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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


A Melanesian Reflection

By Rt. Dr. Rev. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia

Address delivered at the Convocation of Trinity College, University of Toronto, May 11, 2004.

Honourable Chancellor, Madam Provost, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Graduates and Friends:

Trinity College, Toronto, and the Church of the Province of Melanesia (established as the Melanesian Mission), founded within three years of each other, share a common Catholic tradition. Their founders, John Strachan, first Bishop of Toronto, and George Augustus Selwyn, first Bishop of New Zealand, also bear many resemblances. Both struggled against narrow evangelicalism and espoused (some would say, established) Anglican synodical government. Selwyn's establishment of the Melanesian Mission in 1849 and Strachan's founding of Trinity College in 1851 both embodied a vision of holistic Catholic Christianity for the frontiers of their societies. Bishop Selwyn's motto for the Melanesian Mission, "True Religion, Sound Learning, Useful Industry", would have been appreciated by Bishop Strachan. I am greatly honoured to be here this evening as one of a few Trinity graduates who have experienced and been enriched by both these institutions. So I begin by bringing you warm greetings from the Archbishop of Melanesia, from the Church of the Province of Melanesia, from the Diocese of Malaita and from my Trinity College-graduate colleague also working in the Church of Melanesia, Brother John Blyth.

However, I do not intend talking about the two institutions or two founding Bishops this evening. Rather, I want to use imaginatively a social science, anthropology, which has many of its roots, at least for Melanesia, also in the Melanesian Mission. Many of the first Anglican missionaries to Melanesia were also early ethnologists, documenting Melanesian cultures and languages; one has only to mention names such as Robert Codrington, Arthur Hopkins and Charles Fox; even secular anthropologists such as W.H.R. Rivers worked closely with the Mission. But I shall not be talking about these proto-anthropologists.

Rather, I want to recount the humble advice of an imaginary Melanesian sage, perhaps an old man, perhaps an old woman, of about 100 years ago. What would that advice have been to his or her people and, indeed, to us listening in? And is such advice really archaic and out of date; or is it still valid today? My imaginary Melanesian sage has ten short pieces of advice:

  1. Beware of head-hunters, cannibals and sorcerers.

    Melanesia was violent and in many places still is. We are still a place of martyrdom. We have just marked the first anniversary of the martyrdom of seven Melanesian Brothers. But is the rest of the world today much different? In your ministries (I speak to those graduating), beware of and resist militarists, militarism, military solutions, violent nationalisms, support of weapons production, family violence and participation in the destruction of peoples and cultures; beware of the patenting of genetic materials and the destruction of native species for financial gain. Beware of bio-piracy. Rather, seek peace and pursue it.

  2. Beware of the slave-traders.

    During the last half of the nineteenth century, Melanesia was beset by the indentured labour trade (so-called "black-birding") in which many thousands of Melanesians were taken (often kidnapped) to the sugarcane plantations of Queensland and Fiji, where they laboured for very cheap wages. But is the situation much different today? In your ministries, avoid the transnational corporations which oppress those who labour through seeking ever lower and lower production costs -- the Nestles, Nikes and McDonalds of this world; be aware of and address issues such as migrant labour and human trafficking, offering pastoral support to those far away from home and separated from their families by financial realities. Seek justice and pursue it.

  3. Beware of the missionaries.

    The missionary movement, even in Melanesia, had its underside; one has only to visit the cemetery of St. Barnabas, Norfolk Island, to see the graves of the young Melanesian scholars who died of pneumonia. The Canadian churches are still reaping the havoc of the errors of the missionary movement among Canada's native peoples. But mission is essential for the church and the words of John Coleridge Patteson, first Bishop of Melanesia, can hardly be improved upon: "The secret of these Islands is to live together as equals. Let the people know that you are not divided from them but united in Christ's love." But many other missionaries were and are much more problematic. For we the Church, the Body of Christ, do contemporary missionary movements sent from us or to us have that much to offer? One thinks of contemporary Christian fundamentalist groups still hell-bent on the destruction of traditional cultures and other religions (even other Christian denominations) as demonic; of the scourge of so-called Christian Zionism, looking forward to, indeed encouraging, war in the Middle East; of New Puritanism, the missionary movement of the Diocese of Sydney; of self-righteous renewal movements; of messianic sectarianism (whether evangelical, catholic or charismatic) calling itself orthodoxy. Seek and pursue a Christ-like mission strategy of sensitivity, openness, listening and love.

  4. Beware of the colonial government.

    As colonialism goes, Solomon Islands colonialism was fairly benign, one of neglect, whereby the churches were left to develop education and medical work, while the Resident Commissioner classified butterflies; New Hebridean colonialism was the opposite, with two colonial governments, Britain and France, in conflict with the colonized and with each other. In both cases, the Melanesians were considered to be a dying race. In both cases there was violence, racism and the institution of a plantation system that separated families and oppressed labourers. But is there improvement today? In Melanesia today, Indonesia continues its brutal occupation of West Papua, with the support of Canadian mining companies; France and the United States continue as Pacific colonial powers, largely for military purposes. Very broadly, the line from the enclosure movement to imperialism and colonialism to neo-colonialism to the New World Order to globalization to the American occupation of Iraq is a direct one; all speak of the hegemony of the economically powerful over the weak. Stand with the weak rather than with the powerful. Remember the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "The use of violence to retain superfluous wealth is none other than the sin of robbery." Live a ministry of kenosis, self-emptying of power and wealth, so that the oppressed and broken may be lifted up.

    All of those have been warnings. Now a bit of positive advice:

  5. Remember tribe, totem and tabu.

    This evening, we are doing precisely that. In a world of demonic nationalisms and imperialisms, it may seem strange to speak positively of tribe, totem and tabu. Oceanic cultures, like many other tribal cultures, are intensely holistic and communal, where personhood, friendship, marriage, community, identity, morality, faith and ritual are virtually inseparable -- even today, despite the incursions of western individualism and attacks of western neo-conservatives. Individualism runs deep in all of us in the west but in the end it is not sustaining. People need a personal identity of communion with God and others beyond their sex, gender, sexual orientation, politics, age and occupation. (Hence, the considerable growth of Islam, even in the west, while western Christianity remains crippled by its individualism.) Extended family, friendship, marriage, church, community, neighbourhood, workplace, tradition, ritual, play and, indeed, restraint and prudence (tribe, totem and tabu) all play their part. As Catholic Christians we believe this communion is ultimately rooted in and nurtured by our participation in the Holy Eucharist. Shun the lone ranger model, shun the glorification of the individual alienated soul and rediscover and nurture your personhood as essentially relational and participatory, reflective of the Holy Trinity. Let your ministry be one of friendship.

  6. Marry outside the clan or tribe.

    Many Melanesian cultures are exogamous, where there is a tradition of taking a wife or husband from the "other", perhaps from some place far away, to build relationships with potential or even real enemies. Such arrangements are a kind of check on the potential idolatry of tribe, totem and tabu. They also help tribes and persons to continue to reach out and develop and not to become ingrown. What of our relations of friendship and intimacy? Seek relationships of friendship and intimacy with the stranger, the other, the shadow, the broken, indeed, the enemy, potential or real. Scripture counsels us to love our enemies, not just our friends.

  7. Touch and be touched.

    To risk a generalization, Melanesians establish relationships through touch; North Americans and Europeans often establish relationships through boundaries and private space. The latter's ever-increasing suspicion of touch (indeed of all the senses except sight and sound, which can be exercised at a distance) is almost Manichean. Melanesian patterns of touch, of course, are part of the understanding of the person as essentially relational and corporate. When, as in Melanesia, the individual rather than the community is the anomaly (where "one is a fraction of two", to quote Maurice Leenhardt's classic study of Melanesian personhood, Do Kamo), touching another is not much different from touching oneself. Appropriate boundaries are important and must be observed; no one wants sexual abuse, for example. (Indeed, Oceania contributed the word "taboo" to the English language.) But when separation, boundaries, establishing space and, indeed, self-consciousness and fear become the primary bases of relationships, intimacy and, indeed, love, become very difficult indeed. As we withhold physical affection from children, we risk producing the miserable adult spirituality of a saintly Henri Nouwen. In spite of the paranoia of western culture, be open to touch. At the centre of the Eucharist is the Kiss of Peace.

  8. Remember to tie the rope around your leg when you enter the holy of holies to offer sacrifice.

    I am told that such was the practice in the area of Malaita where I live. There was always the danger that the custom priest's expiatory sacrifice, usually the immolation of a pig, could go drastically wrong and the priest rather than the pig be immolated. The priest's family held onto the rope to pull him back, lest he be taken by the spirits and never seen again. If we have lost all sense of the power of the holy, we may be quietly amused. But the advice warns us to recognize that God's world and power are not our own nor under our control. It also urges us to use some caution in the spiritual life, for example, not to be entirely trusting of spiritual directors, losing our freedom. It warns us against practices of sacrifice ("self-immolation") that produce death rather than life. Perhaps the story is an example of Melanesian "Reason". Accept the support of friends, do not lose your freedom and approach God with the greatest fear and humility.

    I conclude with two final warnings and a comment:

  9. Beware of the camera, it will steal your soul.

    Many years ago, I visited a neo-custom movement on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal with a group of students. Having shed most of our clothes, I proposed taking a camera into the community's custom house. Eventually, the request was accepted but I paid a small compensation for the camera, as it was seen as disrupting the traditional order of relationships. The camera sees us as others see us, locked in time and space. With digital technologies, pictures now also lie. Perhaps a more modern version of this advice is, "Beware of the media, it can steal your soul". If we always see ourselves primarily as others see us, we lose ourselves. Current controversies in the Anglican Communion are exacerbated, indeed, encouraged, sometimes even invented, by the media. If we speak to the media before we speak to our neighbour, we are in trouble. Live your life as God is calling you, and don't pay that much attention to the medi a, though if you can use it for the Gospel, do so.

  10. Avoid the 'cargo cult'.

    This advice is anachronistic, as so-called cargo cults did not appear in Melanesia until after World War 2, although the church's winning of converts through gifts of tobacco and knives presages them. But many would argue that time in Melanesia is qualitative and cyclical rather than quantitative and sequential. Not entirely unreasonably, practitioners of Melanesian cargo cults sought and seek to use their traditional magic to bring prosperity ("cargo") to their societies. While the aim is laudable, the efforts fail and people are left disillusioned. Westerners have made fun of the extremes of cargo cults, such as airfields constructed to receive planeloads of cargo. But is the west much different? Are our expectations of wealth any more reasonable? Many still see wealth as the primary solution to their problems; others seek New Age magical solutions, or the lottery, or the casino, or the astrologer or very magical views of the Holy Spir it and prayer. The "Gospel of prosperity" flourishes. Our culture has not entirely bought out of the capitalist myth, that in accumulation and consumption, we attain salvation. Avoid the magical solution; take on the hard work of helping to bring into this broken world the Commonwealth of God.

What do these bits of advice, I hope, contribute towards? Or, perhaps better, what do they presuppose? I would offer, simply, Catholic Christianity -- meaningful and intimate inclusion in the Body of Christ, including a loving relationship with all of humanity and all of creation -- striving towards the Beatific Vision. That Vision, ultimately beyond our comprehension, comprehends our lives and ministries and fills us daily with grace, leading us in ever new and unexpected directions. Let me finish with a very challenging comment of St. Hugh of Victor, sometimes quoted by contemporary philosophers: "The one who finds his or her homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; the one to whom every soil is as his or her native one is already strong; but the one is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land."


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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