The National, Monday January 18th, 2016
THE work of God and politics must be separate – that’s the word from Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to the Lutheran Church.
“We must keep politics outside the church. If you want to bring politics into the church please don’t invite me next time,” O’Neill told church leaders and delegates when closing the 30th Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea (ELCPNG) at Heldsbach in Finschaffen, Morobe, at the weekend.
The Prime Minister’s intervention was timely in view of major rifts that had threatened to derail one of Papua New Guinea’s oldest Christian churches.
The weeklong synod was not without controversy as delegates last Thursday boycotted the election of their head bishop and new office holders in an unprecedented move, which was sparked by discontent over the state of the church’s various business ventures, including the now-defunct Lutheran Shipping.
As O’Neill arrived in Finschaffen to close the synod, the delegates put aside their differences and elected Rev Jack Urame of the Goroka district to replace Rev Giegere Wenge as head bishop of the ELCPNG.
The Prime Minister urged the church leaders and delegates not to forget the Word of God, which talked about humility, forgiveness and unity.
And he warned the church leaders and members to guard themselves and “not lose the strength of one of the oldest church in the country”, which boasts a membership of K1.5 million. “Let us talk about the work of the church in the next synod and not Lutheran Shipping.”
However, O’Neill kept his promise from the last synod in Madang and presented K5 million to the church to revive the shipping service. The balance of K5 million is expected to be paid to the church later this year.
Lutheran Shipping was a century old story which came to a sad ending in 2013 when its ELCPNG-owned parent company, Kambang Holdings Ltd, went into voluntary liquidation.
The implications of the dissolution of Kambang Holdings were far-reaching and many Lutherans had questioned the church council’s wisdom in making its watershed decision.
Initially, the decision was met with stiff opposition from church members and politicians including current Morobe Governor Kelly Naru and his predecessor Luther Wenge.
The former governor’s elder brother Giegere was the head bishop and chairman of the council that resolved to do away with the pride of the church. Luther Wenge had described the decision as unwise.
Luship had served the church, especially the northern part of country, for a good part of a century until it began sailing into turbulent waters.
It was no secret though that the church’s business arm had been struggling financially and administratively for the past several years.
Whether it was due to difficult economic conditions under which to profitably run a business such as Luship or plain inept management, Lutheran Shipping’s troubles began surfacing when one by one its vessels became grounded or spent extended periods at the dry dock.
Accusations were hurled at the Kambang Holdings management for running down the company.
While the church’s elders were blaming each other, hundreds of coastal and islands villagers were longing for the return of the Lutheran Shipping vessels to grace their shores once more.
Since then there have been half-baked efforts to launch a new shipping service and with the Prime Minister’s promise of K10 million at the 29th Synod it seemed that Lutheran Shipping would be revived.
Nonetheless, coastal and island villagers of Morobe have been taking grave risks travelling in small dinghies to and from Lae when previously Luship was there to provide a safer shipping service.
These people, most of whom are members of the Lutheran Church, deserve a proper shipping service.
ELCPNG can pride itself as a truly nationalised institution having taken over from expatriate missionaries and technical experts, including business managers.
The church has enjoyed its independence and shunned reliance on foreign capital. Kambang Holdings had over the church’s history supported its core evangalisation work.
It is envisaged that the financial assistance from the O’Neill Government will set the course for a business plan to relaunch Lutheran Shipping so that the church will again be able to provide much-needed services for its thousands of coastal and island people throughout Morobe, Madang and neighbouring provinces.