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South Pacific Methodists weave future from strands of the past

By Rev Terry Wall

The Wesley Historical Society of New Zealand was host for a conference on the missionary heritage of the South Pacific. The conference took place at Crossroads Methodist Church, Papakura, South Auckland at the end of January and had the title ‘Weaving the Unfinished Mats - Wesley's legacy of conflict, confusion and challenge in the South Pacific’

More than 80 participants from around the region gathered for the four days. They enjoyed worship, fellowship and a variety of presentations that examined the ways Methodist mission arrived and made an impact on the Pacific.

The image of ‘weaving unfinished mats’ served the conference well as speakers discussed ways Pacific peoples received threads of the gospel with gratitude and then wove them into indigenous mats that are still evolving.

Keynote speaker Professor Andrew Walls from Scotland articulated an understanding of mission that focused on ‘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.

Andrew compared the success of Methodist mission turning toward Christ in the Pacific while it struggled in other places. He attributed this to the advent of indigenous Pacific evangelists. Once they embraced the gospel these evangelists 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 at Lincoln College John Wesley 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. Rev Sylvia ’Akau’ola Tongotongo offered a challenge to the church to acknowledge the ways young people from these cultures born in New Zealand are changing. Their distinctive needs must become a priority, Sylvia says.

Lecturer in Church History in the School of Theology at the University of Auckland Dr Allan Davidson, gave an illuminating 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.

Allan demonstrated ways Pacific communities have been adaptable, resourceful and resilient. He also noted that Wesley read the published account of Cook’s voyage to the Pacific and 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 Rev Dr Susan Thompson on mission and theological education, Ian Faulkner on education in the South Pacific, 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 said some Fijian missionaries had been martyred in Papua New Guinea, and, after 127 years, the local church will be offering an apology at a liturgy of reconciliation planned for April 6th.

The conference reminded participants of the strength of Methodism in the Pacific. There were calls to develop better communications, support, and solidarity to reinforce the koinonia we enjoy. In the final forum Dr Peter Lineham challenged Methodism in this region to recover its roots in a less polished and more exuberant worship, witness to the grace of God, and maintain its concern for social justice.

Methodist heritage provides rich setting

By Helen Laurenson,
President Wesley Historical Society (NZ)

A Friday of sunshine offered the opportunity to explore historical sites on the Awhitu Peninsula. A bus load of enthusiastic participants, led by Audrey Matthews, recalled the story of early Methodist mission work in this beautiful part of the country. Well fed and thoroughly informed, we made our way from Papakura, through Waiuku to the lakes at Pehiakura and the beach at Orua Bay.

Many of the historic churches visited extended a warm welcome. Wesley College was the final stop and principal Ian Faulkner outlined the history of this, the oldest school in New Zealand.

Wesley Historical Society is the oldest church historical society in New Zealand, and the conference enabled us to celebrate and honour our 75th year. Further significance was that January marked the 150th anniversary of the first Australasian Wesleyan Conference, held in Sydney in 1855. That conference covered the work in Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and the South Seas. It was accorded powers of self government though it was still affiliated to the British Conference.

The importance of the South Pacific conference was emphasised by the presence of the president of Methodist Conference Ron Malpass and vice-president Rev Kenneth Smith. Ron is a member of the Wesley Historical Society and is our current patron through his term of office. In addition, we welcomed special guests from Australia, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and representatives of various Pacific communities in this country. The mayor of Papakura John Robertson spoke warmly of his experience with Voluntary Services Association in Solomon Islands.

Planning for this gathering, like most good things, took time. The idea of holding another South Pacific Conference following the very successful one held at Wesley College in May 1987, continued with the Society through more than a decade, and some efforts were made to arrange another. In 2001, the ideas became more intentional, and a small group met to start planning for this 21st century conference.

Taha Maori sets out bicultural mat

Saturday morning saw the presentation of the Maori mats session with karakia by Te Taha Maori to open the day. Bella Ngaha then gave an account of her visit to Hawaii and traced the many parallels between the experience of indigenous Hawaiians and the tangatawhenua in Aotearoa.

Lana Lazarus followed with a participatory session where the conference was asked to share their knowledge of the main events in the history of Maori and Pakeha relationships. Tumuaki Rev Diana Tana led us on through the chequered history of the Treaty of Waitangi and the way in which the Methodist Church had played a key part in its establishment at the heart of New Zealand nationhood.

Bella then returned to set out the main points of our life together over the years. She flourished a cheap plastic table mat purchased at a $2 shop to demonstrate the hurt that Maori feel at the manner in which their culture has so often been expropriated by Tauiwi.

The mats carried images of traditional Maori deities and Bella allowed the offence to speak for itself. The image of weaving the unfinished mats was enhanced by Keita Hotere speaking from the point of view of the young people, the rangatahi, and the many challenges they face as the mats continue to be woven.

Melanesian mats have troubled patterns

General secretary of the Solomon Islands United Church Gina Tekulu spoke of the issues which that church faces. These include economic globalization, freedom of religious expression, responding to ethnic tensions, teenage pregnancies, and HIV AIDS.

There were many clear parallels with the points made by circuit minister and former principal of Rarongo Theological College, Papua New Guinea Rev Robinson Moses. Robinson shared his concerns for his church which faces restructuring, decreasing enthusiasm for evangelism, the challenge of Pentecostalism, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, delinquency, corruption and nepotism, and economic issues such as multi-nationalism, forestry, fishing and mining rights.

Rev Dr Tevita Baleiwaqa from Fiji spoke of the special character of South Pacific Methodism. He shared his vision of a coming together of the community of South Pacific Methodist people in a conference-like setting. This would serve to rekindle some of the valued ties of previous years.

Australians seek place on Pacific mat

At one point during the conference Rev Dr Tevita Baleiwaqa from Fiji presented a fine small woven mat and suggested that it was like a mat used to carry a precious new baby. He encouraged the Pacific’s national churches to carry together, like a newborn, hopeful relationships between each other.

However, an Australian member of the conference Margaret Reeson noted the changed relationship between Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) and the churches in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji that occurred when Uniting Church was inaugurated in 1977. UCA was not named among the churches who might work together in future.

She asks if this was simply a slip of the tongue. Or is there a perception that Australia has chosen to step away from the strong relationships that once existed between the members of what was known as the Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Conference, begun 150 years ago in January 1855?

That alliance included the Methodist churches in the Australian colonies, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji and lasted until 1977. The questions raised are not just 'history'. They demand a response in 2005.