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Conference Report

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Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday

On 6 February 1913, the New Zealand Wesleyan Methodist Church, which had separated from the General Conference of Australasia, united with the Primitive Methodist Church in Wesley Church, Taranaki Street, Wellington, to hold its first Conference as the Methodist Church of New Zealand. Ninety years later, the annual Methodist Conference was again called together in that historic building, which has, since then, been a gracious venue for many Conferences. On Thursday, 6 November, several members of Conference, representing Auckland Central Parish, were greeted by a Wellington on its best behaviour weather-wise, while others travelled early enough on Friday morning, to be part of the gathering of Tauiwi at 9.30am.

Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi are equal partners, sharing in the life of Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa, the Methodist Church of New Zealand. Tauiwi includes all of those groups who have journeyed here more recently, to put down their roots in this land.

FRIDAY 7 NOVEMBER

Susan Adams reflects that the Friday meeting of Tauiwi, while not ‘Conference’, was a significant time together attempting to bring to consciousness important business that would come before Conference in the following days.

Thirteen years ago, at the height of discussions about how to express the bicultural nature of our church the idea of a Tauiwi meeting prior to conference was first suggested. The need for the parts of the church that make up Tauiwi to share their concerns and ideas together has not gone away. The election of President for 2002 highlighted this need to talk together even further, as have recent concerns around sexuality. So it was important to meet as Tauiwi and to begin to listen to each other with care across our differences.

We didn’t get the process ‘smooth’ and hassle-free, and we were not clear how far we could debate the issues that would come up later in Conference, but now we do have an experience to reflect on and to refine for 2004.

Key items discussed were:

  • The names that would be sent to the group charged by Conference with bringing forward the names of those selected for President and Vice-President for the forth-coming year.
  • Concerns and responses to the Faith and Order Committee’s report on sexuality Learning to Listen and Listening to Learn.
  • The report from Council of Conference on the future format of Conference.
  • Regional church highlights from the meetings that Conference 2002 requested be held to explore the reduction of the number of English speaking Synods and other strategic plans.
    1. The Lower North Island region reported.
    2. Auckland reported that the Upper North Island Region had not yet met but planned to meet after Conference.
    3. Waikato/Wairaki reported.
    4. The South Island Region gave a substantial report, by far the most developed and sustained, on the question of how regional synods could work. The report noted issues around small churches, change in land use, and population movements. They were looking to the future with hope and exploring beyond the known, noting the importance of courage, openness and purpose. Their commitments were:

      Modelling being a ‘region’.

      Working as a leadership team.

      Conversation with Te Taha Maori.

      Accessing funding.

      Ensuring that each district retain its identity.

      Working together to communicate with the parishes.

      • Reporting from Tauiwi Strategy and Stationing noting especially the plan being discussed to reduce the number of English speaking synods to five, the value of intentional Interim Ministry and the decreasing number of presbyters available for stationing.
      • The issue as to how we, as a bicultural/multicultural church, can engage in cross cultural conversations to hear where we are as church and how we have done in our honouring our commitment to Te Taha Maori to share power in the church. It was noted that it is the Tauiwi part of the church that is multi-cultural and that it is here that we need to learn to talk with each other across perspectival differences.

      Susan Adams concludes.‘My general impression was that while in this first year there was some confusion about purpose and process it was an important opportunity to highlight key concerns and responses emerging from the various ethnically based groups that make up Tauiwi. My hope is that as the business and process of the meeting is streamlined we will be able to hear more of the theological and ethical perspectives that are foundational to the recommendations that will come before Conference’.

      Friday evening saw some Conference members making their way to an evening gathering of the Evangelical Network, while members of the Wesley Historical Society and their President Helen Laurenson were heading for the hills and the Johnsonville Uniting Church for their Annual General Meeting, dinner and lecture. This year, Bill Thomas’ current research on the subject of the Rev William Morley - preacher, administrator, writer, educator and statesman, proved a lively and fascinating topic. Morley’s work to clear the enormous debt on the new Pitt Street Church building was only one small achievement of this remarkable presbyter who had learned the whole of the New Testament by heart as a young boy. A man of great gifts and graces, he was moved, like a trouble-shooter, to deal with difficult financial situations around the Connexion during a time of great expansion for the Wesleyan Church in New Zealand. His name is legendary and WHS members were privileged to be informed and entertained by Bill’s research on the many facets of this remarkable father of the Church.

      SATURDAY 8 NOVEMBER

      Mary Caygill shares that ‘with Wellington weather at its best, Conference finally gathered for the Powhiri containing within an acknowledgement of those lay and ordained who have died since Conference last met. With a very natural flow after a brief break, the Conference moved into the Induction Service as Lynne Frith and David McGeorge were inducted respectively as President and Vice-President. Once again feelings were aroused as we began with the singing of the traditional Conference hymn ‘And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?’. The contribution of three choirs Fijian, Samoan and Tongan, was stirring indeed, and added to the richness of the service which was well representative of the rich diversity making up Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa.

      Following the Induction Service and after High Tea, Trinity Pakuranga Puppeteers showed their amazing skills as they performed for Conference a unique re-telling of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

      Saturday evening ended the day on a very high note with a magnificent social gathering again conveying the richness of diversity. After the fullness of the day, much laughter was shared, and the many gathered joined in dancing together’. Mary concludes with the acknowledgement that this was a perfect ending to a great beginning of Conference 2003.

      Historian Helen was told by Wesley historian Arthur Olsson, that since 1938, when Rev Percy Paris was elected as President, (as you enter the Wesley Bicentenary Building at Pitt Street, do note his name on one of the two foundation stones), this has been the first occasion on which the current presbyter at Wesley, Taranaki Street has been inducted as President in that historic Church.

      SUNDAY 9 NOVEMBER

      John Boniface shares that ‘the Sunday of Conference started off wonderfully fine so I went for a walk from my motel. It was refreshing to start the day in communion with God. After breakfast, I went to the morning service at Wesley Church, Taranaki Street. It was their normal Sunday service with the Pacific Islanders’ participation of music and the spoken word and a great deal of the congregation joining in with prayers and choral singing. It is the President's home church and she spoke along the lines of ‘Let's learn to dance to our own tune’.

      On Sunday afternoon, the Ordination service started at 2pm. There were four ordinands and the service was really theirs. The ex-President Norman West spoke of ‘Perceptions of Ministry’ and the unchanging concept which challenges those in ministry to be Christ-like. It was a real inspiration to the ordinands. I was greatly impressed by a verse of a hymn we sang:

      As at communion shape your hands

      into a waiting cradle.

      The gift of Christ receive, revere,

      united round the table.

      A group of Presbyters from other denominations and from overseas Methodist Churches were received at this service, together with two Methodist presbyters who were received again into Full Connexion.

      Later in the afternoon there was a celebration of life and leadership for those who are retiring. The first three, concluding Connexional appointments, were John Murray-Director of Mission Resourcing, John Salmon, Principal of Trinity College, and Geoff Peak, the President's Legal Advisor. They will be greatly missed. It was acknowledged that all three have had to deal with times of tension and stress, which is quite usual in the Church. Ten people also retired from ministry, and each gave a short account of what their calling had meant for them.

      Finally we listened to Bill Wallace's latest musical production, a very modern version of Mass - Sacred Energy-Mass of the Universe. The Wellington Cathedral Choir sang the choral parts, but had not practised it beforehand, which was disappointing; it nevertheless gave us an idea of the possibilities of the production’.

      Amen, amen, amen O God

      To you be endless praise

      Shalom, Shalom, Shalom O God

      Our hearts to you we raise.

      For you empower and you fulfil

      Our latent energy,

      The universe within our lives

      Shall dance your liturgy.

      ‘Sunday was wonderful’ says John.

      MONDAY 10 NOVEMBER

      Barry Neal reports that ‘as this was the first full working day of Conference, a busy programme began with the introduction of Conference Staff and a welcome to visitors.

      The opening Devotions, led each day by Te Taha Maori, commenced this morning’s worship with the call of the Kokako and followed a theme of Covenant and Treaty.

      Rev Philomen Riti, Moderator of the Uniting Church of the Solomon Islands and visitor to Conference with his wife Nancy, spoke of the effects of the crisis over the last two to three years and the tragic implications for the economy, social and government services, education, and the programme of the Churches. The effects of poverty in the rural areas and villages was of great concern. He offered thanks for the support given by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of N.Z and the crucial role this had played in the helping ministries of the Church. He made it clear that improvements were only able to take place in the context of restored order subsequent to the involvement of the police and military from N.Z and Australia.

      The Stationing sheet was received and new appointments included those of Bill Elderton to the Parish, Mary Caygill as Principal of Trinity College and Michael Greer to Christchurch Central Mission.

      Much of the day was spent in Committees of Detail and I joined the Churches Agency on Social Issues (CASI). This is the agency representing Presbyterians, Methodists, Churches of Christ and Quakers. It is frequently representing the churches concerns to government.

      One area we examined was that of issues relating to the seabed and foreshore where Conference expressed concern about the haste in which Government had tried to respond to these matters. A request will be made to Government, asking that more time be taken to include the views of all New Zealanders.

      Part of our presentation to Conference in the evening included background to the issues surrounding G.E. by Dr Audrey Jarvis of the Churches Commission on Bioethics. This group have concerns about some aspects of the legislation governing full release of G.E. Organisms and have raised these matters with Government. A study booklet Where Do We Stand? is available for use by groups.

      Committees of Detail all had a one hour session during the afternoon with members of the Human Rights Commission, in which issues of Human Rights Legislation and the Treaty were featured. Members were invited to look at the issues in terms of, knowledge, feelings, negatives, positives, possibilities and actions. This seemed to be a helpful and non-threatening way to share and increase understanding’.

      The NZ Methodist Women’s Fellowship and the Wesley Historical Society are among the groups that report to the Communications/Organisations Committee of Detail. Susau Strickland, a Past National President of the NZWF reflects on the year's activities as reported to Conference, and presented as part of the work of the Communications Committee of Detail.

      She notes Highlights that included the South Pacific Area Seminar of the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women, held at Lincoln University in January, 2003. World officers attended, including Rosemary Wass, World President (UK). The Keynote Bible Study leader was Rev. Dr Heather Morris from Ireland.

      The Tongan Womens’ Fellowship has been made a ‘District’ and became the 17th District of the NZMWF.

      The Financial Report for 2002-2003 included the raising of:

      Special Project Income $31,000.00

      Stamp Money $8,837.63

      Medical Education Fund $2,768.65

      Many Districts supported the Mattress Appeal

      on behalf of the Helena Goldie Hospital,

      and donations totalled $4,444.00.

      The total of $16,280 has been distributed as Grants and Koha from the Smethurst Trust during the year. The Kurahuna and Friendship Scholarship has been instituted by the NZMWF. Your Presbyter knows the criteria for these grants and has application forms.

      Addresses of Conveners are available from the NZWMF Corresponding Secretary if required.

      The aims of the NZWMF are to unite all in PRAYER, STUDY, FELLOWSHIP and SERVICE enabling a Christian witness at HOME, CHURCH and in the COMMUNITY.

      Barry Neal notes that a feature of each day at Conference was an informal interview with some of the people who lived and worked near to the Church, Who are the people in our neighbourhood? He says ‘Overall I think the whole atmosphere of Conference was helpful with people listening to learn and learning to listen’.

      Late on Monday evening, Wellington layman Ron Malpass was announced as the President-elect of the Church, with Rev. Kenneth Smith of Waitakere Parish, as Vice-President. It is the first time for several years that a layperson will take up the office of President, with, as required by Church law, a Presbyter holding the office of Vice-President. We pray for God’s blessing on them both, in the coming year.

      TUESDAY 11 and WEDNESDAY 12 November continued with the business of Conference.

      Craig Forbes reports on a time of great significance in the life of Conference 2003.

      ‘After the long years of hurt, bitter argument and pain, the Conference this year found a new and grace-filled way forward in the discussion about the ordination of gay and lesbian people within the Methodist Church of New Zealand - Te Haahi Weteriana O Aotearoa.

      Conference discussions around this issue were marked this year by a sense of mutual respect, a willingness to listen, and significant willingness to seek mutual ways forward on this issue. The fighting and bitterness of earlier debates was not evident and I was moved by the open sharing and willingness of people and groups from all perspectives in the discussion to work to find a way forward together.

      The initial way forward suggested came from the Faith and Order report Learning to Listen - Listening to Learn. The Tauiwi Treaty Partner of Conference proposed that groups within the church that could not agree with the ordination of gay and lesbian people prepare position statements that would be accepted as official documents by the church and would be the basis of established ‘protocols’. The intention was that these protocols would ensure that groups who found these ordinations to be in conflict with their own theological stances would be able to have their position recognised and respected while also allowing ordinations to take place.

      Te Taha Maori stated their support for the Ordination of gay and lesbian people but raised concerns about the use of particular language - highlighting to Conference that ‘Memoranda of Agreement’ as suggested in the Tauiwi reporting to Conference?carried the history for them of associations with Government practices of preparing such memoranda without proper consultation between the Crown and Maori, and then instituting policy that was not agreed to on the basis of these Memoranda. Te Taha Maori also pointed to the meaning of ‘Protocol’ within Maori cultural understandings and questioned the appropriateness of the use of such language.

      With no common mind on the suggested way forward being agreed between the partners, the President requested that the Council of Conference meet in order to seek a way forward for the church. Council members (10 from Tauiwi and 10 from Te Taha Maori) retired and over a five-hour period shared in dialogue, returning to the Conference with the suggestion that a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ be prepared through a process of consultation between interested parties. It was stressed that as this was a Partnership Discussion, Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi needed to share in the preparation of the Memorandum of Understanding.

      Conference accepted this as the way forward and agreed to ask the President to instigate the process by which the Memorandum could be prepared. With this decision, Conference put in place the process by which the church can now move to the ordination of gay and lesbian people as presbyters and deacons within Te Haahi Weteriana O Aotearoa - The Methodist Church of New Zealand.

      I would reflect that the process of coming to a mind on this issue was not easy, and that it reflected a Spirit of Grace and mutual respect within the Conference and the wider church. People and groups form all perspectives were heard with respect and with understanding, people shared deeply their pain and struggle as this issue has been debated, often harshly and in an unkind and wounding way, within the last years of our life. Conference also learned, I believe, to listen to, and be careful of, the language that we use. While Te Taha Maori’s statement that they could not accept a Memorandum of Agreement appeared to many to prevent finding a way forward when it as first shared, by listening to the issues around the use of the term Conference was able to recognise that in cross-cultural discussion, while partners may share the same wish and intent, we can get into problems if we are unaware of the impact of the language we choose to use and the meaning that phrases and words carry for our partners in discussion. For Tauiwi terms such as Memorandum of Agreement, and Protocol seem clear, but we heard clearly that they carry different meanings and implications for Te Taha Maori.

      At the point the decision was taken to allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian people to take place, a group of six gay and lesbian members of Conference asked the leave of Conference to make a statement. They shared in a powerful and moving way, the pain and hurt they had experienced in the years this discussion has been taking place, they also shared the sense of grace and mutual respect that had developed and their strong appreciation for the willingness of groups within the church to listen and to respond to them even though these group had significantly different beliefs and experiences to their own. This statement also acknowledged the debt owed to Ashley Sedon and David Bromell who had carried, at great personal cost, the early years of debate and had paved the way for this moment in the life of Conference.

      In the end, I experienced this decision not to be a moment of ‘winners and losers’, but a powerful experience of how the church can maintain unity in diversity, of how it is possible to find ways forward in difficult situations where there appear to be strongly conflicting theological and personal views, beliefs, and wishes. The church has moved forward and is stronger for it - not necessarily because we have made this decision, but because of how we made it, in a spirit of grace, respect, and understanding that has allowed us to learn to listen and live together as God’s people called Methodist’.

      Working steadily and constantly are those whose task it is to see that decisions of Conference are recorded. Alison Molineux reports ‘my conference experience this year was quite different from the last six years. This year I worked as one of the three journal secretaries – part of a much bigger team whose job it is to make sure that not only all the decisions but also most of the conversations of Conference are faithfully recorded.

      On that first morning it was just like being a first-timer at Conference again – I hadn’t a clue what I was supposed to do! It reminds me of how stressful being a newcomer can be. Thank goodness for ‘old hands’!

      Keeping the record is quite a business – a mixture of new technology and old-fashioned pen and paper. Two people work with computer and data projector so that members of Conference can see the decisions we are discussing and are kept up to date with the amendments we make. Two more people write down (almost!) every word that is spoken at Conference - even down to the fact that people laughed at a joke, or, for that matter, if we were silent. It was impressed on us how vital it was to keep an accurate record, should there be legal repercussions.

      My job was to hand amend typed decisions as they changed on the floor of Conference and to check and add to the written record. After my initial nervousness I thoroughly enjoyed it – our chairs were much more comfortable than the pews! The depth of listening required meant, I hope, a bit more understanding of people’s work, their positions on different issues, and their dreams for the future.

      It is a significant moment for Conference when the faithfully recorded story of its life and decisions, is signed by the President and Vice-President and placed on the communion table at the final Covenant Service in which members finally share together before going their separate ways and returning to their own communities of faith. As part of this service, and in response to the important questions always asked of Conference ‘What is God saying to us now?’ and ‘What more can be done to promote the work of God?’, the Conveners of each Committee of Detail, were asked to bring the most significant decisions made by their groups during the past days, and affirmed by Conference. This year’s written record was therefore accompanied by verbal commitments to future action under the guidance and blessing of God, as we already look towards next year’s Conference in Auckland.

      As a first-time member of Conference, Greg Morgan reflects on the whole experience.

      ‘One lasting memory of Conference is the written word. Mountains of it, recording all the hard work of Church agencies throughout the preceding year, the Committees of Detail during the Conference itself, and the suggested decisions brought to the floor of the Conference for affirmation. Methodism, you might say, was born in song and continues on paper. But Conference is also a living entity, alive in both the speeches and quiet participation of all its attendees. In a talk "Dusting off John Wesley: re-imagining the Methodist tradition", Rev. Jim Stuart challenged us to recall that Methodism was in origin a movement. Does institutionalism cause us to lose sight of what has made us what we are? Early Methodism, marked by its sense of democracy, flexible polity, evangelism, and ecumenical attitude, was shaped by Wesley’s need to travel light and fast. His was a selective, pared down theology. Yet it vigorously challenged social norms of the day.

      And of this day? Jill Hawkey from CWS reminded us that in 2003, someone somewhere dies from malnutrition every three seconds. The walk to and from my comfortable motel each well-catered Conference day took me along the unfashionable end of Taranaki Street, past a shabby building that is our capital's night shelter.

      Rev. Wil Morrey, President-elect of the British Conference and our own Rev. John Murray spoke of the need to ensure that the Church taps the wellspring of God in all people. The Church of the future probably does not need to increase the number of presbyters it supports, but must certainly enrich the training and resourcing of lay people and partner agencies to take on the work of God.

      Increasing the ability of representatives to order the business of Conference and using consensus decision making have been works in progress. As these efforts continue, it does seem important that the Friday meeting of Tauiwi develops its own structure for introducing members to what it is doing and how consensus works (this year’s was the first day-long forum of this caucus, and some attendees were unclear as to process and even outcome). Tauiwi constituents are Pacific synods, the Evangelical Network, and the Church's English-speaking congregations. Occasionally the Conference paused to allow items of business to be translated into Pacific languages. The importance of enabling all Conference participants to understand fully what is written and said is apparent.

      The revised structure of Conference now adopted and to be followed in 2004 arises from the ongoing reflection on "What is the Spirit saying to the Church?" The Friday pre-Conference meetings of Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi will begin the prioritising of reports and business before the Conference, and the two lists will be merged before the business days start on the Monday. This will leave space in the conference proper for the presentation of "life stories" - statements shared from one or two of the synods that seek to inspire others in the Connexion. Could more outside speakers be invited to inform Conference? In a second stage of review, Council of Conference will lead discussion on the nature of reporting and presenting to Conference and in its consultations ask whether some groups may report less than annually. The aim is to let Conference identify what matters now, and to free its programme for more participation, less observation.

      "To whom am I neighbour?" was the presidential theme, dwelt upon at various points in the life of Conference. Te Taha Maori led the morning karakia and shared reflections on aspects of "covenant". Covenants of the Bible and creation ("I will be your God, and you shall be my people"), and the Treaty of Waitangi as covenant. These devotions were a helpful guide through the days, right to the Covenant Service with which Conference closed. Te Taha Maori were kaitiaki - guardians - of the wider Church throughout Conference. Tumuaki Diana Tana spoke of the responsibility tangata whenua have to care for the whole of the land, including those people who have come to it. This care was acknowledged by speakers responding to the Conference’s decision to put in place the means of ordaining persons who might be gay or lesbian. Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi strove for consensus that could balance the needs of gay and lesbian Methodists, the ethnic synods and Evangelical Network, and indeed all within the Church family. Long and thoughtful deliberation, careful speaking and expressions of sincere courtesy and understanding, prayer and reflection marked the Conference's heartfelt struggle to protect unity and difference in the life of the Church. Wesleyan values came through people's words: the values of a warm heart, tolerance, respect for others, a catholic spirit and a "whole gospel". Long and thoughtful deliberation, careful speaking and expressions of sincere courtesy and understanding, prayer and reflection marked the Conference's heartfelt struggle to protect unity and difference in the life of the Church. Wesleyan values came through people’s words: the values of a warm heart, tolerance, respect for others, a catholic spirit and a "whole gospel" mindset.

      Along with the big Presidential/Vice-Presidential induction and ordination services, there was the opportunity on Sunday morning to worship at any one of several local churches. Guest and local worship leaders and preachers gave us a rich offering. Conference is like our congregation or parish on a large scale - the same nurturing elements and obligations, and the task of hearing and making space for others. And ultimately the same world to serve.’