A Ringatu Meeting At Ruatoki
In the Ringatu Church the two most important religious meetings are those held each year in the first days of January and the first days of June. At these times, as well as at smaller monthly meetings, the people gather together to give thanks to God for having looked after them since their last meeting; to ask forgiveness for their sins; and to pray for His blessing in the future.
Last January ‘Te Ao Hou’ was a guest at a Ringatu meeting held, as it is each six months, at Ruatoki. We learnt much about the Ringatu faith from the kind explanations of the President of the Church, Mr Paul Delamere, and from many of the other people there, and it was at this meeting that Ans Westra took the photographs on these pages.
The Ringatu Church was founded by Te Kooti. Te Kooti is, to say the least, a controversial figure, and partly because of this, outsiders' attitudes towards Ringatu have sometimes been rather puzzled, even disapproving. In the past, much of the district in which the followers of Ringatu mostly live (the Bay of Plenty, the Ureweras, and parts of the Gisborne district and East Coast) was rather remote from the main centres of population. Many Ringatu followers led rather isolated lives—isolated, that is, from pakehas; Maoris do not lead lives isolated from each other. The people of the Ureweras, in particular, had retained many of the old attitudes and customs, and this made some outsiders suspicious of their religion. In past years this
suspicion was sometimes mutual; many of the people in this district had a substantial distrust of pakehas. However it is not necessary to like pakehas in order to worship the God of the Christian Bible.
The old distrusts have mostly gone now, Ever since 1938 the Ringatu Church has been organised according to a constitution which established it as one of the legally accepted churches of New Zealand, and later, a register of those Ringatu ministers (‘tohunga’) authorised to perform marriages brought it into line with the requirements of the Marriage Act.
But even today, despite the special romantic, imaginative appeal which the Ureweras and their inhabitants have always had for so many New Zealander, not many people other than its 5,000 members know much about the Ringatu Church. It has few written records, does not actively seek converts, and has very little desire for publicity. There is one good book on Ringatu, ‘The Upraised Hand’, by William Greenwood (published by the Polynesian Society, 1942), but even today most of their sacred texts and prayers are kept safe from inquisitive persons with notebooks and tape-recorders; the long, complex medleys of Bible passages are committed to memory in the old Maori way, and no books are used during religious services.
During our conversations with Mr Paul Delamere he made two points in particular which, we felt, explained a great deal about Ringatu to people who are new to it.
‘The great thing about Ringatu,’ he said, ‘is
that it is a New Zealand religion. Every country has its own religions, its own denominations. Ringatu and Ratana; they are the main religions that grew right here in our own country. They belong here.’
The sacred texts of Ringatu, the inoi (prayers), waiata (psalms), panui (scriptural passages) and himine (hymns), are all taken directly from the Old and New Testaments; Ringatu beliefs are very literally derived from the Bible, and definitely do not, as is sometimes conjectured, include what is vaguely thought of as ‘old heathen magic’.
But since a people's customs and attitudes always influence the manner and nature of their worship, Ringatu meetings naturally have much in common with traditional Maori meetings. For the monthly meetings, people arrive at the marae by car and truck on the evening of the 11th, bringing their bedding with them in the usual Maori way. As usual, discussions in the meeting house go on far into the night, and the meeting is a social occasion as well. A series of services are held from the 11th to the 13th; these are strictly supervised, and must be attended by everyone on the marae. The services have practically no outward formalities and the ministers (who never receive payment) wear no vestments. The long Biblical passages and prayers are recited or chanted from memory, with no musical accompaniment, in an atmosphere which is in a way informal and relaxed, but which bears witness to the deeply felt spirituality and mysticism so often to be found among the Maori people. The climax of the proceedings is the communal meal, the ‘love feast’, on the morning of the 12th, held in commemoration of the last supper. Cannibalism was so repulsive to Te Kooti that, probably judging the Eucharistic service from a somewhat High Church angle, he considered it better to have nothing to do with the partaking of the bread and wine, and instituted instead this spiritual communion service.
The second of the two remarks made by the President, Mr Paul Delamere, which seemed to us to explain a good deal, was this:
‘To us, Te Kooti is like St Paul. St Paul was a really bad one—he held the coats while they stoned Stephen—but later on he changed. It was the same with Te Kooti.’
Te Kooti was the founder of the Ringatu Church. Except that Ringatu members do not pray to Te Kooti, one might say that their attitude towards him is roughly similar to that which members of many Christian denominations have towards saints; especially similar, perhaps, to the attitudes towards saints which were current a few hundred years ago. Te Kooti was banished to the Chathham Islands on what is now widely accepted as a trumped up charge. All his companions in prison were members of the wild Hauhau sect. He converted them to his new faith, Ringatu; the upraised hand, the only token of Hauhauism which they retained, changed from being a magic gesture believed to ward off pakeha bullets, to being merely an affirmative sign employed at the ending of a prayer. Later Te Kooti led his followers out of bondage and back to their homes. He fought against his enemies till finally, out of weariness, they granted him a pardon; and he gave to his followers at that time a new expression of the Christian faith, one which made it possible for them to worship the Christian God in their own way, without allying themselves with the pakehas whom they hated: a new hope and guidance in those terribly troubled times.