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CCANZ swansong could herald new dawn

One chapter closed in the ecumenical life of New Zealand churches and another opened last month when a farewell celebration was held to mark the closing of the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (CCANZ).

The celebration was held during the CCANZ’s final forum, which took place September 16-18 in Porirua.

Observing the forum on behalf of the Churches’ Agency on Social Issues was Julia Stuart. Julia says. The overall atmosphere was one of reflection. The careful approach of the organisers was evident because it did not descend into nostalgia but did allow space for emotion to come through.

“Facilitator Graham Millar included exercises that enabled personal interaction and used balloons as a symbol of celebration. The programme included presentations from continuing ecumenical organisations and this was good. They left the impression that the ecumenical torch will continue to be held high in different, mostly functional, ways,” Julia says.

An important part of the farewell tribute was a session with Colin Gibson in which delegates sang their way through the ecumenical history of NZ.

As CCANZ has wound down over the past year, the Strategic Thinking Group (STG) has consulted church leaders and grass-roots Christians to determine its successor. The STG includes representatives of the Protestant churches that were instrumental in CCANZ, the Roman Catholic Church of NZ, the evangelical Vision Network, and the country’s Asian churches.

Julia says observers from the STG were careful not to steer the discussion at the final forum and no grand plan for the future was unveiled. STG member Graeme Nicholas did say the focus for any new structure must be missional, and based on the John 17 prayer for unity ‘that the world may believe’. It was clear, Graeme said, two levels of accountability would be needed – to the leaders of the churches and to the ‘grassroots energy’.

Methodist leaders are positive about the legacy of CCANZ and the way it enabled people from the grassroots to engage with church leaders. Both CCANZ and the Methodist Church developed decision-making based on consensus. And both placed a high value on bi-cultural partnerships, affirmed the dignity and equality of women, and encouraged people to speak out on religious and social issues.

Many of the provocative elements of CCANZ were set in train by its predecessor, the National Council of Churches. Anti-racism programmes that extended out of the support for the anti-apartheid movement were a part of that legacy.

Rev John Roberts says CCANZ was always challenged, probed, and raised a prophetic voice. Its strengths were programmes on racism, peace, and the anti-nuclear movement. It tried to make room for women’s voices and young people. In the end some of those strengths become weakness because some denominations could not accommodate them.

Although CCANZ tried to make space for the Roman Catholic Church that didn’t work out because of differences over the role of church leaders and lay people. Finding this balance will be a challenge to the whatever body succeeds CCANZ.

As part of the efforts to reflect on the legacy of ecumenism in this country, CCANZ commissioned essays by Allan Davidson and Peter Lineham. Those essays have been combined to create a book entitled Where the Road Runs Out. It is available from CCANZ at a retail cost of $22.50. A formal launch for the release of the book will take place in Auckland.