A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Shortly our Archbishop will commission Rev Paul Devenport as the incoming chair of the South Australian provincial committee of the Anglican Board of Mission, and members of that provincial committee. In the light of this, various lines from our service tonight seem very apt about the concept of Mission. For example, our reading from the Hebrew Bible informed us:

To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. [Dan 9:13]

While from our Gospel, we heard:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. [John 12:33]

Our choir intoned this line from our psalm:

For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. [Ps 95:7]

Then moments ago, we sang together these words from Brian Wren’s hymn, Dear Christ, uplifted from the earth:

Still east and west your love extends, and always near and far,

You call and claim us as your friends and love us as we are.

While later we will sing this verse from Walter Chalmer Smith’s stirring hymn, Immortal, invisible, God only wise:

To all life thou givest, to both great and small,

In all life thou livest, the true life of all;

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

And wither and perish; but naught changeth thee.

All these lines ring out about the wonderful universalism that characterises God’s love for his creation; a love evinced by the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of his Son. By one means or another, all of us here have known that love in our own lives. But Jesus did not intend that knowledge of his Father’s outstretched love for his creation should be the sole preserve of just a few, those lucky enough by circumstance to have happened upon the Good News of the Gospel; otherwise, why else would he have instructed in what we know as the Great Commission that we should:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:19]

In response to that universalist reach of God’s love for us, and his Son’s call for us to be a part of enabling that outreach, for two millenia there has been what we call missionary activity. Sadly, not all of such activity has lived within the spirit of the Gospel. Unfortunate examples through history such as of forced conversions of some or of those who were baited by what became known as ‘rice Christianity’ were denials of Christ and tainted the image of missionary work, let alone the abomination of sexual abuse perpetrated in some missionary settings. However, such examples have been far outpaced by a long history of mission activity profoundly motivated by the true message of Christ. The C17th Jesuit missionary ‘republics’ which lasted for over a century in Paraguay stand out as wonderful examples of missionary vision that sought to empower lives not subjugate them. While in the C19, initiatives such as the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Church Missionary Society were established to bring new hope to communities around the globe, peoples that had, through changing technology and faster transport, suddenly been confronted with the beginnings of globalism in the face of colonialism.

It was in that same spirit that, in Australasia, missionary zeal surged leading to the foundation of what was known first as the Australasian Board of Mission, then later the Australian and, in recent years, the Anglican Board of Mission. Ways of expression change over time and so, it is possible for us to lose sight of the deep spirit of shared hope for a common humanity that lay behind those who promoted these initiatives; C19 words such as ‘heathen’ can easily hijack our understanding of mission activity that profoundly and sustainably changed the lives of many for the better.

Tonight, we are particularly focussing on the ABM, that wonderful Anglican mission endeavour working in both this country and overseas. Established in 1850, it became a General Synod initiative in 1872. The name of Bishop Selwyn, Bishop of Auckland, is often mentioned, but tonight I want to talk about a lesser-known early activist in the ABM – John Coleridge Patteson [1827-71], who became the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia. His father was a knighted judge and his mother a niece of the namesake poet, he was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. His background could have mirrored that of the rich young man of the episode related in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; and Luke 18:18-30). But unlike that man, John Patteson not only left family and sailed to the antipodes by joining a mission activity led by Bishop Selwyn; he also gave away his inheritance to support that work. For five years he lived rough, sailing in a schooner visiting various islands and communities in Melanesia and Oceania; then in 1861, at the age of 34, he was appointed the first Bishop of Melanesia.

By all accounts he was a remarkable man, learning twenty-three Melanesian languages, preparing grammars and dictionaries for a number of them as well as translating portions of the gospel into a dialect of one, Mota. In 1930 a biography was written by Rev H N Drummond about this amazing man; the book is a worthy read but, tonight, I wish mainly to quote Patteson’s own words regarding his sense of mission and following Christ, as well as his understanding of cultural context.

In 1866, Patteson had written a letter to Rev George Henry Farr in Adelaide which was later published in the South Australian Register. In this letter, Patteson wrote about what a would-be missionary should consider, indicating younger, more flexible candidates were more appropriate:[1]

Probably he must begin by unlearning all previous notions of mission work … Caxton was told to ‘de-finegentlemanize’ himself when he left England to settle in Australia. Yet I see that as we get to know the people better and to learn more and more about these islands… I think that few grown men will do for this; at least I can’t expect that men shall adopt new ideas and new modes of life so easily as young lads

Patteson was in part talking about the willingness of missionaries to live in difficult conditions and circumstances, but he also was deeply conscious of the cultural context into which missionaries were to be sent as well as the negative impact that the colonial enterprise was proving to many whose lands had been colonised.

The 1860s had seen a surge in some of the worst aspects of colonialism, in particular blackbirding. From 1863-1908, this odious trade, not unlike the slave trade, saw about 50,000 south sea islanders, mostly from Melanesia, many of whom were forcibly or falsely conveyed, brought to work on plantations in Queensland. Most of those so traded were male, a quarter being under 16. 15,000 died within three years of arriving in Queensland, a death rate of 30%, not far short of the 33% of African slaves who died within the first three years of arrival in America.[2] Today we view blackbirding as an evil yet there are some who would argue that we shouldn’t view history through modern eyes. In response to that, let me return to the words of Patteson himself written at the very time this had been happening. He was appalled at the trade and not only believed that the church should condemn it but that should advocate to the government to stop the practice. He also fully understood the extreme resistance many islanders put up in response to being blackbirded. There had indeed been violent opposition which included the assault and murder of some of the blackbirders to which colonial justice immediately and severely responded. Quoted in the South Australian Register of 11 November 1871, this is what Patteson had written in July of that year to the General Synod in NZ:[3]

I desire to protest by anticipation against any punishment being inflicted upon natives of these islands who may cut off vessels or kill boats’ crews until it is clearly shown that these acts are not done in the way of retribution for outrages first committed by white men. Only a few days ago a report reached me that a boat’s crew had been killed at Espirito Santo. Nothing is more likely. I expect to hear of such things. It is the white man’s fault, and it is unjust to punish the coloured man for doing what, under such circumstances, he may naturally be expected to do.

Would that some in the colonial church had advocated as vehemently as missionaries in defence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had suffered dreadful lynch-mob ‘justice’ from colonists in C19 Australia for similar defensive reactions to colonial abuse.

I mentioned Patteson wrote these words in July of 1871; just two months later, he would be dead, innocent of the crime, he was clubbed to death in revenge for the kidnapping of five young men just days previous. Fellow missionaries pleaded for no retribution, however a naval vessel returned to the island, fired upon it, killing a number of people. John Coleridge Patteson had followed Christ not just into mission work, but onto martyrdom. In fact, his ministry had made such a profound impact upon the islands he visited that the Church grew in strength. Rev H N Drummond wrote in his book about events after the murder:[4]

Of the seed silently sown that day on (on the island of) Nukapu, (the sister of the murderer) was among the first fruits. Forty years later she and seven others were baptized … on St. Barnabas Day, 1911.

It seems to me that the main lessons to be drawn from the example of John Coleridge Patteson were not only his eagerness to follow Christ in his mission work but his inherent respect and appreciation for the communities where he worked. That spirit which he and so many ABM missionaries have followed since has enabled a wonderful, lasting legacy to be left in so many communities. This year is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries in the Torres Strait and a Coming of the Light series of events has been planned. The ABM website explains what is meant by that term, ‘coming of the light’:[5]

It must be stated that … missionaries did not bring God to the Torres Strait, rather the message of Jesus, through the Bible. God was on both sides of the beach that day, and since time immemorial.

ABM’s website describes its ministry as being ‘a very holistic one, with development working hand in hand with … mission’. It then goes on to quote what Jesus had read in the synagogue in Capernaum, quoting from Isaiah:[6]

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 
   [Luke 4:18-19]

In our first hymn this evening (As now the sun’s declining rays), we sang:

Lord, on the cross thine arms were stretched to draw thy people nigh.

God bless, the ABM team as they seek to draw people nigh and bring good news.

[1] 10 Nov 1866 – BISHOP PATTESON’S MISSION. – Trove (nla.gov.au)

[2] For more information about blackbirding – Blackbirding – Wikipedia

[3] 14 Nov 1871 – MELANESIAN MISSION. – Trove (nla.gov.au)

[4] John Coleridge Patteson, by H.N. Drummond (1930) (anglicanhistory.org)

[5] The Coming of the Light · Anglican Board of Mission (abmission.org)

[6] How We Work · About · Anglican Board of Mission (abmission.org)