Friday, February 23, 2018

Reflections from the World Methodist Conference - Houston 2016

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.
Particpants gathered to celebrate “One-ness” in Christ, with the conference organized around four subthemes – One God, One Faith, One People, One Mission. The programme brought participants into a conversation about the distinction between unity and uniformity in the Wesleyan tradition.
Methodist Church in Fiji President, Rev. 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.”
Rev. 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 5 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 5 years.
At the same time, Rev. Dr. 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 compliment what we are doing in Fiji through our Lako Yani Vou / New Exodus.”
The message on moving from reconciliation to healing by the Rev. 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 Rev. Dr. 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 multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious 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 current president of the Fiji Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Banivanua feels that the Methodist Church in Fiji is moving in the right direction in terms ofinter-church 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. “

I asked Rev. Dr. Tevita Banivanua to share on the issues of contemporary music or contemporary worship and the inclusion of more spiritual formation programmes in the Methodist Church in Fiji.
In what seemed an affirmation of his address to the 2016 Annual Conference, Methodist President, Rev. Dr.. Banivanua expressed his joy of seeing and listening to one his flock, Ron Simpson, taking part in the World Methodist Conference’s praise team, playing guitar and singing contemporary Christian songs as well as hymns. At the opening worship, Mr. Simpson, who leads the Praise and Worship team at Wesley City Mission in Butt Street, Suva led worshippers in singing in iTaukei, “Ni Sa Kalou Levu Ga,” (“How great is our God”) and later in the week also sang “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” during the presentation of the World Methodist Council Peace Award.
“Some of us have been blessed to go these meetings where there are different or blended forms of worship that are different from what we normally practice. At home there is a fixed mind-set on the the way we are supposed to worship that doesn’t give space to any other expression of faith. To see Ron standing up there with his guitar and the lively singing that kept the spirit alive and was appreciated across the global Methodist family, I wonder if we are able to experience that with our choirs that we have back home. Our choral singing is beautiful in itself, but when we use musical instruments and contemporary acts of worship, the enlivening spirit that gives us, is something that we may be missing because of our decisions not to open ourselves up to contemporary worship. “
Rev. Dr. Banivanua recalled a time when the Centenary congregation experimented with using instruments and contemporary worship in a special afternoon worship at Jubilee Hall. However it did not live long due to a lack of support and perhaps fear about the level of emotional content.
“We Fijians are usually quite emotional in how we express ourselves and in the way we do things that have a certain spiritual significance. When you see someone kneeling with a kamunaga asking for something – forgiveness, expressing gratitude and happiness – one can see the emotional content within the feelings expressed and those speeches, and so forth. So we seem to be quite emotional in our own ways. But at the same time, we somehow are frightened of expressing this emotional side in worship. That is probably one of the reasons why within our local Methodist community we tend to push contemporary worship away and keep it at arms ‘length. We need to more on this.”
He has already included contemporary worship as a point to highlight this in a paper he is currently writing for the 2017 Methodist Consultative Council in the Pacific.
“There is a need for our Methodist and other churches in the Pacific not to be frightened of new ways of expressing our faith through gatherings where we can show our unity in diversity and I hope that we can open ourselves up to this type of worship. In some places we use pianos and keyboards but we still seem to be frightened of using guitars and other instruments because we connect them to dances and bars and more secular forms of entertainment.”
Rev. Banivanua agrees that part of the problem of contemporary worship being acceptable in the Methodist Church in Fiji is a lack of understanding about worship and liturgy (the form or manner which a particular worship takes). This leads to a fear that contemporary worship may distort or replace traditional Methodist forms of worship rather than find a place and space within.
“One think that we lack in our Church is specialists in liturgy- with a deep and broader understanding of worship. Although many of our theological students learn about worship and liturgy in their higher levels of education (Bachelor of Divinity and Masters in Theology), most of our graduates specialise in biblical studies, pastoral ministry, church history, theology and ethics. I don’t know if anyone has taken up liturgy and worship as an area of specialisation to try and provide some renewed forms to how we praise our God and worship Him.”
Outside the plenary hall were a number of booths providing information on programmes and activities by the global Methodist family that Churches may wish to engage or partner in. For Rev. Dr. Banivanua, this served as a reminder of some important things that the Methodist Church in Fiji has yet to commit or recommit to in a significant way as part of their New Exodus.
“One of those things is discipleship and on-going spiritual formation within our church. We are going through a time of change in our church. Sometimes I feel that some of what we are trying to do is a little bit too dry. While we have our Connexional Plan, 12 Pillars etc, we need to spirutally enliven this process and I think that using the pattern of discipleship so that we are not only looking at numbers and quantity of membership, but also the quality in terms of depth of spirituality of our Church. I feel that discipleship is the missing link in connecting our Connexional Plan to the congregational aspect of our New Exodus – to strengthen its roots so to speak and make the process more alive for our members.”
As the Methodist Church in Fiji moves through its period of renewal after half a century of being an autonomous church within the Methodist family, the World Methodist Council as come of age, with this Conference being its 21st. What better place than Houston to celebrate, one of the most diverse cities in the world.
“WMC has an important convening role in the Wesleyan family, ” said South African Bishop and World Methodist Council General Secretary Ivan Abrahams.
At the closing worship we were reminded that in the Methodist tradition, “there is a place at the table for everyone,” and that “Methodists can transform the world,”- two messages which resonate with the Methodist Church in Fiji’s New Exodus.
As we prepared to return to our own countries and contexts, we were challenged by WM President Rev. Dr. J.C. Park and Vice-President Gillian Kingston, along with Bishop Abrahams, to continue to work together as a global community, towards better stewardship of the environment and to spread ‘scriptural holiness’ in our society.
“To stay together isn’t enough, we must move into the future with our shared mission. We need to see the world as one with God and nature. Our primary calling is to be Kingdom people.”
The Missio Dei or God’s mission has been given to God’s people and needs to be lived out in our contexts.
“The local church must be the life and spiritual energy in its place.”
Finally we challenged to engage in our mission by stepping out in faith, love and hope with Jesus.
“Other religions are not our enemies. We can collaborate with all groups.”
The proclamation concluded with a shout of “Lift Off” as the Apollo launch was shown on the screen indicating we are ready to move forward into the future together.
The service continued with beautiful communion liturgy, in which Rev. Dr. Banivanua was one of the celebrants, as people from across the globe shared God’s table. The final hymn of “Victoire, Alleluia” sent the worshippers forth to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Go ye therefore…

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