Project Canterbury

Christmas Letter.

By Philip Nigel Warrington Strong

Brisbane: no publisher, 1966.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2009



39 Eldernell Avenue,
Queensland AUSTRALIA
November 15th, 1966

My dear Friends:

There is so little time in my present life for any but the briefest personal letters, that I must again resort to a general newsletter, and hope that you may be able to regard it as a personal letter to YOU, with my good wishes and blessings for Christmas and the New Year. Even so, I can only hope to record a few of the many events of this last year.

I have been away overseas twice in the last year, first for some nine weeks to attend the Meeting of the Lambeth Consultative Body which the Archbishop of Canterbury called to meet in Jerusalem in the last week in April. Then in August for just under three weeks in New Guinea. The remaining nine months here have been more than ever full and exacting in time and energy. In February we had a Special Meeting of the Provincial Synod of Queensland, when we had here the Bishops of the Province and other representatives to consider the question of the division of the huge Diocese of Carpentaria and the formation out of it of a new Diocese of the Northern Territory, and other matters of Provincial organisation.

Early in March we had quite a number of farewell events for our much revered Governors Sir Henry Abel Smith. For us the most memorable was a farewell Service in the Cathedral, attended by representatives of the Church and State and Civic bodies. At the end of this, the Governor laid a stone commemorating his Governorship in the new extensions of the Cathedral, and Lady May Abel Smith deposited behind it a casket containing historic documents. I mentioned in my letter last year the new effort being made towards the completion of our half-built Cathedral. It is thrilling to see the progress being made in the building operations for the two new Bays of the Nave. Unfortunately the money needed for this is not coming in as quickly or as well as we hoped, and we must consider new efforts in this. I am however, thankful that our undertakings have not affected our Missionary giving. Brisbane Diocese's total in this last year was higher than ever before, and I hope it may be so again this year.

It was at the latter end of March that I left to attend the Lambeth Meeting. As I had not had a holiday or let up for nearly three years, I resolved to travel by sea, but heavy commitments in March prevented me joining the P & O. ARCADIA in Sydney, and so I flew to Western Australia to join it at its last Australian Port, Fremantle, nine days later. I was certainly more than ready for the rest and relaxation which the voyage to England of just over three weeks was to give me, though I found it not quite long enough for a full recovery. It was a great joy to me to be able to have a Daily Eucharist on board and to find that quite a number appreciated this spiritual opportunity. The number on Sundays was greater than I had known it on any previous voyages so that after the first Sunday we had to have a bigger room. On Easter Day the Captain asked me also to take the Ship's Service and give an address and some 500 attended this. At Colombo I lunched with Bishop de Soysa, the first Singalese Diocesan Bishop of Colombo, and heard from him something of the First Session of the Vatican Council over which Pope John had Presided, which he had attended before his Consecration as an Anglican Observer. I also attended a midweek Lenten Service in a City Church in Colombo and was very impressed to see it packed to the doors with a most attentive and reverent congregation of Singalese Anglican Christians though it is obvious that the resurgence of political Buddhism in Ceylon in the last decade has made the role of the Church far more difficult.

Though I preferred to stay quietly on board most of the time we were in Ports, I had one memorable experience I would relate. We had arrived at the Port of Piraeus on the evening of Easter Eve and were to leave early on Easter morning. I had been up to Athens, and on my return was intending to get to bed [1/2] early, but happened to read in my Cabin in a copy of the "Times" I had just bought an article on the Celebration of Easter and of Easter-eve midnight candle light processions in Greece. As I had never been in Greece before, and it was unlikely that I should ever be there again on Easter Eve, and as I had noticed there was a Greek Orthodox Church a few minutes walk from the ship, I decided to go out. An amazing spectacle met my eyes. I could not get near the Church. The City Square in which it was situated was thronged with a vast crowd of people all holding long lighted candles. In the middle was a dais on which an Orthodox Priest in elaborate vestments was chanting through a loud speaker, and some were making responses. All around surged the multitude holding their candles and many letting off fireworks - some of them horizontally, so one had to be careful not to get one in the face: At midnight when the Priest chanted in a loud voice, "CHRIST IS RISEN" all the thousands of candles were lifted up and down several times. Everyone shouted and cheered, and all the ships sounded their sirens long and loud. Church bells rang. Motor horns honked, and all who had fireworks let them off! It was to me an incredible spectacle and sound, and an amazing mixture of religious solemnity and hilarity. Yet Easter is a great National Festival in Greece, and all were celebrating in their own way the fact of Christ's Resurrection from the dead. Afterwards I saw people walking quietly away, carrying their lighted candles as the great endeavour is to bring them into their homes, symbolising the new life that flows from Christ's rising.

I had five days quietly in England before flying to Jerusalem. As I had never been to the Holy Land before, I planned to have a few days before and after the Conference to see some of the Holy places. I had feared that I might find it all so commercialised but this did not seem to matter, and I found it all most moving. I wrote in the Brisbane Church Chronicle a full account of my visit and I can only here mention briefly one or two outstanding experiences. The first day I joined a band of English visitors making a pilgrimage along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At the outset we visited beneath the Convent of Sion, the ancient Roman Pavement known as the Lithostrotos (Greek) or in the Gospels Gabbatha. I felt this was one of my most moving and convincing experiences for here without doubt are the very stones and pavement upon which our Lord stood when He was judged by Pilate and shown to the people. Here too are the markings of the Roman soldiers on the stones, and one particular one 'The Game of the King' - showing how they would dress up a condemned prisoner as a King and crown him with thorns and give him mock homage before taking him to his execution. Here too, Christ received the Cross and set forth on His journey to Calvary. I was moved too to see the steepness of the last part of the Via Dolorosa as it leads up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is built over not only the place of the Sepulchre, and of His rising; but over also the Hill of Calvary where He was crucified, over which is a Chapel and Altar which we reach after climbing up a long steep stone staircase. I was to come back one morning during the Lambeth Meetings as I was privileged to Celebrate the Holy Eucharist in the little Greek Orthodox Chapel of Abraham which is even higher and is above the Calvary Chapel.

It was moving also to join the pilgrims on my first evening in a walk from the Church of St. John Mark, the traditional site of the Upper Room, down the Valley of Kidron over the Brook Codron, where our Lord walked on Maundy Thursday, to the Garden of Gethsemane, and to have a quiet time in that peaceful spot beneath the great and ancient olive trees, and then to enter the Church of the Agony for a time of silent prayer. It is called also the Church of All Nations, for many nations have shared in its building. I was interested to see that the Rock of Agony in front of the High Altar was surrounded by some iron railings given by Australia, with the Australian Arms over the gateway.

Before the Conference began I was able to visit the Mount of Olives, Bethage and Bethany, and to see the Church built over the traditional site of the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and the tomb of Lazarus nearby; and to go down to Jericho past the Good Samaritan Inn, and to see behind Old [2/3] Jericho the Mount of Temptation, and nearby the Fountain of Elisha. Nearby also is a big Refugee Camp. It is sad indeed to see camps up and down the Kingdom of Jordan where thousands of Arab families, displaced in the Israel war some years ago, are herded together.

I visited also the River Jordan and the place where our Lord was Baptised; the desolate and rocky country with its mountains and caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and it was a weird experience to stand by the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth 1,200 foot below sea level.

The next few days were fully occupied with the Meeting of the Lambeth Consultative Body, attended by some 21 or more Archbishops and Metropolitans from all over the world. I can only mention briefly some of the other visits I paid during my stay in Jerusalem. I went one afternoon with Archbishop Sabiti, the African Archbishop of Uganda, to visit the Dome of the Rock, which is a magnificent Mosque and the dominant building in Jerusalem, standing within the area of the Jewish Temple of our Lord's day, and one felt one was treading where He had so often worshipped and taught and healed the people. Another moving experience was to visit Bethlehem which figures so largely in Biblical history, both in the Old and New Testaments; and above all the Basilica of the Nativity, one of the oldest surviving Churches, and to have to stoop low to enter it through the only small door, and to go down to the Grotto of the Nativity, to kneel at the traditional spot of our Lord's Nativity, and to see also the Shepherds Field.  

My last visit was to Sychar, Shechem, Nablus, Mount Gerizim and Samaria, with the Archbishops of Wales and West Africa and with Canon Zimmerman of St. George's Cathedral, as our guide. He is an historian and archaeologist and he showed us the amazing discoveries made by archaeological excavations over the sites of ancient Shechem and Samaria, which have unearthed traces of buildings of very ancient civilisations. I picked up at Shechem an earthenware handle which he said must have belonged to a jar some hundreds of years ago B.C. On Mount Gerizim we saw members of the small exclusive Samaritan community assembled to keep the Passover Sabbath which they keep on a different day, to the Jews, to whom they are opposed, The most moving and convincing experience that day was our visit to Jacob's Well in the Crypt of an Orthodox Church. It has all the appearance of being very ancient, and it was easy to picture our Lord sitting on the wall around it talking to the Samaritan woman. There is a chain and bucket, and most pilgrims drink of the water, remembering our Lord's words, "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."

At the end of my time in Jerusalem I passed over No Man's Land, into the State of Israel, that I might visit Galilee. I had only allowed two days for what is known as 'the other side' and this was not long enough. I proceeded by car to Nazareth, visiting en route Ceasarea and Carmel. Then the next day I visited the Virgin's Fountain in Nazareth where almost certainly the Blessed Virgin used to draw water daily; Cana of Galilee where the first miracle was wrought; Tiberias, and the beautiful Sea of Galilee; Tabgha, or the Church of the multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, the site of old Capernaum and ruins of an ancient Synagogue there, and the Mount of the Beatitudes. This helped me to feel something of the sweetness of Galilee where our Lord spent so much of His Ministry, and which He loved so much.

On my return to England I had only just over three weeks before I was due to fly back to Australia with a weekend in the U.S.A. On my arrival back on June lst, in addition to my own heavy responsibilities, I had to shoulder those of being Acting Primate of the Australian Church. Those were particularly heavy in view of the approach in September of the General Synod of the whole Australian Church, which meets only every four years. It had been a great worry to me on my voyage in April to hear from Archbishop Gough of Sydney that he thought he would have to resign and that I should have to act for a time as Primate. I inwardly [3/4] shrank from shouldering this load, but prayed that if God willed me to do so He would give me the wisdom, love and strength that I should need. Then just before I left England, I heard of his resignation. First on my return I had to get down in earnest to preparation for our own Diocesan Synod that month, and my Presidential Address and Charge, as well as paying periodic visits to Sydney to go into Primatial matters.

Then in August, it had long been arranged that I should pay my first Metropolitical visit to my old Diocese of New Guineas and I did not want anything to interfere with my doing this. I am thankful that I was able to do so, even though it could not be for more than 2 1/2 weeks. It was the 75th Anniversary of the landing of the pioneers and the beginning of the Mission on August 10th. It was a wonderful and thrilling experience arriving at Dogura on the morning of August 5th in the Mission 'plane St. Gabriel and looking down from the air again on the Head Station which was my old home with its lovely Cathedral. As we circled around we saw a huge WELCOME spelled out on the playground in the middle of the Station. As we came nearer we could see that it was a human WELCOME - the W was pink and the other letters green, the W being made up by the girls of the Holy Name School in their pink uniforms and the other letters by boys and girls of St. Paul's School whose uniforms are green. I had a week at Dogura and conducted the Retreat for the Clergy, preached at the Ordination Service of Papuan Deacons on St. Laurence's Day, and dedicated the new shrine at the place where the Pioneers had landed, Then I had another ten days flying around the Diocese with Bishop David, visiting Mission Stations in Papua and the Highlands, and the towns of Lae, Rabaul, Goroka and Madang, and finally laying the Foundation Stone of the new St. John's Church at Port Moresby.

On my return to Brisbane, in addition to all my Diocesan work and visits to Parishes for Confirmations, I had to give serious and earnest concentration to preparation for the General Synod, mastering the intricacies of its procedure and Standing Orders so that I could Preside over it, and in particular my Presidential Address and Charge - the third such this year with Provincial and Diocesan Synods before, but this the most challenging of all since it was to be to the whole Australian Church. I felt moved to make it a challenge to hold fast to the Faith once delivered to the Saints, and to the Christian standards of morality and to issue a call to unity within our own ranks, as well as beyond. I delivered this at the opening of the General Synod which lasted a fortnight. On the second day I was elected as Primate by all three Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. I had expected that one younger than myself would have been elected, but I had by now become reconciled to a task and responsibility from which at first I had shrunk, and I know now that it was God's will and call, and that He would enable me for it as He has done in the past. It was a tremendous encouragement and help to me to feel that the whole Australian Church was behind me. Never before had an Archbishop of Brisbane been elected as Primate. The General Synod revealed a measure of fellowship, unity and goodwill that I had not known in the previous seven General Synods I have attended.

Space forbids me writing further, and I would end by thanking many of you for your prayers and good wishes, and saying that I need them now more than ever.

God be with you in all things, and bless you,

Yours affectionately in Christ,

[signed] + Philip Brisbane

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