The New Guinea Martyrs
New Guinea Martyrs' Day: Sunday 31st August, 2008
Bishop Peter Ramsden, Bishop of Port Moresby
John 12.21 "Sir, we want to see Jesus"
The last time my wife and I were in Victoria for an ABM deputation was 22 years ago — it's a privilege and pleasure to be back on the road again and to be here at St Peter's. On that other occasion we had just completed our first three years in Papua New Guinea at Koinambe, one of the remotest of mission stations in the Jimi Valley of the Western Highlands. Before we left England to begin our adventures there, an important visitor had come to see us in our little curate's house in County Durham. The visitor was the Rt Revd David Hand, famous missionary and revered archbishop, who had just retired. I'm sure he came to vet us, to give us the once-over, to see if there was any chance of us lasting more than a couple of weeks in Koinambe. Well, this is one of Bishop David's mitres. I still find it strange that I should be wearing one, and of course it was inconceivable in 1983 that I could possibly inherit this as successor to David as Bishop of Port Moresby.
But perhaps you've had a similar experience — that of stepping into someone's shoes, of taking over someone else's job, perhaps as a teacher or manager or priest. You're the new person and have to deal with people's memories of the old one and their expectations of the new. You are now the person with the responsibility, you have to step up and do the job, it's your turn. Now it can often be hard to take over from someone else. When we returned to England from PNG in 1996 for our children's secondary education, I went to a parish in Newcastle. My predecessor had been there for 24 years. When I left 11 years later to return to PNG some people still thought of me as the new vicar, and I thought of the old vicar as the "phantom of the altar", someone still around in an unhelpful sort of way.
Today we remember with thanksgiving some very helpful predecessors in the faith, the New Guinea Martyrs, who encourage us to press on as we step into their shoes, for we have inherited the mission for which they lived and died: God's mission entrusted to the Church to bring life and hope in Christ. Today we don't just look back and say how courageous and generous the martyrs were (although they were indeed so), we also acknowledge that courage and generosity are now the gifts we need in order that we may be worthy successors, as we serve those who have been given to us as brothers and sisters in Christ. The challenge of the martyrs to us is, "How are we looking after the mission they passed on?"
Today's gospel reminded us of what that mission is about. Some Greeks came to Philip at the festival in Jerusalem and asked, "Sir, we want to see Jesus". In all we do we need to remember that simple request. It's not us, it's Jesus we want people to see, and to meet, and to know, and to love, and to serve, and to worship — Jesus, who is the way as well as the goal.
When I arrived in that parish in Newcastle it was clear that not everything was helping people to see Jesus, in particular the name of the parish magazine. You know what new clergy are like — always wanting to change things! I inherited a magazine called "Between Ourselves". What sort of missionary slogan was that? Christianity is the way that makes us look beyond ourselves, for beyond ourselves are those who encourage and inspire us like the martyrs; beyond ourselves are those who need our care and friendship, our advocacy and partnership; and beyond ourselves is the God who calls us to his mission. Christianity calls us beyond ourselves in order to expand our horizons and open up new pathways of faith and service.
Just over the Australian horizon is Papua New Guinea, your next door nation. There you'll find about 200,000 Anglicans in a population of 6.5 million, 40% of whom are under 15 years old. There are about 175 clergy and I'm the only expatriate among them. Malaria and TB, HV and AIDS, domestic violence and corruption, a mineral boom and high commodity prices, 832 languages, 200 different Christian denominations and 2 mosques is something of the context for God's mission in PNG, which in its Anglican form is still building churches, opening schools, looking after orphans, running literacy classes, dispensing medicine, encouraging our clergy and training evangelists. Through Anglicare PNG, established by the Diocese of Port Moresby and now present also in Popondetta and Mt Hagen, we are one of the country's biggest players in the fight against AIDS, and in Oro Province we are taking the lead in the post-cyclone rebuilding of rural communities. Look over your northern horizon and there's so much going on in that young and growing church and nation.
Well, a number of you have not only looked over the horizon but have experienced PNG for yourselves, but all of you can step up to play your part and make a difference to people's lives through your support for the ABM Martyrs' Appeal. It's a privilege to be here and it's a privilege to be speaking in support of ABM, the Anglican Church of PNG's long term friend and partner in the gospel. To give one practical example — in 2009 we are asking ABM to pay two thirds of the school fees for 259 clergy children. In PNG everyone pays — there's no free education. The best paid clergy in the country are in Port Moresby — their pay has just been increased to K300 a fortnight for a married priest — that's just over A$3000 a year. The ABM Martyrs' Appeal will help those school fees to be paid. What a difference that will make to a parent's peace of mind and a child's prospects in life.
We hadn't returned to PNG at the time of Bishop David's death but at the end of last year I had the interesting task of sorting through his papers to make sure important things like patrol reports were not lost but instead deposited in the Anglican archive at the University of PNG. I soon found a photocopy of that famous letter written by Fr Vivian Redlich to "My dear Dad" from "Somewhere in the Papuan bush" a few days before he was martyred in 1942. Courage and generosity were written all over it: "I'm trying to stick whatever happens. If I don't come out of it just rest content that I have tried to do my job faithfully." Equally moving I found was the photocopy of the front of the envelope stamped "Opened by the Censor" with the address of a peaceful village rectory in the rural English midlands — a world away from Redlich's trials and a safe haven he would never reach.
I remember when I had last quoted that letter in a sermon. It had been on Martyrs' Day in 1996 in Norwich Cathedral. In the congregation on that occasion had been Brother Robin Lindsay, one of the group of Melanesian Brothers who became some of the first martyrs of the 21st century — truly successors to Vivian Redlich and his companions. Just three weeks ago, at the end of the final service on the final day of the Lambeth Conference, Robin Lindsay's name, with those of his six brothers, were read out by the Archbishop of Canterbury and added to the names of those commemorated in the chapel of the modern martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral. After all the discussion, argument and endless talk of the Lambeth Conference, it was the names of the martyrs that reduced everyone to silence, and not a few to tears. Such is the continuing power of their witness to bring us back to the heart of the gospel mission: "Sir, we want to see Jesus".
So, are we still showing him to others? Are we looking after the church of the martyrs? God's mission is now in our hands. It's now our turn, the responsibility has been given to us. It's not yet time to hand over to someone else. What are we doing? Well, whatever you do, look beyond yourselves, expand your horizons, be inspired to acts of courage and generosity, never tire of doing good, keep Papua New Guinea and especially her young people in your prayers, join us in PNG through ABM in Australia. Help us to keep on growing in order to reach out in love and service to those who would see Jesus for themselves.
All this means accepting the call and stepping up to take our place and play our part in God's mission, as successors of those once in the field and those who supported them, and as today's partners of the friends of Jesus — for we are called by name to make his name known.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.