Remembering Patteson – Father Brian Macdonald-Milne

Honorary Archivist, The Melanesian Mission UK and Honorary Canon of St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Honiara, Solomon Islands, Father Brian Macdonald-Milne writes how Patteson has influenced his entire life.

Patteson's Cross, Nukapu
Patteson’s Cross, Nukapu

I was born before the Second World War, during which I became a choir boy at St Barnabas Church in Sutton, Surrey. One of my hobbies, like many boys in those days, was collecting stamps. We had very little pocket money, but stamps could be acquired in many ways, either by asking people for ones they received on their mail or using one’s small amount of pocket money to buy what one could afford. When I was about thirteen, I visited Trinity Road in Tooting, South London, as I knew that there were two places which would interest me – a stamp shop and an aquarium shop. As I passed the stamp shop, something caught my eye in the window — it was the first stamp issue for the Pitcairn Islands, a British colony in Polynesia. On closer examination, I realized that the set of stamps told the story of the mutiny on the ‘Bounty’, and I went in and bought the set.

I have always been interested in history, and the subject of the stamps set me doing some reading about the Bounty mutineers, and how they fled with some Tahitians to the uninhabited isolated Pitcairn Island to escape punishment. Their descendants later moved to Norfolk Island, having outgrown the small island of Pitcairn, where they had become Anglican Christians and been given a priest by the Bishop of London. The Reverend Mr. Nobbs moved with them to Norfolk Island, south of Melanesia, after it had ceased to be a British penal colony. From my reading I learnt that the Bishop of Melanesia, John Coleridge Patteson, had set up a school for Melanesians on Norfolk Island in 1866/7 and had also ministered to the Pitcairners there when they needed a bishop. I became interested in and inspired by this man. I asked my school chaplain if he had any books about the Church in the Pacific so that I could get a wider picture of the Churches’ work there. He said ‘I have not been asked that before. Are you hoping to go there?’ I had not considered going anywhere at that time — I was just fourteen and being prepared by him for confirmation! I replied however that it might be a good idea. He then said, ‘ Would you go as a layman or as a priest?’ That question changed my life. We had no priests in my family. Our family business in London SW19 was an engineering firm, established by my father, and I was his elder son. However, I thought and prayed and came to believe that this was a call from God, not only to the priesthood but to the Pacific. Eventually my family came to accept this totally unexpected call.

Two missionary dioceses were then associated with the New Zealand Anglican Church — Polynesia and Melanesia. I was interested in both, and even started a branch of the Polynesia Diocesan Association at Croydon Parish Church, now Croydon Minster, which I ran for a while. However, I decided that I ought to make up my mind where I should offer to serve. It was Bishop Patteson who provided the answer. I really wanted to follow in his footsteps, and also to follow — as far as I could — his example. As a teenager, I therefore contacted the Melanesian Mission office in London, and was put on their list of possible future missionaries. I left for Melanesia by ship in 1964, having been ordained as a priest in 1961. On the way from Sydney to Honiara in the Solomons by ship, we called at Norfolk Island and I was able to visit the Patteson Memorial Chapel there.

St Barnabas Chapel, Norfolk Island
St Barnabas Chapel, Norfolk Island

Bishop Patteson has guided me in how I have tried, by the grace of God, to fulfil my ministry in and for the Anglican Church of Melanesia. Like him, I taught Melanesians and prepared some of them for ordained ministry and evangelistic work. I used Melanesian languages in my work, I lived in a Melanesian way, sometimes sharing my home with Melanesians, and eventually I was adopted into a Melanesian family. I was prepared to stay in the islands — if necessary as a single man — for as long as I was wanted. I therefore owe a great debt to the man who has so deeply affected my life from early days, and whose life and martyrdom I have researched and written about. In many ways, he is still an inspiration and encouragement to me today. Thanks be to God for the humble, saintly, talented, and devoted servant of God and of Melanesia, John Coleridge Patteson.

Collect for Bishop John Coleridge Patteson

God of all tribes and peoples and tongues,
who called your servant John Coleridge Patteson
to witness in life and death to the gospel of Christ
amongst the peoples of Melanesia:
grant us to hear your call to service
and to respond trustfully and joyfully
to Jesus Christ our redeemer,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever

Amen

Fr Brian MacDonald Milne

Brian MacDonald Milne