Mystery Worshipper: Tukai
Church: Holy Redeemer
Location: Levuka, Fiji
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 May 2008, 9:00am
An impressive high stone building in the European style of 100 years ago, but in a tropical island setting with the Pacific Ocean 20 metres in front and jungle clad hills rising 20 metres behind. The church is one of the very few in the Pacific Islands to feature stained glass windows (all of them behind the altar), including a set of bearded evangelists up high and even a rose window.
The congregation reflects the ethnic variety of Levuka (see below). The church is closely associated with a small primary school in the same compound.
Levuka was the first European capital of Fiji. (The capital moved to Suva because there wasnt enough flat land between the sea and the hills for Levuka to expand.) Its heyday was in the 1860s-70s, and it has the atmosphere of an old gold rush town of that era. Before the British government asserted control, there were about 1000 rough men and 60 pubs on the waterfront. It is said that visiting ships found the passage through the reef by following the trail of gin bottles. But now it is very peaceful and quiet, and apart from the fish cannery, most of the buildings are still the timber ones from the 19th century. The ethnic mix of the town reflects its history. The majority are indigenous Fijians, but there are also part-Europeans (mostly descended from beachcomber liaisons of a century ago), descendants of Solomon Islanders who were blackbirded (recruited via trickery or kidnapping) to work on plantations in the 1870s, a few Indo-Fijian traders, and a smattering of Europeans (a term used in the Pacific to describe anyone with a whitish skin, including Americans and Australians).
The Revd Tomasi Bola, vicar, assisted by Mr Jo Idu, a lay minister.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
About half full by the listed starting time but three-quarters full within the next 20 minutes.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
And how! Just before the sermon, the vicar hailed us as visitors and invited my wife and me out to the front to introduce ourselves to the congregation. Which we did.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard western-type pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Almost everything in Fiji runs on a relaxed "Fiji time" and so we assumed that we'd be safe arriving a few minutes late for the service. We were mistaken – it had already begun when we arrived.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Sorry, we missed them.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
An Order of Holy Communion (a printed extract from the New Zealand Prayer Book, in English) and the 1973 A Vola ni Sere, also known as Hymns in the Fijian Language, which is published by the diocese.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The hymns (about five of them in all) were all started by a woman sounding a note a very high soprano note with everyone expected to sing off that, in four-part harmony.
Did anything distract you?
A steady procession of stragglers came in late, though they all sat near the back so as to be less distracting. A small child, perhaps about two years old, wandered from pew to pew grinning at some people and gently pulling the hair of others. Just as the service concluded, a large hornet flew through one of the open windows. Hornet stings are very painful, and any hornet flying about must be watched carefully!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was moderately ritualistic and conducted in English, except for the readings, hymns, and part of the sermon, which were in the Fijian language. The celebrant was traditionally vested (his robes must have been hot in the tropical climate). There were candles on the altar and a server who rang a small handbell at all the right moments. There was a gospel procession into the body of the congregation.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The vicar moved fluently between English and Fijian, often making a point first in one language and then again in the other, using the same dramatic gestures, usually more vehemently the second time.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God will reign and wrongs will be put right, but only if we turn to God, as St Paul urges us to do. (As the vicar repeated this sentiment in Fijian, he vigorously twisted his body and swung his arms.) This means not just talk, but action also. We have to take the first step. To love God means to give, give, give, without expecting anything back. Remember, St Paul is watching us! (And here he pointed upward to an image of St Paul looking down at the congregation.)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As with most Fijian congregations, the singing was indeed a pleasure to hear: full throated and in four-part unaccompanied harmony. I'm sure God enjoyed it as much as I did. And to look round the varied congregation was to reaffirm the universality of Christ.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If the hornet had stung someone, we would have heard some decidedly unchristian words! Fortunately it didn't. The Fijians may have been used to singing in unaccompanied harmony, but I wasn't. In fact, one small boy looked at me in wide-eyed disbelief that anyone could sing so badly! But the worst moment of all for me was about to come – read on!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There can be no mystery about the identity of the Mystery Worshipper when you are the only European and the only stranger in a close-knit island community. The steward found the Mystery Worshipper card in the collection plate and, without hesitation, walked straight up to me. "What's this all about, then?" he asked. I was happy to explain all about the Ship of Fools being a Christian website (yes, it is, really) featuring theological debate. By then Father Bola had joined our discussion, and was curious to know how he could get ideas from the Ship being that he didn't have a computer. So we had no chance of looking lost. Instead, there was much shaking of hands and an invitation to sign the visitors' book. So I guess they liked having us there, Mystery Worshipper or not.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no tea, coffee, or even kava (a favoured local tipple).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Of the many churches in this town, this would be the one most likely to suit us both theologically and linguistically.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, indeed. The affirmation of the church universal through a lively and multicultural congregation is always uplifting.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"St Paul is watching us!"