Earlier this year, I had the opportunity, along with Rev Dr Tokerau Joseph to represent our Church at a Council for World Mission event in Pape’ete, Tahiti. The purpose of the gathering was to participate in a series of “street” bible studies that addressed mission, racism and colonisation in the South Pacific in relation to biblical texts. We were very generously hosted by the Maohi Protestant Church, Etaretia Protetani Maohi (EPM). The studies explored a number of themes including the complicity of the London Missionary Society in the global slave trade; French nuclear testing in the South Pacific; and the reclamation of local indigenous identity and theologies.
Upon my return a friend jokingly remarked that I’m turning into a bit of an ecclesiastical junkie, meaning someone who takes advantage of available funding to go from ecumenical event to ecumenical event in order to see the world. He wasn’t serious, of course. And I’m increasingly aware of the carbon footprint associated with such trips. It raises the question though, why should the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – our Church – continue to place emphasis on ecumenical relations and interdenominational mission? Can we justify the resource and environmental impact associated with these gatherings? And what do they really achieve anyway?
We have been very involved in the past, but I sense in more recent times we have become more and more self-absorbed and inward-looking. I don’t believe this is because we’ve stopped caring. Rather, I suspect that with church decline, it’s because we are spending more and more energy on just keeping our own doors open and have little left at the end of day to cast our vision further afield.
A few reflections from my trip on why I believe it is important to maintain a strong ecumenical presence, particularly in the South Pacific:
- We are part of the universal Church, which stretches into every corner of the world and reaches back into history all the way back to the commissioning of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. To affirm with St Paul that we are members of the one body (1 Cor 12) means that our lives have become intimately connected in a radically new way. If one member suffers, we all suffer. If one member celebrates, we all celebrate. In an age of globalisation, this theological truth takes on new significance. Through the internet, the neoliberal market and global trade agreements, our lives have become more inter-connected than ever before. The wealth of the north and west directly contributes to the poverty and enslavement of the south and east.
- The story of Pentecost (Acts 2) reminds us that God’s Spirit is poured out in every nation and culture and that God’s Word is articulated in every language. It means on the one hand that the living God can not be contained by any one culture. God is not western or European. Just as God is not Maori or Korean or Samoan. But, it means on the other hand that we come to genuinely encounter the living God through the particularity of our own culture, language and stories. Indeed, we need the full breadth and diversity of different cultures and languages and ethnicities to come to a fuller understanding of the God revealed in Jesus. Yes, my culture has something important to contribute to the discussion. But it certainly can’t say everything. Through dialogue with those different from us, we are awakened to our own biases and idiosyncrasies. As our Church declines, it can be tempting to become more inward looking. But it is precisely now that we should resist the temptation to do so! God save us from parochialism!
- In the act of worship, the prophet Isaiah was brought to his knees in confession: “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6) So too, we are a confessing church, not as a prerequisite to forgiveness, but as a natural response and outflow in the presence of a loving God who has already declared us forgiven. Confession therefore isn’t about listing all the wrongs we’ve done. But it does consist in a constant turning away from harmful ways of living towards God’s new way of justice, peace and life. The constant turning away from sin and turning towards God in confession invites us into a deeper understanding of how we live in the world and our impact in it.
Ecumenical engagement with the Church in the South Pacific gives us a broader perspective and awakens us to the impact of our decisions on others. I think specifically of anthropogenic climate change and the environmental crisis. The affluent and unsustainable lifestyles of many in New Zealand (including myself!) directly contributes to the intensifying effects of climate change in the most vulnerable islands in the South Pacific. If not climate change, we could also talk about historic blackbirding, the harmful effects of colonisation, or historic racial abuse, among other issues.
Regardless of the issue, being a confessing and reconciling Church committed to God’s way of peace and life means the ongoing awakening of our complicity in the evil of the world and our striving to set things right in the hope of God’s coming reign.
- In Jesus’ well-known prayer from John’s gospel, the Church is called into the world as Christ is sent into the world (John 17). It seems to me that, though we are born again of spirit, to be in the world means we are called to be fully present in the context we find ourselves. European Pakeha culture in New Zealand often looks west and north to the United States and the United Kingdom for its self-understanding and cultural identity, which seems at odds with our location in the south and the east. What would it mean for us to take seriously our physical situation in the South Pacific? I think it would mean an ongoing commitment to our bicultural heritage and our increasing multicultural identity. Maintaining strong ecumenical relations with other churches in the South Pacific is an important means of achieving this. Reconciliation and unity in Jesus Christ demands that we enter more fully into the particularity of our physical location: our relationship to the tangata around us and the whenua and moana below us. Being called into the world, I believe, means nothing less than becoming more earthed, more grounded, as God brings about God’s new creation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. And I write them as much for myself (as a European Pakeha) as anyone. We need to constantly become a Church in and for the South Pacific, that it is say, a Church that suffers and celebrates alongside our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ; a Church that takes Pentecost seriously in all its rich diversity; a Church that is the process of being reconciled to God and to one another, setting right historic and current wrongs; and a Church that is called deeply into the world, to this place that God is making new.
 The street bible studies are part of an ongoing project by CWM that explores issues of racism and slavery particularly in relation to global mission and colonisation. Studies have already been done in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and the UK.