Answered prayers

Published May 1, 2012

SHELLS AND BELLS “I feel happy when I see it,” says Archbishop David Vunagi of the liturgy that has evolved out of the vibrant Melanesian culture in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific.
Photo: Ali Symons

Worship is dazzling in the Solomon Islands. Warriors in grass skirts dance up the aisle. Four-part native harmonies ring loud. Inlaid shell shines from candlesticks and prayer benches. Local culture is everywhere.

This “enculturated liturgy” is an answer to prayer for Archbishop David Vunagi, primate of the Anglican Church of Melanesia. “This is what I feel the church should be in Melanesia,” he says. “I feel happy when I see it.”

Shells and bells only began to coexist in the church after its independence in 1975. Before this, Melanesia was part of the Anglican Church of New Zealand and worship was strictly Anglo-Catholic. “Anything cultural was a no-no,” said Vunagi.

He didn’t set out to be a minister. Born in 1950 to coconut plantation workers, Vunagi grew up worshipping in English and another local dialect.  Then he went to Fiji to study science and to Papua New Guinea, where he heard-then wrestled with-his call to ordained ministry. He went on to teach in Anglican schools for several years before studying theology in New Zealand and finally being ordained in 1992.

In 1996, Vunagi received a scholarship from the Anglican Church of Canada to do a Master of Theology at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST), accompanied by wife, Mary, and children, Dudley, Rusila and Douglas. In other countries, Vunagi recalls, his family faced discrimination for being South Pacific islanders. In Canada, they felt accepted.

It was at VST that Vunagi wrote a thesis on liturgical spirituality in the Anglican Church of Melanesia. He explored how the inherited Anglo-Catholic tradition could be enhanced by traditional culture.

When he returned in 1998, he was ready to lead and foster the enculturation already under way. He was elected bishop of Temotu in 2001 and primate in 2009.

Vunagi set out nine priorities for his primacy, including prayer, discipline and the empowerment of youth and women.

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Melanesia has twice resolved to ordain women, but the dioceses have not yet unanimously agreed. Vunagi hopes for a “breakthrough” at the 2014 General Synod.

In the meantime, he says, the church faces the blending of traditional religions with Christianity. If Solomon Islanders are sick, said Vunagi, they go to traditional healers, the hospital, then the church. He would like to see this process reversed.

As bishop and now as primate, Vunagi has encouraged and celebrated Melanesian culture in the church. The challenge is for this culture to serve the greater goals of Christianity.

“Whatever we do must be compatible with the gospel,” said Vunagi, “That’s always the benchmark.”

Ali Symons is senior editor at General Synod.


  • Ali Symons

    Ali Symons is a senior editor with General Synod.

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