It was a bright day in 1961 when Suva was bustling with church ministers and leaders from across the Pacific.
Fifteen years after World War 2, the scene was one of optimism and yet concern. Foremost on many gathered minds of what was dubbed the Dudley Consultations,’ What is the relevance of the church during a time of change?
Fiji, like many of its Pacific neighbours though still under colonial rule, was self-determining with the wheels for independence already turning. Towns were spreading, encroaching on traditional settings, challenging values. Western education was a new thing, for many people. Already poverty measurements were created. Non-communicable diseases, that would decades later rob many lives and become the single largest cause of premature deaths in the Pacific islands, was forming its roots. Life was moving beyond a traditional, subsistence existence with nature into a strange, new world. What then was the churches’ responsibility to the people it served? After all, the church was revered, a paragon of wisdom for taking on the new challenges.
On the wings of this hope, and the decision of a first ecumenical council held in Malua, Theological College in Samoa the same year, the Pacific Theological College (PTC) was born. The church leaders recognised the need for a theological education at a higher level than was available to train and produce leaders to lead the churches and its people in the new Pacific that was coming into being. PTC is the only regional ecumenical institution, and one of the oldest in terms of Academic awards.
From mangrove swamps, indeed a seeming waste land, in Nasese, Anglican Bishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey laid the College’s foundation stones in 1965. The willingness of the people of Suvavou, the indigenous owners of the land also allowed PTC to rise. From the muck, it has risen to become the leading theological, ecumenical, multi-culturally diverse institution in the Pacific birthing theologians who’ve become heads of churches and faith institutions across the Pacific. Leaders like Tongan born Fijian Rev. Dr. Winston Halapua, celebrated author and former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Rev. Dr. Halapua is also recognised for his ‘Pacific Prayer for the Moana’, that poetically highlights the spiritual connections Pacific islanders have with nature and the disruptions to this relationship. A flagship prayer that hit a chord in the souls of many Pacific islanders to become warriors for nature.
Several Presidents of the Methodist Church of Fiji were also trained at PTC. Rev. Dr. Tevita Bainivanua, Rev. Dr. Tuikilakila Waqairatu, and current President Rev. Dr. Epineri Vakadewavosa, navigated the church through troubled political waters and have been strong voices in the shaping of national and regional development from education to socio-economic wellbeing.
Speaking truth to power on global stages and a powerful voice in raising Pacific indigenous struggles for self-determination, championing causes for the Earth and indigenous spirituality and promoting greater inter-faith ecumenism for solving shared problems, Reverend James Bhagwan is another notable alumnus. He is the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches. Similarly, his long-serving predecessor Lorine Tevi spent many years coordinating the God’s People Pacific programme at PTC before playing a significant regional role for the self determination of various countries.
Reverend Dr. Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere’s writing’s on indigenous spirituality and theology is internationally acclaimed. He was a PTC student, later it’s Principal and President of the Methodist Church, one of the nine Principals PTC has had since inception. Another Principal, Rev. Dr. Jovili Meo was influential in the development of theological education across the region.
Reverend Manasa Lasaro became the first Fijian to join the PTC faculty. Reverend Laisiasa Ratabacaca, Bishop Siketi Tonga of Tonga, are other notable names.
These men and women have simply carried on the torch from their fellow PTC brothers and sisters who have gone on ahead, running the race, lighting the way across the Pacific. From Kiribati to Maohi Nui, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands, West Papua, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Nauru, Niue, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, American Samoa to the Federated States of Micronesia. PTC has produced leaders influential in their development.
The College is owned by 20 churches across the region of the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions.
It now celebrates its 55th Anniversary in a new millennium society. One in which burgeoning problems of the past are full-blown challenges of the present. The insidious choke of non-communicable diseases, ecological violence, loss of indigenous spirituality, poverty, moral decay, instability and human rights abuses, ecological violence, climate change dislocation, gender inequality, economic issues and racism.
‘It’s why PTC more than ever must act as a regional institution to help change the story given its strategic position of influence in producing regional leaders who are open-minded, academically sound, theologically and critically passionate, prophetically rigorous, ecumenically conscious, justice-driven, and Pacific-oriented,” said PTC Principal Reverend Professor Dr. Upolu Luma Vaai.
‘PTC is now rethinking, refining and relocating theological education in a way that serves the will of God in the Pacific.
‘The role of theological education is to disturb, to subvert, to challenge systems and structures that suppress and oppress people for the sake of fullness of life for all.’
In its new strategic vision approved by the PTC Council in November 2019, the College will this year conduct a full review of all its courses to reflect the vision of ‘Theological Education for Leadership for Justice.’
The review, would re-align PTC courses to address all these issues.
Reverend Professor Dr. Upolu Vaai said PTC aims to train leaders who can deal with justice issues in the Pacific i.e. producing church and regional leaders who are not just priests and theologians but also prophets and advocators of justice to assist their own local communities.
In other words, to continue to produce giants of leadership both in Fiji and across the region, as it has for 55 years.
Fifty years down – many more decades to go. Happy 55th Birthday PTC!