Confused Minds Or Political Manoeuvre

 

Postdate: 22/ 08/ 2003  

The Discussion On Restriction Of Religions In Fiji

The Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma recently called for a restriction of churches in Fiji (Fiji Times, 12.08.03). It is not the first time over the past ten years and probably will not be the last time for such an appeal. From the point of view of the Methodist Church it is very understandable that they are concerned since they are the most affected of the established churches in Fiji by the growth of other Christian denominations. Since 1966 the ratio of Methodists in the population of Fiji is constantly decreasing, while other denominations, especially Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches experience high growth rates (Manfred Ernst 1994, p.202). The number of Christian denominations has risen from about 25 in 1992 to over fifty at present, not taking into account the 60 para-church organizations that are working alongside the churches and are basically involved in evangelism.

It would probably be of little comfort to the General Secretary of the Methodist Church that his Church and the Fiji Islands are not alone in this. Especially over the past three decades Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches are growing worldwide with astonishing speed and the rise of this new form and expression of the Christian religion is already reshaping the religious landscape in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe and Russia and parts of Asia (Harvey Cox, 1995).

As we all know there is always a cause for something we observe or feel. One question that should be looked at before claims for more control of religions are made is what causes this massive reshaping. After having got an idea about that then maybe the Methodist Church and others concerned would be in a better position to think about what can or should be done to prevent the massive loss of members to the newcomers. As it was rightly pointed out in the editorial comment in the Fiji Times this is not an easy or simple matter (Fiji Times, 12.08.03).

There is no doubt that in the context of the Pacific Islands, where Fiji belongs to, with the very closely interwoven relations between church and culture and in consideration of the state of the historical mainline churches the massive changes in religious affiliation are affecting social relations and social structures. However, the Methodist Church falls short in looking beyond the obvious. There is a growing understanding in academic circles of sociologists, anthropologists, historians and theologians about a clear correlation between the rise of new forms of religious expression and modernization processes, that are usually referred to as globalization. A growing number of publications are trying to define globalization and to describe its effects on people, states, societies, cultures and religions.

The range of views reaches from very positive to very negative views on the process of globalization. Maybe a simple way to describe globalization is that it is the process where by the world in which we live is becoming more connected and unified (Jenny Willsher, 2003). Using this definition, we need to recognize that globalization is nothing completely new. The process of globalization started already with the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires, which politically and culturally, united the people of their time. What is new is that we are dealing now with processes that involves and affects the whole of the earth. Christianity itself is probably a very early global worldwide movement with spreading from Jerusalem, to Rome and eventually to every corner of the globe. No one can doubt that the coming of Christianity have had a lasting affect and led to radical changes in the social fabric of societies wherever it took roots.

What history reveals clearly is that the dynamic and expansive growth of Christianity all over the world was from the very beginning accompanied by an increasing diversity and a splitting up into thousands of denominations and groups that claim their origins all back to the birth, dead and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What most adherents of one or another Christian denomination tends to ignore is the fact that their denomination started originally as a schism or breakaway from previously existing churches. John Wesley, the founder of worldwide Methodism was not born as such but was raised in a family of the Church of England and ordained as an Anglican Priest at the age of 25. In sociological terms Christianity itself started as a schism from Judaism. So what we observe today is a continuation from the very beginnings of the Christian faith with a new development characterized by the rapid and expansive growth of new forms of Christianity as expressed by Pentecostals and Charismatic believers, the majority here in Fiji belonging to the Assemblies of God, Christian Mission Fellowship and All Nations. All of them have drawn the majority of converts from the Methodist Church. Another lesson from history is that all attempts made by world rulers to stop a religion through legislation or open persecution has failed.

The Roman Emperors Nero, Domitian, Trajan and others could not stop the Christians, somewhat similar to the current rapid growth of Christianity in the People’s Republic of China. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been persecuted and are persecuted in different contexts and still continue to grow worldwide. There is a good reason that in most constitutions of states worldwide, including the constitution of the Republic of Fiji, religious freedom is guaranteed as a basic human right. The practice of religious freedom in the USA has not led to chaos and disintegration or the disappearance of established religions but may have contributed significantly to the dominant status of the USA in the world today. There is no doubt that globalization processes, very powerfully promoted by the same country effects the lives of people all over the world and most clearly by its economic consequences.

As one example applicable to Fiji, multi-national companies produce their goods in the parts of the world where resources and labour are cheap, where governments offer tax and other incentives and by doing this provide an environment that guarantees a maximum of profit with a minimum of risks. The current government has fully subscribed to the idea of free trade and is a faithful follower of policies recommended by powerful world organizations such as the WTO, IMF or the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The current government does everything to promote globalization but does very little or nothing to deal with the negative consequences of such policies. With a clear correlation between globalization and the rise and growth of new forms of spirituality it is a contradiction to ask those that are part of the problem to solve the problem.

It will be very interesting what actions will follow the announcement of the Attorney General (Fiji Times 14.08.03) to look at the issue because he is clearly bound by the constitution. First of all there are very practical questions that need to be answered such as who is going to make the final decision whether a new religion can get registered or not? Maybe the Methodist Church would like to take over this responsibility but on what basis such responsibility should and could be given to them. We have to remember that Methodism represents only one third of the total population in the Fiji Islands. Previous attempts where the Immigration Department asked the Fiji Council of Churches for advise before they issued work permits for missionaries or granted permission for the establishment of new churches have failed completely because no one within the FCC or the Methodist Church has the background knowledge and expertise on the variety of religious groups that are active in proselytizing.

What would be the theological criteria? Maybe for any new religion to subscribe to some essentials of the Christian faith such as the Triune God, the virgin birth of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus? If so, what then will happen to those religions already in the country that cannot subscribe to that? If the latter is the mark to pass than some of the already established denominations should not be here because their doctrines differ in a variety of areas. Does that mean that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Muslims, Bahai’is and others are less worthy citizens, neighbours or taxpayers because of their different beliefs? However, any policy or legislation that would seek to restrict the freedom of choice of citizens to practice any religion they want as long as it is not violating the laws of the country would not pass the High Court without a major constitutional change and – as it is already clear – would not be supported by the majority of the citizens of Fiji. Any such policy or legislation would certainly not prevent people to leave the Methodist Church because besides the external reasons for conversions there are also internal reasons that the Methodist Church has not dealt with effectively in the past years. Based on research carried out (Ernst 1994, Ryle 2001, & ECREA 2002) there is clear evidence that Methodists are not leaving the Methodist Church because they are forced, lured by money as many high rank Methodists still tend to make us believe. Painting such a picture of the thousands of Christians that worship week by week with the Assemblies of God, Christian Mission Fellowship, All Nations – the vast majority of them belonging to the Methodist Church before conversion, is not only an insult but lacks any substance and evidence. But there is substantial evidence that there are other reasons for conversions from Methodism in Fiji to one or the other of the new religious groups (some of them like the AOG, SDA or LDS of course not so new at all).

These reasons can be summarized as follows:

  1. The new religious groups are far advanced in their pastoral concern for people both as individuals and as resource for growth.
  2. The Methodist Church has failed to meet the changing spiritual and material needs of their followers in times of rapid social changes and globalization.
  3. Converts are describing the mode of worship in the Methodist Church as static, boring and irrelevant to their spiritual needs. This was frequently described as dogmatic petrifaction and abstract thinking that left little room for individual participation and expression. The Fijians natural need for spontaneity and emotional experience is usually not met. Preaching fails too often to hold the congregation’s attention, it seldom delivers a memorable message, its context predominantly expresses the interest of the clergy, and sermon seldom deal with everyday experiences.
  4. Former Methodists were dissatisfied with ambitions and conduct of Methodist Ministers that do not live out what they preach. Excessive Kava drinking by church ministers, which is banned effectively in the new religious groups, does not help to improve the image of the Methodist ministers.
  5. The Methodist Church has for too long neglected the ambitions and pleas of women and youth, that form the majority of their membership. Subsequently the majority of converts are exactly women and youth. Bureaucratic structures and formal authorities create obstacles to active commitment for participation in church life.
  6. There is a lack of transparency in the use of the huge amounts of funds raised annually through offerings, levies and bazaars and other activities. The Methodist Church has failed so far to explain satisfactorily to their members how the money is used. The accounts of the church might be audited but the Methodist Church is very poor in any public relations and the use of modern communication tools to highlight the variety of social projects and programs that are laudable and are directed to the grassroots people.
  7. The Methodist Church has no clear stand in their relations to other churches. Being a founding member of the ecumenical Fiji Council of Churches, the Methodist Church was instrumental in the establishment of the Assembly of Christian Churches as a second umbrella organization which consists basically of Pentecostal and charismatic denominations that are drawing their members from the Methodist Church.

The active involvement of the Methodist Church in ecumenical programs has been seemingly shifted to an intensified cooperation with the non-ecumenical ACCF.

While the Methodist Church and the majority of members in the ACCF do not share very much in terms of doctrines and religious practices they obviously share a common political agenda with regard to views and perspectives on the political upheavals in May 2000, and the approach towards reconciliation. In summary it can be said that there is little the Methodist Church can do with regard to external factors as described above. Globalization is part and parcel of development whether one wants it or not. Globalization processes will intensify over the coming years and the Methodist Church could join those that are opposing the most negative effects of these processes on the Fijian people. This would involve distancing from the government and to some extend criticism of certain politics. On the other hand there is a lot the Methodist Church could do with regard to the internal factors for conversions as described in the latter part above but this would mean to initiate a deep and critical self reflection on the Mission of the Church in the age of increased globalization pressures. If the Methodist Church is either not willing or able to adapt itself to a fast changing environment it will continue to suffer from losing members.

Publicized claims to control the registration of new churches are in this context pointless and misguided. It must be seen as an attempt to distract the attention of the public from the real issues and problems that are to some extent, as already being pointed out, self inflicted.

 

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