Church Women United in Aotearoa / New Zealand

1945 –

Church Women United in Aotearoa / New Zealand

1945 –

Theme: Religion

Known as:

  • Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches
    1945 – 1987
  • Church Women United in Aotearoa / New Zealand
    1987 –

This essay written by Margaret Lovell-Smith was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Jennifer Delaney in 2018.

1945 – 1993

Church Women United in Aotearoa New Zealand (CWUANZ) emerged from the former Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches (NCC), founded in 1941. This committee was formally constituted in 1945 after Deaconess Joan Spencer-Smith chaired a successful women's committee preparing study material for one of the NCC's first projects, the Campaign for Christian Order. [1]

Membership was based on a fixed number of representatives per member church. The first meeting, on 20 April 1945, was attended by sixteen women representing seven churches: Anglican, Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Society of Friends. The committee, like the NCC, was based in Christchurch; it was initially chaired by Spencer-Smith, with Sister Anna Kirkwood (Presbyterian) as its first secretary.

The committee's main task was seen as stimulating the interest of church women in ecumenical matters. It also provided a means whereby women could become involved in the ecumenical movement and 'break out of the ecclesiastical syndrome of women as tea-makers, flower-arrangers and unpaid church cleaners'. [2] While the NCC did not bar women from its committees, most member churches at that time did not readily appoint women to represent them.

Early activities included publishing annual study booklets for church women's groups, establishing local women's ecumenical committees, and organising biennial conferences. By March 1948 seven local committees had been formed; in 1969 there were seventeen. Their major activity was organising inter-church schools or study days.

In 1949 the Women's Committee took over administering the annual World Day of Prayer (WDP) service, thus becoming linked with the international WDP movement. The offerings received from the hundreds of services held throughout New Zealand each year were shared between projects organised by the British and Foreign Bible Society and NCC's overseas aid division. [3] In 1962 the committee responded to an invitation to attend the second assembly of the Asian Church Women's Conference (ACWC), a group of women church leaders from throughout Asia, sending Kitty Hamilton as delegate.

Many other committee members travelled overseas to international meetings connected with WDP, ACWC, and the Fellowship of the Least Coin (FLC). Introduced to New Zealand in 1967, the FLC invited women around the world to set aside the 'least coin' in their local currency every time they prayed for peace, reconciliation and justice. The funds were used for aid and justice projects throughout the world.

For International Women's Year in 1975, the committee undertook two successful special projects. 'Water for Women', financing water schemes for women in developing countries, raised $54,251 – four times the original target; and a sub-committee convened by Jan Cormack organised an Enquiry into the Status of Women in the Church. The results, published as a booklet in 1976, revealed much dissatisfaction with the roles traditionally assigned to church women.

Committee members in the 1960s saw their most important work as ecumenical education in preparation for church union. But by the early 1970s the committee was discussing whether it should merge with the NCC executive. It concluded that there was still a need for a separate women's committee, one obvious and continuing role being to encourage greater representation of women in the NCC.

Of 54 representatives invited to the 1971 NCC annual general meeting, only twelve were women. As the 1970s progressed, more women began to represent their churches at NCC meetings. In 1973 the NCC annual general meeting agreed that the Women's Committee's 'chairman' could become a full voting member of the NCC executive.

There was a major setback in 1976 when the Anglican synod voted against the proposal for church union, and once again the committee engaged in thorough soul-searching about its future role. However, it decided it was still needed, particularly for its work with the international movements.

In 1983 the committee proposed that it be reconstituted in two parts: as a Women's Section of the NCC, to continue the work of its Social Issues sub-committee; and as a National Ecumenical Women's Committee, to maintain the international links. The proposal was not approved by the NCC executive, which was itself working on plans for a new ecumenical body, to include the Roman Catholic Church.

 In 1986 the committee embarked on a major fundraising project for refugee and migrant women; the bulk of the money went to Empower, a women's group working with prostitutes in Thailand, and other grants were made to migrant groups within Aotearoa.

When the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa/New Zealand (CCA/NZ) replaced the NCC in 1987, the Women's Committee gave way to a new, autonomous organisation, Church Women United in Aotearoa New Zealand (CWUANZ). This was set up as an autonomous committee made up of representatives of churches or of national church women's groups, with strong connections to three international ecumenical women's programmes. The constitution allowed for two representatives from each denomination, and one from the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). In 1991 the committee’s membership stood at nineteen. It operated nationally, and was affiliated to five regional committees.

CWUANZ’s main functions were administering the World Day of Prayer and the Fellowship of the Least Coin, and maintaining links with the ACWC. The CCA/NZ 'Women's Desk', which took over the social issues work of the former committee, saw its main task as the co-ordination of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98). [4] The Desk was replaced in April 1992 by the Dunedin-based Women's Unit, which continued its work for the Decade.

Margaret Lovell-Smith

1994 – 2018

By 1998, CWUANZ had representatives from the following churches: Salvation Army, Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Associated Churches of Christ, and Congregational, as well as the YWCA and Girls’ Brigade. There were local committees in Wellington, Southland, Auckland, Otago and Christchurch.

The World Day of Prayer (WDP), Asian Church Women’s  Conference (ACWC)  and Fellowship of the Least Coin (FLC) all continued to be an active  part of CWUANZ’s work.  The WDP made significant contributions to the ACWC travel fund, as well as donations to ACWC general funds, to further the work of ACWC in Asia. During these years the WDP service was held in March, the AGM in August and the ACWC service, including the ingathering of money for FLC, in November.

In 2007 the government passed the Charities Act, requiring WDP to have a national committee in each country where it operated. Thus there was a parting of the ways, and in June 2008 two autonomous National Committees were formed: Church Women United in Aotearoa New Zealand, and World Day of Prayer in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The next ten years saw the local committees of CWUANZ disband, with Christchurch being the last to do so, in May 2018. With the loss of local committees, CWUANZ continued to act as administrator of FLC moneys; $6000–$7000 was sent to NCC in Geneva each year, which distributed the money gathered in the name of FLC to various areas. For example, the Asian region received around US$30,000 annually, distributed as grants for projects and scholarships, usually to assist women and children.

 CWUANZ maintained links with ACWC through its quarterly Newsletters and its Prayer Chain (requesting prayers for countries that have suffered disasters). The ACWC Service held in November had a liturgy created by a different country each year. It also continued to  administer the FLC monies, an undertaking which continued to develop throughout New Zealand.

From 2008, there was good representation from Salvation Army, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholic members in CWUANZ, but by 2018 only the Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians were represented.   Perhaps this was a sign of the times, with declining allegiance to the traditional churches and a general lack of willing volunteers.

Jennifer Delaney


[1] The Campaign for Christian Order, the first major programme undertaken by the NCC, was launched in March 1942; it arose out of 'a long-standing concern to make Christian principles count for more in the life of the country' (Brown, 1981, p. 28). Organised by a full-time director, it was widely publicised and included meetings, bulletins and study booklets.

[2] Brown, 1981, p. 34.

[3] By 1993 the Bible Society of New Zealand, and Christian World Service.

[4] An initiative of the World Council of Churches to follow the UN Decade on Women. Themes for each year included 'Herstory', 'Pākehā Women and Racism', and 'The Family'.

Unpublished sources

Church Women United in Aotearoa/New Zealand Minute Book, 1987–1992, CWUA/NZ, Christchurch

Stringleman, Barbara, 'A Brief History of the Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches', unpublished ms, 1976, CWUA/NZ, Christchurch

'The Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand: Historical Information as at April, 1952', unpublished ms, CWUA/NZ, Christchurch

Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand Minute Book, 19781987, CWUA/NZ, Christchurch

Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand records, 19451978, NCC collection, ATL

Published sources

Brown, Colin, Forty Years On: A History of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand, 19411981, NCC, Christchurch, 1981

'Church Women United in Aotearoa/New Zealand', CWUA/NZ, Christchurch, 1991

Enquiry into the Status of Women in the Church, Women's Committee of the NCC, Christchurch, 1976

Lovell-Smith, Margaret, No Turning Back: A History of the Inter-Church Aid Work of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand 19451983, NCC, Christchurch, 1986

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Church Women United in Aotearoa / New Zealand

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...