Edward Backhouse explains how visits to Papua New Guinea have affected his ministry
During my time preparing and training for ordination in the Church of England, I was fortunate enough to visit Papua New Guinea (PNG) on a placement programme. I first heard about the church in Papua New Guinea through Bishop Roger Jupp. He put me in contact with the country, and it has played a big part in my calling and vocation ever since.
The context in PNG is very different from that of the UK. Firstly the church there is very young. The pioneer missionaries Albert Maclaren and Copland King landed in PNG in 1891, which should help you to get an idea of just how new the Christian faith is in this part of the world. The second thing that one notices is the vast variety of ethnic groupings, with over 800 distinct languages and cultures; PNG really is the most diverse country in the world.
My first week in the country was spent at Newton Theological College. Here I met the men who were training to be priests in the Anglican Church there and their wives. The college is very remote and set in a clearing in the middle of the rainforest. Electricity was only available from 6pm to 10pm and the bathroom facilities were the nearest river. I noticed that while in PNG it was much easier to pray. The bell would ring out the Angelus at 6am, 12pm and 6pm and everything would stop for that brief moment to remember the incarnation. The bell would call all the community to Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer on a daily basis, and the sound of the singing—not just of the people but of all creation—could be heard echoing through the jungle. It made me reflect a lot on how hard it can be to pray here in the UK when we get distracted by the next piece of business or the next television programme.
Then I visited a place called Dogura, a mission station set up by the first missionaries Albert and Copland in 1891. Here you can find the only European-style church building in PNG, the cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Here I learnt the impact that the faith had had on the local communities. I was told how the cathedral and hospital are built on a plateau that is set between two villages that used to be at war with one another. The church set up its mission there on that ancient battleground to bring the gospel of peace and unite the people. PNG is a very spiritual place, and the people truly have an understanding of God’s work in the world. There is a strong tradition of storytelling, and stories are preserved from one generation to the next. They told me that Dogura very rarely has any cloud cover, but that during World War Two every time the Japanese tried to bomb the mission station several times the clouds were too thick for them to be able to see the mission station.
On my second visit I ended up going off the mainland and onto the island of New Britain, where the Bishop of the New Guinea Islands (now archbishop) Allen Migi greeted me and took me to the post he had arranged, a mission station on the south side of the island. Once again the culture was different than that seen in the other locations I had been to, but still the faith was being taught and proclaimed and the village lived very much as a community at prayer.
Port Moresby was the last location that I spent time in and is often called the gateway of PNG as you can’t go to the country without going through it. Serving in my placement church in the urban area of PNG was completely different again from the rural experiences. What should be mentioned is that the vast majority of those living in PNG, over 75% of the population, live with very little or no money. In the villages people have food gardens where they grow their own food and very much live off the land, selling only what is excess produce. In the city everyone shopped, much like they do here, in big supermarkets, although they remain expensive. There is a big shopping mall called Vision City with its own nightclub and cinema. There are many billboards around the city with Bible verses and messages from churches. Faith is very open in PNG, something that we have lost here in the UK. As I was training at that time for ordination in the Church of England this had a profound effect on how I saw ministry when I began my curacy. I have always been into mission and evangelism since I first started attending church at the age of 15, but somewhere on the training that spark was lost and one got caught up in all the academic ways of looking at things. PNG helped to bring me back to the great commission: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ Matt 28.19–20
This is what the church is about, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Although PNG is a very poor country, the people are rich beyond imagination in their devotion to God and their commitment to the great commission.
There are of course struggles in PNG. I’ve already mentioned the language barriers with over 800 languages in the country. 80% of people live in remote villages with no access to electricity, roads, shops or all the other luxuries we take for granted here. Education costs are out of reach for many families, and results in a lack of education and a third of the population being illiterate. There are major issues such as HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse and witchcraft. Community is seen as more important than individuals.
The church, however, remains fully committed to its ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. I would recommend the experience of a visit to PNG for any Christian wishing to have their love for God rekindled. You will see prayer, and the answers to prayer, throughout this south Pacific paradise. You will learn what it means to walk with God in what is often called the ‘Land of the Unexpected’, not knowing what awaits you from day to day or whether the transport will come or not. I would also ask anyone reading this to consider supporting the church in PNG, where so little from us can do so much over there, for the church and the communities that they serve. You can find out more by looking at the website for the Papua New Guinea Church Partnership. www.pngcp.org.uk or you can follow us on Facebook.
I pray that all of you who have read this will be richly blessed, and will walk prayerfully with God where and how he wants you to.
Fr Edward Backhouse is a committee member of the Papua New Guinea Church Partnership