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Conference seeks way forward together

By Paul Titus

In his presidential address after his induction Rev Dr John Salmon asked a question: What does it mean to be Christian and Church in the kind of world we face today?

John framed his question in the context of issues citizens of the world now deal with: the interaction of global and local forces, cultural and religious diversity, our stressed environment, and new patterns of leadership and organisation. As Conference unfolded it would illustrate the ups and downs these forces can bring.

The cultural diversity of the Methodist Church was to the forefront during the first two days of Conference. The opening powhiri was held at the inner-city Te Rehua marae where the cabbage trees were in full flower and a nor’west wind rustled the elm trees. The induction service for John and vice president Mary West that followed the powhiri and the ordination service the next day featured several streams of cultural input.

“The welcome onto Te Rehua marae was a positive start to Conference because of the connections it has with the tangata whenua and the Methodist Church. It was also good to have a range of music during our celebration services and good that some of that music came from the families of those being recognised in the services,” John says.

During the ordination service Rev Stuart Grant sang a solo hymn, as did Nainz and Viiz Tupa’i, who sang in Samoan. Stuart is the husband of Cornelia Grant who was ordained during the service. Nainz and Viiz make up the popular rhythm and blues band Adeaze and they are the brothers of Leatuao ‘Larry’ Tupa’i Samuel, who was also ordained. Their performance was appropriate given that the other two people ordained that day, Paulo Ieli and Limu Isaia, have Samoan roots.

John’s own family contributed to the musical atmosphere of Conference. At the end the induction service a dance track put together by John’s son Rob Salmon was played. Rob is a DJ in Sydney and the track mixed Gregorian chants and traditional hymns with a dance beat giving a good example of the evolving cultural influences John alluded to in his talk.

The three business days of Conference illustrated the changing nature of church and society. Among the decisions Conference passed were to accept deacons into full connexion, change the way grants from the church’s Prince Albert College (PAC) Trust fund are made, and confirm the right of Methodist ministers to officiate at civil union ceremonies within certain guidelines.

The decision regarding PAC funds means 70 percent of its annual grants will be directed to endowments. Of the remaining funds 20 percent goes to parishes and missions for innovative projects and 10 percent goes to organisations outside the church. The latter replaces the policy of external funding every seventh year.

John says Conference’s business sessions ran smoothly, though he received some feedback that there was not as much debate as in past years. He points out that more discussion now takes place at synods prior to Conference and there were two sessions at conference that gave space for wide-ranging discussion. One of these was on the role of deacons and the other was an ‘open-microphone’ discussion on theological issues.

The election of next year’s president was potentially the most contentious issue Conference faced. Prior to Conference the media showed considerable interest in the issue because the sole nominee for president, Te Taha Maori Tumuaki Rev Diana Tana, would have become the first lesbian person to head a church in this country.

On the Friday before Conference the Tauiwi division of the church separated into ethnic groups to discuss the issue. The Pakeha, Samoan, and Tongan groupings could reach no consensus on the issue, and the Fijian caucus said it would stand aside and accept the church’s decision.

Given the church’s partnership model of decision making, the lack of consensus among Tauiwi means that John and Mary will continue in the roles of president and vice president for a second year.

“The expression of diverse elements in Te Hahi Weteriana is part of the changing ways we assert our different perspectives and relate to other groups. We have to continue to search for ways to be strong where we stand but interactive with where other people stand,” John says.

“The presidential election demonstrates the kind of difficulties that can arise when we enable interaction between different views. It can be difficult to find a single position that represents everybody.

“We heard a variety of voices and no single one predominated. In this case, it had the unfortunate effect that a positive, supportive voice could not be expressed in the outcome. It is good that this support voice was strongly expressed in the original nomination.”

One consequence of this outcome is that Conference has asked John to head a review of the presidential selection process. Along with clarifying selection procedures, he would like it reassess the role of president in light of the changing nature of leadership within the church. Another important question it should address is the impact recent experiences have had on the relationship between Tauiwi and Te Taha Maori.

In looking ahead to his two years in office John says his priority is to find ways Methodists can communicate and work with one another. This is not just an issue that affects the internal life of the church but a question of how the church can be more effective in today’s world.