The Protestant Church of Kanaky: assessing the evolution of the church and the theology she has tried to develop and apply

by Rev Billy Wetewea

Date added: 28/06/2017

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An Assessment of the Evolution of Theology Applied within the Protestant Church of Kanaky New Caledonia and its Relevance for Her Mission Today?


By Rev Billy Wetewea, Protestant Church of Kanaky, New Caledonia


Regarding the actual situation of my people and my country, I am of those who believe that theology or missiology should be contextual, it should be directly rooted in the daily life of the people and the reality of their situation.

So let me start by giving you some brief information about the situation of my people and my country.


Actual Situation of the Kanak People

New Caledonia is in Melanesia, 22 000 km from France. It is composed by the Main Land, the Loyalty Islands (Uvea, Lifou, Mare, Tiga), Belep Island in the North, and Isle of Pins in the South. The whole territory covers 20 000 km² with considerable mineral resources in nickel[i], chromium, iron and manganese. The exploitation of nickel represents the main resource in the economy of the country.

1.      The last census of 2014

The population of New Caledonia stood at 269,000 inhabitants in August 2014. The South province now has 74% of the population against 19% in the North province and 7% in the Loyalty Islands. Population ageing has accelerated, but the proportion of young people is still high. The Kanak community is the largest, followed by Europeans and Wallisians and Futunans. However, a growing proportion of the population declares that they are of mixed race or “Caledonian”. The Caledonians are more and more highly qualified, but differences in qualification level between the different communities continue. Households are becoming steadily smaller and living standards are improving, although disparities between provinces persist. The census makes it possible to measure the distribution of the population according to the community of belonging. In 2014, 105,000 people, or 39 per cent of the total population, claim to belong to the Kanak community. The Europeans represent 73,200 inhabitants, or 27% of the declarations. Then come the Wallisians and Futunans with 22,000 people (8%). The other communities (Tahitians, Indonesians, Ni-Vanuatu, Vietnamese and other Asian populations) comprise a total of less than 6% of the population (


2.      Some Statistics[ii]



In the secondary, the admission to the “Baccalauréat”, the High school degree:

_youth of Caledonian European origin: 67%

_youth of Polynesian origin: 49%

_youth of Kanak origin: 34%.

This statistic continues in the higher degrees, like at the university where on 5500 students, 70% fails in the first year. We observe that 90% of these failures are young Kanaks.

In fact, the failure of the French school system is already identified at the primary level with the acquisition of the fundamentals. By coping the French school system to the Caledonian school, a flagrant inequality and discrimination that disfavor the Kanak students to the school success and their social and professional insertion.


Since the establishment of the Noumea Accord in 1998, the Kanak population is placed in the center of development to allow its rehabilitation in the within the development of the country. 18 years later, we can make this observation:



*Formation and Employment:

8 doctors practitioners Kanak; 6 midwifes on 300 in activity; 2 physiotherapists on 115; No surgeon and pharmacist; nurse: on 82 candidates in 2008, for the diploma, only 12 Kanaks;


Only 1 magistrate but already retired; no Kanak lawyer at the Tribunal; 99% of the population in jail is Kanaks.

*Police and Gendarmerie: no commissar, only one commander on the 9 posts.

*Diplomacy: no one engage in such training.

*In Public Function: only 528 jobs on 3660 in 2008 was occupied by Kanak people which represent 14,40% and on the 528 jobs, only 57 cadres or supervisors. We count only 6 administration chiefs and 3 administrations directors. 36 engineers trained especially in the sector of mining and metallurgy.


            In 1979, the Evangelical Church of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands took a strong political stance for the self-determination and independence of the Kanak people, by denouncing the discrimination, marginalization and the injustices perpetrated towards her. A decision that challenged the secular society and government and that was strongly criticized. In the context of that time, the church has strongly and relevantly played her prophetic role and has assumed it.

            Today the context has changed, as the country as evolved and move slowly towards the referendum next year 2018 where the question will be ask to the inhabitant of Kanaky New Caledonia if they want to become independent or not. 

In the crucial time that we are now, how does the Church apply her mission within such context? What theology defines her vision and action today?

To try to answer these questions we will try to see how the theology of the church has evolved from the missionary time until now.




I.                   The Protestant Missionary Church: 1840-1960: The Missionary Heritage


I.1. Brief survey of the beginning of the Evangelization in New Caledonia.

The evangelization of New Caledonia[iii] was in the following process of evangelization of the islands of the Pacific by the London Missionary Society. It was the Polynesians “teachers”[iv]  from Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands who initiate this movement. The strategy was to evangelize the Oceanians by the Oceanians (Kohler 1981, 10). European missionaries came later on to strengthen and develop the new Christian communities established by the “teachers”. According to Jean-François Zorn, the strategy of the London Missionary Society presented two aspects: first, that the missionaries do not bring to the people they tried to convert neither an ecclesiastical government, neither a civil government, but the faith and the moral of the Gospel and the goods of modern civilization that they can receive; in one word, ideas and examples that can make a society capable of constituting itself and of self-governance” (Zorn 1993, 151). Schools, health centers, leproseries were established by the missionaries. The Bible was translated in the most spoken languages (four main dialects).

The Evangelization was a success in the Loyalty Islands but faced some difficulties in the mainland, Caledonia, because of the French administration and the Europeans settlers who started to settle within the land, since the territory became French possession in 1853. By taking possession of the mainland, the Loyalty Islands became annexed to the main land and the Catholic Church known a great expansion within the country being supported by the French administration. In 1922 the London Missionary Society gave the relay to the Paris Evangelical Mission to continue the mission work (Goodal 1954, 407).

In Caledonia, the evangelization was initiated by the “natas”, the first pastors trained by the English missionaries. Then, the missionary appointed and send to continue and strengthen the missionary work in Caledonia was Pastor Maurice LEENHARDT. When he arrived in the mainland, the situation of the Kanak people was really critical. From 45 000 in the census of 1857, the Kanak population dropped to 20 000 in the early 1900’s, because of new diseases, military repressions, alcoholism, etc… When Leenhardt arrived in Noumea, the Mayor of town said: "What are you doing here, Reverend? In ten years there will be no more Kanaks.” The work of Leenhardt in Caledonia has greatly contributed to the improvement of the condition of life the natives, and by thus, the Mission often became enemies the colonists or the administration. Leenhardt build a College on the missionary station at Wawilu and called it Do Neva, “the True Country”. At that time, school and mission were two organs of missionary work. This consisted mainly of the training of pastors-monitors. It was necessary to begin by learning to read the Bible in order to be able to evangelize. His ethnological approach, his zeal and his advanced vision of missionary work, will make him a much loved one among the natives. Maurice Leenhardt also engaged in the field of social and health, in particular by fighting against alcoholism which had been used by the administration to kill the Kanak people.

I.2. The Indigenous Code

In 1853 France took possession of New Caledonia and by a Proclamation of 20 January 1855, she declare herself sole owner of the land. Kanaky being a colony, the “Indigenous Code” was applied on Kanak people who were parked in so called Reserves, lands often inadequate for cultivating, and granted by the Colonial Domain, which fixed their boundaries. They are subject in each district to the authority of one or two great chiefs appointed by the administration, and in each village to that of a small chief. They pay the head tax. They cannot leave the district without the written authorization of the Brigadier. So there is no freedom of movement without authorization. With the application of this code, most of the land has been taken by the colonial system and has been given to the settlers and convicts to start a new life.


I.3. 1945-1956: The Church involvement in Politic

• 1945: The end of the War World 2 brought a lot of changes in the condition of the Kanak people. In line with Charles De Gaulle's speech in Brazzaville, the provisional government of the French Republic offers its colonies a better recognition and allows them to assert their interests.

• The Kanak situation is improving. In May 1946, the various provisions of the indigenous status were abolished[v]. The voting rights are granted only to some Kanaks (especially the pastors and priests, and educated people), and in July 1953[vi], they became voters under the conditions of common law. They are then more numerous than the other Caledonian voters. This new fact completely changes the local political spectrum, which until then has been dominated by voters of European origin.
• This civic emancipation of the Kanak attracted some of the right wing lists who created the Communist Party and threatened this emancipation. In response to that the integration of the Kanak into civic life is rapidly framed and because of the separation of the church and the state, the churches created two associations to support the Kanak in their emancipation, the Union of Caledonian Indigenous Friends of Liberty in the Order (UICALO) is created by Father Luneau and Roch Pidjot, it is of Catholic obedience. While the Association of Caledonian Indigenous and French Loyaltiens (AICLF) is initiated by the Pastor Charlemagne from the Protestant side. In 1953, these two associations presented lists common to elections to the General Council. These lists entitled "Union Caledonian" won the elections. Their victory made it possible for Kanaks to exercise political responsibilities on a territorial scale for the first time. This new party dominates the Caledonian political life for more than 20 years. It unites Caledonians of all origins on the basis of a social policy, integration of the Kanak into political, economic and social life, and administrative autonomy (Henningham 1992, 49-50). 
• Colonization is being challenged internationally:
The 10th December 1948, the UN Charter on the  universal declaration of the citizen and human rights recognizes the right of peoples to self-determination.
The French State changes its attitude towards its colonies, and wishes to salute their commitment in the defense of the Republic during difficult times. The Kanak began a timid integration into the modern economy.

I.4. The birth of two churches and two school organisms

In 1958, the Church Mission had to face a deep and strong internal conflict between its European missionaries that will lead to its division. This division led to the formation of two churches, the Evangelical Church in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands and the so-called "dissident" Free Evangelical Church, which still cohabit. Despite many attempts, they have never come to reconciliation. But in recent years they have been trying to work together. This division also led to the formation of two school organizations: the Scholar Alliance of the Evangelical Church in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands (ASEE); and the (FELP)…

The 24th April 1960 the Evangelical Church of Kanaky New Caledonia became independent and received her autonomy from the Evangelical Mission Society of Paris.

With this autonomy, the new born church received all of the Mission’s buildings, infrastructures and properties that she has to administrate from now.


I.5. Civilizing Impact of the Missions

As Jean-Marie Kholer highlights, “the collaboration between the Churches and the government administration were among the most important factors in the development of New Caledonia. Even though the churches gave priorities to their religious objectives and constantly defended certain essential rights of the native people against the abuse of the settlers and the administration, they furthered the process of colonization very effectively. First, for it was the price of establishing their own ideological and institutional power: to impose their world vision, they had not only to bring discredit upon the pagan culture, but to substitute a new system of authority for one which traditionally ensure its reproduction. Second, because civilizing the native people was the precondition for converting them”. As Kholer mentioned, “the Churches, more than any other institution, contributed to the establishment in the indigenous culture of the social and material structures of western civilization, and the inculcation in the natives of perceptions and values inherent in colonial dominion like new system of economy, materiality, individualism, etc… There were two effects by integrating the Kanak into the colonial structure, one of protecting and saving them from extinction and the second, the theocracy imposed on the natives by the missionaries represented both a major form of colonial constraint and a rare possibility of escape from the more immediate and more brutal forms of oppression and exploitation introduced by white power” (Kohler 1988, 145-147).



II.                The Evangelical Church of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Island: 1960-2013


II.1. Political Context

Within this period, the Kanak people have several chance to access to its independence but a succession of laws have prevented that and reduced the power of local representatives within the political arena. These laws are the Jacquinot Law (1963), the Billotte Law (1969), the Stirn Law (1969) and the Dijoud Law (1979) and they involved the suppression of Kanak ministers, increasing of French powers at the expense of those of the Territory, control by the French Government of Territorial aspirations and refusal to recognize the legal rights of Melanesian as a group. New Caledonia then, is a province of France under the strict control of the colonial government.

At the same time, the independentists’ parties under the leadership of Jean-Marie Tjibaou asked for the first time the Independence of Kanaky and strengthen its claim for the restitution of the land. (Uregei 1982, 126-127).

In 1988, the Independist movement boycotts the Presidential and legislative elections, and in Urea islands a group of independentists had occupied the gendarmerie station where the election was supposed to be taken, and kidnap its occupants. Two gendarmes were killed, and the group and the hostage fled and hide in a cave next to Gossanah, a protestant tribe in the North of the island. The French State sent the paramilitaries, commando “de choc” against terrorists, to liberate the hostage. At the end, the 19 independents were savagely killed. The tension in the country was at the edge of a civil war. In 1989, during the customary ceremony of closure of the mourning of the 19 Kanak killed by the French army, our political leaders, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yewene Yewene were killed by a pro-independentist from the tribe of Gossanah, Djubeli Wea who was a former pastor from the church engaged in politics, and was killed as well.

This event has put the entire country and especially our people in a profound desolation and with their death, our hope for independence as well has been buried. During these “events” the church has played the role of regulator and mediator within the society.




Two Majors Political Accords:

*1988: the Matignon Accord

The Matignon Agreements are agreements concluded at the Hotel Matignon in Paris on 26 June 1988 by the independence delegation led by Jean-Marie Tjibaou and an anti-independence delegation led by Deputy Jacques Lafleur under the aegis of the French government. These agreements provide for a ten-year development period, with economic and institutional guarantees for the Kanak community, before New Caledonians can decide on their independence. They were completed on 20 August 1988 by the Oudinot Agreements, Two formations signatory to the draft law providing for statutory and preparatory provisions for the self-determination of New Caledonia in 1998. These texts, which enabled the restoration of civil peace and set the framework for the transitional status of New Caledonia, are commonly referred to as Matignon-Oudinot Agreements. It also amnesties the massacres of Uvea, prohibiting any trial on the death of 4 gendarmes and 19 Kanak separatists.


*1998: the Noumea Accord
A second agreement (Noumea agreement) was signed on May 5, 1998 under the aegis of the Minister Lionel Jospin: it postpones self-determination until a period between 2014 and 2018 and provides for a gradual transfer of competences until 2014 of skills in all areas except defense, internal security, justice and currency, which would remain the competences of the French Republic.


II.2.The Development and Growth of the Autonomous Church


The Evangelical Church in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, with its new autonomy, dedicated the first ten years of its life to maintain the heritage and continue the work of the missionaries. The main objectives of the young church were to organize a work of reconciliation with the dissident church of 1958. Despite many attempts to realize this objective, the two churches remain today and try to work together. The main objective lied in its mission to continue to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the different part of the country, that salvation may be proclaimed to all and that the Kanak society, which disintegrate rapidly, find in the Gospel a new center of gravity (Wete 1991, 47-49).

At this time, the composition of the church was totally indigenous and as the natives used to be the auxiliaries of the missionaries to assure her own functioning, they had to organize, lead, and train themselves. But the church kept the bond with the Mission Society who continues to send missionaries for education, health, pastoral and theological training, and shares with the Mission a partner relationship.

At the same time, the church enriched her relationship within the Pacific region too. In 1961, in partnership with other churches from our region, she participated to found the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) at the Theological College of Malua. In 1961, the first assembly of the PCC was held in Kanaky in the island of Lifou. The same year, the church became member of the CEO (Wete 1991, 44). Her connexion with the Pacific and the world expended and that will help a lot in the political struggle that the society will face in the 80’s.

            As a continuity with missionaries’ work and theological education, the church adopted the theology of Grace to implement her theological training. But as highlighted by Wete, an inappropriate interpretation of this theology had led the leaders and members of the church to a passive and assisted attitude towards one’s life, becoming more consumers rather than producers.


II.3. The Awakening of the Kanak consciousness in the church

Being conscious about this issue, the church engaged a deep reflexion to revisit her theology and its application on her mission. Three main points came out from this reflexion:

1. There is a desire and an imperative to be less implicated within the maintaining of the missionary heritage but to become the Word of God in the needs of the people today.

2. Make the Christian, not a ghost from the past, but a luminary of the future whose the promises imply his time and his place of life.

3. Make the Christian, not a consumer but a producer.

To be able to realize this project, the church created in 1972 a committee that will take care of the Christian Education of the church and all her branches of activities (youth group, Sunday school etc...) that composed the church and the people of God (Wete 1991, 54-59).

During the 70’s, the church became more and more conscious of her enormous responsibilities towards the education of her people, pushing her to rethink her approach and methods of theological training. The new method emphasizes on the importance of bringing down to the people theological knowledge and concepts by developing, animating, and organizing theological reflexion and biblical formation for the whole community, by publishing and circulating biblical and theological documents in the different languages that are the most spoken. By this, the church tried to advocate and empower the people about their condition and the issues that they face.

At the same time, the church was influenced as well by the Theology of Liberation that she tried to adapt to the particular context of the situation of the Kanak people. (Wete 1991, 117-125).

The degradation of the situation of the Kanak people, the tension between the different ethnic groups, and the rejection of cooperation of the French State to the recognition of the condition of the native people, and despite the several warning that the church expressed, the church made a strong and powerful political stance in 1979 in her General Synod of Gouarou: The EENCIL take position in favor of the Independence of the Kanak People. This decision was taken after a long theological reflexion that reaffirms the need and the right of the Kanak people for justice and independence. The church clearly express herself as being the prophetic voice of the oppressed, the Kanak people. Based on the study of the prophets and some texts of the Gospels, she developed and oriented her reflexion and her theology (Wete 1991, 71-77).  

            In 2002, with the General Synod of Gossanah, the church engaged in a revitalization of her functioning. It is an important step that allowed the church to reorganize herself, affirm her vision and mission, engage in the struggle for justice and participate and accompany the people of God to attain the perfect stature of Christ (Eph 4:13). The missionary's programme that she had elaborated really takes into account the holistic development of the church and the relevance of her action within the society.

In 2013, in the Synod of Thuahaik, the Evangelical Church of Kanaky New Caledonia changes her name and becomes theProtestant Church of Kanaky New Caledonia.

The Word of the Church to the Authorities:

Reaffirming its prophetic and evangelical mission, 34 years after the stance for independence at Gouarou, the Evangelical Church in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands (EENCIL) becoming the Protestant Church of Kanaky New Caledonia (EPK-NC) in its 73rd General Synod of Thuahaik-Lifou 2013, invites the people of this country to embody the “bet of faith” to succeed the “bet of intelligence”. In front of the important political deadlines (exit of the Matignon-Noumea Accords and self-determination ballot), the 73th Synod of the Protestant Church of Kanaky New Caledonia of Thuahaik-Lifou, calls the country for vigilance and calls the members of the Church, the customary, political and administrative authorities to the fraternal accompaniment of the people of God towards "a common destiny" with the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Trust always to the Lord!" (Isaiah 26:4). For He alone can find the way to true happiness.”


III.             The Protestant Church of Kanaky New Caledonia: 2013-…


The tendency of the Church through the General Synods from 2014 to 2016


Since 2013, the church has reaffirmed the decision she took in 1979 in favor of the emancipation and independence of the Kanak people. The rapports from the past General Synods of the church highlights this political stance towards the Kanak people and as she has always done, reaffirms as well the acknowledgement of the other communities in presence in the country and among her members. She reaffirms the “living together” and calls its members and the authorities to realize with all the different ethnic groups that compose the Caledonian society, the “destin commun”, the common destiny.

General Synod of Hwadrila-Ouvea, 2014:

Motion 22: The General Synod 2014 of Hwadrilla (IAAI) adopts the preamble of the training policy of the EPKNC. As part of its mission to announce the Gospel in KANAKY-NEW CALEDONIA, in the Pacific and in the world, the EPK-NC taking into account the rapidly changing society initiated by successive contributions and with a view to the concretization of the theme of “living together”, requires the training of the people of God, the pastors and its leaders, who embody its vision of a “dynamic Church united in diversity to bear witness to God's mission.”


General Observations:


We can observe that since the General Synod of Gossanah in 2002, the church has been engaged in structural, functioning, infrastructural reorganization that take more and more space in the activities of the church, rather than concretely dealing with the issues that face the society. Among the several projects that the Theological Animation, based on the decision of the past synods has chosen to work on, only one is connected with the referendum next year, which is the organization of the Prayer Week for the unity of the Christians for the year 2017-2018. The new theme chosen for this event is “Fellow Citizen of a New Country” based on Eph 2:19. By focusing on more and more structural issues of the church, have we not missed one the essential element of God’s mission which the human being?

            From the past few years, we can observe that the church has reaffirmed the position she took in 1979 in favor of the emancipation of the Kanak people, which is relevant regarding the current situation. But the church today, at the opposite of the one in the 70’s, especially her Christian Education, is not really efficient as it was in the past. There is not enough involvement, engagement towards the people to create advocacy and empowerment, through workshops, Bible studies, and visits, theological and biblical publication. The structure, the tools are there, but it seems the focus has changed, and that we don’t use it as it is.

The theological reflexion led in the church is not concretely “written” in action among the people and the society in general. If at the level of the top, theological reflexion and accurate decisions are taken in the synods, the information has difficulties to find and spread among the grassroots people.

The 70’s relationship of the church with the “sisters”-churches in the Pacific was really strong through the work of regional Ecumenism. It is something that we need to develop and encourage and awake today within our region. The cry of the people of West Papua, Kanaky, Maohi Nui (French Polynesia), Guam, can still be heard today.

Oriented and contextualized our theology to allow God’s mission through our lives and the prophetic work of the church, to express and manifest the liberative and transforming message of Jesus Christ, is fundamental for the church and more than relevant in the context of the Kanaky New Caledonia actual situation.







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Oxford University Press.


Henningan, Stephen. 1992. France and the South Pacific: A Contemporary History. Sydney:

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Kohler, Jean-Marie. 1981. “Christianity in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands:

Sociological Profile.” Unpublished document.


. 1988. “The Churches and the Colonial Order” In New Caledonia: Essays

in Nationalism and Dependency, edited by Michael Spencer and Alan Ward John Connell. 145-174. Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Uregei, Yann Celene. 1982. “New Caledonia: Confrontation to Colonial Rule” In

Politics in Melanesia, edited by Ron Crocombe and Ahmed Ali. 118-137. Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific.

Wete, Pothin. 1991. Agis ou Meurs: L’Eglise Evangélique : de Calédonie vers Kanaky.

Suvva : Publications Lotu Pasifika.

Zorn, Jean-François. 1993. Le Grand Siècle d’une Mission Protestante : La Mission de Paris

de 1822 à 1914. Paris : Karthala – Les Bergers et les Mages.

[i] New Caledonia possesses the main world resources of nickel and is third in nickel production behind Canada and URSS.

[ii] These statistics are taken from the rapport of the Customary Senate the Special Protractor of the UN on the Rights of the autochthones people.

[iii]At that time there was a distinction between New Caledonia which consisted to the mainland, and the Loyalty Island which became annexed to the mainland.

[iv] Term used for the Polynesians missionaries who brought the Gospel in our country.

[v]End of the indigenous code which consisted on non-judicial sanctions, restrictions on freedom of residence and work, forced labor, services and requisitions; Restrictions on freedom of movement.

[vi] With the abolition of the Indigenous Code and the accession to the right to vote, Kanak people became French citizen.

Rev Billy Wetewea

Rev Billy Wetewea



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