May Visit to Melanesia

Published: May 17, 2023

If I ever needed a reminder that ours is a relational faith, then the two weeks I spent in May in the Solomon Islands was a good one.

One of the strengths of MMUK is that it is a small charity, able to reach into the smallest communities through one-to-one meetings. There is real power and impact in personal greeting, in time spent listening and being alongside, and it was a wonderful privilege to be visiting with Katie and Marie, and to see their work in action. 

In many ways Melanesia is a conflicting place. The islands are physically beautiful, with such a range of landscapes from plains to hills, from mountains to the sea: but there is plastic pollution everywhere, fly tipping, and dirty rivers. The people are hospitable, generous and welcoming, and yet there are systemic issues of domestic abuse and alcoholism. 

The church has a very public face in Melanesia: it has a real voice and impact on local communities and is a trusted and highly regarded locus of information and teaching. Yet even here there are concerns around the formation of priests and the weakness of leadership in the church. 

Overall, I came away with a sense of “pressure cooker-ness”. There are many stresses and strains facing the islands: a rapidly growing population, loss of land and environmental degradation, sea level rise and a warming climate, tension with neighbouring countries, “westernisation”, under employment and urbanisation.  

There is enormous potential for the church to be a force for good, for change and to model how communities can adapt and change to meet the challenges and indeed to be proactive rather than reactive. I saw first-hand the work of the religious orders and their work in education, in caring for the abused, and in tackling the issue of logging, and saw too the work of Mothers’ Union in supporting parenting skills and literacy. 

It was good also to be reminded of the strength of the denomination: of how our shared Anglican liturgy unites us across vast geographical distances and vastly different cultures. Anglicans have something to say, have a distinct perspective to bring, and have a liturgical foundation that serves people well. Hearing the Nunc Dimittis being belted out in wonderful Melanesian harmonies by a school choir of over 100 young people is an experience that will stay with me for a long time. 

The main focus of my visit was to spend time with the Melanesian Sisters and I spent five (very hot) days with them at their headquarters at Verana’aso. Their new chapel was due to be dedicated two weeks later, and I’ll admit to being a “ye of little faith” as I could not see how it was ever going to be ready on time. I was so glad to be proved wrong and to see the photos of the new “Blue Chapel”. 

While it is certainly a challenging place to stay, it was a fantastic experience to be part of the community even if only for a short time. Early morning prayers at 5am, sitting in chapel first in silence, and then in singing and praying together I found very moving. There were times to be serious and times to have a lot of fun particularly as we shared hymns from across our different cultures. I did find it slightly surreal during a break from teaching, to find myself singing “Father Abraham” with a group of novices and sisters. I also added my own contribution to their repertoire so there will now be a whole generation of Melanesian sisters singing “Our God is so big”….

By Revd Lydia Cook

Diocese of Exeter