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Tongan parish seeks to reconcile after high court decision

By Paul Titus

Thanksgiving and reconciliation were the first concerns of Methodist Church leaders after the Auckland High Court rejected a bid by a breakaway section of a Tongan congregation to take control of Otahuhu Methodist Church.

The case arose when the Tongan congregation split in 2000 over the 1997 decision of the Methodist Church to welcome into full connexion a person known to be homosexual. The group that left the Church claimed to represent a majority of the congregation’s property trustees. It argued that because the congregation had paid for the construction of church buildings, they should retain ownership of them.

Justice O’Reagan rejected the breakaway group’s claims to the property. The court case has significance around the world as growing numbers of churches recognise the ordination of gay clergy.

Methodist Church of NZ president Rev Norman West says while the judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, he also called for the parties in the dispute to reconcile themselves. “As president I take this seriously and so do the Tongan people. For this reason following the judge’s decision we offered a service of reconciliation at the Otahuhu parish.”

Along with Norman, those who took part in the service were superintendent of the MCNZ’s Tongan synod Rev ‘Epeli Taungapeau, MCNZ general secretary Rev Jill van der Geer, Te Taha Maori tumuaki Rev Diana Tana, and Auckland District superintendent Rev David Pratt.

“Unfortunately the other group decided not to attend the service. But this will not be the end of our efforts at healing,” Norman says. “As Methodist people in New Zealand we have to learn to live with our differences. We share one witness as Methodists and we should celebrate our unity rather than our differences.”

‘Epeli echoes Norman’s words and says the door of Otahuhu Church is open for conversation and communication. He would like to see the dissident faction rejoin the church family.

“The significance of the decision for Tongan people is that it showed that the whole of the Methodist Church is behind the Tongan ministry. It is important for people to realise we are not in a vacuum, we are connected to the Methodist Church of NZ, and the church takes us seriously,” ‘Epeli says.

“Now we have a whole lot of things to work through. We need to make sure people understand the structure and ethos of the MCNZ and how we work within that structure.

“We must have clear, well-informed minds so we can debate some important issues – not only human sexuality but also power sharing, partnership, and social issues related to the lives of Tongans in New Zealand.”

The lawyer who represented the MCNZ in the case, David Smith, says it was a resounding victory for the church because the judge dismissed all courses of action the plaintiffs raised. According to David, the ramifications if the church has lost the case were potentially huge.

If the judge had found in the plaintiffs’ favour any group that put money into a church could ask for it back when it left the church.

“This case says if you go into a church or any other voluntary organisation, you enter it as it is and you leave it as it is. There are no property rights involved if half or two-thirds of the members want to go off and do something else.

(Norman West equated this to some members of tennis club leaving and wanting to take the tennis courts with them).

David says another significant aspect of the case is that the judge accepted the church’s submission that the civil courts are not equipped to answer theological questions. The judge recognised that there is an ecclesiastical court to deal with such issues in the Methodist Church and that is Conference.