Spirituality in NZ

Dr Andrew Hornblow, then the Dean of the Christchurch medical school, suggested

“The most basic and urgent challenges facing New Zealand society are not economic. They are to do with our values – those activities which give meaning and purpose in our society, our social ecology, spirituality in the broadest sense”. (Hornblow, 1999).

While over ten years old, Hornblow’s comments are still relevant and challenging today New Zealand has many expressions of spirituality – from the natural wonder and awe of our environment, the ‘religion’ that for some is our national game, rugby, and the Churches that are crucial in providing an ethic of compassion to social services.

New Zealand is said to be a secular country, with only about 8-12 % of us going to church, synagogue or temple regularly (Ward, 2001), yet 55.6% still claim to be Christian (Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa, 2006). There has also been a rise in the number of people who claim ‘no-religion’, for example in New Zealand this, the fastest growing group, has grown to 32.2% or 1.3 million people (Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa, 2006). Census statistics do not tell the whole story, as many New Zealanders still claim to believe in some form of God (up to 50% (Vaccarino, Kavan, & Gendall, 2011)) and “30.5% agreed with the statement, “I don’t follow a religion, but am a spiritual person interested in the sacred/supernatural.” (Vaccarino et aI., 2011). In 2006 Matheson wrote that it is a myth that New Zealand is a secular society:

“Parallel with the collapse of. Christendom, after all, there is a new quest for ‘spirituality’, and a stubborn refusal of religion to die out.” (Matheson, 2006, p. 177).

Central to New Zealand understanding of spirituality is the Māori perspective. While acknowledging heterogeneity, the New Zealand indigenous voice adds something unique that affects all New Zealanders and is in part responsible for the inclusion of spirituality in current government policy. Successive governments have accepted Māori models of health and well-being: hauora (Ministry of Education., 1999), Te Whare Tapa Wha (Minister of Health., 2000), Te Wheke (pere, 1997), and Te Pae Mahu Tonga (Durie, 2004). Māori or tangata whenua have contributed to the spiritual discourse and significantly contributed to its renaissance.

Many prominent New Zealanders have commented on spirituality. Scholars such as Lineham and Geering have noted the demise of religion, and its replacement by spirituality (Geering, 1999; Harvey, 2005). Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft, has noted the “spiritual vacuum” present in many of our most dysfunctional young men (Becroft, 2007). A former Mental Health Commissioner, Julia Leibrich, has argued that there is an

“agonizing emptiness within our society that … reflects a desperate need for meaning, relevance, something deeper in life” (Leibrich, 2002).

Spirituality, despite this apparent vacuum or malaise, is named, explored and nurtured in range of New Zealand contexts, particularly in education and health. State schools have been mandated to teach about spirituality since the 1999 Health and Physical Education Curriculum. In this curriculum, the underlying concept of well-being/hauora is defined using Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Wha model of health (Durie, 1998b), which includes: physical (te taha tinana), mental and emotional (te taha hinengaro), social (te taha whanau) and spiritual (te taha wairua) dimensions. Spirituality is defined in the curriculum broadly. In health, New Zealand has acknowledged spirituality when considering Māori issues (Minister of Health., 2000). NZ palliative care picked up both the international model of total care and Te Whare Tapa Wha when they included the previously named four dimensions (Ministry of Health, 2001). Further the Ministry of Health produced a cancer document with three pages on spirituality (Ministry of Health, 2010).

A New Zealand qualitative study, funded by the Presbyterian Church, interviewed 40 non-Church attendees, including parents and children. While this was solely Auckland based, the key themes may be relevant for all of New Zealand, particularly the finding that “People still believe that spirituality is important: there is something more to life than just existing” and “Church attendance is not necessary to express your spirituality: spirituality is personal and inward. (AC Nielsen, 2003). Further, a recent study of GPs in New Zealand found that the majority accepted spirituality as central to healing and hope. (Holmes, 2011).

New Zealand is a multi-cultural, multi-faith and broadly secular country in which spirituality has a place even though it is widely ignored or misunderstood. There may be ways of exploring it that could have a positive impact on well-being. Sir Mason Durie suggests, spirituality or wairua is central for Māori well-being (Durie, 1998), so failing to consider it could be a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Next page: What does the international research suggest? »

3 thoughts on “Spirituality in NZ

  1. Hi Richard,

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this by David Tacey:

    ‘We live in a period of history in which public opinion is privileging spirituality above religion, and where the latter is regarded with a good deal of suspicion. The construction of spirituality and religion as opposites is anomalous from an historical point of view. Spirituality once referred to the living core of religion, and those who wanted to take religion a step further than common experience were said to be spiritual. Now those who are “not very religious” are claiming to be spiritual. In today’s climate, it is not popular to point to the ongoing connection between spirituality and religion, but in ideal conditions they belong together and have a great deal to offer each other. ‘

    cf http://www.johnmainseminar2015.com



    • Thanks Christopher for your comments. I have read similar comments about the spiritual discourse ‘winning’ over the religious. I agree with Tacey and others; we need to recognise the historical (and for many contemporary) reality that spirituality and religion are entwined. That said, it’s not everyone’s view. The excellent Oxford Textbook on Spirituality in Healthcare starts with a consideration of all the religious approaches to healthcare; I’ve always thought this was an important steer; see (Cobb M, Puchalski C, Rumbold B, editors. The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012.).

      The other issue, though, is what about the spiritual needs of the non-religious? The not religious but spiritual? The 88% who don’t go to church in NZ?

      I just read this nice quote from Dame Cicely Saunders, who was so ahead of her time, describing a good death as

      “attention to the achievements that a patient could still make in the face of his physical deterioration and awareness of the spiritual dimension of his final search for meaning” (Saunders, C. 1981, Forword. In Hospice: Complete care for the terminally ill. Ed. J.M. Zimmerman. Baltimore: Urban & Schwarzenberg, ix-ix)

      This is the broad view of spirituality well expressed by one of the founders of the hospice movement.

      All the best

      • Thanks, Richard for your reply.

        It has led me to think how religion has monopolised and straight-jacketed spirituality .. Stuff for a sermon here ☺

        I suspect that the comment: ‘attention to the achievements that a patient could still make in the face of his physical deterioration and awareness of the spiritual dimension of his final search for meaning’ is likely to be a more affirming direction for those who identify as ‘religious’ as well.

        Much food for reflection for me!

        again, many thanks,


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        Christopher Heath Chaplain
        249 Papanui Road, Strowan, Christchurch 8014 | Private Bag 4737, Christchurch 8140
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