Project Canterbury

The Madagascar Bishopric

Mission Life, Vol. II (May 1, 1871), pages 274-277.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of Melanesia, 2006


NEW controversies have ever been carried on with so little reference to the facts of the case as that on the Madagascar Bishopric. We cannot, therefore, do our readers a greater service than by laying these facts before them.

That the Christianisation of Madagascar is due to the work of the London Missionary Society is admitted on all hands. Even when its agents were driven away by a persecution unequalled in modern times for its fierceness, it was the seed they had sown which, watered by the blood of thousands of martyrs, sprung up and brought forth fruit in such rich abundance. Never, even in the times of the fiercest persecutions of early Christian days, has death been met with more calm intrepidity, than by those new converts. Never was more heroic constancy shown by persons of every class and of both sexes, and that not by a few persons only, but by thousands--not for a brief period only, but for a long series of years. Every martyrdom only served to confirm a fresh group of those whose courage to confess the Truth had hitherto failed them, until, by the instrumentality of persecution alone, some few hundred converts had increased to many thousands.

Of late years the London Missionary Society have again made Madagascar their special field of work, spending large sums in building churches, training native catechists, subsidising the contributions of the native Christians, and generally in forwarding the work so auspiciously commenced.

In considering how far it was right for any other religious body to enter into the field of labour thus occupied, we naturally recal to mind the canon of non-interference thus laid down by Bishop Selwyn, in a sermon preached before the University of Cambridge. "We make a rule," he says, "never to introduce controversy amongst the native people, or to impair the simplicity of the faith. If the fairest openings for Missionary effort lie before us, if the ground has been pre-occupied, we forbear to enter. And I can speak with confidence on this point, from observations ranging over nearly one-half of the Pacific Ocean, that wherever this law of religious amity is adopted, there the Gospel has its unchecked and undivided power; wherever the servants of Christ endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, there the native converts are brought to the knowledge of one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all."

These words, it will be remembered, mainly refer to the Bishop's practice with regard to the work of the London Missionary Society.

On the other hand, numerous instances are on record of the forbearance [274/275] which has been shown by the London Missionary Society in refusing to avail themselves of invitations to intrude upon a field of labour previously occupied by the representatives of some other religious body. This face we of course only quote has having a very indirect bearing upon the present question. Could it be shown that the London Missionary Society were the most unscrupulous and systematic violators of all laws of religious amity, the duty of our Church societies to set them a good example would, if possible, be even stronger than it now is.

Under all the circumstances of the case it will be seen that the London Missionary Society had the strongest possible claim to be allowed to carry on their work in Madagascar without interruption.

How then, it may be asked, came the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church Missionary Society to send their Missionaries to Madagascar? They did it with the full consent of the London Missionary Society, given on the condition that their clergy should be under the Bishop of Mauritius, and that under no circumstances should a Bishop, or indeed any Missionary, be accredited to the capital.

This decision was the result of a conference, held so recently as the year 1863, at the house of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and which was attended by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the present Bishop of Winchester, the Bishop of Capetown, and the official representatives of the S. P. G., the C. M. S., and the London Missionary Society.

True, it was not stated how long this treaty was to remain in force. Every one concerned seems to have looked forward to that time when the native Church should be able to decide upon its own form of government, after having full opportunity of seeing the different systems working side by side, but not in antagonism.

Had it been supposed that the treaty thus entered into would, within seven years, be entirely set on one side by one of the contracting parties, without the slightest reference to either of the others, we can hardly imagine that the London Missionary Society would have taken the course which they did, and which, even with the stipulation accompanying it, involved a very liberal concession on their part.

Few persons, probably will defend any course which may fairly seem to the London Missionary Society like taking advantage of their not having exacted safeguards for the contract being carried out in the same liberal and friendly spirit in which it was made. We may well hope, therefore, that some explanation of the apparent discourtesy involved in the recent proceedings will be forthcoming.

But what of the recent action of the Church Missionary Society in this matter? We have before us three documents issued by them. The first is a Minute drawn by the Committee, and the other two are in the main explanations of a particular clause of this Minute.

[276] As far as it concerns the past history and the present position of the whole affair, nothing can be more unexceptionable than the first document. But of the few lines in which the future course of the Society is referred to, and which have been so severely criticised, and so laboriously explained and defended, what shall we say? They run thus: "On these grounds the Church Missionary Society would venture to suggest, that if it be still thought expedient to send an Anglican Bishop to Madagascar, it may be under an arrangement which will exclude those parts of the island which are the field of labour of Church Missionary Society from the jurisdiction of the new Bishop, thus leaving its Missionaries as heretofore under the Bishop of Mauritius." The only charitable construction to put upon these words is, that they were hastily tacked on to the Minute, and imply a great deal more than they were intended to convey. Without entering into the question whether such language could, under any circumstances, be justifiable, we may safely assume that a threat of hostilities before a word of remonstrance has been uttered, or the faintest attempt made to open negotiations on the subject, must be premature. To many persons, too, it would seem a somewhat undignified proceeding on the part of a great society to assume that the offence given was intentional, and that the arguments which they had to adduce would necessarily produce no result. As for the policy of thus threatening to take the law into their own hands, it could only have the effect, which indeed it has had already, of throwing the real question at issue entirely into the background, and of shifting the controversy from ground in which the Society was unassailable to one absolutely untenable.

The explanatory statements, in which are set forth numerous instances of the anxiety ever evinced by the Society to extend and support the Foreign Episcopate, seem to us beside the point. They cannot alter the character of the threatened action, or the fact of no effort having been made to avert the supposed necessity of such action. The only logical conclusion, therefore, to be drawn from them is, that the Society has never acted in the same way before.

Whilst, therefore, the Church owes a debt of gratitude to the C. M. S. for calling attention to the real facts of the case, we cannot but regret that they should unwittingly have introduced a fresh element of misunderstanding and ill-feeling.

With regard to the conduct of the London Missionary Society, it would appear, from the testimony of every one concerned, that, throughout the whole proceedings, its Committee have acted with a courtesy and liberality which leaves no room for doubt that all the difficulties which have arisen may be speedily be got rid of, provided only that they in their turn are dealt with in a like spirit.

No right thinking person probably will wish that any further steps [276/277] should be taken until the Conference of 1863 has been renewed, or the parties to the contract then entered into have been consulted.

If only the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel will offer such explanations as are doubtless forthcoming for the high-handed discourtesy with which they are charged, and formally repudiate any wish to act without reference to those whose cordial co-operation is so essential to any harmonious actions, and if the Church Missionary Society will consent to withdraw, instead of attempting to explain, that clause of their minute which has led to so much ill-feeling, and which appears to others to bear a meaning which they did not intend it to convey, all disturbing elements will be at once removed.

The whole matter is said to have been referred to the Bishop of London. A better President for such a conference, or one more likely to throw oil on the troubled waters, could not be selected. Nor will his task be so difficult a one as might, at first sight, seem probable. Bishop Ryan, and two out of three of the Church Missionary Society's clergy in Madagascar, are said to be of opinion that the time has come when the work of the English Church would be greatly benefited by the superintendence of a Bishop. The London Missionary Society are ready, as far as we can gather, to make any concessions, provided only they can secure themselves against being placed in a position of apparent antagonism, and, it may be, of inferiority, to any other religious body.

That the London Missionary Society should be asked to consent to any jurisdiction being given to a Bishop in the capital of Madagascar--the very centre of their own work, where scarcely a single Episcopalian at present exists, or could be created, save by a process of proselytism from their own body--is absurd. If a Bishop cannot go to the capital from time to time, as Bishop Ryan did, and accept the right hand of fellowship, extended to him by those who are labouring there, and enter with them into friendly conference on the best means which each of them may adopt consistently with their own avowed principles of carrying on their work, he certainly had better not go to Madagascar at all.

There are many instruments effectual for the conversion of the world--faith, earnest work, and, as we believe, a divinely-ordered Episcopate; but yet has the Holy Spirit a still more excellent way to show us, and that is--charity. Though we have ten thousand Bishops, and have not charity, assuredly they will profit us nothing.

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