We have four religions in Fiji: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Rugby.
I heard this comment after landing at Nadi airport, Fiji. Soon after that, I met a couple from Scotland who had arrived to celebrate their wedding anniversary watching Fiji vs. Scotland in Suva the following day, June 24. Since the theme of our conference stressed the importance of context, I was delighted to go to the match with a friend who worked at the Pacific Theological College, Suva, and cheer for Fiji in the grandstand.
Fiji beat the favourites, Scotland, 27-22, and the whole of the grandstand erupted as Fiji scored a brilliant try just in front of where we were standing. On the plane I had watched a film of Fiji winning its only Olympic medal ever, gold in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016. The film gave the background to community life on the island and included the team taking part in Bible study and prayers.
Our fifth global conference of the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion project followed Cairo (April 2016), Bangalore (October 2016), Jerusalem (March 2017), and Recife (April 2017). The idea for it emerged out of a conversation in the back of a taxi during the International Association for Mission Studies conference in Seoul last August. I was with the Rev. Dr. Val Ogden, director of theological education by extension and Methodist mission partner at the ecumenical Pacific Theological College, Suva, and she suggested a conference in Fiji.
Services on Sunday
On June 25, I preached in the morning at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Suva, at the invitation of the dean, Claude Fong Toy, and of the Rt. Rev. Winston Halapua, Bishop of Polynesia and Co-Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. In the afternoon, I preached at St. Christopher’s Church, Nausori, near Suva, at the invitation of the vicar, the Rev. Winston Tarere. It was the memorial service of the former president of Vanuatu, the Rev. Womtelo Baldwin Lonsdale, who was a beloved Anglican priest. It was very moving to be with so many diaspora Vanuatu people in their bereavement. Present also were Reteta Rimon-Nikua, High Commissioner of Kiribati, Emmanuel Blessing, First Secretary of the High Commission of Vanuatu, Suva, and professor Derek Armstrong, vice chancellor of the University of the South Pacific.
After the service, I was refreshed with the traditional “kava” drink, and visited the wonderful St. Christopher’s orphanage next door, run by Anglican nuns.
Conference and papers
Archbishop Michael Ramsey laid the foundation stone of the Pacific College of Theology on March 2, 1965, and it has been a key centre for ecumenical theological education in the Pacific since its founding.
The conference took place there June 26 to 28. The overall theme was “Mission in Oceania: Some Contexts and Currents.” Aisake Casimira, director of the Institute for Mission and Research at the Pacific Theological College, Val Ogden, and I co-chaired it. The principal, the Rev. Prof. Feleterika Uili Nokise, gave encouraging permission for the conference, but was away on sabbatical.
Our theological consultant, who gave the first detailed response to each of the papers, was the Rev. Dr. Cliff Bird, distinguished scholar of Pacific theology, minister in the United Church of the Solomon Islands, and currently regional coordinator of Pacific Programs Relief and Development of Uniting World. I invited him, as an established scholar, to publish his paper on our website and he kindly agreed.
Eleven emerging scholars wrote papers, which were circulated beforehand. They were presented during our three-day conference, responded to, discussed, revised, and then published on our website before the final service of Holy Communion and feast.
Of the 11 scholars, seven are female and four are male. Three are Methodists, two Presbyterian, two Congregationalists, one Anglican, one from the Protestant Church of Kanaky, one United Church, and one Roman Catholic. They originate from eight Pacific islands: three from Fiji; two from Vanuatu; two from Samoa; and one each from American Samoa, Tonga, New Caledonia, and Kiribati.
The papers were:
The Rev. Geraldine V. Wiliame (Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma), “A Fara reading of Jonah on Interfaith Dialogue in Fiji”
The Rev. Billy Wetewea (Protestant Church of Kanaky, New Caledonia), “The Protestant Church of Kanaky: Assessing the evolution of the church and the theology she has tried to develop and apply”
Deaconess Litiana Maituriwai Tuidrakulu (Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma), “The Silent Dauniveiqaravi in the Church: redefining the roles of those who serve ‘in-between,’ with special reference to 1 Cor. 14.34-35”
Deaconess Verenaisi Toga (Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma), “Ibulubulu. A Theology of Forgiveness Understood as a Rite of Reconciliation in my Itaukei Culture”
The Rev. Leinamau Seru (Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu), “Sunday School: the most fruitful area for Christian Education amidst today’s global diversities in Vanuatu”
The Rev. Marie Ropeti (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand), “A Samoan Woman’s Missionary Journey: Paddling against the tide: O le asaina o le tai fana’e”
The Rev. Anthony Ling (Anglican Church of Melanesia), “Bulsal: Critiquing Shepherd Theology from a Vanuatu Indigenous Perspective”
Filomena Hunt Leituala (Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa), “Pregnancy: Introducing and Exploring an Eco-Theological Model from the Pacific for the World”
Viliami Kiola (Catholic Church in Tonga, undergoing formation for the priesthood at Pacific Regional Seminary, Suva), “Church history and the Catholic Church Mission in Tonga: Looking Afresh at Early Missionary Approaches”
The Rev. Kara Siaosi Ipiniu (Congregational Christian Church of Samoa), “The Practice of Faaaloaloga and the Congregational Church of Samoa”
The Rev. Meeri Iaabeti (Kiribati United Church), “Te Katekateka as the key to embracing and empowering women in Kiribati, with particular implications for the Kiribati United Church”
The Rev. Dr. Cliff Bird: Uniting World (Conference Theological Consultant), “Globalisation in the Pacific Islands: Challenges and Perspectives for the Churches”
An encouraging major outcome of the conference, as well as the published papers, was announced in our final session by the Rev. Marie Ropeti: the founding of a group of Pacific Women Theologians to stimulate writing and publishing in the region.
I was struck by the depth of insight of all these papers, which were rooted in various island cultures and explored issues that may well help the worldwide Church. I learned so much from them.
It was a joy to have time over meals and in fellowship with these emerging scholars. Worship was central to our theological explorations, and I was asked to lead three interactive morning devotions, and to preach at our final service of Holy Communion. For these, I focused on four women in the Bible (Magdalene, Lydia, Priscilla, and Sarah), and we reflected on the paintings of Silvia Dimitrova and my poems on these women.
The final delicious feast included a spectacular entertainment by the youth fellowship of the college. We all enjoyed beautiful and varied island dances by young women, energetic warrior dances by young men, and delightful singing by the children, accompanied by percussive Samoan tubular plastic pipes. It was an extraordinary send-off, and I returned home with wonderful gifts.
Val Ogden has published a perceptive and well-illustrated report of the conference, and I am very grateful to her, and her assistant, Fareen Nisha, for all their organisational skills.
I give thanks to God for Fiji, and for the whole Church in the Pacific, as a place of welcome, hospitality, generosity, dance, song — and rugby.