Hero photograph
A. K. Petch and his wife Gwen.
Photo by Credit Methodist Church of New Zealand Archives.

A United World – Nations, and Faiths?

Rev Donald Phillips —

Ashleigh K. Petch 1916 – 1983

A century ago, a cover story in the early November 1923 issue of the New Zealand Methodist Times was titled Is War Good Christianity?’ In the light of current events in Israel and Gaza, with the continuing confrontation in Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere, and with the threat of armed intervention on the lips of world leaders, it may be timely to reconsider our position as a Church in respect of the overwhelming need for peace and reconciliation. The United Nations through its agencies and its contact with world leaders does what it can, but national pride is as strong as it ever was. Internationalism as illustrated in the emergence of the League of Nations after WW1 is as much a dream as it ever was.

Percy Paris, the editor (probably) included a photo of Lord Robert Cecil, a notable English leader and proponent of the establishment of the League. The editor was obviously anxious to deal with a correspondent who had called into question the newspaper’s (and by implication) the Church’s stance on peace and war. He could accept the writer’s view that war was not good for business but defended the NZMT’s anti-war stance as expressing the mind of the Church in those days. For example it was quite appropriate to distinguish between aggressive and defensive war – after all, that was a major justification for the stance of both New Zealand and the major Christian churches in this country in respect to the 1914-1918 war. ‘Nations as well as people have to make choices between two evils,’ and the righteous nation should not be ‘passively fleeced’ by the unrighteous. The editor referred to the Christian doctrine of reconciliation as a starting point in the solution to international disagreement.

Thirty years earlier an English Methodist minister, Henry Lunn, had initiated international discussion on Christian reconciliation in a series of conferences in Switzerland. Nothing much happened as a result, but Lunn was still active enough in 1923 to have another go, this time at Murren, Switzerland. The idea, or the idealism, was fine, but again little was achieved. However, the memory was not lost, and after WW2 the Church of South India was established, bringing Anglicans and Methodists together. The example of that achievement was still very much in the air, as this writer recalls, in the person of the Indian leader Rev Dr D.T. Niles, who visited Aotearoa in the cause of ecumenism in the 1960s. By then a younger generation of Methodist ministers were committed to this cause.

One of these was Ashleigh Petch. Born in Inglewood and educated in Christchurch in the 1930s he became, by the grace of Giod, the inheritor of Percy Paris’s dream of a reconciling church. Percy was the minister at Taranaki St in the late 1930s and died too soon, at the height of his powers. Ashleigh, just out of probation, was ‘lifted’ from his Dunedin Circuit and sent to Wellington. It proved to be an ideal matching. He was a man of peace who did not shirk controversy. He was an ecumenist and committed to the Campaign for Christian Order throughout the 1940s. He was the foundation secretary for the Inter Church Council on Public Affairs; on the executive of the National Council of Churches; attended the 4th Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala, Sweden; was at the inauguration of the East Asian Christian Council and the establishment of the Uniting Church in Australia. For 18 years he chaired the Church’s Church Union Committee. Ashleigh was all the while in significant appointments within the Connexion – at Nelson, Christchurch, Hamilton and Takapuna. He was elected President in 1966-67. He led the way, and it is no coincidence that within a few years other very able younger men, like Jack Lewis and Bill Morrison, began to make their contribution within and without the NZ Methodist Church to the cause of church union, both in terms of structure and of theological collaboration.

Different questions now confront the Christian Churches in Aotearoa. The need for collaboration between denominations remains – ecumenism may be said to mean setting one’s own house (world-wide Christianity) in order. But where and how is peace to be found in a world where age-old faith barriers stand as powerfully and as divisively as ever. How shall reconciliation be found in the Middle East, for example. The inquest in respect to the Christchurch Mosque attack is now to be part of our daily news. Will we learn from its revelations? And if we do, how might we share our wisdom with our warring neighbours?