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Difference in the air at Conference of firsts

By Paul Titus

In his welcoming speech during the powhiri that opened Methodist Church of NZ Conference 2006 in Rotorua, Rev Alex Webster referred to the Celtic concept of ‘thin places’. These are places where this world and the spiritual world seem close, where the veil between them is thin.

Rotorua, Alex said, is such a thin place. The earth’s surface is thin there so it is a place where we come face to face with nature at its most powerful. Rotorua is also a place people come to experience Maori culture so the space between cultures is thin.

Alex’s words helped set the tone for a gathering where church people from around the country came face to face to share their faith and express their views. After the powhiri, which also featured an entertaining display by former Methodist minister Napi Waka, Conference delegates got down to five days of fellowship, theological discussion, worship, and decision making.

The result was a Conference that featured a number of ‘firsts’ but no major decisions. It was the first time Conference was held in Rotorua, the first time business was conducted in a hotel, and the first time a system of coloured cards were used to indicate opinions to achieve consensus.

New to Conference too were ‘interest group’ discussions that took place on the Sunday morning and afternoon. They included sessions on theology, Bible Study, and various types of ministry.

During the business sessions several important issues, notably the future of the presidency and of Trinity College, were referred to boards that will facilitate further discussion within the church over the following year.

The two opening worship services for Conference took place on Sunday November 6th at St Mary’s Catholic Church. In both services people who are generally on the margins of the life of the Church assumed centre stage.

During the first service the Church followed through on its decision of last year and received into full Connexion its 22 ordained deacons. Six presbyters from other churches were brought into full Connexion at the same time.

In the afternoon ordination service, Sandra Gibbons was also welcomed into full Connexion. Sandra ministers to the Auckland Deaf Christian Fellowship and a contingent of the fellowship was on hand to support her. Some of them ‘sang’ a hymn in sign language during the service.

In his address during the service at Methodist Conference 2006 President Rev Dr John Salmon made several points that were lived out in the days that followed. One was on the pervasive presence of cultural and ideological differences in our world today, both within the Church and wider society.

Conference made a number of attempts to grapple with its diversity. In its deliberations over who to put forward as its presidential candidates for 2008 the Tauiwi division used a new approach and divided into two caucuses. One included the three Pacific synods (Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian) and the other was the geographical English-speaking synods.

Each group put forward its choices for president and they went forward to the Five +Five panel that selects the president on behalf of Tauiwi and Te Taha Maori. The selection process was an issue of discussion during a second business session when the Tongan synod challenged the makeup of the Five + Five panel, and some people expressed their frustration at the amount of time the process took.

Once the selection process worked its course Rev Brian Turner and Barbara Peddie were selected as the next president and vice president.

While discussions of the presidency created some tension, in part because of the implications it has for the status of gays and lesbians in the Church, this was not the case during the Tuesday evening theological reflection. During that session Conference broke into small ‘buzz’ groups to discuss difference. When the full Conference re-gathered to share their insights, the stories people told sparked lots of laughter, highlighting the joy difference can bring and the benefits of maintaining dialogue.

The consensus among participants is that Conference 2006 was good overall. President John Salmon says he is pleased the Church has decided to explore the theological and practical issues related to church leadership.

Director of Tauiwi Pasifika Ministry Rev Aso Samoa Saleupolu enjoyed the opportunity this Conference presented for Bible study and theological reflection. “Pacific people expect Conference to be a time of celebration and spiritual nurturing but Conference in New Zealand tends to be very business-like,” Aso says.

Board of Ministry business manager Nicola Grundy was concerned there was a sense of apathy in Conference and an unwillingness to discuss difficult issues. Nicola would like to see Conference restructured so there are larger chunks of time to discuss key issues and formulate policy.

Decisions of Conference

  • Board of Ministry: Conference gave a mandate to the Board of Ministry and Te Taha Maori to explore new directions for Trinity College. Conversations will take place between the Board and the Anglican Church and Auckland Methodist Central Parish during 2007 with the possibility that in future all Trinity College’s activities will be focused on one site.
  • Mission and Ecumenical: Conference supported the NZ government’s seasonal workers policy that will allow entry to temporary workers from Pacific Forum nations. Conference expressed its concern that workers from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have been excluded and seeks their inclusion. Parishes will be encouraged to provide pastoral to workers who come here under the scheme.
  • Faith and Order: Conference endorsed a fourth phase of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.