The Methodist and Presbyterian Council for Mission and Ecumenical Cooperation (COMEC), 1984 to 2001.

An outline of the early years of the Methodist and Presbyterian Council for Mission and Ecumenical Cooperation (COMEC) can be found in Presbyterians in Aotearoa 1840-1990.[1]  For earlier periods of the Presbyterian Church's involvement in mission overseas see Stan Murray, One Small Finger, Overseas mission in a changing world, 1949-1969, Wellington, PCNZ, 1988, and J S Murray, A Century of Growth, Presbyterian overseas mission work, 1869-1969, Presbyterian Bookroom. In 1984 the Joint Board for Mission Overseas which had coordinated Presbyterian and Methodist Mission was replaced by COMEC  which sought to integrate overseas mission, ecumenical relationships and international affairs for the two churches.

In 1984 five “units” were created in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, each with responsibility for a specific geographical area of mission. The structure was served by a coordinating committee and three secretaries: Allan Leadley in Hamilton, Jim Veitch in Wellington, and Simon Rae in Christchurch. The intention was that each unit would provide a holistic approach to mission and develop expertise for the part of the world allocated to them. The functions of mission, ecumenism and international affairs would be integrated and the quality of mission offered by the joint churches enhanced.

 Despite the soundness of the theological rational and the nobility of the vision, the reality had to cope with intrinsic structural flaws and declining funding. After two years the geographical areas for Hamilton and Dunedin were swapped to balance the work load. That may have been necessary, but it lost the expertise and personal relationships which had been cultivated and placed North Asia in the care of Dunedin at a time when North Asian migration was rapidly increasing the importance of Asian contacts in Auckland. As a whole the scheme assumed that local knowledge of a particular part of the world was more important than functional expertise in a particular dimension of mission. However, apart from the allocation of Polynesia to Auckland, knowledge of parts of the world did not correlate well with units in particular parts of New Zealand. Facts of life such as the geography of New Zealand, and the location of church offices and parliament, meant that the downgrading of functional expertise and its inappropriate placement made the scheme practically unworkable without a significant increase in resources.

 Those resources in fact declined. A desire to set commitment to the national budget as the primary responsibility of the congregation made it difficult to raise funds independently of the budget, and congregations who out of financial necessity, or theological or other disagreement, were tardy with their Budget contribution, were prevented from supporting overseas mission projects which could have retained their commitment.

 Any fears that the combined council would be dominated by the political concerns of the old International Relations Committee proved misplaced. It was now politically difficult for the churches to make statements on international affairs for fear of embarrassing local churches. A “lowest common denominator” approach meant that in the face of different views about what could or should be said, the easiest route was to say nothing. The expertise needed to judge what should and should not be said in political matters was lost.

 Ecumenical affairs survived in the sense that enhancing relations with partner churches became an over-riding theme, but the necessary connections with church leaders needed to front expressions of partnership and travel overseas well briefed by COMEC, were not easy to arrange. Numbers of New Zealanders served with distinction in overseas ecumenical bodies, but the appointment of committee members to attend successive meetings from New Zealand was constrained by distance, finance, and confusion about overlapping roles with the National Council of Churches, now the Council of Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand. As other issues confronting the churches in New Zealand demanded attention, more and more dimensions of international engagement became problematic. Our own problems were pressing and our confidence was reduced.  We could value overseas visitors to tell us what we were able to hear, but it was hard to believe they might be able to speak appropriately into the emerging malaise. Was it possible for us to be learners as well as those who still had something to offer the world? We had become a mission field – could we bring ourselves to recognize it and did we still have a mission?

 Difficulties also arose from the changing nature of world mission itself. The core projects supported by COMEC reflected historical relationships and a strategic sense of the importance of leadership development in partner churches appropriate in an age of decolonisation. This was a common core of activity easily understood by a range of theological positions. At the same time it was an emphasis that by its very safety quickly dated. It was too traditional for some, insufficiently evangelistic for others. Faith missions, too have had their difficulties adjusting to younger generations in the Church and changing needs abroad. Sometimes they were less different in their practice from COMEC policy than many hoped and others feared. Nevertheless they kept in touch with parishes and individuals. Where they could provide direct and personal links people sensed that through them they could make a difference for the Kingdom of God.

 For mainline churches in mission it was difficult to know at what point something else would be needed as the financial situation of many partner churches improved while that of the New Zealand churches weakened. The deeper difficulties lay in the fact that real partnership required debate and the working through of issues both with supporting churches in New Zealand and with partners overseas. We needed ways of handling social justice and indigenous people’s issues. The expertise needed from international relations had been lost. The extended personal relationships needed to work through differences of vision were hard to sustain. The theological statements on mission affirmed diversity but did not have the effect of affirming different visions of what COMEC actually ought to be doing. The financial administration of the operation strained resources in Wellington.

Comparison with other denominations is interesting. There is a danger in assuming the grass is greener on the other side of fences, denominational or theological. Baptists have also struggled to maintain the loyal support of congregations for a denominational mission. The Anglican Church has succeeded first by bringing together the two historic strands of Anglican mission expression, the SPG and the CMS, second by the creation of a credible international body, the Anglican Consultative Council, and finally by working seriously at partner relationships between dioceses. The possible lessons for Presbyterians are that our own agents of mission need to be in touch with Anglican as well as Methodist counterparts, we could fruitfully identify with the international expression of our tradition in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and in mission through the Council for World Mission (CWM). This later would also own our Congregationalist heritage and the early historical association of Church of Scotland ministers and elders with the London Missionary Society. In immediate practical terms it suggests that partner presbyteries would be a creative development, even though it would not be without a learning curve to develop properly.

John Roxborogh.

[1] Dennis McEldowney, ed., Presbyterians in Aotearoa 1840-1990, 1990, 165-169.