Partners in Theological Education

Paul and Gillian Tonson in Papua New GuineaLong-standing links between the Uniting Church in Australia and its partner church, the United Church of Papua New Guinea (UCPNG), will soon be renewed.

UnitingWorld volunteer Rev Dr Paul Tonson will return to Papua New Guinea in March to teach for six months at Rarongo Theological College’s School of Theology and Mission (STM).

It is almost 25 years since the Tonson family moved from New Zealand to Rarongo, where he spent three years teaching ministry candidates.

“Our cultural immersion as the one European family in a large Melanesian community was transformative for me, my wife, Gillian, and our three children,” Dr Tonson said.

“It led us into the orbit and the ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia.”

Paul’s teaching experience in Papua New Guinea inspired him to move to Melbourne in 1994 to undertake a PhD in Biblical Interpretation (Genesis).

“Because of my doctoral study, I can now return to Papua New Guinea to support their ministry development at a higher level,” he said.

With educational standards increasing, the UCPNG formed the United Church College of Higher Education (UCCoHE) as an umbrella for several tertiary institutions. In 2012, UCCoHE created the STM and initiated a Master of Theology program with three students.

Last year, the program had five first-year Master students and one final-year student.

“Until UCPNG has more doctoral scholars, they will depend on expatriates to offer qualified supervision,” Dr Tonson said.

“This is a great time for me to return since the college principal, the moderator and some bishops are former students of mine. It is a privilege to work alongside them.”

Personal links between the UCA and UCPNG are limited, as almost all expatriate personnel departed soon after independence in 1975. However, many of them continue to support the UCPNG through the Friends of the United Church PNG/SI (Solomon Islands) in Victoria and other states.

In conjunction with the Yarra Yarra Presbytery and UnitingWorld, PNG Friends will host a short commissioning service for Dr Tonson at 3pm on Saturday 27 February at St Andrew’s Gardiner UC, corner of Burke and Malvern Rds, Glen Iris.

The key speaker will be Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll from UnitingWorld. Dr Carroll is manager of Church Partnerships in the Pacific. Her experience includes work with the Pacific Island Women’s Advocacy Services and the Association of Oceanian Women Theologians.

“I believe the role of Seforosa in this service and in UnitingWorld reflects the maturity of our partnership structure,” Paul said.

“It fulfils the vision of ‘two-way traffic’ I had after my first period at Rarongo – that we of the West also need to learn from the wisdom of those who first received the gospel through us.”

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