The Pacific island nation of Tonga has its first official bishop. But Dr ‘Afa Vaka, who was consecrated and installed on Sunday, is actually the third bishop to serve the 169 islands – or the 36 inhabited islands – that make up Tonga. The first Anglican missionary to Tonga was Bishop Alfred Willis, who arrived in 1902. And in the mid-1960s, Bishop Fine Halapua, the father of Archbishop Winston Halapua, lived in Tonga as he served as a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Polynesia. But now, after a gap of 50 years, Tonga has its third bishop – this time the first bishop of the newly constituted episcopal unit of Tonga.
In May, the synod of the Diocese of Polynesia, part of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, agreed to establish a new episcopal unit in the archdeaconry of Tonga to give Tongans a greater level of autonomy within the diocese. Dr ’Afa Vaka was elected a short-time later as the first bishop of the new episcopal unit, and described it as putting the Anglican Church “on another level” in Tonga. That new and more visible position will bring recognition, he says – and mean a great deal to faithful Tongan Anglicans who live in the world’s only constitutionally-Methodist monarchy. “For us, it’s like a flower blooming, or a bird that has begun to fly,” he said.
Sunday’s service of consecration and installation saw a crowd of around 300 people squeezed in and around St Paul’s Church in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, on the north coast of the island of Tongatapu.
During the service, Archbishop Winston Halapua outlined the episcopal history of Tonga, and said that for the past 50 years, this distinct entity in the Pacific, with its own language, its own culture, its own traditions, and its own fervent love for monarchy, had been without its own bishop.
“The significance of today is that the mission of God for the people of Tonga – the leadership of that work – is now being taken up by a Tongan, living in Tonga,” he said. “The mission here was started by a bishop. And in the middle was a bishop. Then then a 50-year gap. Now there is this bishop. And there won’t be any more gaps.”
The appointment of ’Afa Vaka as the new Bishop of Tonga puts the Anglican church in the country on the same footing as other major churches in the nation, which are all led by Tongans.
Archbishop Winston’s fellow primate, Archbishop Philip Richardson, described the creation of the new episcopal unit as a significant event in the history of the province. “You couldn’t really say about this ordination, as you might in some, that this was ‘Afa’s day,” he said. “It wasn’t. It was the Anglican Church in Tonga’s day; it was the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia’s day; it was the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia’s day; because this was the culmination of so many people’s efforts, dreams and hopes.
“And Bishop ‘Afa is such a worthy embodiment of those efforts, hopes and dreams because he’s humble. He has a servant heart, and he loves the people. He’s the right kind of leader.”
Bishop ‘Afa Vaka described the event as a “divine occasion”, adding: “today made us feel like we were touching the heels of heaven. It was a time of connecting our hearts, our thoughts, our minds, and it’s like we’ve turned an old page, and we’re opening a new leaf.”
This article draws extensively on a report by Anglican Taonga.