The life of the Tongan National Conference
October 5, 2022
Written by Rev Dr ‘Isileli Jason Kioa
The Tongan National Conference was the first of the 12 national conferences of the Uniting Church to be formed in June 1987, just two years after the declaration of the Uniting Church by the meeting of the Assembly in 1985 as a ‘Multicultural Church.’ It was not a formal conference as such. Initiated by Rev Dr John Brown from the Assembly and the then President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, the Rev Dr Sione ‘Amanaki Havea, it was a gathering for fellowship for some of the leaders of and to teach Tongan congregations of the Uniting Church.
One of the main purposes of this first gathering was to find the place of Tongans who had migrated from Tonga from the Free Wesleyan Church, and encouraged by President Rev Dr Havea, to join the Uniting Church because it is the Methodist Church in Australia. The Tongan National Conference took off in numbers and strength. In the late 1990s it grew into an annual event with numbers growing and it became an annual event of all ages gathering in Sydney, usually during the long weekend of the Queen’s Birthday in June. In recent years before the COVID-19 Pandemic hit us, this all age event over the weekend engaged about 1,500 people.
There was a strong feeling of connectedness and fellowship over the weekend with four different types of programs that catered for Seniors, Young Adults, Youth and Children and running in both Tongan and English languages. The metaphor of rolling out a huge mat has been articulated as a way of owning the space and being welcomed to sit on the mat over this long weekend to learn and to teach each other, in sharing our challenges but also our opportunities of being part of the multicultural and intercultural Uniting Church.
The benefits of this annual event to the congregations of the Uniting Church have been Extraordinary. The translations of the Constitution and Regulations, the Basis of Union as well as many church documents into the Tongan language have been very beneficial. The growth and formation of Tongan leaders in the Uniting Church have been evident. Rev Charissa Suli who is the present President-Elect of the Uniting Church grew up in the Tongan National Conference and her formation and the exercise of her gifts and leadership was done within the Conference. I chaired the Tongan National Conference for over 15 years and during the period between 2006-2009, I became Moderator of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. There have been Tongan leaders who have been chairpersons of Presbyteries and in Synod roles throughout Australia. The rolling out of the mat of the Tongan National Conference has produced fruits and continues to do so. This annual event has also helped during the years of engaging with difficult social issues and their impact in the Church, for example, sexuality debates and same gender marriage.
The Tongan National Conference continues to play its roles to the Tongan congregations of the Uniting Church and also keeping the relationship with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga alive with people going to Tonga and back with connections in touch with the home church.
So while this exciting growth is happening to the Tongan National Conference and proving itself to be a useful ‘mat’ for the Tongans within the Uniting Church, the question has been raised time and time again: what is the role and status of the national conferences? They are not a council within the regulations and constitution of the Uniting Church. Perhaps it is a question for the Assembly to wrestle with. How can this mat find itself authentically part of the structures of the Uniting Church, other then, just under the care of the Assembly Resourcing Unit? As a truly multicultural church and intercultural church, how do we sit on the mat together?