LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

 JUNE 1998

The Torres Strait Consecrations

"GOING TO THE consecration, Father?", asked the young man behind the counter at Cairns airport. "Yes", I replied, surprised that he should be so well informed. Then he told me of the special flight the day before which had been chartered to deliver a cargo of four thousand burger buns to the Torres Strait for the traditional islander feast that would follow the service!

The official line of the Anglican Church of Australia was still that a few priests and "a handful" of lay people were involved in this "breakaway" church. My independent contacts had indicated otherwise, and this episode at the airport seemed to confirm what they had been saying.

In a previous "Letter From Australia", Martin Hislop accurately summarised the events leading up to the formation of "The Church of Torres Strait" on 14th December last year. What needs to be emphasised is that as recently as last July when the Torres Strait Regional Council unanimously passed a motion of "no confidence" in the Bishop of North Queensland, it asked the Primate (Dr Keith Rayner) to appoint an episcopal overseer until such time as the Torres Strait could become a Diocese of the Anglican Church of Australia. The Primate responded with a letter telling the Islanders to listen to the Bishop. He made them feel insulted and disempowered.

The Bishop of North Queensland went ahead with the consecration of a man clearly unacceptable culturally and theologically to the vast majority of people who live in the Torres Strait. He ignored requests to postpone the consecration in the interest of further dialogue and the possibility of reaching a common mind.

A number of Catholic Anglicans on the mainland (including the Society of the Holy Cross) have supported the Torres Strait Islanders for two reasons:

Firstly, while lip service is paid to the importance of returning self determination to indigenous peoples, the only real opportunity that the Anglican Church of Australia had to set an example in this matter was destroyed by the refusal of the theologically liberal leadership to put aside its own agenda.

Secondly, white priests and parishes on the mainland from what is left of our end of the Anglican spectrum have exactly the same difficulty in getting a fair hearing from our liberal leaders, and we admire the tenacity of the Islanders in contending for the Catholic Faith.

More personally, my contacts with Islanders in Brisbane, and conversations with parishioners whose knowledge of the Torres Strait is professional and up-to-date led me to doubt the "official" line.

I have read letters by Torres Strait priests written over the last few years which explore the possibility of becoming part of the Province of Papua New Guinea or the Province of Melanesia. This correspondence makes it quite clear that there were two agenda: self determination of the Torres Strait Church, and the maintenance of the Catholic way of being Anglican. Sadly, the intransigence of the Bishop of North Queensland and the Primate confirmed to Islander leaders that the least likely way of fulfilling these agenda was to stay in the Anglican Church of Australia.

It is important to state the above, for one of the allegations from official Anglican sources is that the division only acquired doctrinal overtones once the Traditional Anglican Communion became involved.

The other allegation often made is that the TAC through the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia initiated contact with the Torres Strait. That is simply not true. The Islanders initiated the dialogue themselves.

That dialogue came to fruition on Sunday 26th April on Badu Island, forty kilometres north-west of Thursday Island. Bishop Robert Mercer CR, sometime Bishop of Matabeleland and now Bishop of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada, had conducted the ordination retreat, which was attended by all the deacons and priests of the Church of the Torres Strait. At his side was Bishop John Hepworth of the Anglican Catholic Church of Australia. Archbishop Louis Falk, Primate of the TAC, was to have been the chief consecrator, but was held up by severe snow storms in the USA. Bishop Albert Haley, retired Bishop of the ACCA took his place, arriving on the Saturday. Many Islanders saw this as fitting, considering Bishop Haley’s ministry in the Torres Strait over forty years ago.

Badu has a population of 800. That swelled to 2,500 as visitors arrived by plane and boat. Over a hundred flights landed at the tiny air strip, and many people endured the discomfort of aluminium dinghies for up to twelve hours in order to be present.

Early on the Sunday afternoon the two bishops-elect, Father Gayai Hankin and Father Dave Passi, were escorted from the village by detachments of warriors from their home islands, Mabuig and Murray (or "Mer") respectively. Armed with spears and traditionally dressed, the men made a breathtakingly spectacular sight as they danced and sang their way to the church. After further cultural ceremonies in the church grounds, the Bishops-elect were handed to the presenting Bishops Hepworth and Mercer, who, with the clergy, escorted them to Bishop Haley.

The liturgy proceeded in the grand church of S. Mark, seating 600 to 700 with open archways in the walls enabling those outside to participate. Back in the early 1950’s Bishop Ian Shevill wrote that this church . . . "is quite the most ambitious building erected on the islands. Designed by an Australian architect, and costing far more than most Australian churches, it stands today as a Christian witness . . . Splendid columns rise on either side of the nave, while coloured glass windows fill the interior with rosy hues, and carpet cement floors with incandescent streams of light. Everything about the building is done well; the ornaments, the processional cross carved of tortoise-shell, the spacious sanctuary, have all been carried out with fine attention to detail, which, when found in such a remote spot, is more than amazing."

The old rite High Mass was sung in a mixture of English and Islander languages, as were the hymns. The only English language hymns were, appropriately, "Firmly I believe and truly" and "Let all mortal flesh keep silence". Bishop Mercer preached simply and powerfully on the centrality of Jesus in the life and witness of the Church. Perhaps the most electric moment of the Mass was when the mitre was placed on Bishop Hankin’s head. The vast congregation could contain itself no longer and erupted in applause, whistles and shouts. Further exuberance was displayed shortly after when the new Bishops were led through the church.

The communion of the people took fifty minutes. According to the count, there were over 2,000 communicants. Peter Slipper, a Federal Government MP and well-known Catholic Anglican spoke for all the visitors when he described the Mass as an experience of Transfiguration.

An enormous feast followed with speeches from church, government and community leaders. Support and encouragement was given by the two leading men of the Torres Strait, the Hon. John Abednego, Chairman of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and the Hon. Getano Lui, Chairman of the Islander Coordinating Council. Mr Lui stated that the Church was not a football team, referring to the Bishop of North Queensland’s description of the Church on the local radio.

Although he was not one of the consecrators, the Rt. Rev’d. Tony Hall-Matthews, retired Bishop of Carpentaria, was present and received Holy Communion at both the Consecration and the Enthronement Masses.

In a letter to Bishop Haley, read out to the crowd, the Rt. Rev’d Graham Walden, Bishop of The Murray, said he was unable to be present, but “sent his consent” for the consecrations. Bishop Walden had known both men from his time as Vice Principal of S. Paul’s Theological College on Moa Island in the 1960’s. Greetings from Bishop David Silk of Ballarat, Bishop Bevan Meredith, retired Archbishop of Papua New Guinea, and Bishop Michael Hough, bishop-elect of Port Moresby, were also read to the people.

I had the privilege of presenting Bishops Hankin and Passi a letter from 52 SSC priests, assuring them of our love and prayers as they begin their new ministry as bishops in the Church of God.

Special mention was made of Father Stanley Waigana, who lived in Cairns and who died within a fortnight of the Consecration. Much of the preparation for the Church of the Torres Strait was done by him behind the scenes.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the night was the “sibuwani” or ceremonial gift giving. Gift after gift of money, carvings and mats were brought to the Bishops and the Church. In all, this lasted for about two hours. After that, the dancers and a large part of the crowd danced and celebrated until daybreak.

The Traditional Anglican Communion has given the Torres Strait people a way of taking responsibility for their own affairs, and maintaining the Catholic Faith. They are in a very strong position, legally, in relation to church buildings and other property, and their dream is to draw into their fellowship the small minority of Islanders localised in a couple of places constituting the remaining outposts of the Bishop of North Queensland’s empire.

One piece of episcopal advice given to the Society of the Holy Cross last September in the national Anglican newspaper was that “it should take more care in future to ascertain the actual facts of the situation at close hand before going to the media in protest”. Well, it did just that, and guess who turned out to be right!

(I am indebted to Father Gordon Barnier of Thursday island, some of whose observations have been incorporated into this article.)

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia, and Provincial Secretary of the Society of the Holy Cross.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Opening Page