Friday, February 23, 2018

Lift-off in Houston

Published in the Fiji Times as Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, September 07, 2016

AS you celebrate the Constitution Day public holiday and read this, I am on my way back home from the World Methodist Conference in Houston, Texas in the United States of America.

The conference is the largest gathering of the Methodist, Wesleyan, Nazarene, United and Uniting Church family in the world — 80 member churches from 133 countries and accounting for some 80.5 million members.

Participants gathered to celebrate "One-ness" in Christ, with the conference organised around four subthemes - One God, One Faith, One People, One Mission. The program brought participants into a conversation about the distinction between unity and uniformity in the Wesleyan tradition.

Methodist Church in Fiji president Reverend Dr Tevita Banivanua said the conference was an opportunity to reconnect old relationships and make new ones with other communities of people called Methodists.

"Even though time was short, we managed to have some discussions and some very special conversations."

It was also an opportunity to hear what issues our sister and brother churches within the Methodist family are wrestling with. "Some churches are struggling with gay marriage and other issues that we have encountered."

Mr Banivanua was disappointed that issues such as climate justice were not part of the topics of the workshops and seminars during the conference.

"The theme of 'One: God, Faith, People and Mission' and the message of our common unity throughout the conference was good. The message during the opening worship included topic of nature and God's magnificent creation, from the stars down to us.

"So I raised the issue of climate change during the follow up discussions on the opening message, to remind the delegates that climate change was not simply part of the natural order but a result of what humankind is doing to the earth. I am glad that in the closing worship, the message included the call to see the world as one with God and nature and that the World Methodist Council is looking to include the environment and climate change among its areas of focus for the next five years."

It was good to be present, as a member, at the World Methodist Council meeting after conference to hear the commitment of the council to include climate justice as one of its focus areas for the next five years.

At the same time, Mr Banivanua praised the "excellent" presentations and sessions on spiritual formation and discipleship.

"There were many good new ideas from the speakers on how we can guide our members to be good Christians and good Methodists, which complement what we are doing in Fiji through our Lako Yani Vou /New Exodus."

The message on moving from reconciliation to healing by the Reverend Dr Joanne Cox-Darling from the Methodist Church in Britain resonated deeply with the spiritual leader of Fiji's Methodist community.

"She came out with the differences between reconciliation and healing, emphasising that even though reconciliation is part and parcel of our ministry, and so we try to reconcile groups that are in conflict and send them on their way, our work is incomplete until there is healing. Even in our context in Fiji there has been some reconciliation but there is still a need for healing of the nation, healing of communities, churches and the differences that we have.

"That made me think about whether we are doing enough from our side. We have tried to do the reconciliation part as a church — visiting the offices of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces — but we still have to do the healing and find ways in which we can do that.

"When we listen to people in Fiji talk, it still doesn't seem that there has been any healing. And so we have done reconciliation but still need to have healing and the question is how do we do that? So this something that we need to pray about and think about and work towards, as a church and as a people."

The opportunity to interact with Methodists from other cultures and contexts for mission was also appreciated by Mr Banivanua.

"We have our relationships with our Pacific Methodist communities of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tonga through the Methodist Consultative Council in the Pacific (MCCP) , which meets every second year (2017 Tonga). Through this we are able to address common issues.

"However being a multiracial, multicultural and multireligious community, there is much we can learn through listening to those outside of our usual circle of Methodist friends, for whom dealing with religious pluralism is part and parcel of their daily Christian walk. For us a people called Methodists from Fiji, it is important for us to learn from their experiences."

As president of the Fiji Council of Churches, Mr Banivanua feels the Methodist Church in Fiji is moving in the right direction in terms of interchurch relationships but there is still much work to be done around understanding how Methodists, as Christians, engage in inter-religious relationships.

"Ecumenically we are okay. We participate and in some cases initiate ecumenical collaborations and events and church leaders from different denominations are working well within the Council of Churches. However in terms of inter-religious and interfaith issues, we are not fully there.

"The fact is that we seem to be frightened of moving into this area. When I first engaged with Interfaith Search, I was worried about what this interfaith thing was about. Yet once I attended and listened to others explaining what their faith and scriptures said on a particular issue, I was fascinated by the talks we would have and began to take my students from Davuilevu Theological College there and eventually became a co-chair of Interfaith Search Fiji.

"My students would listen to the sharing at Interfaith Search gatherings and then we would discuss it in our class later and they shared with me that it was an eye-opener and a mind-opener for them as they know understood that Interfaith Search was about dialogue — sharing and listening and the fear they had about inter-religious engagement was removed.

"I'm hoping that we can have more of that for us because, as we heard in the opening worship sermon, the earth is just one minute part of God's created universe — the same God made us all. As human beings all created in the image of God, we need to seek out to have a better relationship with each other reminding ourselves of our common humanity first, rather then focusing on that which divides us. "

Next week Mr Banivanua shares his thoughts on opening up the Methodist Church to contemporary worship and the role of spiritual formation and discipleship in the New Exodus of the church.

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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