Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cooperation vs Competition: Churches talk Unity

Last week, a more than 20 men and women representing  a  number of different Christian communities, gathered at the Pacific Theological College’s Jovili Meo Mission Centre in Veiuto, Suva for a dialogue seminar on finding a way forward for better relationships and trust among churches in Fiji.

Representatives at the seminar on key thematic areas on ecumenism.
From left are Sr Nanise Degei of the Catholic Church, Pastor Mosese Rauca
of the Assemblies of God, Reverend Niko Sopeta of the
Presbyterian Church, Pastor Lorima Kuruvoli of the Church of God

Organised by the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy, ECREA, the dialogue process was aimed toward of establishing an inclusive framework for collaborative engagement among the Christian Churches in Fiji the seminar hopes to create better understanding about Ecumenism to better relationship and to promote social justice in nation building together.

Over the years of holding sustained dialogue processes (deep listening and sharing) from grassroots to church leadership level, ECREA had come to the realization that “to mend the deep fragmented Christian family in Fiji and rebuild the relationship that has been lost by the people, we should seriously develop a peace process that involves an operational framework for relationship and peacebuilding.”

Other objectives of the process were to build and rebuild relationships among churches based on respect and understanding of differences; to explore common grounds of engagement based on common principles and teachings; to allow space for greater dialogue for the way forward in building the Kingdom of God in Fiji; and to strengthen churches network to allow them to redesign an inclusive collaborative network that will foster common grounds for collaborative engagement for nation building.

The principal and senior faculty of the Pacific Theological College made presentations on the historical, global and theological perspectives of Ecumenism, while the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches shared the regional and local perspective. They painted with broad brushstrokes the vibrant landscape through which the Christian community has journeyed: from the prayer of Jesus for the unity of His disciples and the future believers, to the fellowship of the early church, the early differences that became schisms and the move in the early 20th century towards cooperation in mission rather competition for souls saved by conversion and members gained for individual church growth.

It is against this backdrop that the ecumenical movement in the Pacific has developed - from local churches experiencing autonomy from the missionaries that brought the gospel to the islands, to church-led or empowered movements for self-determination, a nuclear free Pacific, and more recently social and economic justice, peacebuilding and climate justice.

Locally, however, cooperation among the churches has been a difficult and often ignored issue over in the past two decades. ECREA’s sustained dialogue process identified the following significant issues as standing in the way of churches developing strong and meaningful relationship as fellow members of the Body of Christ:
·         The lack of respect the Christian Churches have for each other that is reflected by the way they perceive and treat each other.
·         The common trend in churches proclaiming their own churches rather than focusing on proclaiming the Gospel
·         The high competitive attitude that exists amongst the Christian Churches
·         The “ghetto mentality” that continues to exist amongst the churches – the difficulty of thinking and acting outside the box to learn from perspectives other than our own. Churches are stuck in their comfort zones.
·         The reality that churches are by name only and are independent and not connected
·         The foundation of the churches is cracked and the roof is leaking which is causing the members to leave to search for ‘greener pastures’ where their needs can be met.

Further stumbling blocks to the process of relationship building and strengthening among churches were identified as:
·         Failure to see and believe the big picture for or of salvation as referred to in the analysis on the problem of exclusiveness.
·         Building our own denomination or empire contradictory to the vision of God’s Kingdom – understood as the concept of visible and invisible church.
·         Overstressing and emphasizing of our own doctrines and teachings, claiming to hold the only truth – absolutising our own doctrines and teachings as the only truth.

These issues had led to the search for visible unity among Fijian churches being pronounced DOA (dead on arrival) several years ago. However it was in the same room, last week that evidence of the resurrection of ecumenism was seen in the dialogue process that took place among leaders and representatives of churches belonging to a diverse range of doctrines and practices.

In a new approach to this process representatives from the Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Assemblies of God and Methodist Churches shared the perspectives of their faith on ecumenism. This time of sharing and deep listening was a crucial step in the restoration of relationship for the churches. It was a sharing of boundaries – the theological fences surrounding each community, as well as pointing out of the gates of those fences through which connections and relationships could be made. It was also a celebration of developments in dialogue by churches on a global scale (Methodists and Catholics, Catholics and Anglicans etc) which may help local churches in their working together.

This understanding of each other’s perspectives, the biblical and theological call for churches to work together for the greater good and the glory of God, was the key moment in the decision by participants to work as a group and through their churches to work to work together, have fellowship with one another and perhaps of significance during this crucial time in our nation’s history, speak with one voice on the issues affecting the society to which they minister.

While 2014 will be an important year for the moving forward of Christian communities and organizations such as ECREA , the Fiji Council of Churches and Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji, this week sees another opportunity for fellowship and learning and working together by the churches.

This Friday, as part of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, an ecumenical seinar and worship service to “Break the Silence” against gender-based violence will be held at Suva’s Holy Trinity
Cathedral from 10am to 1.30pm.

It is an example of how despite our various theological and even religious differences, we can come together in a spirit of love, sharing and cooperation for the common good.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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