On a ledge in the Melanesian Chapel in Feniton parish church sits a bust of Bishop Patteson. As vicar there, I feel a little intimidated each time I go into the chapel with his stern head looking down on me. For here’s a man exalted as a martyr, whose name appears in the Church of England calendar every September. My ordinary vicar-ness feels hopelessly inadequate under his gaze. The foreboding Victorian style of the sculpture doesn’t help!
But I always recover from my intimidation, to being inspired and encouraged. For here’s a man who lived in this village yet chose to leave British comforts. A man who crossed oceans and took huge personal risks because of his love for God and for people. A man led by the Spirit whose heritage shines on 150 years later in the vibrancy of the Melanesian church.
And this, for me, is the amazing thing about the Church: the spiritual connection it gives to people across time and space. Bishop Patteson lived in a different era, and I find it difficult to associate with some of the values of his day. How Britain viewed its place in the world, even some aspects of Christian mission, can sit uncomfortably today. But this helps me appreciate all the more how Christ reveals himself uniquely in all languages and cultures. I have immense admiration for Patteson for crossing the bridge into a very different culture, and so enabling Christ to be met there through his life and words.
One of the fruits of Patteson’s ministry is then the privilege of having modern-day spiritual connections, to numerous Christian sisters and brothers in Melanesia. I’ve had the joy of meeting some when they’ve come to Feniton whilst visiting the UK, and I had an earlier special pleasure of knowing Revd Sister Veronica whilst at theological college. I would love to visit Melanesia myself. But whether I do so feels immaterial in a way, for the bonds of faith and fellowship transcend this.
These bonds overflow in tangible ways here. Every week (in non-pandemic times) I join the children of Feniton Primary School for Friday Collective Worship. There at the front sits the Melanesian Gospel Canoe. The walls are decorated with a Melanesian wall-hanging, a Melanesian flag, and pictures of the school’s special link with Melanesia’s Norman Palmer School. All of this was seeded all those years ago by Bishop Patteson.
Sowing seeds is what he did, and Christian ministry being like sowing seeds is close to my heart. Jesus famously compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed – tiny yet growing into a mighty plant. I am sure Bishop Patteson could not have imagined what would grow from his missionary work. He simply followed his calling and sowed in faith and love.
A very different thing that he and his generation couldn’t have imagined was present-day climate change. Nineteenth-century generations drove the industrial revolution, which is tragically beginning to have consequences in Melanesia via sea-level rise. Strangely this strengthens my sense of personal connection: before ordination I worked as a meteorological scientist, including for a while on climate modelling. I grieve the impact that climate change will have on the islands. I am sure Bishop Patteson would grieve too, were he alive today.
When I was ordained, I was given some beautiful words of advice for parish ministry: ‘Love the place, love the people’. Behind these words of wisdom lies the truth that this is what God does. And this is what Bishop Patteson did: journeying to Melanesia, he overflowed in loving the place and loving its people. Thank you, Bishop Patteson, for this inspiration. And as time passes, I’ll make better friends with your bust in Feniton church.
Revd David Carrington