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Tongan women boycott women’s convention over gay issue

By Paul Titus

Both celebration and controversy marked the 2008 national convention of the New Zealand Methodist Women’s Fellowship (MWF).

Highlights of the bi-annual event, which took place in Hamilton October 2-5, included the commissioning of the MWF’s new president Vaotane Samoa Saleupolu and celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Smethurst Trust Fund which provides money to support Methodist and Uniting women in New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Not all sections of the MWF were represented at the convention, however. The Tongan district refused to send a delegation because the keynote speaker was the tumuaki of the Church’s Maori division, Rev Diana Tana, who is lesbian.

Outgoing MWF president Lynne Scott explains she invited Diana to be the main speaker at the convention back in February. Once the invitation was accepted, Lynne circulated the programme to the 19 MWF districts.

The Tongan district asked Lynne to reconsider the invitation to Diana but Lynne and her executive decided to stand by their decision. When there were indications the Tongan district would therefore not attend, Church leaders including the president, Rev Brian Turner, attempted to mediate.

Ultimately, though, the Tongan district boycotted the convention. The district president Seini Filiai sent a letter explaining their position and submitted a notice of motion on the issue of homosexual leaders in the Church.

Seini says the annual general meeting of the MWF Tongan district made the decision to boycott the convention based on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in 2001 by the then presidents of the Methodist Church of NZ and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

The 2001 MOU states the Tongan synod of Methodist Church of NZ believes homosexuality is contrary to the teachings of scripture and that no homosexual people should be assigned as ministers or leaders within the synod.

Seini does not believe that MOU was superseded by the later 2003 MOU signed by the superintendents of all the Methodist Church of NZ ethnic synods. The 2003 Mou enables those who agree and disagree with the ordination of gay and lesbian people to stand together with integrity within the Methodist Church.

“Our decision was not against Diana personally, it was against homosexuality,” Seini says. “We believe the keynote speaker at the convention sets the spiritual tone and creates the focus of the whole convention.

“We sent a letter of support to Vaotane and the new executive committee. We look forward to working with her. The notice of motion we submitted to the convention explains the Biblical verses that we accept as truth.”

Lynne says the convention discussed the notice of motion and rejected it. It asks the MWF to inform Conference that it supports the Tongan district’s request that no homosexual leaders minister to Tongan women at any time. The convention decided that the MWF does not have the authority to tell Conference what to do.

“There were some real fireworks during the discussion. When it was over the Maori women sang a waiata, and all the women stood in a circle and linked hands with Diana to support her,” Lynne says.

Vaotane says she was happy to be with Diana at convention and she was impressed at the courage shown by three Tongan women from the Wellington district who attended.

“Diana is a friend,” Vaotane says. “We have different beliefs but I accept our differences. She is still a sister. I do not understand why the Tongan women attend Conference [where Diana plays a leadership role] but not MWF convention.”

The three Tongan women who attended the MWF convention did so as affiliates of the Wellington district, not as members of the Tongan district. One of them, Valeti Finau, says she has had a long struggle with the issue of homosexuality but, with the signing of the 2003 MOU, she has been able to move on. She believes some Church leaders from Tonga do not fully appreciate what has taken place in New Zealand.

“In Wellington we have done our crying and now we feel we can accept each other’s differences,” Valeti says. “I am at a different stage in my faith journey now. I recognise we are all sinners. Nobody is holy.

“I decided to go to MWF convention because I cannot go back. I now have the view from the mountain top and I refuse to return to the valley. I understand there are people with different theologies, and I pray with the help of God’s grace I can accept them. I cannot judge them, I can only judge myself.”