Project Canterbury

An Oceanic Province.

By John Manwaring Steward.

[No place: no publisher], 1921.

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


Before the Conference, held in England last July [1920], when the position of the Church in the Pacific was considered I was under the impression that it was the practically unanimous opinion of the Bishops of New Zealand and Australia that the time had come to take definite steps towards the creation of an Oceanic Province, and that this Province would consist of the existing missionary sphere in the Pacific, together with those islands which the fortunes of war have entrusted to the care of New Zealand and Australia; but news has reached me now to the effect that this is not the case, and that the idea of the creation of an Oceanic Province, if not vetoed, has, at any rate, been indefinitely postponed.

As I was unable to be present at this Conference it now seems desirable that, before any steps are taken which may tend further to delay the creation of this Province, I should try to set out clearly the reasons which I consider make the creation of an Island Province necessary, and also to outline my visions of the future.

Perhaps the one thing for which a Bishop of Melanesia longs more than for anything else is an opportunity to consult with Bishops and Priests, other than those of his own staff, who are engaged in work of the same type. One often hears some such remark as this, "I would like to know how they deal with this kind of thing in New Guinea." Now here is the first and most obvious reason for the creation of an Island Province with its Provincial Synod.

Each Island Diocese has, of course, its own difficulties; but in kind they will be found to be the same, and the opportunity of discussing the problems which they constitute will be of incalculable value.

As circumstances are at present, the duty of facing and attempting to settle these difficulties rests on the shoulders of each individual Bishop. This is a burden heavy enough at the present, but as civilization spreads in these islands and the problems increase in number and difficulty it will become too heavy for almost any one to bear alone.

The great difficulty in these parts of the world which lie on the verge of civilization is the relation between the Natives and the European settlers. One of the main duties of the Church in such places is, where necessary, to protect the interests of the Natives.

Where, as is the case in the British Solomons, we are fortunate in the possession of a just and sympathetic Government, cases causing friction between the Mission and the settlers or Government officials are not of frequent occurrence; but even here cases may arise where the Missionaries may not see eye to eye with the European settlers or with the Government; whereas, in such places as the New Hebrides, under the calamitous Condominium, these cases are only too frequent.

In dealing with them the actions of an individual Bishop are not likely to be of much weight, but if he has behind him the support and approval of the whole Church in the Islands, his hand is strengthened immensely. Only those who have experienced it can tell how great an amount of moral courage is needed to enable a man to come into antagonism with a person or persons, with whom he lives in daily contact, on whose goodwill he depends for the necessities and amenities of daily life, whom he personally admires, and with whom he wishes to continue in friendship and goodwill.

Besides these problems there are many others that fall naturally under the aegis of a Provincial Synod. I enumerate the following:- The qualifications of European and Native Clergy; the right proportions of these to one another; the exchange of teachers, methods of evangelization; methods of educating the native races in view of their changing conditions; mutual co-operations; the election, confirmation, end consecration of Bishops. These could be [1/2] dealt with in manner impossible under the present conditions, and impossible also I believe, under any other system than that of an Oceanic Provincial Synod. Furthermore, in an Oceanic Province one would have an organization that would ensure unity of purpose, aim and method, which is so much needed in the missionary work and enterprise in the Islands. By the creation of a Missionary Province the Church of England would be proclaiming to the world its consciousness of its duty towards those outposts of Empire and its high sense of the dignity and importance of missionary work.

A Missionary Province! The very words stir the blood. It is probably not necessary to attempt to catalogue all the advantages that would accrue from such a Province. Rather let us turn to the consideration of some reasons alleged against its creation as contained in the August number of the English "Southern Cross Log" in a report of the Australasian Conference held in London last July.

In this report three chief "reasons alleged" against the creation of an Oceanic Province are mentioned. I propose to answer these one by one.

(a) That it is better for each Island Mission Diocese to be affiliated to a Province of higher civilisation - like Australia or New Zealand - than for these Dioceses to be grouped together and confined to taking counsel by exchanging ideas with one another.

To this argument I have to reply on two points. First, that "civilization" is not an abstract quality in itself, but rather the sum of the civilized persons enjoying that civilization. The members of such an Island Province would be naturally exactly as far advanced in civilization as their brothers in the Synods of Australia and New Zealand or, for example, of South Africa, where Native and European Clergy take their places side by side.

My second objection is to the statement that we should be "confined" to taking council by exchanging ideas one with another, The members of such a Provincial Synod, though privileged to discuss matters which concern them, without feeling that they were taking up the time needed for the discussion of problems which occur only in provinces of "much higher civilizations" would in no sense be prevented from taking counsel by letter or by delegates with the Synods of the Home Church, or from exchanging views with them on matters of policy which affect the Church at large.

Incidentally I may say that an Oceanic Provincial Synod is much less likely to take steps which are not in harmony with the Church at large in such matters, as for example, Church Discipline, Doctrine, or Ritual, than would be the case in a local Synod, the outlook of whose members would be more circumscribed and more likely to be swayed by purely local considerations.

(b) That the distances are so great and the means of communication so scanty that the assembling of an Island Synod would be an extremely difficult and lengthy undertaking.

My reply to this objection is: This is a matter for purely local adjustment, and the existence of the "Southern Cross" seems in itself to hold out a suggestion for the solution of this difficulty.

(c) That the population of the Island Dioceses consists of child races, for whom the provincial question could have no meaning or interest, and that there would be a lack of reality in an organization which affects only the European missionaries.

To this I reply from an experience of eighteen years' life amongst a "child race" with an emphatic contradiction. The natives of Melanesia are perfectly capable of taking an interest in and understanding the meaning of such a Synod. From time to time the Bishop of Melanesia attends General Synod in New Zealand, and the natives have no difficulty in understanding the reason for his [2/3] absence for this purpose.

I presume that native Clergy, and possibly (in the case of natives so far advanced as those of Fiji) even certain Native laymen, would take their places in General Synod, or at least be represented there; in which case no one could stigmatize such a Provincial Synod as "an organization which affected only the European missionaries" nor would there be any "lack of reality" in such a representative gathering of the Church of Oceania. Reality would indeed be its keynote, as all the missionaries will readily testify. There may be other objections to the establishment of an Oceanic Province, but they have not come under my notice.

Now, before those in authority definitely reject the idea of an Oceanic Province it is well to consider what alternatives lie before us. It is, I believe, agreed on all hands that the present condition of affairs is profoundly unsatisfactory. Indeed, the Bishop of Goulburn goes so far as to stigmatize the position of affairs in Melanesia as "both uncatholic and unpractical." He goes on to say (with too great kindness) that "our labours are too great to be left in such an indefensible and unworkable position." As to our position being "uncatholic" or "indefensible", I prefer not to discuss the matter here; but as to its being unpractical or unworkable, I am in whole-hearted agreement with him, as, I believe, is the case with everyone who has studied the problem.

The one object before us is to provide some unity and cohesion for the Church's Work in the Islands, some means whereby overlapping may be avoided and whereby the Church as a whole may advance with one definite, united purpose towards that victory which, in God's mercy; is in store for her in the Islands.

The natural means, the catholic method, of obtaining this object would be our Oceanic Province; but, failing this, what remains? I can see only one alternative, which is that all the Missions in the Islands should submit themselves to the direction and control of a Joint Board of the Australian Board of Missions and the New Zealand Board of Missions, situated in Sydney, and issuing its directions by letter to the various Bishops. But, to my mind, this alternative positively bristles with difficulties in comparison with which the objections raised against the formation of an Oceanic Province fade into absolute insignificance.

(1) The control of the affairs of Missions by a Home Board is notoriously unsatisfactory.

In 1910 I was privileged to attend the Edinburgh Conference as a delegate of Melanesia. I there learnt one lesson which I have never forgotten and shall never forget. On every hand, from non-episcopal members of this Conference, one heard somewhat as follows:- "There is one point in which we whole-heartedly envy the Missions of the Church of England, and that is that your difficulties are settled on the spot by your Bishop and have not to be continually referred to a Home Board. You are free, we are bound!"

(2) Of whom would such a Joint Committee consist?

Obviously, not of persons engaged in the work of evangelizing the Islands. It must consist of people with only a theoretical knowledge of Mission Work, or of those whom ill-health or advancing age have compelled to resign active participation in the work No one can suppose that such persons are qualified to deal with the rapidly changing circumstances of the Islands.

(3) How would such a Committee propose to keep in touch with those on the spot when "the distances are so great and the means of communication so scanty"?

It would indeed be "an extremely lengthy and difficult undertaking."

(4) If the Provincial Synod would have no "meaning or interest" for our "child races", far less would the A.B.M. or N.Z.B.M. (to them a mere unmeaning combination of letters) convey anything to their mind.

[4] (5) The direction of the affairs of a Diocese of the Catholic Church by any body of experts who, however well qualified, have no ecclesiastical bond with that Diocese, is profoundly Uncatholic.

To whom shall the Bishops in the Islands in the future take oath of Canonical Obedience? To the Chairman of the Joint Mission Board or to whom? A single Bishopric should be united to some Province and to a Metropolitan Bishop, and neither that Province nor that Metropolitan dare hand over their responsibility to any Board

(6) A final objection and, to my mind, a very strong one indeed is, that unless the Bishops of the various Island Sees are to be nothing more than the servants of the Joint Board they must, to ensure the support they need, keep in continual touch with the Joint Board.

To do this by letter would be very difficult and, in fact, it would practically mean that the Bishops would have to pay frequent visits to Sydney in order to report to and consult with the Joint Board. Now, a Bishop's place is in his Diocese, and it is absolutely wrong that he should be expected, at more than most infrequent intervals, to leave his post for any purpose. Indeed, in my mind, the one justification for the existence of a Home Board is to make it possible for a Bishop to remain in that Diocese to the oversight of which God has called him.

Destructive criticism is notoriously of little value; I therefore venture here to outline such an Oceanic Province as would, in my opinion, adequately represent the Church of England and be able effectively to carry out that share in the evangelizing of the Islands which Providence seems clearly to have indicated as the especial task of the Church of England. Such a Province would fall into six Dioceses:-

(1) The Islands of Bismark Archipelago.

(2) Buka, Bouganville, Vella Lavella, New Georgia, and perhaps Ysabel.

(3) Guadalcanar, Florida, Mala, San Cristoval, Rennel and Bellona, Santa Cruz and Reef Groups, Utupua and Vanikoro, Sikyana, Cherry Island and Tikopia.

(4) The Torres and Banks Islands and the New Hebrides.

(5) The Gilbert, Ellice, Phoenix and Union Groups, together with Manahiki, Fanning and Christmas Islands - a vast, scattered, and sparsely populated district, but one that cannot be totally neglected and can hardly be associated with any other Group.

(6) Fiji, Samoa, the Friendly, Cook, Society, Marquesas and Paumotu Groups, with the Kermedic Group and other little adjacent islands which are administered by New Zealand.

I have omitted the Caroline and Marshall Islands as they are administered by Japan with a mandate from the League of Nations; and I do not know what the attitude of the Japanese is towards Christian Missions. I have also omitted New Guinea, as I understand that this Mission is desirous of remaining in the Province of Queensland.

Fiji, as the seat of Government of the Western Pacific and the most civilized portion of these islands, would probably be the administrative centre of the Province, although it would not be necessary that the Archbishop should take his title from Fiji or that he should have his headquarters there. Intercommunication between [4/5] these islands could be established by the "Southern Cross," in addition to such steamers as already call at the larger ports in these Groups.

Each Bishop would, of course, need a vessel of some kind to enable him to travel from island to island and to bring him and his representatives at General Synod to some port where they could join the "Southern Cross" or some other steamer, which would serve the purpose.

Again, at Fiji accommodation could probably easily be found for the visiting Bishops and Clergy.

The support of such a Province should not be beyond the powers of the Church of England, and the presence of so large a proportion of Clergy and Missionaries in these Islands would help to make certain that their future civilization would be based on sound Christian lines.

Among these Islands, scattered from place to place, are a considerable number of almost solitary settlers of our own race for whom the Church is able to do practically nothing under the present circumstances. If we are to do anything like our duty towards the inhabitants of these islands of both races we must, at least, have before us a great and ambitious purpose, and I commend this proposition to the prayerful consideration of those to whom the well-being of the Islanders and the advance of our Church are matters of deep interest.

One other point:- What is to be the position of the Joint Board of Missions towards this Province? For no one could leave them out of his consideration, even if he were foolish enough to wish to do so. Theirs will be a work fully worthy of their greatest effort and calling for zeal and statesmanship. First of all, they will devote their energies to the task of arousing the Churches to a sense of their responsibility towards Missions. Secondly, they will organise the diffusion of interest in and knowledge of Missions in these Islands. Thirdly, they will collect and allocate the funds necessary for the carrying on of the work. They will, at the beginning of each financial year, inform each Bishop of the amount they expect to be able to allot to his Diocese, that he may know the extent of the support he may expect and arrange his work accordingly. Fourthly, they might well form an Advisory Board of Reference. They would collect from the various Bishops information as to the conditions in their Dioceses, and would thus in time become a vast Depository of Mission Experience to which individual Bishops or the Province as a whole would gladly resort for advice, counsel, or reference as occasion might arise. Fifthly, from time to time they might summon a great Missionary Reunion, to which representatives from the mission field might be invited to give an account of their work. Sixthly, they would form the great business centre of the Church in the Islands. They would relieve individual Bishops of the strain of financial difficulty, remove all danger of overlapping, and ensure a business-like control of finance.

This would surely be a work of immense value to the Church of God and one which none could consider beneath the dignity of the best brains of the Home Church or as, in any sense, serving to isolate the Mission from the Home Church.

Bishop of Melanesia.

NOTE: A map, shewing the places mentioned, may be found in the "Handbook of the Pacific Islands," published by Messrs. McCarron, Stewart & Co., Ltd., 22-26 Goulburn Street, Sydney.

Project Canterbury