Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Young people encounter Christian Unity

Published in The Fiji Times, Wednesday May 12th, 2010

'Unity' is perhaps the most important, yet often the most elusive, objective in any community. I remember as a young boy on school-holiday visits to Suva from Lautoka riding past the Public Employees Union building on Edinburgh Drive. The image of two shaking hands and the words "United we stand, Divided we fall," were indelibly imprinted in my memory. Yet our self-interest or selfishness often outweighs our recognition that the needs of the many are more important than the wants of the few.

I was in Papua New Guinea recently and was watching the local television news as someone was being interviewed on a submission on human rights. The person was trying to explain to the interviewer the importance of communal rights as understood in the cultures of Papua New Guinea in relation to individual rights as understood in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To me, the point that came across was that our individual rights are the base minimum, while our communal rights or perhaps responsibilities to each other are the ideal.

Unity in our diverse society is always going to be a difficult task given that many community leaders have their own agendas and that for many, one's identity focuses on that which marks us as different rather than as the same. Even on the divisive issue of religion, we often tend to identify our selves by denomination than faith. In a country like Fiji, with a high percentage of professing Christians, there are many Christian denominations whose relationships with each other range from fellowship and working together through recognised commonalities, to casual or uneasy relationships, ignorance or outright criticism and condemnation. It seems some leaders of faith communities are more interested in the issue of "sheep-stealing" (proselytising) than finding common ground to work together.

It would seem that in the household of God, each family member keeps his or her room locked and tries to entice other members of the household to move into that room.

A few weeks ago, about 24 young men and women from churches and Christian groups from around met in Suva for a weeklong encounter with some of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement in the Pacific: Archbishop Sir Ellison Pogo, of the Anglican Church of Melanesia; former president of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, Reverend Dr Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, past-General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Mrs Lorine Tevi; and the Citizen's Constitutional Forum's Reverend Akuila Yabaki.

The initiative of the Pacific Conference of Churches was to bring these young people together to listen, discern, learn from and celebrate with the ecumenical pioneers the foundation and years of progress of the ecumenical movement in Oceania - its history, vision, the calls and actions that were made since its formation in Malua, Western Samoa in 1961 and the challenges it faced over the years. Many of these young people had never heard the word "ecumenism". After those five days together, I doubt they will ever forget it.

At the end of their ecumenical encounter, the young people issued a communiquÚ which will be presented to the Pacific Church Leaders meeting in August in Aotearoa / New Zealand. The communiquÚ expressed, "the pain of division in particular, the pain of not being able to break bread together, fellowship as often as we can and to share the word of God together; as well as the failure to recognise the gift of unity that God has given and to take responsibility of the call to visibly express this unity."

It also expressed concern at the failure of churches, "to speak with one voice and carry out its prophetic witness on the most fundamental issue of our time, namely the declining respect for and valuing of life - both human and natural - in the household of God, which has resulted in the deepening level of poverty and injustice, violence in its various forms, bad governance and corruption, the indignity with regard to how we treat those who are different from us, and the devastating impacts of climate change resulting from our human greed and mistaken view of development."

The young ecumenists shared their view of the household of God from a Christian perspective and affirmed that ecumenism means the "one household or the Oikos of God and it includes the human family and all created things in our seas, lands and skies and affirming that we are impelled, with our variety of gifts and contributions, to continue to build the "household of God." Understanding that Christian unity, "means unity in diversity and that the differences among our Churches in Oceania and the diversity of our Christian faith traditions enhance, enrich and strengthen our Christian unity," the young Christian men and women of the "liquid continent" affirmed that this unity, "deepens our understanding of God, moves us to appreciate the uniqueness of our own church traditions, and help us to embrace our humble state in the vastness of God's creation."

As they agreed that diversity and difference has a real place in our Christian unity, and that these are not tragic but invitations for us to appreciate our uniqueness and to recognise the dignity of those who are different and that of the created world, they also acknowledged the "failure to recognise and deeply appreciate that we all belong to the one household or the "Oikos" of God that includes women and men of other religious faiths and the natural world and all it contains."

The communiquÚ calls the churches of the Pacific to re-engage with each other through the establishment of a commission to articulate and develop a fresh approach to dialogue on the three things that divide churches, namely Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM). It also called churches to maintain a shared history of the churches and ecumenical movement; develop a mentoring and accompaniment program in ecumenical formation and learning at the national and regional levels so that ecumenism is better understood by church leaders and among the young and the old and develop a network of young ecumenists where ecumenism can be nurtured and celebrated, and where issues of moral concern to the churches are discussed and action taken.

The desire for faith to be expressed in society was also expressed as the young ecumenists called for political leaders to be encouraged to share the belief that, "in the one household of God, no one is excluded;" to take leadership in "redefining our oceanic identity where our diversity and differences are deeply appreciated and where our commonalities are held up in a world that threatens to make us the same" as well as "redefining development and what it means in view of the fact that poverty, economic injustices, violence in its various forms, and incidences of corruption and bad governance are increasing in our island countries".

The key to this lies in helping people understand ecumenism or the concept of the "household of God" from childhood to adulthood, to enhance a deeper appreciation of ecumenism and the re-establishment of chaplaincies for students in tertiary institutions at the national and regional levels with intensive ecumenical learning programs with them. For this to take place, the youth requested that important ecumenical documents be written and translated into local languages.

This communiquÚ is a bold statement by young men and women of the region who, having experienced what is possible through claiming a place in the "household of God," are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to this "household". In non-theological terms they have experienced the practical potential of unity in diversity. Their call is not just for churches but for all to heed. It is a call for inclusion, respect and tolerance. Above all, it is a call for love and understanding of each other.

May the rest of your week be blessed with the recognition that we all have an equal place in the "household of God".

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Reverend J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

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