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3 May 2001

Challenge for change in Polynesia
by Kristine Greenaway

When Tungane Williams, a young lay woman from the Cook Islands, was appointed to serve as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), neither she nor her church knew what an impact this would have on her and on the life of her denomination, the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).

Williams had been selected as a youth and women's delegate to represent the Pacific region at the 1991 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia. But she had no formal role in the hierarchy of her denomination. To her surprise, and the consternation of local church officials, during the assembly Williams was appointed to the Central Committee, the decision-making body which oversees the life of the WCC between assemblies. Later Williams was also appointed to the planning committee preparing for the next WCC assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998.

In the predominantly oral societies of Polynesia there is great emphasis on appointing credible spokespersons. In Williams' church only ordained leaders can hold senior positions and the church does not ordain women. As a lay woman, Williams had no direct access to the decision-making bodies of her denomination. So Williams was not a credible spokesperson.

It was only when Emilio Castro, then the general secretary of the WCC, and John Doom, the staff person for the Pacific Region desk, visited the Cook Islands the following year that they were able to convince CICC officials to allow Williams access to meetings of the denomination's executive committee. Finally she was able to present reports about the work she was doing on their behalf at meetings of the WCC Central Committee directly to church officials.

That was 1992. Today Williams is recognised as an unofficial leader in her denomination. Even though she completed her term with the Central Committee in 1998, she is still active in WCC activities in the region. Significantly, she represented the WCC at the Cook Islands General Assembly in 1999 and delivered the WCC general secretary's report when he was unable to attend in person.

Williams is now about to assume responsibilities as a resource person in the four-person Pacific Laity Committee team that will develop lay training programmes under the auspices of OIKOSNET, the worldwide grouping of 100 institutes, networks, and academies that prepare lay people to provide complementary leadership to that of ordained clergy. Following one month of training in Indonesia later this year, Williams will work on development of the Laity Leadership Training Programme for the Pacific.

This programme is designed to train lay people to assume leadership roles within their denominations and within the region. The WCC supports this concept of leadership development, knowing that it is through such programmes that potential ecumenical leaders, like Williams, can be identified.

In an era when church leaders in the Pacific are seeking effective ways of doing ministry in cultures that are in transition, lay people can help bridge the gap between the church people who seek to safeguard tradition and those who wish to transform traditions they consider outdated.

Says the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, "Lay people can stimulate learning, find new language for faith and break open impenetrable church institutions by asking questions". This is all part of what Raiser calls "building a new culture by learning how to live with a plurality of lifestyles".

For years, the churches in Polynesia have played an important role in teaching language, traditional music and dance in after-school programmes in the parishes, and by preserving cultural traditions such as the kava ceremony. But today many in the churches recognise the need for new styles of leadership that respect traditional values but allow new practices. The challenge lies in preserving what is best about the society's traditional values while at the same time being open to change in response to some of the new influences in society.

Williams and Daniel Apii, moderator of the Laity Committee of the Pacific, share this concern. For the last year - with the full support of CICC's forward-looking president, Rev. Dr Tangatatutai - Apii has been working with young people in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, to prepare alternative Sunday evening services where the style of worship and music differ from that of the Sunday morning service. Though this initiative at first met with resistance from the traditional leaders in the parishes, they have now embraced the idea and the pews are crammed Sunday evening with people of all ages.

Once a month, Apii also works with young people to produce a youth event, featuring songs, sketches and dance exploring a biblical theme. These events attract families and elders to watch enthusiastic presentations of new forms of cultural expression, such as a recent presentation of what could only be called "Christian Caribbean karaoke". A fascinating cultural import, this might represent the leading edge of a new form of Christian "fusion music" or "world music from the island states". Apii knows that the young women and men leading these events could be the church leaders of tomorrow if they are given the chance.

Together Williams and Apii hope that through lay training and the search for new forms of cultural expression, the churches in the Pacific will develop lay leaders of all ages to complement the work of ordained clergy. Clergy and lay people will then be better equipped to work together for change in the societies where they are so deeply rooted. It is a hope supported by the World Council of Churches.

Ten years ago, Tungane Williams unwittingly embarked on a new career by accepting the call to represent the Pacific region at the WCC assembly in Canberra, Australia. Today, she stands poised to play her part in preparing others to take her place in the leadership of the worldwide ecumenical movement. Slowly, the traditional leaders of the Cook Islands Christian Church may come to accept this new possibility. New music is echoing in the parish halls of Rarotonga.

Kristine Greenaway is director of the WCC Cluster on Communication. She was a member of the WCC delegation which visited Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands and French Polynesia, 19-31 March.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.