Bishop Brian Ashby (1964-1985)

A tide of change was about to engulf the Church when Fr Brian Ashby became the fifth Bishop of Christchurch.

Bishop Ashby was consecrated in 1964, while the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was still underway. The Council whipped up the tide of change that would define his 21 years as chief pastor to the diocese. Later, Bishop Basil Meeking would remark that Bishop Ashby had “caught the crest of a wave that was the Second Vatican Council”.

Bishop Ashby’s episcopal crest

Changes in the church were divisive. They pleased many but upset some. In spite of his endearing nature, Bishop Ashby would incur the wrath of those who resented the apparent loss of traditions they had loved. Renovations to the interior of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament enraged conservative worshippers, while his public stance against sports contacts with South Africa under the apartheid regime riled quite a different set.

Pope John XXIII had called Vatican II to open the windows of the Church and let fresh air flow through. The council, which ran in sessions from 1962 to 1965, was attended by bishops and cardinals from around the world. It responded to the pope’s wish with a list of decrees that would prompt change in matters ranging from liturgy to laity.

Prime issues included ecumenism, the opening of the Church to closer links with other Christian denominations, and increased attention to social justice. These issues were close to Bishop Ashby’s heart. His work with them was his forte. The newly consecrated bishop took part in the latter stages of Vatican II. His immediate predecessor, Bishop Edward Joyce, had attended the earlier sessions.

Notable similarities and differences between these two bishops could be seen to personify this stage in Catholic Church history. Both men were born and raised in the Christchurch Diocese. Both studied for the priesthood at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel. They were the first and second such to be consecrated Bishop of Christchurch. They were physically big men and avid sporting types with a love of the outdoors. Both realised their calling to the priesthood in a rural idyll, on North Canterbury farms not far apart “as the crow flies”. Both held an ethos of pastoral care, concern for the poor and the neglected, and a down-to-earth manner. It may be that these similarities bound the two in friendship. For Bishop Joyce appointed the young Fr Ashby as his secretary and referred to him as “my whizz kid”.

Their differences were rooted in the changes of Vatican Il. In pre-Council years Bishop Joyce adhered strictly to age-old practices, as papers in the Diocesan Archives show. One example is a circular letter he sent to all parishes reinforcing the Church’s ban on any music being played at a mixed-marriage service (between a Catholic and a non-Catholic). It also named which music pieces could be played at an all-Catholic marriage, and which were forbidden.

The mixed-marriage directive may seem petty in today’s world but Bishop Joyce was bound by rules of the time. In 1956, he sent another circular to priests announcing the relaxation of this law.

Bishop Ashby was able to say, surely with such restrictions in mind, that: “Since the Council (Vatican II), the Church has stepped down from a position of authority and law into an atmosphere of openness towards the world and towards people”. This reflects his own inclinations as a “progressive liberal”, as Bishop Meeking later termed him.

In another archival item Bishop Ashby admits his elevation to the episcopacy was probably an outcome of his evident progressiveness, aided by his doctoral studies in theology. Did he see Vatican II as a mandate for change, then?  Most likely he did; he certainly jumped at the opportunities it presented.

For instance, in regard to the pre-Vatican II ban on Catholics attending Protestant services, and in keeping with his own innovative and ecumenical style, he became the first Catholic bishop to preach in a service at the Anglican Cathedral of Christchurch – and that with his good friend, Anglican Bishop Allan Pyatt. He welcomed the move allowing Mass to be said in the vernacular. And not only in English – he became the first Catholic bishop to say Mass entirely in te reo Maori. This was at St Bede’s College to mark a Maori Language Week.

The label of “whizz kid” seems well suited to the young priest and bishop. He was a top seminarian at Mosgiel and achieved his doctorate in Rome. He was a popular curate at Timaru, an energetic secretary to Bishop Joyce in Christchurch, an initiator and director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Wellington, and all this before his consecration as Bishop at the early age of 40.

Brian Patrick Ashby was born to a working-class family in Belfast, an industrial suburb in northern Christchurch, on the 10th of November, 1923. He was the eighth of nine children, two of whom became religious Sisters and one a prominent Catholic layman. Growing up during the Depression, he attended St Joseph’s primary school in Papanui, and the nearby St Bede’s College for his secondary education.

He won a day-boys’ scholarship to St Bede’s in 1935. He maintained a high academic standard through his school years, achieving 24th place in New Zealand for the University Scholarship exams of 1940 and being awarded the college’s Diligence Medal. As a sportsman, he excelled in athletics, was a sturdy prop in the college’s rugby 1st XV, played cricket in the 1st XI , was a noted boxer and enjoyed golf, tennis and skiing.

As Bishop, he would visit St Bede’s and conduct Christian Doctrine lessons for 6th Form (Year 12) classes. The college community expressed great pride in him as their first Old Boy bishop.

Brian Ashby had no intention of becoming a priest when he left school. A career in the law beckoned and he enrolled at Canterbury University in 1941 to study law. He was taken on by a Christchurch legal firm for part-time work and mentoring. But during his two years in the law he began to consider a priestly vocation. He discussed this with his Parish Priest at Papanui. Father Patrick Timoney recognised Ashby’s concern for the needy and recommended the priesthood as a vocation in which he could best help people.

World War II was raging then and pressure was coming to bear on young men to enlist in the armed forces. Ashby heeded the call and served with the Home Guard. Then he quit law studies and joined the army. He trained with the 5th Canterbury Regiment but quickly found the demands of army drills and routines stultifying. This caused him to think more about his future.

Twenty year-olds in the armed forces were offered discharge for further education. Ashby’s sensitivity to public opinion and the thought he might be regarded as a wartime “shirker” caused him hesitation but he took the opportunity.

Still unsure of his future course, he headed for the North Canterbury high country. He took temporary jobs in shearing sheds on Whalesback Station, near Waiau, and MacDonald Downs, behind Hawarden, while pondering his future. At the latter station, while “leaning on a five-bar gate and staring at the sunset”, as he described the moment to a reporter, his call to serve as a priest was made clear to him. He answered in the affirmative and began seminary training at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, in mid-1943.

Informing his law company colleagues of his decision to be a priest drew from one of the partners the comment that: “I thought we had knocked that nonsense out of you”. It was a remark that could be made only in an atmosphere of trustful bonhomie.

Ashby’s positive performance as a student at Holy Cross soon came to the notice of the rector, who then recommended him to Christchurch Bishop Patrick Lyons for advanced studies in Rome. This was arranged and, in 1946, Ashby took his place at the Pontifical Urban College for Propagation of the Faith.

He enjoyed his studies and loved the life of a seminarian. Mixing with dozens of soutaned students of theology from around the world, visiting the sacred sites of the Holy City and singing in a choir were delights. Even rugby was available and he played in matches at a “friendly” level. The only snag was that players were forced by the college dress code to wear knickerbockers as it was considered improper for trainee priests to be seen in shorts above the knee. Never one to refuse a challenge, he took a case for amendment of this rule to his superiors and, being familiar with legal argument, he won. And so, generations of seminarians in Rome may be grateful to a Kiwi that they are allowed to wear shorts for rugby.

A stream of letters flowed from Ashby during his time as a seminarian in Italy. His style of writing to extended family members was a blend of informal and evocative. His descriptions of burnt-out army tanks and field guns still littering rural roadsides a year after the war, of crumbling ancient ruins in Rome (he thanks God for the Eternal City’s deliverance from war damage), of beggars and “black marketeers” lining the streets, provide wonderful images for the reader.

#3858 Fr Ashby

Ashby completed his priestly training in 1949 and was ordained in Rome on New Year’s Day, 1950. The following year, still in Rome, he completed his Doctor of Divinity degree (DD). This was notable for the fact that Fr Ashby became the first student at the college to write his doctoral thesis in a language other than Latin. (In English, of course.)

Many letters flowed between Bishop Joyce in Christchurch and Father Ashby in Rome. They show the student as unsure about proceeding with doctoral studies and keen to return home. He says a mild health problem has set him back. He claims to be only an average student and is unsure of his chances of success. His fear is eased though when he is at last granted permission to write his thesis in English.

Bishop Joyce writes that Ashby should proceed with his studies and return as soon as possible afterwards. He happily allows the student a holiday to visit England and meet relatives in County Cork, Ireland.

Arriving home, Fr Ashby was posted in 1952 to the new Timaru North Parish as a curate. An outstanding relict of his work there is the set of talks he delivered to people interested in becoming Catholics. Known as “Instructions”, these talks are a superb summary of Catholic history, practice and doctrine. His outlining of the four Gospels, especially his explanations of their writers’ varying perspectives, would have been most informative to listeners.

Five years later he was appointed assistant priest in the Cathedral Parish. He was made secretary to Bishop Joyce in 1957.

By the mid-1950s the few Redemptorist Fathers based in Christchurch were having difficulty maintaining the series of lectures they delivered to non-Catholics in a city hall. Fr Ashby was chosen to take on this task, in addition to his other roles. In carrying it out he displayed evangelical and ecumenical zeal and skills that led to his being recommended for further work presenting the Catholic Faith to others.

The next step was for Fr Ashby, with Fr Maurice Ryan of the Auckland Diocese, to take a course in evangelisation in Wellington. This course alerted the two priests to the potential of technical and mass communication systems to launch an effective Catholic Enquiry Centre (CEC). Consequently both were sent to London to learn techniques of communication, including radio and television.

In a letter from London to family members in Christchurch Fr Ashby reveals his frustration at the guardedness with which English CEC directors explained their systems of work. He bemoans the slow pace at which the organisation operated. He writes that, given freedom to look around the place by himself, he could have learned all he wanted to in a week or so.

In a more impish tone, Fr Ashby writes that the real work at the English CEC was done quietly and efficiently by a team of nuns, with whom he was prevented from conversing. It was, he writes, as if management feared he might fall in love with some of them.

Returning to Wellington in 1960, the two priests were appointed co-directors of the New Zealand CEC. Catholic newspaper The Tablet would later say Fr Ashby “brought youthful enthusiasm (and) a fresh approach” to the organisation and its mission.

He would spend only four years in this work before Bishop Joyce died. His selection then as Bishop of Christchurch was no shock. Indeed, it was widely applauded. A senior Christchurch priest, Monsignor Thomas Liddy, wrote that Fr Ashby’s work at the CEC had made him “a national figure, known up and down the country”.

“We recall the excitement of the appointment of so young and vigorous a bishop,” Mons Liddy added.

His elevation might be thought unusual, as this bishop-elect was not quite 41 years-old and had no personal experience of running a parish. It should, however, be seen as a “sign of the times”. The Church was focussing on the decrees for renewal that were coming from Vatican II. Fr Ashby was identified as the right person to implement the desired changes in the diocese of his birth. He himself recognised and admitted this.


Dr Brian Ashby was consecrated Bishop of Christchurch at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on the 5th of August, 1964. All New Zealand’s bishops attended, with Wellington Archbishop McKeefry presiding.

He worked long hours in his 21 years as bishop and possibly took on too much. His health began to deteriorate. In 1984 he suffered a minor stroke, it is thought from stress. He was at that time in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to which he was the first New Zealand appointee. Fr Denis Hanrahan was then consecrated a bishop and appointed as his coadjutor. Bishop Hanrahan thus took over some of Bishop Ashby’s more onerous duties.

A major stroke 13 months later severely limited Bishop Ashby’s physical abilities, forcing his retirement. Bishop Hanrahan then succeeded him as Bishop of Christchurch.

Bishop Ashby continued to work for the diocese, with the title of Bishop Emeritus. This included chaplaincy duties at Princess Margaret Hospital, near his Cracroft Terrace home in Cashmere.

His stroke had left him with a limp right hand but, equipped with an electric typewriter he proceeded to write using his left hand. Showing his old sporting determination, he strived continuously for more speed in his typing.

He became a prominent executive leader and speaker in local and national associations providing assistance and education for stroke victims. Stroke Magazine stated that he had “inspired many victims”.

Having been a smoker for many years, including smoking 40 cigarettes a day for some of that time, Bishop Ashby developed cancer. He died from the disease on 5th of June, 1988.

In summarising Bishop Ashby’s vocation and his years leading the Church in Canterbury, Westland and the Chatham Islands, Bishop Meeking (not known for lavishing false praise) says: “By any standards the life of Bishop Ashby was a story of success”. In another instance Bishop Meeking makes this telling point: “One remembers him (Bishop Ashby) as a kind of clerical star, sometimes drawing the envy of us, his more humdrum clerical brethren”.

To list all the achievements that elevated Bishop Ashby to “clerical stardom” would require many pages. A few examples, then, must suffice.

The bishop was asked by the New Zealand Maori Missioner for a base for Maori to be established in Christchurch. Many Maori had left their homes in the North Island and re-settled in Canterbury. Bishop Ashby responded positively. Construction of Te Rangi Marie Centre began in 1968. The centre was opened in 1969. Fr Barry Jones, later to become Bishop of Christchurch, was deeply involved in the centre’s work supporting Maori.

Early in his episcopacy, Bishop Ashby was struck by bad news from diocesan financial advisers. The budget for Catholic schools was $15,000 in debt – a large amount for the time. Strong and urgent action was needed. The problem had been growing since numbers of nuns available for teaching had begun to fall in the early-1960s. This had necessitated recruitment of lay teachers who must be professionally qualified and paid at state education rates.

This issue applied in all New Zealand dioceses. The New Zealand bishops had long sought increased government funding for Catholic schools. Boosted by the vigour of the young Bishop Ashby they now negotiated a solution – the integration of Catholic schools into the State education system relieved the financial burden.

Meanwhile, Bishop Ashby’s more urgent response in the Christchurch Diocese was to suspend all new enrolments of primer (years 1 and 2) classes indefinitely. He also stopped plans for new schools and new buildings at existing schools. He explained that stopping infant classes would have less effect on these children as Catholics than it would on older pupils. The affected children could attend State schools and then enrol in Catholic schools for subsequent years.


These measures were controversial and caused angst among many families. The necessity of the moves must have been disappointing to the bishop. But he would have cracked a broad smile when he opened his mail and found a correspondence from his Dunedin counterpart, Bishop John Kavanagh.

In the envelope were two clippings from the Otago Daily Times reporting and analysing the “harsh measures” taken in Christchurch’s Catholic primary schools. One of the articles suggested Bishop Ashby might be happy sending Catholic youngsters to State schools as he possibly saw it as a step towards church unity.

Clipped to the cuttings was a brief handwritten note: “Nice to know you were just trying to be ecumenical”, signed by Bishop Kavanagh.

No such levity applied to the changes Bishop Ashby wrought with the renovation of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament; in particular the alterations to its interior. The most disputed change probably was removal of the high altar and the richly adorned reredos.

In accordance with Vatican II decrees, priests saying Mass should now face the people to encourage greater involvement. This required altars in all churches to be moved forward, or new altars to be built in a forward position, so the celebrants could stand behind them. The cathedral’s reredos was removed to improve the aesthetics of the sanctuary area. This exposed the semicircle of lofty pillars in its full glory. These moves were favoured by Bishop Ashby, as he showed in his 1970 thanksgiving address on completion of the renovation project. He spoke of the alterations fulfilling “the dynamic principles of the liturgical reform (of Vatican II)”. He said: “The project has been not just a matter of bricks and mortar but a formative and informative process”. Referring to parish churches making similar changes, he added: “Hopefully the day of temporary altars….is nearly over in this diocese”.

Then came his strongest blessing for the project: “Within the walls of the cathedral there is an atmosphere of holiness, almost as if the incense of countless prayers had impregnated its very stone….I commit this priceless heritage to future generations, confident (in the) hope that the cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament will play an ever-growing part in making the liturgy the ‘outstanding means’ (Vatican II) by which people can manifest the rich, inexhaustible mystery of Christ”.

The thought of Anglican and Catholic bishops marching together in a public protest seemed almost treacherous to some of the faithful. In 1981 Bishop Pyatt and Bishop Ashby joined such a demonstration against the Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand. They joined other protests too, notably to oppose the Government’s SIS Bill which they saw as “a breach of freedom”.

Such actions, Bishop Ashby said, were a statement of “liberation theology”. This concept, generated by Vatican II, called for more than denunciation of social injustice. It demanded effort to remove the causes of such evil. As chairman of the Catholic Commission for Evangelisation, Justice and Development for 11 years he guided much of the thinking in this area.

#2260 Bishop Ashby, with Anglican Bishop Pyatt

Bishop Pyatt said his fellow bishop was a “straightforward and strong type of person”. “We took strong stands” …. “We saw eye to eye on most issues”, he said. “Both of us had this tremendous feeling for the dispossessed and poor,” Bishop Pyatt said. He added that by working together, the two exerted a greater influence.

Some anti-tour demonstrations ended in war-like chaos. Bishop Ashby condemned violence. “I am a peaceful man and I like peace and quiet,” he said. He consulted widely with clergy and laity and always listened; he was prepared to alter his stance when convinced by discussions with others.

Others of Bishop Ashby’s achievements include increased participation of the laity, deeper concern for social justice, reform of liturgy, and improved relationships with other Christians, Bishop Meeking says.

A more nebulous achievement was the reputation he forged for being available to all who sought to speak to him and his willingness to help wherever possible. An example is his response to a post-graduate Victoria University student who wrote asking if the bishop would contribute an article on the impact of Vatican II for a university publication. Bishop Ashby replied that he had so much to say it would be impossible to commit it all to paper. Instead he suggested meeting the student the following week when he (the bishop) would be in Wellington. If the student would phone him, they could discuss the matter “for an hour or two”.

So what did Bishop Ashby think was the impact of Vatican II? Another request, presumably unrelated to the above, came for him to speak on the subject. This time he was asked to address the New Zealand Bishops’ Synod in 1971. His speech notes reflect his feelings on the Council just half a decade after it ended. Not all of his reflections are positive.

In summary, he felt the Church’s step from a position of authority and law to one of openness to the world was reducing people’s feeling of threat and making them more willing to listen and be led. However, “an injection of democracy” and a “spirit of liberty” within the Church did not “sit easily” with a congregation which “received truth from above”.

He feared many people responded to the changes by wanting yet more freedom. This might degenerate to a “personalistic, inward-looking scramble of self-seeking and evident leadership”. The context of freedom brought a lessening in the importance of faith to an increasingly secular Christianity. On the other hand, it brought an increase in concern for charity and for “social obligations”, he said.

An outcome that Bishop Ashby detected was an “emerging polarisation among priests in their thinking as to what priesthood is about”. This was manifest in a range of effects – some felt hostile to change, some uncertain, some isolated. Some felt fearful of change in their status, some were apathetic, while some had “genuine difficulty in integrating the new emphases”.

While pleased the days of priests acting as “sheepdogs, obeying His (the Lord’s) orders, seeking out strays who did not want to be caught”, and of Catholics reciting prayers “by rote and without intelligent understanding” were over. He saw this change as part of “The fortress monolithic Church…. tumbling down”.

While he shared some of the concern at the increase in “private interpretation” of Scripture and Faith, and understood some priests’ distrust of Charismatic Renewal, he recognised that “a range of interpretations and theologies” had existed in the Church throughout modern times.


Catholics who remember Bishop Ashby tend to associate him mostly with moves instigated by Vatican II for change and renewal. They recall also his care for and openness to people. Some, such as Monsignor Tom Liddy, stressed with equal certainty his enormous capacity for work.

Something of this capacity may be revealed in the myriad of organisations, within and outside the Church, which he served in various roles. His involvements ranged from chairing committees to preparing and delivering addresses to institutions of all sorts. A wad of letters in the archives from groups inviting him to speak and copies of his replies (mostly in the affirmative) show how much he tried to make himself available to others.

The following list of offices he held is not comprehensive but may indicate the bishop’s “capacity for work”.

He was a member of the Aged People’s Welfare Council, Life-Member of the Lepers Trust Board, Life-Member of the United Nations Association, President of Counterstroke, Knight of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, Member of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, Member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Councillor and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury, Chairman of the Catholic National Commission on Ecumenism. And the list goes on.

His tireless work for many organisations, within the Church and the wider community, was honoured with the Queen’s (25th) Jubilee Medal in 1977. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1985. The latter was just one step below knighthood.

Bishop Ashby’s death prompted many tributes. From Anglican Bishop Pyatt: “He and I were friends and thought much the same on various issues. It was good to work with him. Neither of us went beyond what our Churches would allow but we went as far as we possibly could in ecumenism”.

From the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa NZ: “We salute the life and ministry (of Bishop Ashby). He was always in touch with the stream of humanity, both in the churches and beyond. He cared about people and people knew it”.

From Monsignor Liddy: “All in all, Bishop Ashby was the bishop who was needed at the time.”

If that sounds like the last word, it’s not. Let’s finish instead with Bishop Ashby’s own words. This is what he said in welcoming Bishop Hanrahan as his coadjutor….

#3774 Bishop Ashby with Fr Hanrahan, later Bishop

“Certainly in the whole of my episcopate I have been guided by the spirit and teaching of the Second Vatican Council. My task, as I have seen it, has been to promote the renewal of that Council across the board. I have tried to ensure that there are no enclaves, either of conservatism or radicalism in the diocese, for enclaves are pockets of resistance to the widespread renewal that I have actively promoted.”

In a homily during his final year, he showed his pride in the “revolutionary” nature of Vatican II for moving the Church on from a “monolithic fortress under the control of the hierarchy writ large”…. to “the Mystery of the Church” emphasising “the People of God”.

He then confessed that he had “got ahead of clergy and laity at times”, especially in “ecumenism, towards unity”. He admitted also that he had “got offside” with many Catholics when preaching on justice issues.

Who will judge him for that?

Bishop Ashby’s memoriam card

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the author, Michael Crean

Photographs from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives Photograph Collection

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