The 41st Solomon Islands’ Independence Day was remembered on Sunday July 7th, not only in Solomon Islands, but across the UK. At Ottery St Mary Parish Church, in Exeter Diocese, the Ven John Rawlings, Leader of the Companions of the Melanesian Brotherhood in the South West, preached this sermon;
Trinity 3 – Ottery St Mary
I wonder how many people in the town or in Feniton or Alfington would know why there are street names and even a junction on the A30 which bears the name Patteson? Yet for a long time men and women from Melanesia have been making pilgrimage to these places and Exeter Cathedral to honour the memory and see places associated with Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, the first Bishop of Melanesia.
You, I am sure, are familiar with his story; being born in London in 1827 ; schooling at Kings in Ottery St Mary, Eton and studying at Baliol College Oxford; then ordination in Exeter and the cure of souls at Alfington. He had been influenced by Bishop George Augustus Selwyn in his school days and Selwyn wanted him to go to the Melanesian Islands and extend the Church Selwyn oversaw in New Zealand. Patteson’s ministry was exceptional and as a result the Church of Melanesia was founded and flourished. He learned many of the languages of the islands he visited and wanted the new Christians to express their faith in worship which used their indigenous music and dance and not be a transplant of the Gothic church buildings and Hymns Ancient and Modern. He also set up educational institutions. As many of you will know, he was martyred on the Island of Nukapu, either being mistaken for a slave trader or in revenge for the white men who had taken slaves from the islands to work in plantations in the Colonies. His martyrdom is depicted on the nave pulpit in Exeter Cathedral and when I have taken Melanesians there to see it they have always been profoundly moved.
The Melanesian Mission was set up in 1849 and still facilitates a very special link with Melanesia and is growing in its organization of visitors to and from Melanesia. The current Executive Officer of the Mission, Katie Drew, lives and worships in this Mission Community and the chairman is Bishop Mark Rylands who is now the parish priest at Ashburton.
The Diocese of Chester has had a special link with the Church there for a long time and when Bishop Michael came to be our diocesan bishop, having been a Suffragan Bishop in that diocese, he encouraged a similar link to be formed here. He had been out to Melanesia and was also a Companion of the Melanesian Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was founded in 1925 by Ini Kopuria, a former policeman in the Solomon Islands. It is still the largest Religious Order in the Anglican Communion and takes young men as novices who after their time of training become Brothers making vows for five years which are renewable. Unlike many orders the vows are not for life and Brothers can and often do return to their homes after five years and marry or assist their families.
Bishop Michael had been asked by the then Archbishop of Melanesia if he could find a placement for one of the Melanesian Brothers to have some time in an English parish to broaden his experience after being ordained and studying for a degree. Bishop Michael asked if I would take Brother George as I was in between curates in Tavistock at the time. Brothers always live and work in pairs or more when out on mission and so another brother would join Brother George and we would set up a House of the Melanesian Brotherhood in Tavistock. The brother who joined George was Leonard who has also been back to UK to study for a degree then be ordained. In 2017 he returned having been elected Bishop of Temotu diocese in the Solomon Islands and only a few weeks ago he was elected to be the next Archbishop of Melanesia. Sadly, Brother George died a couple of years ago but had exercised a remarkable ministry. In Tavistock both brothers were very much loved and admired for their simplicity of life, deep and prayerful spirituality and an ability to enable people to see what the Christian faith is all about. Some of you will have seen the brothers at work, as it were, when a large number of them came to the diocese in 2004 for the great mission or pilgrimage where they travelled round a number of places performing their dramas which depict elements of the Gospel together with their infectious dancing, singing and music on bamboo pipes. As a result of that and the time Brothers George and Leonard had in Tavistock, a number of people became Companions of the Melanesian Brotherhood based here and in Tavistock mostly. They support the work of the Brothers in prayer and financial aid especially when disaster strikes as it so often does.
They were joined by a number of Sisters as there are other religious orders in the Islands – The Sisters of Melanesia, The Sisters of the Church and the Franciscans. Again, some brothers and sisters came back to this diocese for what was called ‘Simply Living’ – a time of prayer, discussion and mission to encourage the Church here in its own mission. It is no longer a case of the Church in UK sending missionaries to the Islands of the South Pacific as in the 19th century but a two-way traffic of people from the islands coming here to encourage and support us. It is very special to be able to meet Sister Kristy here this morning.
All the religious orders in the Solomon Islands are engaged in work of reaching out to their communities and the islands, of which there are many. Some, especially the women’s orders are engaged in work with those who suffer domestic violence, other kinds of abuse, and have set up a women’s refuge. Education is also high on their agenda. The Mothers’ Union is very strong in the islands and has set up educational and parenting programmes. There is a huge need to combat the political instability and prevalent poverty and challenge the industry which has deforested so much of the islands and made them even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In past ethnic and tribal tensions and recent riots in the Solomon Islands the Brothers were the people most trusted to seek reconciliation. In 1999-2000 the Brothers worked on the Townsville Peace Agreement to enable working towards a better understanding in their Islands. But there is always at a cost and many of you will remember the seven brothers who, at a time of conflict with warring factions in the islands, were captured and martyred. Harold Keke, a rebel leader, would not comply with the agreement. Brother Nathaniel tried to reason and negotiate with him but was killed. Other Brothers went to find him and were also murdered. The martyred brothers have been remembered throughout the Anglican Communion and particularly at the last Lambeth Conference where a large icon was blessed and is in Canterbury Cathedral.
In the last few years a number of people, both ordained and lay, have gone from this diocese to the Solomon Islands and people from there have come here. There are schools which have special links with schools in the Solomon Islands which are proving beneficial in both directions. A PhD researcher is looking into the effects of climate change and the rising sea levels around the area as this is affecting so many communities who are very vulnerable.
In the Gospel Jesus sends out the 70 disciples two by two to proclaim the Kingdom, restore human dignity to the suffering and possessed; to show the face of God to the world. But they go with every vulnerability like lambs amongst wolves but need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That was not just the challenge to those early disciples it is a challenge to all of us now, whether in UK or Melanesia. One of the bishops from the Solomon Islands was asked what was the greatest priority for the Church in the Islands? His answer, given that at the time 95% of the population there was Christian, was mission and evangelization. He pointed out that God has no grandchildren. Every new generation needs to be confronted with the Gospel afresh.
The early disciples of Jesus were sent out in simple trust. They were not to be hampered with baggage. But they were to make a difference to the lives of those they encountered. They returned to the Lord rejoicing that their ministry and message had been effective.
Today we have been reflecting on the life of the Church in Melanesia on what is Solomon Islands’ Independence Day and we thank God for what the Church there is doing. It was recently announced that a previous Archbishop, The Most Reverend David Vunagi, has been appointed by the Queen to be the next Governor General of the Solomon Islands. The Church there and especially the religious orders are making a difference to the lives of people living in a very different kind of society from ours. But we, too, are called to make a difference in our society. As Jesus says, ‘the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few’. We need to ask ourselves this week, will my life, my witness to Christ through what I do and what I am, make a difference to the life of someone else?
Ven John Rawlings