod, in 1844, was tiny, but it was the first step in the Anglican Church towards our present model of self-government. Many in England were affronted by his presumption in calling a synod, and regarded it as a derogation of the royal supremacy.

His original plan was to educate Maori Selwyn’s boys alongside the sons of English settlers, but this did not succeed. Neither did his hope to create a Church served predominantly by Maori clergy. The enmity between greedy settlers and suspicious natives exploded in the Maori wars of the 1860s, in which British forces eventually suppressed the indigenous population, and compelled the transfer of land ownership. Much, but certainly not all of his work, built upon the achievements of the missionaries who preceded him, was ruined by these hostilities.

In 1867, Selwyn was appointed to the see of Lichfield. At first, he declined the Prime Minister’s invitation, but eventually submitted after the personal intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the Queen herself.

In his last ten years, his energy did not abate. Now in his sixties, and ever the furze bush, he stimulated and quickened his clergy, never asking them to do what he was not prepared to do himself. He paid special attention to “the dark places” of his diocese, visiting the potteries, workhouses, prisons, and hospitals.

He moved his residence to the cathedral close, and breathed heavily down the chapter’s neck. He kept a close eye on the students at the theological college. And — what no other diocesan bishop had dared to do — he revised the cathedral statutes. How Canon Stanhope would have winced.

At Selwyn’s death, Gladstone, a lifelong friend, described him as “one of the band of great bishops”. His body was buried in the close at Lichfield Cathedral, but his lasting memorial, paid for by public subscription, was the founding of Selwyn College in the University of Cambridge.


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in the diocese of Guildford.

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