For me, gratitude for the life of John Coleridge Patteson started soon after I was lucky enough to become Vicar to Ottery St Mary, and St James & St Anne, Alfington. I can remember the moment when standing in that majestic church of Ottery St Mary, a humble and much loved retired priest, Bill, handed me a little, very old and worn pamphlet for me to read. He said rather fiercely that he wanted it back and for me to look after it well as it was the only copy he knew of. It looked as though it had been produced in the 1950s – with sketchy line drawings of a bearded man in a top hat wading ashore a palm fringed island.
So I began to learn just how privileged I was as priest in charge of Alfington and Ottery, being a successor to this extraordinary man of God. Like so many others, my life has been so deeply enriched in a way Bishop Patteson would have been astonished and when I get to see him, as I hope I do, I will join the long queue to shake his hand or even give him a hug – presuming that his Victorian reserve has been softened by heaven’s graces.
Following up the story of that battered pamphlet ended up for me in 2004 with the experience of retracing his steps as also a priest from Alfington, visiting the Solomon Islands. My visit happened when ‘the Tensions’ were just finishing and the martyrdom of the seven brothers was still an open and shocking event. It was paradoxically such a privileged moment to be in the Solomons. I became so impressed with the sheer bravery and integrity to the gospel that the Melanesian Brotherhood maintained even when their own friends and brothers had just been brutally murdered. Being shown round by the assistant head brother who had to be held back from going straight to find and bring back the bodies of his friends and brothers with no thought of his own safety: being taken to where the front lines of the fighting and killing had been and then being shown where the brothers had set up camp directly in the line of fire between the two so that their bodies could stop the bullets before they injured others of their countryman: here was evidence of the transformative effects of the gospel seeded by that rather gauche man from East Devon some years before.
One of the most poignant moments for me was holding the Bible given to Patteson by the grateful people of Alfington as he left for the Pacific Islands and to touch the matting he was wrapped in when he had been freshly killed. I understood the power of relics in that moment…
My role in going out there was partly to take a gift from the people of Alfington to present to the Brothers. It was a wooden cross carved by Henry, a local craftsman and church musician from Alfington, who had placed at the centre of this carving a piece of fallen oak from Alfington which would have been growing when Patteson lived there. In return Richard Carter, the then Chaplain to the Brothers, gave me a carving which had hung in the chapel at Tabalia, the Brotherhood Mother house, depicting the handing back of the body of Patteson by the three islanders. What is so poignant is that it was carved from wood from the very island of Nukapu where Patteson took his last breath. There it is now hanging in the church of St James & St Anne in Alfington, facing the pulpit where Patteson preach his first sermon, close to the door where he wept after that first service, with his family, at the privilege of stepping into his vocation as parish priest in Alfington.
So out of tragedy comes connection. The blood of this martyr has not separated but bound two cultures, two peoples, two churches together. It has set up a conduit of blessing. And for me as I greet Bishop Patteson with such gratitude when God willing, I meet him, that gratitude will be for the way that Melanesians have taught me about graciousness, generosity and godliness which has become infused into their culture by this one man from East Devon.