An agnostic’s experience within a modern Papua New Guinean cathedral- Deb Lee-Talbot

PhD candidate, Deb Lee-Talbot, recently travelled to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, as part of her research project, A Feminist Frontier? Analysing Women’s Experiences on Evangelical sites in Oceania, 1861-1907. This reflection examines the experiences of an agnostic Australian in a contemporary Anglican Cathedral in PNG.

The Anglican missionaries came to Port Moresby in the 1900s and saw the church that would eventually become St John’s Cathedral established in 1915. The cathedral is one church from the diocese of Port Moresby, where 12 Anglican churches are located. As 96% of Papua New Guineas are Christian I was very interested, as a historian and an agnostic Australian, to have an immediate encounter with contemporary Christian beliefs and community.

On Sunday 15 September 2019 I joined a few of the 3.2% of the population who identify as Anglican for their weekly worship. Along with my travel companions from Deakin’s PNG Study Tour, I exited the car and stumbled into strong winds. It was the kind of weather that prompted a firm hand on skirts and a determined pace into the closest building. I barely had a moment to register the new, and impressively tall, hotels that seem to enclose the Church on either side. Windblown and a little sunblind, I entered the Dean’s room where the clergy was preparing for that morning’s service.

Mumbling apologies for making an unexpected entrance, I entered the next room, where “good mornings” were returned in chorus by the Sunday school children who were preparing for their lessons. I then walked up a staircase, to an outside balcony that, through a row of offices and apartment buildings, provided a quick glimpse of the harbor, before entering the cathedral’s nave.

From a table near the entrance, I gathered a Papua New Guinea Prayer book. Book in hand, I filed into a pew with my companions near the front of the cathedral. Waiting for the service to start I looked around the room. With a quick glance, I identified the items I typically associate with life in a Christian church: stained glass windows, an altar, the Stations of the Cross and numerous images of Jesus on the Cross. However, a slower scan around the room noted crucial distinctions to what I would see in St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia.

Side-by-side, in multiple locations around the Cathedral, images of Papuan-Jesus and European-Jesus existed in juxtaposition.

Images of stain-glass window and painting in St Johns Church PNG representing Jesus Christ, Papuan and European

Image 1: Sitting in the second pew from the front, on the right-hand side facing the altar, I saw this image of a visionary Christ. Photo: Deb Lee-Talbot

Flanking the altar were paintings produced by artist Oscar Towar in 1996. To my right, was a painting of a visionary Papuan Christ. Here stigmata were deftly illustrated. Despite being wounded, Christ was shown as rising above us all as He lifted himself to an unseen God. Christ was depicted as surrounded by a deep blue, reflecting the sky outside the cathedral’s windows. Tropical flowers worked their way in from the borders. The Latin INRI [Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm; Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Jews) was represented in a plate painted above Christ’s head. The blood from his wounds dripped freely. The relationship being demonstrated between Judaeo-Christian and Papuan histories was thought-provoking.

To my left Christ was depicted as being crucified on a mauve Cross, a serpent posed to strike at His feet. Yet it was the headdress of feathers in the image that I was particularly interested in. The stories of early encounters between white missionaries and Papuans were in my mind as I considered the crown of feathers. I thought of the times Rev. W.G. Lawes and James Chalmers wrote of hunting with locals to obtain Bird of Paradise feathers. Was this how the missionaries imagined the beauty of New Guinea, as a recent colonial settlement, and the doctrine of their Christian Church would come together and be symbolised in the future?

The bright colours and patterns of Christ’s clothing reinforced to me that I was in a PNG church now. As Associate Professor Helen Gardner explains in her (forthcoming) chapter in Cambridge History of Pacific Islands, since the 1960s, the Pacific clergy have been educated according to anthropologically inspired theology. Therefore, their theologies have been produced ‘in association with local practices’ due to the belief Christianity is a religion that perceives ‘cultures were made by God and were fulfilled by the revelation of Christ.’

A stained-glass window to the immediate right caught my attention. I was surprised to see the inclusion of the Australian Imperial Force Rising Sun emblem at the lower section of the window, a symbol that I have come to associate with ANZAC traditions. This, I was informed later by Church Elder, Maisy Snijders, was a dedication to the one-time Rector of St John’s the Rev Henry Matthews, who died during World War II and is remembered as one of the Papua New Guinea Martyrs. On the opposite wall, a companion window was created for “Mother”, or Mrs Matthews, who also passed while in service to the Church.

Images of stain-glass window and painting in St Johns Church PNG representing Jesus Christ, Papuan and European

Image 2: The juxtaposition of the representations of Papuan-Christ and European-Christ was thought-provoking. Photo: Deb Lee-Talbot

Reflecting on my experience later I wondered if the clear presence of Melanesian-Church iconography could be the result of the ACPNG recalibrating themselves post-Independence or was it a response to the Church’s recognition that ‘many people are deserting the Church and backsliding into the world or joining Pentecostal churches.’

However, within the cathedral that day, and in awe of this incredible iconography before me, I questioned how the pending sermon would proceed. As we stood for the entrance of the clergy, I realised I expected the service to be led by a local person, as all of the ACPNG House of Bishops are PNG nationals, and likely a man. Consequently, I was somewhat surprised when a British man, the Suffragan Bishop of Lynn, Jonathan Meyrick, visiting from the Diocese of Norwich, entered to lead the service that day.

The Bishop of Lynn had come to command a service in Port Moresby due to the longstanding relationship between the Diocese of Norwich and the Papua New Guinea link group. Established in 1977, the link between these two faith groups is a consequence of Independent PNG’s first Anglican Archbishop, David Hand, who originated from Norwich. Today these communities maintain this relationship due to their Anglican faith. Both communities both support their churches and people ‘through projects, outward giving and ministry.’ Having researched the colonisation of New Guinea in the nineteenth century by British and then Australian forces I did wonder if I was seeing the continuation of these relationships. The Diocese of Norwich site does contain photographic evidence of a recent journey to PNG by a ‘missionary couple’. 

Yet, my thoughts of European dominance in the ACPNG parishes were firmly challenged by my experiences that Sunday. As the service progressed it became apparent that, although it was a British accent I was hearing, it was very much a PNG church I was attending. The language and the images were certainly those of a local, post-Independence, community committed to their modern Christian faith and nation.   

The altar at St Johns cathedral in Port Moresby PNG, a handcarved depiction of a Melanesian Mary and baby Jesus at the time of his birth with the three wise men

Image 3: The foundation for the service, the Papuan altar offers a striking representation of Christ’s birth. Photo: Deb Lee-Talbot.

During the ritual of Eucharist, I accepted the invitation, despite not being confirmed and knelt at the altar. As I sipped the wine, I questioned if I was experiencing emotions similar to those of the first Christian converts in Papua. Did they feel as lost as I at the correct behaviours to enact, but as curious, about the rituals that we being performed before them? I felt there was something rather significant about the role reversal being demonstrated. I, a white woman, kneeled at the Christian altars of Papuan men and women. Lawes and Chalmers felt they had the moral and spiritual superiority when they first arrived in New Guinea. What would they think of an Australian not knowing how to behave in a Church, having been raised in a secular nation, and members of a PNG clergy showing her the way?

Deb Lee-Talbot

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