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Rev Percy Paris
Photo by Image courtesy MCNZ Archives

Public Morals or Social Action. Percy Paris 1882-1942

Rev Donald Phillipps —

Around the turn of the 20th century the New Zealand Methodist Conference formally established a committee to deal with the principal social concern of the times – temperance. It called the body the ‘Temperance and Morals Committee’ and so it remained for 30 years, until it was accepted that the Committee’s brief was too “narrow”, in both senses of that word. It felt its agenda was restrictive and it also had reached the point where temperance was a social issue, not an automatic social problem. It is instructive to read the resolution that Conference adopted in 1933 in respect to a name change – that it would give the Committee “the widest possible scope and a name that is easy to handle.” Those last five words speak volumes!

In fact, the report to the 1933 Conference dealt with such disparate matters as: Bible in schools, films and posters, social services, immigration and temperance. But it also made a lengthy “Pronouncement” (a weighted word if ever there were one) on the unemployment problem. For decades the now named Public Questions Committee strove to keep up with the pace of change within New Zealand society. And there were not too many Methodist ministers who were regarded as knowledgeable critics of society or informed advocates of social change. Just a few were prepared to stand up and be counted; Ormond Burton, one of these, has already been a subject in this series.

Another was Percy Paris, whose death in 1942, aged just 60, was deeply felt in Wellington by more than his own church community. This writer can remember the sense of shock felt within his own family when news of the death flashed around Wellington Methodism. Percy was from a well-known Dunedin Methodist family, and he started his active involvement in Church affairs with the Mission – probably influenced by such Superintendents as William Ready and WA Sinclair. He trained at Prince Albert College and was ordained in 1906. He served in Otaki, Invercargill, Warkworth and Te Aroha for the usual three-year stints, but from 1916 his ministries were longer and were all based in the larger cities - Dominion Rd. (Auckland), Sydenham (Christchurch), Trinity (Dunedin) and Taranaki St (Wellington). He married Violet Clark at Oamaru in 1910.

For 10 years from 1924 Percy was the editor of the NZ Methodist Times. This gave him a platform for developing (Brother Juniper’s and Brother Giles’ columns) his radical vision of Christianity - his social gospel. His years as editor covered the beginnings and the most intense years of the Depression, and the newspaper became known for its challenge to both Church and society on behalf of the “poor, the vulnerable, and the voiceless” (as Kevin Clements puts it). For a church periodical to advocate working for both social and political change was unusual (not unique) for its time, and the pulpit at Taranaki St became a place where Labour Members of Parliament might be heard.

He was a leading member of the Public Questions Committee (based in Wellington), and a public voice in matters relating to Christian pacifism, monetary reform (he was a believer in Social Credit), and an end to unemployed workers’ camps. He was a strong advocate for the Labour Party and its vision of the welfare state. Though averse to totalitarianism (these were the years of Naziism’s rise), he believed state government was essential for the redistribution of resources and overcoming poverty. Such a position these days still hardly meets with everyone’s agreement!

Percy Paris went even further. His Presidential Address in 1938 was, as Kevin Clements notes, a summary of his position in all the issues referred to so far, and he gave a “theological justification for every part of Labour’s proposed social security system.” So much for the supposed principle that religion and politics don’t mix. What would a like-minded President nowadays have to say if he were of Percy Paris’s mind? As the world becomes more, rather than less, divided, it has to be a person of similar conviction and, even bravery, to stand forward and offer a rational yet spiritual alternative.