South Pacific Methodist Historians Trace the Unfinished Wesleyan Mats
The Wesley Historical Society of New Zealand was host for the South Pacific Conference which met at Crossroads Methodist Church, Papakura, South Auckland at the end of January 2005. The theme was "Weaving the Unfinished Mats, Wesley's Legacy: conflict, confusion and challenge in the South Pacific."
The more than eighty participants from all around the region who gathered for the four days enjoyed worship, fellowship and a variety of presentations examining the ways in which Methodist mission had arrived and made an impact on the Pacific.
The image of "weaving the unfinished mats" served the conference well as speakers recognised that the threads of the gospel were received with gratitude and were then woven into indigenous mats that are still evolving.
Keynote speaker Professor Andrew Walls from Scotland articulated an understanding of mission that had as its focus 'turning toward Christ.' The earliest mission saw Jewish life turning toward Christ. The New Testament then shows us the Greek way of turning toward Christ. He argued that Christianity was at its most dynamic in cross-cultural diffusion. New energy is released as the gospel crosses each new frontier. It always involves a turning of what is already there in the culture toward Christ.
Professor Walls then traced the success of Methodist mission in the Pacific turning toward Christ in contrast to its struggles in other places. Significantly he attributed this to the advent of indigenous Pacific evangelists who once they had embraced the gospel were eager and courageous in taking it to their Polynesian and Melanesian sisters and brothers.
European missionaries, he argued, were children of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, science and the individual. This resulted in a restricted world view. They went to peoples who lived in a universe with a larger spiritual vision, with more 'crossing points' for the God of grace to touch human communities.
With this challenging background speakers from all around the Pacific shared the way they saw the Wesleyan mats being woven among their people in the past and present. Te Taha Maori spoke of their Aotearoa experience. The Treaty of Waitangi is seen as a covenant between two peoples with Wesleyan missionaries believing the treaty would safeguard Maori well-being. Maori Methodists are finding Maori ways to be Christian in Aotearoa. One major issue identified was the way in which indigenous knowledge is being misappropriated and employed outside the culture to which it belongs.
Dr. Jim Stuart considered the New Zealand pakeha experience. He noted that John Wesley at Lincoln College could well have been influenced by John Wycliff and the Lollards through distant memories of their street preaching in the 14th century. He noted that by the 1770s Wesley had become the most recognisable figure in England. Jim sees enduring tensions in Wesley's legacy between the settler church and Maori reception of the gospel. Speakers from the Fijian, Tongan and Samoan Methodist communities within New Zealand spoke of their transition through migration to a new cultural context. 'How do we live the gospel in this strange land ?' A new pattern is being woven in the mat they have brought. The Reverend Sylvia 'Akau'ola Tongotongo offered a sharp challenge to the church to acknowledge the way in which young people from these cultures born in New Zealand were changing. Their distinctive needs must become a priority.
Lecturer in Church History in the School of Theology at the University of Auckland, Dr Allan Davidson, gave an entertaining presentation on 'Issues facing Methodists in the South Pacific.' He questioned the fashionable view that mission had a fatal impact on the Pacific. Such a view assumed that Pacific people were passive and unable to respond to European presence. In fact he demonstrated ways in which Pacific communities had been adaptable, resourceful and resilient. He also noted that Wesley had read the published account of Cook's voyage to the Pacific. Wesley could not believe that Tupaia, the young Tahitian linguist whom Cook took to New Zealand, could communicate with people thousands of miles from his home!
Other fascinating presentations were given by Dr. Susan Thompson on Mission and Theological Education and Rev. Donald Phillipps on the intellectual environment that shaped Wesleyan missionaries in 18th and 19th century England. The Reverend Robinson Moses spoke of Wesleyan mission to Papua New Guinea and the influence of Fijian missionaries. He mentioned that some Fijian missionaries had been martyred in Papua New Guinea and that after 127 years, the local church will be offering an apology at a liturgy of reconciliation planned for 6th April this year.
The conference reminded participants of the strength of Methodism in the Pacific. There were calls to develop improved communications of support and solidarity reinforcing the koinonia that we enjoy. In a post-Enlightenment context there was a challenge from Dr Peter Lineham in the final forum for Methodism in the region to recover its roots in both a less polished and more exuberant worship and witness to the grace of God and to maintain its concern for social justice.
The Proceedings of the South Pacific Conference January 2005,
Weaving the Unfinished mats : Wesley's Legacy – Conflict, Confusion and Challenge in the South Pacific,
Edited by Dr Peter Lineham,
available from :
Alec Utting 216B Hukanui Road, Chartwell, Hamilton 3210
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