A childhood in a manse where God wasn't hugely bothered

The past is another country where they do things differently. That's the saying - and I realise how true it is whenever I think back to the manse and its visitors. When I was 8, two missionaries came to stay at the manse, bringing their travelling slideshow about life among the heathen.

That year we also had a fire-and-brimstone evangelist, two dog-collared Presbyterian ministers, a bespectacled relieving schoolteacher and, of course, regular family like my cousins, who stayed in a tent pitched on the side lawn and stashed cream buns under their camp stretchers for midnight feasts. It was a country manse, and guests were common.

There were no motels then, and as hotels sold alcohol, ministers' homes were used as stopping places for people travelling the land in the service of the Lord.

Years later, when I first heard the remark that New Zealand country towns of the '50s nursed the last gasps of the Edwardian age, I considered the comment clever but unlikely - and then thought about the manse and the people who came there. It was a large weatherboard villa, with a red iron roof, a lawn tennis court, vegetable gardens, and a tree-house with a secret cupboard.

It sat at the edge of a mining township with paddocks and bushland beckoning across its back fence - the sort of place where small boys catch eels, trap possums, and shoot Indians. Overnight visitors meant being allowed to stay up late. We sat with the missionary visitors, listening to their tales of leprosy, bible shipments, and triumphant conversions - but bursting to get to the important stuff.

''So were there lots of headhunters where you went? '' I asked.

''No. There aren't many headhunting tribes left,'' said the younger missionary.

''Perhaps just a few unsaved souls in Borneo and the Amazon.''

''But when you went into the jungle to convert the natives, didn't they throw their spears at you?''


''Well, were there pygmies with poison blowpipes?'' ''No.''

''So nobody actually got kill . . . got martyred,'' a small, disappointed voice concluded.

''Well, Sr Ada had a dreadful bout of dysentery.''

A country manse was a social centre. Its main home business was the daily visitors who arrived to plan joy or share problems. With my brother and sister, I giggled at the romantic ''lovebirds'' come to make arrangements to do something very naughty.

And looked round the door more nervously at the visitors planning to bury people. A son was going to borstal, a daughter was ''in trouble''. The Miss Marples organist wobbled by on her bicycle.

There were meetings for church elders, the women's guild, and men's and women's fellowships. Parishioners arrived to make plans for flower shows, harvest festivals and fundraising. And they brought elaborate food plates for the afternoon teas and suppers, which I believe were the highwater mark of true New Zealand cuisine.

The manse's children were princes of the leftovers - sponge cake, cheese scones, savories, pikelets, and delicately cut sandwiches. We drew the line at asparagus rolls.

Each Saturday afternoon, the house turned silent when my father closed himself in his study to write his Sunday sermon. He was a Knox College man and, wrapped in his bachelor of divinity robes, wheeled out the writings of apostles and ancient church philosophers to shed wisdom on the problem of the week - floods or famines, the Cold War with Russia, or the lamentable behaviour of the bodgies.

The sermon written, he chose the four hymns for the service - always four - trying for at least one which matched the events of the day. He Who Would True Valour See would cover the visiting missionaries, while a missing fishing boat was certain to get For Those in Peril on the Sea. Presbyterians have a reputation for grimmer religion but, truthfully, this wasn't present in the daily life of the manse.

Grace was said before meals and there were prayers at bedtime, but apart from that God wasn't hugely bothered. The hellfire was left to the visiting ''gingermen'' evangelists who held the licences to terror. They were effective. Soon after one ''shock and awe'' evangelical visit, I was put in hospital to have my tonsils out.

This was tricky. I was certain that when the doctor opened me up, the cat would be out of the bag. He would discover my heart was black with sin. Somehow I got away with it. It's been a while now, but still nobody much notices.

John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.

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