Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 3. The White Corks and the Black Net

By the Rev. A. Innes Hopkins

It is said that the aim of a Missionary should be to leave the land to which he has been sent; that is, he should not he content to make converts who rest placidly on foreign rule and money, but that he should be working to build up a self-supporting and self-governing Church. The training of an indigenous Ministry lay and ordained, being one problem with that of how best to foster self-government and self-support, the work has to done with an eye to the future and not merely to immediate needs." (C. H. H. Hodges--"East and West," 1925.)


The oft quoted metaphor of the white corks and the black net was used by Bishop G. A. Selwyn, the founder of the Melanesian Mission, to express the method of work followed in the Mission. This metaphor, which is the heading of this chapter, is still descriptive to a certain extent of the task of the spiritual fishermen in the three thousand miles ocean lengths of the diocese of Melanesia. But, inevitably, as the generations pass, the metaphor becomes less and less applicable; for the supply of European clergy and workers cannot possibly keep pace with the growth of the native Church, and the tendency is for Melanesian clergy to take on the spiritual oversight of their own Christian Melanesians, leaving the Europeans to do specialised work in Training Schools or Hospitals or Dispensaries.

How can we describe the white corks? They are all sorts and conditions of men and women who have a vocation, being called of God to serve the peoples of Melanesia. A general advertisement for the white corks might run as follows:--"Wanted for Melanesia; men and women of first-class physique and brain; adventurers for pioneer work; theologians and trained teachers for schools and colleges; doctors and nurses, very highly qualified; sisters with a real vocation; mechanics, anthropologists. They must be able to initiate and inspire. With temperaments unruffled by a trying climate and disappointments. No nerves. Prospects--broken health, a doubtful provision for the future; meanwhile sufficient pay to live on in Melanesia, and even to provide a little pocket money for furloughs. Intense happiness a certainty for those called." Pending an answering rush on the part of superhumans, we thank God reverently for [29/30] the very human men and women to whose work and prayers He entrusts the care of the Church in Melanesia.

Distribution of the white corks. In the whole vast area of the Melanesian Mission there is at present but one diocesan Bishop, with an assistant Bishop; two Archdeacons; one doctor only, though there is work for several; twenty European clergy, fourteen laymen, and twenty-six women, wives, nurses, Sisters, and teachers. The members of this tiny band are distributed very unevenly--some working on an island or on a part of an island, in a Central School or College, in a Sisterhood, on an experimental farm, in pioneering work in the Mandated Territory, on ships or launches. Some of the white people are found in little clusters; others are isolated and alone.

In the Melanesian Mission one great principle is at work wherever the white corks are found. That principle is a supervision that shares in everything it supervises. The compelling word is "come," and not "go."

Before I turn to the work of Schools and Colleges let me say a few words on the work of the white staff in general. The Bishop has need of all our prayers and intelligent sympathy as he tra-tra-tra-tra-vels, to put it in Melanesian fashion, over his vast diocese. His European staff, as well as the Melanesians, look to him for guidance and inspiration. As he journeys, he meets the white clergy who are in charge of island districts, quasi Archdeacons these. He meets the native clergy, quasi Rural Deans these. He meets the native lay teachers, and these we might compare with parish clergy. He meets also all those, European and native, who are engaged in the work of the schools and colleges. His task is a heavy one, and can only be carried out in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To the pioneer priest there is a great reward in the affectionate response he gets from his newly-made native friends, and in the improvement visible in the life of the new Christian village with its first school-house and church. In the older and more settled places the [30/31] European priest and the lay workers, men and women, have a very different task, though perhaps no easier one. The priest there has his native clergy to supervise, and the village schools to inspect. But when we view the older parts of the Mission, what a dearth we find of European clergy! In the whole of the southern part of the diocese there is at present but one "district" priest; while in the Solomons and Santa Cruz there are only five. A heavy responsibility is thus being thrust on the native clergy; and we trust that the present necessity will in the end turn out for good, and be a means of educating the native clergy in the routine of pastoral work through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Colleges. There are three Training Colleges and Schools in the Melanesian Mission. All the Ordinands are trained at Maka, on the island of Mala, in the Solomons. At Lolowai, on Opa, in the New Hebrides, there is a College where a refresher course is given to native teachers who have grown rather "rusty," and there is a similar College at Siota, on Gela (Florida), for the Solomon Islanders. Most of the students at these three Colleges are married men, and they have their families with them.

Each College has a Warden; and so far as is possible there are European women attached to the College to undertake the care and supervision and teaching of the wives and families of the students. It is the Bishop's intention to have refresher courses for native clergy at Maka, under Mr. Edwards, in order that those of them who have somewhat lost their spiritual vision owing to isolation may find it again.

The Ordinands, who are recruited from the most promising of the native teachers, undergo a two years' course of training previous to ordination. The refresher courses for teachers last from six to eight months. In all cases there is no return home till the course is finished. The teachers who are chosen to attend the courses are of varying mental and spiritual powers and capacities. But all of them dearly love and value the privilege of [31/32] attendance at College. They meet old friends there, and also make new ones; they enjoy the regular meals, and fall in readily with the daily routine. Their wives and children are well cared for, and are happy. All of them appreciate the regular daily Services in the College chapels, and benefit spiritually thereby. The College life is a very happy one for everybody. Little petty quarrels may disturb the peace at times, but the people are good mixers, and all of them, especially the most backward, make visible progress both mentally and spiritually, while physically they all benefit by the regular life and food.

The College day begins early, before sunrise, for Melanesia is in the tropics. A daily Eucharist is offered, and the attendance is good. Each person makes his own rule herein. Then comes Mattins, followed by a communal breakfast in the Hall. Then there is a short spell of manual work, some of the teachers' vegetable gardens to be attended to, or some building job, or the repairing of houses. After this there is school, instruction for the main part in the things of religion, followed by general teaching. The students vary in mental calibre, some of them are bright and intelligent, others have well nigh forgotten all that they ever learned before. Taking of notes is very popular. These note books are going to be their future library of reference when they get back home to their villages. Some of the note books are used afterwards, being thumbed over and over to destruction; others are stowed away in boxes, the prey of damp and insects.

In the Schools and Colleges now, except in the southern islands, the leaching proceeds to a large extent in English. The older ones among the students no doubt find it a little more difficult in consequence; but on all sides English is becoming the language of communication between native and native, as well as between Europeans and Melanesians.

After morning school comes the midday meal, which is eaten en famille, the white staff sitting at the high table. [32/33] Then follows recreation and games; the younger men play football or cricket; and fishing is of course much in favour. There may be a late afternoon class before the evening meal; then comes Evensong and preparation class. A smoke and a yarn fills up the time before Compline and bed. Saturday is a free day for everybody. Sunday at College is a very happy day. There is only one sermon to prepare or listen to, and the whole day has a very restful atmosphere about it. The Church festivals are of course great days at the Colleges and Schools. The visits of the "Southern Cross" mean much excitement and running to and fro. If the Bishop happens to be on board, the crowning day of all may be at hand. There is to be an ordination, the Bishop with a circle of priests, European and Melanesian, laying hands on those called to the sacred ministry of the Church. Then, their College course over, the Warden says goodbye to those who have been under his care for two years, and they return to work in their own islands and village, or possibly in some strange place to which the Bishop sends them. Melanesians they are, working among Melanesians, but faithful pastors and teachers, doing to the best of their ability that for which they have been set apart.

Now let us turn to the three Central Boys' Schools of the Mission--All Hallows, Pawa, on Ugi Island, Solomons, the High School for the whole of the Mission's area, save New Britain; St. Mary's, Maravovo, Guadalcanal, Solomons, a Junior School; and St. Patrick's, Vureas, Banks' Islands, a Junior School for the southern islands. In addition there is a Junior School for Heathen boys at Tabalia, Guadalcanar, conducted by the Native Brotherhood, and a school at Kumbun, New Britain, for that part of the Mission's area. The scholars are chosen from the native villages, and are very anxious to attend schools. Their whole course of training, first at the Junior School, and then at the High School, lasts about eight years, with a holiday home every two years. All the schools at present are overcrowded, owing to the [33/34] rapid extension of the Mission's work, and also to the shortage of village catechists caused by the "depression" of a few years back.

The aim of these schools is to train Melanesian teachers on public school lines, with a definite religious bias, of course, and having regard to Melanesian mentality and life. Thus at St. Mary's, Maravovo, the Warden, the Rev. G. E. Warren, speaks of the work of himself and his wife, and their assistant and of the scholars, as a "team job." The new boys, ten perhaps to be squeezed into five available places, half scared if fresh from Heathenism, and needing a thorough cleansing. They are put into their "House" and placed in the care of older boys. Someone looks at their hair, and sees if it is short enough. Have they cleaned their fingernails? Have they got any sores? If so, they must go off to the school dispensary. All this is puzzling to the new boy, but he soon understands. In his own village he helped in the daily work only when he felt inclined. At school he must take his share in whatever manual work is set, whether he wants to or not.

At St. Mary's, each day of the week has its special reminder and sign. On Sunday it is a circle-triangle referring to the Holy Trinity. On Monday the Holy Mother and Child. On Tuesday a dove tells of the Holy Spirit. On Wednesday a picture of some saint or angel. On Thursday an altar. On Friday the crucifixion of our Lord. On Saturday Paradise. In learning to pray, the newcomers begin with the Lord's Prayer. At the High School they have Retreats and Schools of Prayer. Their Baptism and Confirmation take place before they leave the Junior School. The great festivals of the Church are observed with all the ceremony possible.

English is taught, and efforts are made to get the boys to express their own thoughts in English in a simple fashion. The whole School is graded from the Warden downwards, his white and native assistants, the altar servers, the teams at work in the vegetable gardens or in the bake-house, each has his appointed work. In all [34/35] the Schools the white staff both superintends and shares in the work. The scholars' time is measured by years and not by terms, and the staff have to carry on whether they are physically fit or not. The House system obtains throughout, and competition is keen between the Houses both in games and in school work.

The Melanesian Mission has only two training schools for girls at present: St. Hilda's, Bungana, Gela (Florida), Solomons, and Torgil, Vureas, Banks' Islands. These are staffed by English women. At Siota, the Mission Headquarters, the Sisters of the Cross have a school for the children and wives of the teachers who are up for a refresher course, and also for children of the neighbourhood. The number of girl scholars in the two schools is not large compared with the number of boys in training. This is due to the fact that the boys are being trained as the village teachers, while the girls are being trained rather as wives, that their influence may be on the side of righteousness, and that they may do their part in creating a Christian atmosphere in the villages, and helping to raise the standard of womanhood.

The Black Net. The Black Net is composed to-day of forty-nine Melanesian clergy, many of them but newly ordained deacons, and over seven hundred lay catechists, working in the villages. With the scanty supply of European clergy available for district work it is obvious that the control of the islands and villages, from a religious point of view, is necessarily in the hands of the Melanesian clergy. The Bishop's latest report shows that on twelve islands in the southern area of the Mission, with a population of about thirteen thousand, more than half the people are baptised, and one in six is a communicant. The area contains one hundred and five Christian villages, with eleven native clergy., and one hundred and forty-two catechists, with native Brothers.

In Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands, the seven islands have a population of about five thousand, with three thousand baptised, one native priest, one deacon, and fifty catechists. In the Solomon Islands there are about [35/36] a hundred thousand people on fourteen islands, with twenty thousand baptised Church folk, over 50 per cent, of whom are confirmed, twenty-eight native clergy and over four hundred catechists with native Brothers. (There are Christians of several other allegiances in this group.) On New Britain there is a vast area just being opened up by M.M., and here there is a native deacon and several Brothers.

Many a Heathen place is ready to receive a catechist, but the supply is limited, and the Brothers whose evangelistic zeal prepared the way for the coming of a catechist have perforce to carry on till someone is available to release them for their proper work. The central schools are full to overflowing, but ever the cry is for more catechists for the villages.

The Catechists. The ordinary village catechist or teacher is generally married, and if he belongs to the place he may find it very difficult to avoid partisanship. The daily school for the village children is not easy to keep going. There is no education authority to see to the matter of attendance, and the school equipment is often sadly defective. The weekly sermon or exhortation is difficult to keep going, when the stock of information is so scanty. But one knows that in the majority of Christian villages the drum or bell sounds regularly day by day for prayers and school, and the daily prayers are offered, and the daily thanksgiving said. For the administration of the Blessed Sacrament several villages may have to go overnight to some centre where there is a priest resident, or where one is due on his rounds. Obviously a constant oversight is necessary of the spiritual life of the villages, and the value of the refresher courses for catechists can easily be understood.

The Melanesian Clergy. Each of the native priests has his own village and home and church to attend to; while in addition he has the spiritual charge of many other villages, and must visit them at regular times for the administration of the sacraments, and for purposes of discipline. This necessarily entails a great deal of [36/37] travelling, by canoe or on land. Some of the Melanesian clergy have outboard motors fitted on to big canoes.

The increase in the number of native clergy is one of the most remarkable features of the work in the Melanesian Mission of recent years. In the old days an elderly native catechist might be made a deacon as a sort of O.M., after years of good service. To-day the average age of native ordinands is much less than it used to be, and half the number of the native clergy are deacons, most of whom will proceed in due course to the priesthood. Three of the deacons are members of the native Brotherhood and under vows. The wholly Christian islands of the Solomons contain naturally the great number of native clergy. Some islands in the south of the diocese, where white clergy are so scarce, will have to be given over entirely to the care of native clergy. There is much need herein for the invoking of the power of God's Spirit upon them, to guide them in their difficulties, to give them wisdom and understanding and zeal, and to enlighten their minds and strengthen their wills that they may carry on in the midst of so much that is discouraging and disheartening.

Melanesia to-day is face to face with danger from two fronts. The old culture is dying and must perish. Left to itself it preserved the islanders through countless generations, but it cannot stand up to the disintegrating forces of our modern civilization. The new culture which the white man brings, if separated from the power of the Gospel of Christ, is a mere destructive thing, deadly both to body and soul. It is left for the native Melanesian church and its ministry to supply the heavenly medicine of the life and power of Jesus Christ through the Spirit, so that the remnant of the people that is left may survive the impact of the new culture, being built up on the foundations of the teaching of apostles and prophets.

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