"A life of unbelievable privilege" -
A three part interview with the Very Rev Dr Alan Brash
To focus on the life of New Zealander Alan Brash is to see the Christian church
moving towards ecumenism, early moves towards pacifism in the church
Zealand, and an increasing number of New Zealanders gradually seeing
nation as part of Asia, not merely as a distant appendage of Great
The Very Reverend Alan Brash
Part 1 1913 - 1957
Alan began this interview by saying that his has been "'a life of
His whole life has been much influenced by his family background in
was ex-Scotland, early settler, strongly Presbyterian and strongly
oriented. All that was taken for granted in his family life.
The early story of the Brash family is told in "The Road from Saddle
by F. O. Bennett - a gripping tale of a pioneer family struggling to
survive in Otago from 1858.
Alan grew up in Miramar in Wellington in the life of a suburban
congregation which was very fortunate in having the services of two
outstanding ministers during Alan's youth - the Rev. James Gibb and Dr
Allan. It was their influence which taught Alan how to understand the
Bible, how to preach from it, and how to withstand the hatred and
that was leading to World War II which was going to kill fifty seven
Alan describes himself as a scholar who did not distinguish himself at
school or at Otago University although he gained a Masters degree
with Honours in Philosophy. It was only when he went to Scotland to
theology at New College, Edinburgh, that he began to gain top marks
work. Typically he attributes this success to the quality of his
He graduated with high honours and was licensed in the Chapel of the
Thistle in St Giles' Cathedral.
First contact with world ecumenism
In his third year in Edinburgh two world conferences of the church
place in Britain - a Faith and Order Conference in Edinburgh and a
Work Conference in Oxford. Alan was made a New Zealand delegate
was on the spot and the church could not afford to send a second
It was at these meetings in 1937 that the idea of a World Council was
agreed to. He recalls how moved he was by the courage of the German
delegates who in spite of Hitler banning their attendance had come to
people about the reality of Nazism.
His future wife, Eljean Hill, was able to attend the Conference as an
observer. Both Alan and Eljean became involved in a vision of world
ecumenism - of a world wide church - and that vision shaped the rest
First contact with desperate poverty
Before leaving Britain Alan was sent as assistant to a minister in a
poverty-stricken and near slum area in Edinburgh - an experience that
strongly influenced him ever since.
Back in New Zealand
Alan returned to New Zealand to become a parish minister in Wanganui
months before the outbreak of World War II. Here he enountered
aspect of human suffering as some seventy men from the parish went
the armed forces. He felt deep concern for these men and their
and prayed for them and also for those they fought against. He made
views known to the congregation, many of whom disagreed with him. A
left, but most agreed to differ and the congregation grew.
Alan enjoyed the involvement with the people. At his induction the
John Hubbard said that Alan had been through the best theological
that the world could give him, but it was up to his first congregation
make him a minister - and they did.
While he was in Wanganui he married Eljean, and they had two children,
son Donald and a daughter Lynette. They also adopted an orphan boy
Edinburgh when the orphanage was closed by the war. For a year they
a refugee whose whole family died in Hitler's gas chambers.
A voice defending the disadvantaged
>From the beginning Alan was active in the Assemblies of the
church. The first issue was the salary of Home Missionaries. These
people were not fully trained ministers and were put into difficult,
remote, parishes and were paid a pittance. Alan advocated that
ministers should not receive an increase in their stipend until Home
Missionaries had received a similar increase. It took a few years,
eventually justice was done.
A voice for peace
At assemblies during the war Alan pleaded for the church to work for
After the war the Government decided to deprive the six hundred
conscientious objectors who had been in the camps of their civil
ten years. This meant that they had no vote in the next election. Now
the war was over Alan pleaded with the Assembly to go to the
protest over this action. Only two people in the Assembly supported
the Rev. Malcolm Wilson of Knox Church, Christchurch, and Alan's
C. Brash who had been the second Lay Moderator of the Presbyterian
in New Zealand in 1944.
Invitation to teach theology in China
In 1947 Alan was invited to teach theology in the Lingnan University
Canton. He finally agreed to go and then the University said that
wanted someone to teach Old Testament. He did not believe that he
cope with teaching Hebrew in Chinese so decided not to accept the
Though invited back to his parish, he felt that after eight years
was time to move on.
The New Zealand National Council of Churches (NCC) founded
In the meantime the proposal of 1937 to form a World Council was
impact locally, and in Christchurch there was an inter-church movement
which led to the formation of the National Council of Churches. There
now over eighty countries to have such ecumenical bodies, but New
was one of the first.
Alan appointed as full-time secretary to the NCC
The NCC had been functioning for a few years, but had lost its first
full-time secretary. Alan was delighted to be appointed as his
The NCC was strong, but financially weak. At first the office
Alan and one secretary. The people who made up the Council were in
words "far too male and far too clerical", but they were power people
their own denominations, which increased the influence of the NCC's
decisions. They launched the Christmas Appeal for overseas aid, and
national church conferences on theology and the life and work of the
es. After one of these conferences the NCC formed an
Change lay ahead. Eventually the Council had to be more inclusive of
people, including women, and in the years when the churches have
been declining in strength they have been unable or unwilling to be so
Alan served as the Council Secretary from 1947 to 1952, and then
a call to St Giles parish in Christchurch. In 1956 he returned to the
Read Part 2 of this interview, describing Alan
Brash's involvement in the work of the Church internationally.