Story: Pyatt, William Allan

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Pyatt, William Allan

1916–1991

Anglican bishop

This biography was written by Colin Brown and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

William Allan Pyatt was born in Gisborne on 4 November 1916, the eldest of seven children of Albert Ernest Pyatt, a warehouseman, and his wife, Violet May Feldon. At Gisborne High School he was dux and head prefect, and played cricket in the school’s First XI and rugby for its First XV. At Auckland University College he graduated BA (and was senior scholar in history) in 1938, MA with second-class honours in 1939, and was nominated, unsuccessfully, for a Rhodes Scholarship.

Allan Pyatt interrupted theological studies at St John’s College, Auckland, when war broke out and sailed with the 1st Echelon. Commissioned as a second lieutenant he was (briefly) aide de camp to General Bernard Freyberg, was wounded in Greece in 1941, fought in the Italian campaign, and ended the war with the rank of major, second in command of the 20th New Zealand Armoured Regiment. His later ecclesiastical leadership style – mild authoritarianism modified by a sense of ‘mateship’ – was probably shaped by wartime experience.

On 5 September 1942, in Auckland, Pyatt married Mary (Molly) Lilian Carey, a schoolteacher. There were two sons and one daughter of the marriage. After demobilisation Pyatt resumed theological studies in England at Westcott House, Cambridge (1945–46) and was ordained deacon (1946) and priest (1947). During 1946–48 he was curate in Cannock, Staffordshire. On his return to New Zealand he was vicar of Brooklyn (1948–52), Hawera (1952–58), and St Peter’s, Wellington (1958–62). From 1962 to 1966 he was dean of Christchurch and deputy vicar general of the diocese. At the cathedral he successfully maintained a blend of traditional services and less formal occasions.

Pyatt became bishop of Christchurch in 1966. He was a sensitive pastor to clergy, although readier to trust them to get on with the job than to talk through their problems. An effective chairman and administrator, he could be impetuous, impatient, and quick in reacting to criticism, but was equally swift in making amends. Relationships with evangelical and charismatic clergy were initially uneasy; with them and others he occasionally had strong differences of opinion. In 1970 he decided to send ordinands to St John’s College, Auckland, thereby terminating the role of College House as a theological college.

As bishop, Pyatt was ex officio chairman of the governing body of Christ’s College. Suspicion aroused by his ‘leftist’ leanings was quickly dissipated by his brisk chairmanship, frequent attendance at sporting occasions, the brevity of his speeches at prizegivings, and general support for independent schools.

Pyatt once described his hobbies as church union and rugby football. He served as president of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand (1978–79). When moves to unite the Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Anglican churches and the Churches of Christ foundered he was deeply disappointed. He became close friends with Brian Ashby, Roman Catholic bishop of Christchurch, and they co-operated during the thaw that followed the Second Vatican Council.

The linking of worship and belief with moral and political concerns was fundamental for Pyatt and he strongly defended the right and importance of criticism, dissent and protest, while emphasising that these should be accompanied by other moves to secure change. He vigorously criticised government actions at the time of the 1951 waterfront dispute, opposed rugby contacts with South Africa, and was strongly critical of New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1977, when the government introduced a measure relating to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Pyatt and Ashby provided high-profile opposition. On such occasions Pyatt found himself the target of attack by politicians and other public figures. Late in life he resigned from the RSA over its support for nuclear arms.

Pyatt served on national and local committees of the National Society on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. From 1970 to 1976 he successfully chaired the General Synod’s Public and Social Affairs Committee, and from 1973 to 1979 he was a member of the Council of the University of Canterbury. He did not succeed to the archbishopric in 1980, although widely tipped to do so. He retired in 1983. In 1985 he was appointed by the Christchurch City Council to chair a committee to investigate problems associated with Cathedral Square. In that year, also, he was appointed a CBE.

Pyatt strongly supported changes made by the Anglican church in New Zealand, including remarriage of divorced persons, ordination of women to the priesthood and revision of the Prayer Book (although he lacked real appreciation of issues regarding gender-inclusive language). From his days in Gisborne he had had contacts with Maori; these deepened during his ministry in Hawera and at St Peter’s. In retirement he and his wife learnt Maori, and after his death in Christchurch on 24 November 1991 his body lay in state at the Phillipstown marae. The Christchurch Anglican cathedral now has a tukutuku panel expressing Maori regard for him.

Throughout a long and happy marriage Molly Pyatt very effectively supported her husband’s ministry. She strove to bring greater informality to social occasions held in the elegant and spacious official residence, Bishopscourt. In the last years of Pyatt’s episcopate the decision was taken by the church property trustees to sell Bishopscourt for incorporation in a retirement complex.

Speaking to his final diocesan synod, Pyatt noted that he found it hard to estimate his own achievements, in part because he had had no long-term aims. He was a pragmatic traditionalist, a firm supporter of moderate reform, but uneasy about demands for radical change. On the other hand, his episcopate coincided with a growing sense of independence on the part of the Anglican church in New Zealand and of this he was fully supportive.

Pyatt’s genial manner, preference for bicycling as a mode of transport, enjoyment of sports and beach holidays, keen sense of social justice, and identification with the growing sense of national identity won him wide acceptance and helped, especially in Canterbury, to change the image of what it was to be Anglican in New Zealand.