Thursday, February 25, 2010


Published in the Fiji Times - Wednesday, 17th February, 2010

This week the Churches of the Pacific mourn one of the leaders of the Ecumenical Movement in the Pacific, the late Archbishop Jabez Bryce of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia.

The word "ecumenism" has its roots in the Greek word oikumene which means "the whole inhabited earth".

The Christian understanding of of oikumene is of the earth as the household of God. Ecumenism refers to the Church which is the "one Church for the whole world and for all time" (Fr. Louis Brauchemin, in his sermon at the 5th PCC Assembly in Apia, Samoa - 1986).

In its document, Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches states that term "ecumenical" embraces the quest for Christian unity, common witness in the worldwide task of mission and evangelism, and commitment to diakonia and to the promotion of justice and peace.

Archbishop Bryce was the chairman of the Pacific Conference of Churches from 1976 to 1986, a time when the PCC made significant developments.

In the book, Affirming Our Ecumenical Journey, he noted that during this decade the Roman Catholic Church became a full member of the PCC through the Pacific Bishops' Conference and the PCC had its first lay-person and female general secretary in Lorine Tevi, at a time when feminism and the women's liberation movement were still at an early stage in the Pacific.

This was an era when the PCC began to focus on justice and self-determination issues such as nuclear testing in Moruroa and Bikini, the self determination of French territories, mining consequences in Nauru and New Caledonia and awareness-raising on difficult issue of tourism, multi-national corporations.

I am honoured to have known this servant of God and count myself privileged to have experienced the practical nature of his ecumenism. I first met the then Bishop Bryce through my late Father, Benjamin Bhagwan who was at that time the general secretary of the Fiji Council of Churches.

Later I was to find out that in fact both these men shared the same date of birth.

I remember an occasion during my time as a Bachelor of Divinity student at the Pacific Theological College in the first half of this decade.

During this time my two children were born and baptised in the PTC chapel by an Anglican priest, the Reverend Rosalyn Nokise, in an expression of ecumenism by my wife and I (she, a Catholic and I, a Methodist).

As a result, my family would often attend the mid-week Eucharist celebration (Holy Communion) held by the Anglican community.

On one occasion, Bishop Bryce was in attendance and afterwards had supper with the community. As the Easter long-weekend was approaching he presented an envelope of pocket money to each of the Anglican priests who were my fellow students as an Easter loloma, with a statement that they were to give the envelope to their wives straight away.

Noticing me sitting quietly in the background, he then proceeded to remind everyone that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was an Anglican priest until the day he died and that Methodists are part of the Anglican family, adding with a big smile, even if they were rebellious prodigal sons.

He approached me, shook my hand, and gave me some pocket money from his own wallet. I was later to find out it was the same amount that my brother students had received.

Bishop Bryce wrote of meeting his wife Tilisi:

"Incidentally, during an ecumenical meeting in Tonga, my eye fell on this woman who came from the Methodist Church and ended up becoming my wife. I am grateful for the ecumenical movement for that!"

When I went to thank him for my "Easter loloma", he said to me, with that wonderful smile still on his face, that ecumenism is not only a movement for the Church but for families too.

The last time I had a conversation with Bishop Bryce was after a public forum on the state and future of the somewhat stagnated ecumenical movement in Fiji.

In the course of our discussion, he reminded me that in the oikumene, the household of God, everyone, including non-Christians are part of the household.

His parting words to me that day were that as a Christian in a pluralistic (multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious) society, the ecumenical dialogue must go hand-in-hand with interfaith dialogue. As a Fiji Islander with blood and marriage ties to almost every ethnic and religious group in this country (the majorities and minorities) it was an affirmation of the inclusiveness of the household of God while at the same time a challenge to go and do likewise in terms of loving one's neighbour.

My heart goes out to his wife Tilisi, and their children Jonathan and Fitaloa, and to the Anglican community in Fiji and Polynesia. I know that I am not alone in praying for God's peace to surround and comfort you.

The many men and women in Fiji, the Pacific and around the world who were challenged and inspired by this man of God are with you in this time of sorrow.

At the same time, in true Pacific style, we are called to celebrate his life, and in acknowledgement of the work he did towards creating unity among the Churches of the Pacific, called to commit ourselves to continuing the legacy that he left behind.

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. As I prepared my sermon for tonight's Ash Wednesday Service at Dudley Memorial Church (7pm, corner of Amy Street and Toorak Road - All Welcome) I reflected on the significance and challenges Christians face during the Lenten period. Our theme in Dudley for Ash Wednesday is "Sincerity or Hypocrisy?"

My humble plea to the leaders of the churches in Fiji is to place on the altar of Christian Unity, whatever personal issues that are holding us back from allowing God to manifest the prayer of the Christ that all may be one, in order that the world may believe (John 17:21). Only if we are willing to love our brothers and sisters, can we ever hope to love our neighbour. That is the test of our sincerity in our commitment to be one church for the whole world and for all time.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the spirit of brother and sisterhood.

* This article is the sole opinion of Reverend J.S. Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with.

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