Project Canterbury

Sermon at the Thanksgiving Mass for the Life and Work of Archbishop John Wallace Chisholm

By Philip Strong

From One Bread: The Bulletin of the Diocese of the New Hebrides, No. 6, July 1975, pages 4-7.

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


Archbishop Strong, now retired, was for many years Bishop of New Guinea, and it was with him that John Chisholm worked when he first went as a missionary to New Guinea.

Revelation ch. 22, verses 4 and 5: "His servants shall serve him (or as in the New English Bible 'worship him') and they shall see his face."

In 1963 Canon, as he was then, John Chisholm, Sub-dean of Dogura Cathedral, produced anonymously a booklet called "A Guide for Preachers in New Guinea" with simple outlines for each Sunday, to help a group of Papuan Evangelists who went out two by two each week to the neighbouring villages. When I heard that last Saturday night, half an hour before midnight ushered in Trinity Sunday, our Lord had taken to himself the soul of John Chisholm, first Archbishop of Melanesia, something impelled me to look up what he had written under Trinity Sunday. Three things struck me: first his heading - "A door was opened in heaven", I thought immediately of how the closing of the door to his Melanesian Episcopate was for him the opening of a door to a higher and heavenly and more glorious service where he would see the face of Jesus.

Secondly, of the great mystery of the holy Trinity he wrote, 'We cannot understand it, but there are many things in the world we cannot understand; that does not mean that they are not true. St Paul tells us that here in this world we cannot see things clearly; it is only when we see God face to face that we shall understand all things." How true that is for us today in regard to his own passing so soon after the inauguration of the new Province of Melanesia, when he felt and we felt there was so much still for him to do as Archbishop of the Province: but as I ventured to say to him two days before he died, "It is God's work, not ours, and he knows what is best and will provide and care for his Church." I am reminded of how greatly I was helped in the face of the devastating losses we suffered in New Guinea at the Mount Lamington eruption in 1951, by someone who quoted to me our Lord's words, "What I do thou, knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter."

Thirdly, in his Trinity Sunday outline he wrote, "Though we cannot understand the Trinity, the Church calls us to do something greater, to worship. The worship of heaven he says never stops (they rest not day and night) and it should not stop on earth. We should try to give God our best; every prayer we say; every hymn we sing; every action we do - all should be the best we can offer because what we do here should be like the worship in heaven. Let us give God our love, for that is what worship means. We can do this in two ways, first in our private prayers [4/5] day by day, and second when we come to Church; and to help us in our prayers we have the great gift of the Book of Common Prayer, and the greatest part of the Prayer Book is the Holy Communion. All leads up to that great act of worship, for we do what they are doing in heaven."

So often a preacher's words belie his life - not so in these words of John Chisholm; they describe his life from its beginning to its end. As a little boy of six years of age he set up a little chapel in the back garden of his home at Bendigo, and each Sunday used to conduct a little service for children and preach to them, and give the money collected to Missions. Years later, early each morning at Dogura, often before it was light, he would be found on his knees in the cathedral. Later still, when I stayed with him in Melanesia three years ago, I noted that he was up in his chapel early each morning. In these latter weeks in the Bethlehem Hospital, right up to and including the day of his death, he received the Holy Communion each morning and joined with a visiting priest each day saying the Divine Office of Mattins and Evensong, and I am told that his example of putting God first, of devotion, faith, love, cheerfulness and gaiety of spirit which emanated from this, left a deep mark on all at the hospital and have been a blessing to all who have ministered to him.

The late Most Reverend John Wallace Chisholm was born on Holy Cross Day, September 14th 1922. At the early age of sixteen he won the Kew Theological Scholarship to Trinity College, Melbourne; graduated as Bachelor of Arts in the University of Melbourne in 1943, took his Diploma of Education in 1944 and Licentiate in Theology, second class in 1946. As he was too young after graduation for ordination, he went to England and worked for a time in a Dockland settlement. He was made deacon in 1947 in the Diocese of London by the Bishop of Kensington and began his ministry at St. Stephen's, Westminster, with George Reindorp (now Bishop of Salisbury) as his vicar. He was ordained priest in that church by Bishop Riley of Bendigo, when he was in London for the Lambeth Conference of 1948. This young, earnest and dedicated young man made a deep impression on the mixed congregation at St. Stephen's, rich and poor alike. They took him to their hearts and loved him very dearly and not least for his sincerity and courage in putting God absolutely first - speaking the truth in love as well as in simplicity.

When I visited the parish in 1948 1 asked them to pray for more missionaries for New Guinea. As a result a Prayer Group met each week under his leadership, and eventually he came to feel that he must himself be the first fruits of their prayers and offered himself to me when I was in England again in 1951. Some of his admirers felt he would exercise a bettor ministry by continuing in London. Some felt his health would not stand up to the rigours of missionary life in New Guinea; but he [5/6] knew that God was calling him to give the rest of his life to missionary service and nothing would persuade him otherwise or ever did in the future. His spiritual advisor, guide, philosopher and very dear friend, Eric Abbott, lately Dean of Westminster, encouraged him in this; and he and his vicar George Reindorp, spoke to me of his outstanding qualities and commended him to me in the highest terms possible.

He arrived in Now Guinea early in 1952 and went first as a locum to Menapi. I was so impressed with the impact that he made there, that, soon after, I appointed him to the charge of the head station of Dogura, headmaster of the Cathedral School, and a little later Canon and Sub-Dean, During that time he wrought a marvellous change at Dogura, deepening the spiritual life of the station and district and showing that he had also outstanding ability in organisation and administration; that he had a methodical and tidy mind, sound judgement and a wisdom far advanced for his years: and above all else, a wonderful capacity to love the people committed to his spiritual care.

Shortly before I left New Guinea for Brisbane there came to me in the night-watches an overwhelming conviction that God had destined him for the episcopate and endowed him with the gifts and qualities needed for the Apostolic Ministry, And so when Bishop David Hand succeeded me, without hesitation I encouraged him to appoint him as his assistant Bishop, and had the great joy of consecrating him in St John's Cathedral, Brisbane, on St Matthias' Day, 1964. He confided to his sister, Lesley, to whom he was always so devoted, and she to him, that when the call to be a bishop first came, he was filled with fears but found inspiration in thoughts of St Francis and his complete self-surrender of himself to the call of God. As assistant bishop he did much to strengthen the Papuan ministry, as well as having a penetrating and absolutely right understanding of the problems of a developing people as they prepared for self- government. Incidentally during that time he was delighted to be able to be host to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, when he visited Dogura with a party of boys from Geelong Grammar School.

Then in 1967, to New Guinea's great loss but to Melanesia's great gain, came the call to Melanesia and the greatest work of his life. At the outset of his eight years episcopate in Melanesia he faced many problems, but John Chisholm would never let himself be daunted by problems and when these had been surmounted he saw visions of the future which he immediately began to translate into reality and brought to the Church of Melanesia new hope and new life. It is altogether amazing how much of real solid and lasting value was accomplished in those eight years. We might well say in the words of the Book of Wisdom, "In a short time he fulfilled a long time." We think of the building and consecration of the great Cathedral at Honiara. The [6/7] building also at Honiara of a new Diocesan Office and Centre for the better administration and efficiency of the Diocese and now of the Province. Also of Patteson House as a base for the life and work of two Religious Orders, one for men and one for women, whom he invited to the Diocese - the Sisters of the Church and the Friars of the Society of St Francis. The founding of Selwyn College as a co-educational Church High School; the establishment of the Bishop Patteson Theological Centre under an excellent theological staff, where there are at present a hundred students preparing for ordination, and as a result the raising of the standards of the Melanesian ministry, as well as its great increase in numbers. The celebration two or three years ago of the Centenary of the Martyrdom of John Coleridge Patteson, the first Bishop of Melanesia and the vision and spiritual insight which he had in declaring that year as a Holy Year, with its deep impact on the spiritual life of the Church. And then finally the Inauguration last January of the Province of Melanesia with its four dioceses, what his predecessors had seen as an ultimate but far-away objective, he with a right instinct and sure touch, saw that it was vital that this should come about now, in the midst of this changing world, to give the Church .in Melanesia future security and stability, and so gave himself to the intricate planning organisation and legal work which preceded it, as well as the seeking and obtaining of the approval of both the Anglican Consultative Council and the synod of the Church in the Province of New Zealand. Though he will not now, as he had hoped, be able to consecrate two more Melanesian bishops on St Peter's Day, all else he attempted has been brought to fruition and will continue in the future, and the Church be greatly strengthened thereby.

Truly we have abundant cause to offer this Eucharist of Thanksgiving to God for raising up this son of the Church in the Province of Victoria, and sending him forth to found a new Province of his Church in the islands of the Pacific, for John Chisholm; Priest and Bishop, Missionary, Apostle, Prophet, pioneer, pastor, teacher, builder and consolidator, in whom and through whom the Spirit of God and his Christ has shone through so brightly. On Friday his mortal remains will be laid to rest under the shadow of the Cathedral he built and consecrated, and in the midst of the people and islands he loved. Our hearts go out in loving sympathy and intercession to God for his bereaved sister, brothers and family; for the Bishops, Clergy and people of the Diocese and Province of which he was the chief Pastor, that God will fortify them with the fulness of his divine consolation and grace, and ever stimulate and inspire them with the memory of the life and example of their first Archbishop. "His Servants shall serve him and they shall see his face." As a servant of the great High Priest, whom he sought all his life long to serve, John Chisholm can say with him, "I have glorified thee on the earth, I have finished the work thou gavest me to do, and now I come to thee."

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