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Our History

The History of
St John's Theological College

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St John’s 1843 – 1859: Establishing the College

GEORGE AUGUSTUS SELWYN, Bishop of New Zealand from 1841 to 1868, founder of the College of St John the Evangelist, named it after his alma mater, St John’s College, Cambridge in England. The College opened on 15 March 1843 at the Church Missionary station at Te Waimate, inland from the Bay of Islands where Bishop Selwyn established his first residence in New Zealand.

The College was a multi-level establishment, including a theological department initially with seven students, a Maori teachers’ school, English and Maori boys’ schools, and a Maori infant school. ‘Religio, Doctrina, Diligentia’, true religion, sound learning, and useful industry was Selwyn’s motto for the College. From the out set Selwyn developed a College based on an idealised semi-monastic community. There was a common dining hall, participation in daily worship in Maori and English, a farm to support the College and train students, and a hospital.
The designated Master for the College, the Rev’d Thomas Whytehead, was diagnosed with tuberculosis on the voyage from England and died only four days after the College’s commencement. He left Selwyn a legacy which was used to purchase land in eastern Auckland in April 1844 which became the basis of the College estate. This was added to over the following years and became the endowment overseen by the St John's College Trust Board established in 1859.
The transfer of the College from Te Waimate to Auckland took place in 1844. For the next
two years the members of the College camped in temporary quarters at the head of the
Purewa Creek while permanent buildings were constructed at Tamaki. The first two buildings were constructed using scoria, but from the outset there were problems with their stability.

One of these buildings survives, the original kitchen / dining hall erected in 1846, now known as the Waitoa Room. Additional buildings were constructed in wood. The Collegiate Chapel consecrated in 1847 and the Dining Hall 1849, date from this early period. In 1846 the move to the present site was completed, though for some years buildings remained at Purewa, the creek serving as the port for the College.
Selwyn again reproduced his multi-level institution along with farm, hospital, and printing
department. He also added a hostel for newly arrived immigrants and a building department that prefabricated some of the early churches in Auckland. For a short period in the 1840s St John’s operated as a community where both Maori and Pakeha lived, worked and worshipped together. Selwyn’s grand vision, however, was never fully realised, due in part to staffing and financial difficulties, and people questioning and being unwilling to support his scheme.

From 1849, with the arrival of five students from Melanesia under Selwyn’s newly inaugurated Melanesian Mission, an additional cultural stream was added to the College. The  Melanesian Mission was relocated in 1860 to buildings on the foreshore at Mission Bay. In 1867 the Mission’s headquarters were shifted to Norfolk Island.

St John’s College 1860-1902: A Peripatetic College

The collapse of Selwyn’s vision resulted in the College going through a number of changes during the remainder of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s and 1870s the Tamaki site was primarily used for theological education and preparation for ministry with the Rev’d Dr John Kinder the notable head of College, 1872-80. With the opening of Auckland University College in 1883 there was a strong desire on the part of some, including the Rt Rev’d W.G. Cowie, Bishop of Auckland, to link St John’s with the University College. During the 1880s and early 1890s theological students were located at a number of places in Parnell; the Tamaki site was occupied by St John’s Collegiate School.
The College curriculum was shaped by a decision in 1874 of the Church of the Province of
New Zealand (commonly known as the Anglican Church) to establish a Board of Theological Studies. The Board had oversight of a syllabus used throughout the country for students preparing for ministry with four grades. Although St John’s was a provincial or national college it operated almost exclusively at this time as an Auckland diocesan college. The founding of Te Rau College in Gisborne in 1883, with the help of the Church Missionary Society, resulted in most Maori students preparing for ministry going there.
Theological students came back into residence at Tamaki in 1896 with the College under the wardenship of the Rev’d Percy Smallfield, who was also headmaster of St John’s School. After the relocation of St John’s School to “the Pah” in Onehunga in 1902, the Tamaki site was used exclusively until the Second World War for the theological college and as hostel for a small number of university students.


St John’s College 1903-1945: In Times of Peace and War

The Rev’d Harold Anson, who had been a student at Christ Church, and Cuddeson College, Oxford, was Warden 1903 to 1905. Under the leadership of the Rt Rev’d M.R. Neligan, Bishop of Auckland, there was an attempt to rebuild the College.


The foundation stone for what became known as the Patteson Wing was laid in 1909, but support from the wider church was not forthcoming and the building was left incomplete. The dismissal of the Warden in 1909, the Rev’d C.W. Scott-Moncrieff, because of his theosophical views provoked a crisis and contributed to Neligan’s ill health and retirement as bishop.

Under the leadership of the Rev’d Percy Williams, a grandson of the early missionaries, Henry and Marianne Williams, stability was brought to the College. With the outbreak of the First World War the majority of students enlisted and so the College was closed in 1915. Williams served overseas a military chaplain.
After the war the College resumed for one year in Parnell in 1920 with Williams again serving as Warden until his retirement in 1924. In 1921 the College returned to Tamaki with seven Māori and seven Pākehā students. Te Rau College in Gisborne had been closed and this led to the transfer of their students to Auckland. New buildings were erected, including a residence for the warden replacing the “bishop’s palace” which had originally accommodated the Selwyn family and also students. A large three-storied brick block which became known as the Selwyn Building was erected for student accommodation.
Four wardens headed the College between 1925 and 1941. Until 1931 student numbers averaged 30. But with Maori needs in terms of language and culture not being met their
numbers fell away and by 1941 there were only 13 Pakeha students at the College. Once again, faced with World War, the College closed down and in 1942 its buildings were compulsorily requisitioned for use as a geriatric hospital.

St John’s College 1945 – 1971:  A Semi-Monastic Institution Gradually Modified

The College resumed in 1946 under a temporary warden, the Rev’d T.H.C. Patridge. There was again a strong desire in the national church for St John’s to serve as a provincial college exclusively for theological students. Ongoing tension, however, over the governance of the College made this difficult and some were concerned that the College was dominated too much by the Rt Revd John Simkin, Bishop of Auckland.
The Rev’d Raymond Sutton, an Australian, was Warden, 1947-61. The College was an all-male, semi-monastic community with worship four times a day and the observance of the Greater Silence between Compline and breakfast. A major revision of the Board of Theological Studies syllabus in 1951 replaced the grades system with fifteen papers, and an extra two including either Hebrew or Greek for those taking the diploma, Licentiate in
A new kitchen, the erection of Cloister Block in 1956, and the enlargement of the Chapel in 1959 were needed to meet the needs of an expanded student body. The opening of four flats for married students in 1962 was a rather belated recognition by the College to provide accommodation to meet their needs. Māori students during this period had no special preparation with assimilation the dominant ethos in the wider church and society.
During the wardenship of the Rev’d Dr Raymond Foster, 1962-71, what he described as “the winds of theological change” touched the College. More accommodation for married students was built. In 1964 the first woman student, Sidney Koreneff, began attending lectures and the College was linked with the newly established Deaconess College in Parnell. Some students who were graduates as extra mural students began to take the examinations of the University of Otago Bachelor of Divinity degree. Greater emphasis was placed on practical training alongside the traditional academic and spiritual formation. This was a lively time as some students and staff became involved in public protests against the Vietnam War. Lectures were also introduced on Maori culture and language leading to the appointment of Canon John Tamahori as a research fellow in Maori studies.

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St Johns College 1972 to 1984: An Ecumenical Undertaking in a Time of Protest

Anglican involvement in national discussions on church union from 1964 promoted closer cooperation with staff at Methodist Trinity Theological College. This contributed in 1968 to the ecumenical Joint Board of Theological Studies replacing the Anglican Board with a syllabus closely modelled on the Board of Theological Studies curriculum.


Methodists combined teaching with St John’s in 1972 and the following year Methodists joined Anglicans on the Tamaki site. The hope was that this would result in a United Theological College. The failure of the parent churches to achieve church union resulted in St John’s and Trinity Colleges operating in partnership as two colleges on one site. The majority of the teaching was shared and the Trinity College Library was integrated into the St John’s College Library. In the early years of the ecumenical partnership, the Rev’d Dr J.J. Lewis, Principal of Trinity, 1971-80, and the Rev’d Merlin Davies, Warden of St John’s, 1974-76 worked effectively together.
The partnership was symbolised in the opening the Wesley Building in 1975 which included a large multi-use hall, lecture rooms, offices for administration, the Warden and the Principal. In 1981 the new Kinder Library was opened providing excellent storage for archives and greatly improved space for books and offices and workroom for library staff. This replaced the cramped very dated quarters in the old library which was part of the Patteson building.


Rapid changes took place among the student body in the 1970s with increasing numbers of students with families and growing numbers of women students coming to the College. The semi-monastic model of the 1950s no longer fitted. The impact of charismatic renewal, liberation theology, feminism and the question of inclusive language, concern over nuclear armaments and protests around race relations provided a tumultuous mix of issues that manifested themselves in College life in various ways.


Through the leadership of the Rev’d Dr George Armstrong, lecturer in theology, and the Peace Squadron which he founded, students and staff from the College were actively involved in protesting against nuclear ship visits and advocating for nuclear free zones. The occupation of Bastion Point on a headland close to the College by Maori protestors gained the support of some in the College. The anti- apartheid protests against the tour of the South African Rugby team in 1981 also generated considerable engagement from the College.


Demonstrations in the early 1980s of those working for the Treaty of Waitangi to be honoured in New Zealand law and society were supported by students and staff.
During these lively times the churches were beginning to redefine themselves following the failure to achieve church union. The bicultural journey being undertaken by the parent churches in the 1980s brought both pain and growth with bicultural education for a time an
 important part of the College’s curriculum. Under the leadership of the Rev’d Dr Raymond Pelly, Warden 1977-85, and the Rev’d Dr Keith Rowe, Trinity Principal, 1980-87, the Colleges experienced what Dr Pelly referred to as “the painful and potentially destructive tensions and diversities” brought by the controversies facing church and society.

St John’s College 1985 – 2009 – Changing by Degrees


In the late 1980s and early 1990s a number of significant changes were made to the College buildings. The Selwyn Block was demolished and the Cloisters had added to them sixteen self-contained units for single students. Faculty offices were added to the Wesley Building and a suite of lecture rooms developed under the library.
A review of the College in 1984 encouraged the Governors and Faculty to explo
re degree studies at St John’s. This led St John’s and Trinity, together with the Baptist Theological College to constitute the Auckland Consortium for Theological Education (ACTE) in 1985. The Rev’d Francis Foulkes, Warden 1985-90, was the first president of ACTE. The Consortium became an Associated Teaching Institute of the Melbourne College of Divinity and began teaching their BTheol in 1988. ACTE was joined by the Catholic Institute of Theology in 1989, and for a brief period, Mount St Mary’s College, the Marist Seminary
which relocated from Taradale to Auckland in 1992.
Discussions had also taken place with the University of Auckland about the possibility of teaching theology under their auspices. Unexpectedly, approval for this came just as ACTE embarked on the Melbourne BTheol. The decision was made to phase out the connection with Melbourne and give priority to Auckland. Over many years, St John’s by itself and with others, had tried to gain approval from the University of Auckland to teach theology and now that this was available the College was reluctant to say no. ACTE began teaching the BTheol for Auckland University in 1990 with Masters Degrees and doctoral studies following later. Most of the St John’s faculty were appointed as honorary lecturers in theology at the University.
St John’s involvement in the work of the Joint Board of Theological Studies, whose administration had been based at the College, came to an end. The Board was replaced by the Ecumenical Board of Theological Studies based in Christchurch which offered extramural study through the Ecumenical Institute for Distance Theological Studies until its closure in 2014.
The significant changes in the constitution of the Anglican Church in 1992 resulted in a three tikanga church with Maori, Pakeha and Pacific streams and considerable changes in the organisation of the College. The Rt Rev’d Peter Atkins was appointed head of St John’s College in 1991 with the title ‘Dean’ replacing the designation ‘Warden’. Muru Walters, lecturer in Maori studies since 1984 became Te Ahorangi of Te Whare Wananga o Te Rau Kahikatea in 1991. Te Rau became a constituent college of St John’s in 1992 alongside the Dean’s Society, renamed the College of the Southern Cross in 1996.


The Rt Rev’d Sir Paul Reeves, became Te Ahorangi of Te Rau 1994-95 after Muru Walters became Te Pihopa o Te Upoko o Te Ika. In 1995 Dr Jenny Te Paa succeeded Sir Paul serving as Te Ahorangi until 2013. Following the retirement of Bishop Atkins, the Revd Dr John Wright, 1997-2005, was appointed Dean of the College of the Southern Cross, The College of the Diocese of
Polynesia was established alongside the other two tikanga colleges in 1998 with the Rev’d Dr Winston Halapua its first principal.
The ecumenical partnership with Trinity College waxed and waned over the years. Under the leadership of its principal, the Rev’d Frank Hanson, 1989-98, there was a close working relationship between the colleges and in ACTE. With changes in ecumenical commitment, however, and with priority being given to denominational agendas the colleges increasingly found themselves living alongside one another rather than working closely together as originally envisaged. 

A review of the work of ACTE within the University of Auckland led to the decision to replace ACTE with the School of Theology in 2002 under a professor appointed by the University. Some of the St John’s faculty were closely involved in teaching within the school. The School’s student body included students from St John’s, other denominational colleges and a large number of University students.


St John’s College 2009: An Anglican College

The teaching associated with the School of Theology was relocated from the Colleges to the university campus. Theological colleges and their parent churches felt some loss of control of the teaching of their students, the academic programme, the scheduling of worship and college life and activities. One consequence was that Colleges developed their own degrees and diplomas under the accreditation of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

This contributed to the reduction in the number of ministerial students studying in the School of Theology. As College staff retired who held joint appointments in the School’s faculty they were not replaced putting increasing pressure on the delivery of the School’s programme. The last St John’s faculty member teaching at the University retired in 2016 and from 2017 the Auckland BTheol will be suspended.
St John’s developed its own Anglican Studies programme, gaining NZQA approval for its three diplomas. This programme “is committed to the delivery of quality bicultural theological and ministerial education with appropriate ecumenical and interfaith sensitivities”.


Undergirding its approach is “A commitment to Anglican identity in the current context of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia which “is demonstrated through applying an Anglican lens on learning and engagement with contemporary issues in ministry and mission.” Regional delivery of the programme is also available in several dioceses outside Auckland. Students in residence at St John’s are also able to undertake degree courses in  theology with a number enrolled in the distance courses offered through the University of Otago. One staff member has particular responsibility for assisting these students.
The three tikanga college structure was reviewed by the General Synod in 2010 resulting in the appointment of Mrs Gail Thompson as Commissioner (2010-12) to oversee the transition of the College to come under a single leader. In 2013, the Rev’d Canon Tony Gerritsen was appointed as Manukura / Principal of the College of St John the Evangelist. The Rev’d Katene Eruera for Maori, Le Vaotgo Dr Frank Smith for Polynesia, and the Rev’d Karen Kemp for Pakeha, served as Deans for their respective tikanga.

The College Chapel

Since the time it was built in 1847, the Chapel has been the heart of the life of the community at St. John’s. It is the oldest surviving church building in Auckland and has a Historic Places Trust ‘A’ grading. Designed by the Rev’d Frederick Thatcher under the direction of Bishop Selwyn and built at a cost of £330, the Chapel was consecrated in 1847. The belfry which was not part of the original design was designed by Archdeacon Philip Walsh and added in the 1870s. In 1959 the Chapel was enlarged by extending it to the west and matching the original kauri and totara timber in the new section. The present altar dates from 1934 and the altar candlesticks are made from wood from the parish church of Boston, Lincolnshire. The bell is made from metal from bells originally in York Minster.


The Waitoa Room

The Waitoa Room is the oldest of the original buildings (the Selwyn coat-of- arms is over the fireplace and dated 1846). Originally this was the kitchen and dining hall where the Bishop and Mrs Selwyn, College staff and students dined until the Dining Hall was built. Rota Waitoa, after whom this room has been named, was a student of the College from 1846-1853 and was the first Maori to be ordained: Te mātāmua o ngā minita Māori.


The room contains a number of taonga (treasures), including a fine whakairo (piece of wood carving) depicting Rota Waitoa. This whakairo was executed and presented to the College by Huia Hapai Winiata, former Bishop of Wellington, who was a student of the College in 1975-76.

The Dining Hall

The Dining Hall was built in 1849 and the Governor and Lady Grey were present at its opening on 5 July. The three portraits on the wall behind the high table are by Gottfried Lindauer. Bishop Selwyn is at the centre, to his left is William Beatty (Warden 1886-1895) and on the right is John Kinder (Master 1872-1880). The large portrait opposite the door is of Percy Temple Williams (Warden 1910-1924).


The Graveyard

The graveyard lying to the west and south of the Chapel, holds the remains of some of the early Maori and Pacific Island scholars, of some early missionaries and their families (including the infant daughter of the Selwyn’s) and of others closely associated with the College. Alongside the entrance to the Chapel are the graves of Bishop Simkin and his wife. Bishop Simkin was the Secretary of the Board of Governors from 1926-1940, and Bishop of Auckland and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board from 1940-1960.


Just behind the Chapel is the memorial headstone for the Right Reverend Sir Paul Reeves (1932- 2011) who was closely associated with the College as a student, one-time lecturer, Governor and Te Ahorangi of Te Rau Kahikatea. He was Archbishop and Primate from 1980 – 1985 before serving as New Zealand’s first Governor General of Māori descent from 1985 – 1990. The columbarium beyond the Chapel provides a niche wall designed to hold ashes. Built to complement the Chapel, it is administered by the St John’s College Trust Board.

For a detailed account of the first 150 years of the College see: Allan K. Davidson, Selwyn’s Legacy: The College of St John the Evangelist: Te Waimate and Auckland 1843 – 1992 – A History, Auckland: The College of Saint John the Evangelist, 1993.

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