I was humbled and honoured when President Stuart McMillan asked me to represent the Uniting Church in Australia at the Methodist Church of New Zealand Conference in the South Island town of Blenheim from 13-18 November 2015.
It was my first time to go to any Methodist Church Conference. With a limited knowledge of the MCNZ, I was very keen to learn as much as I could from our partner, particularly about their relationship between Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi (what we would call first and second peoples). I was also interested in relationships between the different language groups within Tauiwi.
The MCNZ has four different synods: the English-speaking Synod, the Tongan Synod – Vahefonua Tonga ‘o Aotearoa, the Samoan Synod – Sinoti Samoa and the Fijian Synod – Wasewase ko viti kei Rotuma e Niu Siladi.
Despite this the MCNZ describes itself as a bi-cultural church, with the Treaty of Waitangi signed between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840 underpinning the power-sharing relationship for first and second peoples. The MCNZ seeks to work according to the principles of the Treaty and be guided in its mission.
The theme of the Conference was ‘A time to re-sow, a time to re-grow’. It started with the welcoming service by Te Taha Maori, and continued with a service recognising those who had retired and honouring those who died since the last Conference.
On Sunday there was an ordination service for nine new ministers, five Tongans, two Fijians, one Maori and one Samoan.
During the conference, I had the pleasure of sitting next to the President of the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga, Rev Dr Finau ‘Ahio, and his wife Loukinikini, as well as the President of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev Tevita Banivanua and his wife Bale. They graciously explained to me how the conference works.
It was also great to see the UCA Assembly’s incoming General Secretary Colleen Geyer share some of the inspiring UnitingCare Queensland sustainability story. It was very well received by members of the Conference. Well done Colleen.
During the Conference, there were times for Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi to meet separately to discuss particular issues, but most of the time they met together.
Sri Lankan-born minister Rev. Prince Devanandan was announced as the President-Elect for 2016-2018. Prince will be the third MCNZ President from a migrant background, after Rev. Aso Saleupolu and current President Rev. Tovia Aumua, both originally from Samoa.
There was a time of grace on the Monday when the Conference discussed the issue of church leadership and sexuality. No consensus was found within Tauiwi members on the question despite it being a matter for discussion for more than 10 years.
Te Taha Maori showed great grace by respecting the discernment process within Tauiwi members.
It was another moment of grace when Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi agreed to continue walking together as one church. In the next few years, at least twice a year, Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi will meet together to create a space for grace for this conversation to happen.
I found their commitment to walk together in the spirit of diversity amazing.
It reminded me of the UCA’s commitment to be a multicultural church. We may differ in the ways we worship, the language we use, the hymns we sing and understand God differently, but we are committed to journeying together as God’s people in this spiritual land, Australia.