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Association of Anglican Women

1896 –

This essay written by Elizabeth Hay was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1886 – 1993

An umbrella organisation for many groups of women linked with the Anglican Church, the Association of Anglican Women (AAW) was formed in 1969 to offer support and fellowship to women of varying ages and stages of life. In 1993 it had 9000 members taking part in educational, training and social programmes, and seeking to influence matters affecting New Zealand society through their Social Concerns Department and affiliation with the National Council of Women (NCW). The Overseas and Outreach Department supported mission and social work in New Zealand and abroad.

The AAW evolved from the Mothers' Union (MU), which was founded at Alresford, England, in 1876 by the vicar's wife, Mary Sumner. It began in New Zealand in 1886 in Avonside, Christchurch, when the vicar encouraged his wife, Alice Augusta Pascoe, to call a meeting of women. The MU became firmly established here through the work of the Countess of Glasgow, during her husband's term as Governor (1892–97). With the bishops' approval, she spoke to large diocesan meetings of women; delegates framed a constitution in 1894, and by 1897 every diocese had a branch.

Lady Glasgow envisaged a 'union for all mothers, of every class, united in its objects'. [1] The MU took hold here quickly partly because its stated objects, which included training children for God's service, fitted so well with widely held beliefs in New Zealand society about woman's moral role. The members' promise included, 'To remember the sacredness of marriage; and that on the holy associations of home, much of my children's spiritual well-being in after life will depend.' [2]

During the early years branch membership varied. In Wellington, women of other denominations and poorer city women joined alongside those with education and status, whereas in Christchurch there was concern that growth should 'become more equal among the different classes of society', and members were asked to do all they could 'to draw in those whose lives at present showed them to be far from alive to the responsibilities of a mother's life'. [3] On the whole Māori women did not begin to join until a period of consolidation in the 1930s, when North Auckland in particular established many branches, with Bishop Panapa's encouragement.

Following ecclesiastical models, bishops' wives usually presided over Dominion Councils and dioceses, and clergy wives were the Enrolling Members of local branches, giving them a public role. For outstanding women such as Annie Fraer of Canterbury [4] and Eliza Cowie of Auckland, executive status in the MU was only one way of exercising community leadership.

The MU strongly emphasised prayer; members used the official MU prayer daily, attended the monthly MU service in the parish church, and held annual diocesan festivals under their branch banner. Initiatives in the 1930s included placing packets of congratulations with reminders of mothers’ responsibilities and prayers in maternity homes.

In the early period, given the difficulties of communication and travel, regular and official MU consultation among the different dioceses was not possible; instead each was affiliated directly with the MU in England. These ties were strong: keen MU members, including clergy wives, came as visitors and immigrants, and English MU literature circulated. Financial aid, even mission monies, were all channelled back through England, as were social concerns: as late as the 1930s the New Zealand MU was asked to work through the Church of England Public Affairs Committee, but by then local representation through the NCW was becoming stronger.

Mother's Union parade
Mothers' Union parade in Christchurch in the 1930s. The women hold banners identifying the branches of the organisation they belong to.

The MU responded as it saw best to economic and social changes, especially where they impinged on family life. Soldiers' abuse of alcohol in both wars brought lobbying for changes to liquor laws, the ready sale of contraceptives was condemned, and liberalisation of divorce laws was repeatedly opposed. The sanctity of marriage was strictly interpreted, and divorced women could not become members.

After World War II there was growing dissatisfaction with the MU structure and operation, and an increasing desire for greater independence from Central Council control in London. Rapid social change reinforced the need for more openness and flexibility. In 1948 Doreen Warren, wife of the Bishop of Christchurch, drew on her experience in England to instigate Young Wives' groups (as they were known from 1952), aiming to reach out to younger women.

Despite some MU branch reluctance to support the new groups, which were open to single and divorced women, by 1953 they had won representation on the Dominion Council and the whole Church had begun to feel their impact. One bishop remarked, 'We have been praying for a revival in the Anglican Church but who would have guessed it would come via the kitchen sink?' [5] By 1957 there were 400 MU branches with 11,706 members, and 204 Young Wives' groups with 7351 members. But by the 1960s it was clear that few Young Wives were going on to join the MU. Some were ineligible; others did not join because their friends could not.

The new groups added impetus to the move for independence. Initial rejection by London of this move was endorsed by the MU's World-wide Conference of 1968, but in 1969 the New Zealand MU went ahead to form the Association of Anglican Women, to which all existing MU branches and Young Wives affiliated. The 46 MU branches which wished to retain restrictive membership rules were able to do so; [6] the majority, however, chose to open up their membership and become, for example, family fellowships. Over the next ten years, new structures for the various AAW groups were developed, each diocese forming its own.

The first AAW national president, Jeanne Parr, leading a new organisation of 18,000 members, had the difficult task of encouraging 'new and healthy growth on long-established rootstock' and attempting to heal deep divisions arising from the changes. [7] The new organisation needed to establish its credibility within the Church: in 1972 came a milestone, when General Synod gave Parr the opportunity to address it.

The new AAW relied on old MU means to bind it together. An official prayer and form of service were adopted in 1970, and the MU magazine Home Circle, later Circle, continued as a quarterly. Patterns of leadership by clergy wives continued too, but increasingly other members had a greater role to play in AAW and the life of the Church—administering the chalice, becoming lay-readers, and joining decision-making bodies, from vestry to synod—as well as in community, national and international affairs. For many women leaders, such as former president Dame Miriam Dell, the AAW was their support group and training ground.

The AAW expanded the MU emphasis on work in Polynesia and Melanesia, as greater economic prosperity and easier travel enhanced contacts with the people and projects being supported. By 1975, full-time AAW workers were operating there. AAW also gave support to areas where the New Zealand Church Missionary Society had workers. Contributions to Overseas and Outreach (O&O)—the name adopted in 1970 for this area of AAW work—increased each year, with priority for work among women and children. As a result of closer contact between AAW and the Anglican Board of Missions, in 1975 the national O&O chairperson began to attend the board's meetings and eventually took a seat on it, later representing New Zealand on overseas councils. At home, AAW provided bursaries for Māori students at Anglican schools, and help for immigrant groups.

After ten years, though financial membership had declined, the AAW was firmly established within the church. Its greater flexibility made it more acceptable to clergy, it had full support from the bishops, and its members had gained representation on several Church and community bodies. By 1989 the national president, Judy Woodall, could state that it was important for leaders 'to "acknowledge and celebrate" the fact that women do have a ministry and own a spirituality and a theology of their own'. [8] Despite declining numbers and an ageing membership, AAW was continuing its contribution to the life of the church and its concern for the welfare of women and children, in a church and community undergoing considerable change.

Elizabeth Hay

1994 – 2018

During the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the changes noted by Elizabeth Hay continued.  Within the church, more women became priests, and some eventually became bishops

AAW members were often of the generation that had started in Young Wives’ groups, and consultation as to the way forward continued via planning sessions in 1995, through a further survey in 2015, and by listening to younger women in the church.  By 2018 it was becoming clear that the meeting format suited the older generation more than it did most young women, who, while appreciating the aims of the AAW (since 1992 including the ‘nurture’ of Christian family life), preferred more informal networks.  New AAW members were drawn from those leaving paid work, who were seeking a Christian group of like-minded women to join.  Membership stood at 2666 in 2018. 

Innovative approaches were tried to overcome cost, time and energy constraints on travelling to gather together.  These included diocesan executive meetings via Skype, and re-modelled structures, such as removing the regional level in Waiapu.  Waikato/Taranaki went into recess for a time from 2016, while a model without a diocesan executive was explored.

The computer age also led to changes, with correspondence shifting largely to email and, in 1998, the computerisation of financial records.  By the 2018 AGM, 50 percent of New Zealand members attending used a computer to communicate and read news articles.  Nonetheless, there was concern that many members were feeling left out by the amount of information that was available only online.

Other social concerns around computer use, as well as, for example, stem cell research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, marriage equality, and climate change, were added to those that had been tackled repeatedly over the decades. Input was often made via the National Council of Women, although AAW also lobbied on its own behalf on some issues. 

The experience of Polynesian members (Polynesia had been part of our Anglican Province since the 80s) made climate change a very immediate issue, with cyclone damage more frequent in recent years. The Emergency Fund was well used to help New Zealand and Pacific communities, following such natural disasters. 

Twenty-first century projects included water tanks for Fiji (a fortieth anniversary celebration), and also for Tonga. AAW continued ‘Overseas and Outreach’ support to various ventures, especially those benefiting women and children. Many groups supported local projects as well.

Quarterly issues of Circle magazine continued to bind the organisation together, along with letters and visits from the President and Convenors for Social Concerns and Overseas and Outreach. Diocesan events, visits between groups and the triennial conferences provided regular opportunities for members to gather for fellowship and teaching. The Mothers' Union continued to meet in several areas, with its broadened brief of strengthening families of all kinds.  Its bond with AAW in New Zealand continued in one form or another over the years.

In 2018 AAW stood ready to celebrate its upcoming Golden Jubilee with gratitude for the blessings it had been able to provide to its members and the wider church and community over its life thus far.

Philippa Harrison


[1] Robertshawe et al., 1983, Pt 1, p. 2.

[2] See Robertshawe et al., 1983, Pt 1, p. 2, for full text of the promise.

[3] Minutes of MU meeting, 7 April 1894, Diocesan Archives, Christchurch.

[4] For Fraer, see also Phillipstown Anglican Church Parish History, Christchurch, [n.d.], p. 27.

[5] Robertshawe et al., 1983, Pt 2, p. 7.

[6] In 1973 the World-wide Council of MU (to which the remaining MU branches were still affiliated) revised its membership rules to include divorced and separated women. In 1992 there were approximately seventeen remaining MU branches in New Zealand, all in the North Island.

[7] Robertshawe et al., 1983, Pt 3, p. 8.

[8] Taylor et al., [n.d.] Pt 6, p. 29.

Unpublished sources

AAW AGM minutes, Conference minutes, Executive minutes, 1992–2005, John Kinder Theological Library archives

AAW Constitution and Guidelines to 1996, John Kinder Theological Library archives

Auckland Diocese: parish and diocesan records of the Mothers' Union, Māori Mothers' Union, Young Wives and Association of Anglican Women; Diocesan Office, Auckland

Christchurch Diocese: Mothers' Union records, 1894–1969; AAW records, 1969–1992; Diocesan Archives, Church House, Christchurch

Dunedin Diocese: AAW records, Diocesan Archives, Hocken

Nelson Diocese: AAW records, 1952–1974, Diocesan Office, Nelson

Published sources

Homespun (official journal of Young Wives), 1953–1959; Home Circle (official journal of Mothers' Union and Young Wives), 1959-1970; Circle (official journal of AAW), 1970–

Morrell, W.P., The Anglican Church in New Zealand: A History, Anglican Church of the Province of New Zealand, Dunedin, 1973

Peters, Marie, A Study in Anglicanism in New Zealand, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1986

Robertshawe, Nancy, Thora Holland and Barbara Archer, A History of the Mothers' Union and the Association of Anglican Women in New Zealand, Parts 1, 2 and 3 (1886–1979), AAW, Auckland, 1983; Taylor, Marie,  Rosemary Atkins, and Judy Woodall, Parts 4, 5 and 6 (1980–1989), typescript [n.d.].