Published in The Fiji Times 9th June 2010 (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan)
I always find birthdays more than just a time to celebrate the completion of another year on planet earth. While I enjoy the excitement in the build-up, the fuss and of course the presents (not as much as my children who expect presents on all birthdays not just their own), I prefer to see this time as my personal new year.
Last week I had the opportunity to "go to the mountain top" and take some time to reflect on my life's journey. In the cosmic order of things, I was blessed to spend time with men and women who were representing (as I was) member churches of the Pacific Conference of Churches in an ecumenical formation program organised and facilitated by the PCC and World Council of Churches.
The search for visible unity among churches in a region that is predominantly Christian is more than a divine directive (in John 17, Jesus prays that just as He and His Father are one, His disciples, and by extension, all followers will also be one), it is in my opinion key to peace and stability within the many communities who live in the largest ocean in the world.
The original vision of the ecumenical pioneers of the Pacific such as Reverend Setareki Tuilovoni of Fiji, Reverend Dr Sione 'Amanaki Havea, Reverend Vavai Toma was of a spiritual movement; confessing the Bible and theological reflection and enlightenment as its foundation but also one that engaged in the issues affecting God's people in the Pacific, in its day (the late 1960s and 1970s) independence movements and the issue of nuclear testing.
As we listened to the deep sharing by presenters at last week's seminar, Lorini Tevi the first woman and lay person to steer the canoe of the Pacific Conference of Churches and Reverend Akuila Yabaki of the Citizen's Constitutional Forum (an ecumenical pioneer in his own right) as well as those of leaders from the United Church in Papua New Guinea, Evangelical Church of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, there was some consensus that to achieve the vision of these pioneers and to fully own the ecumenical movement in Oceania, we need to reclaim this Pacific understanding of ecumenism.
By the end of our time of sharing and learning we began to discuss what the direction of any future search for visible church unity may look like. We began by recognising that this type of sharing and learning for men and women, adults, youth and children as well as the elders of the community, clergy and lay people remains an core part of the mission of the church.
Our unity in walking together, working together, praying together and speaking with one prophetic voice is how we share the peace of God throughout our region by acting justly, being compassionate and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Faced with the challenge of climate change, and the various issues (environmental, social, political etc) as a result of continuous emphasis on development we are called as the church to accompany our people in the struggle for oceans of peace and rivers of righteousness (Amos 5:24) as we seek to identify and articulate the nature of development that we envision for the Pacific; and engage with regional issues.
The search for visible unity is not the search for uniformity but of unity in diversity. It is about recognising and understanding and even celebrating the different way we express our spirituality but also celebrating that which we have in common. Just as those who struggle for peace in communities broken by conflict and injustice understand that cheap peace will never be a lasting peace; so too as churches seek to heal broken relationships (over decades and centuries), there is an understanding that there is no cheap unity.
As I travelled to Suva on Saturday evening, I listened to the artist Seal, singing Sam Cook's "Change is Gonna Come":
"Then I go to my brother and I say, "Brother, help me please"
But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees
There've been times that I've thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come"
As I reflected on the state of Christian unity in Fiji, with the Fiji Council of Churches torn apart by mistrust and divided loyalties, and the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji reduced to a shadow of itself (having been used for political gain in the last decade) the Body of Christ in my own homeland cries out for healing.
How can we hope for religious tolerance and acceptance when we who profess to having been called to the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2) are not willing to reconcile amongst ourselves?
Let's not treat the terms "peace" and "unity" merely as concepts that we like to preach about and wave like banners at a rugby match before discarding them if we lose the game. Peace is costly, unity is costly.
It costs us our pride, our arrogance and our assumption that we alone are the gatekeepers of truth and righteousness. Yet within each one of us, perhaps buried deeply, lies the yearning for community. All you who pray for peace, for unity, for healing are called to be agents of the change that we cry out for.
May the rest of your week be blessed with the revelation that each one of us is a child of God and belongs in the household of God.
* Reverend JS 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 Mr Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.