Canadian lends skills to Melanesian order

Published January 1, 2003

Rev. John Blyth will help develop the Melanesian Brotherhood in the Philippines.

Rev. John Blyth is on his way to the Philippines to eat little more than rice and greens for days on end and he could not be happier about it.

Mr. Blyth, 67, will fill the position of novice co-ordinator in the diocese of Palawan for a chapter of the Melanesian Brotherhood, a religious order based in the Solomon Islands that lives in a remarkably frugal way.

“We support ourselves. We grow our own food. Breakfast might be a cup of tea and two biscuits and some cassava. No lunch. Supper is rice and vegetables and greens. For protein, we get some fish and some coconuts. They climb the trees for coconuts, but I’m too old for that,” he said in an interview from Vancouver, where he was staying with friends before heading across the Pacific in January.

For about five years, the brotherhood has had a house in Palawan, a long, narrow island in the southwestern part of the archipelago, staffed with Solomon Islanders. Now, there are eight or 10 Filipino young men who want to join and “my going there will initiate a Filipino brotherhood,” he said.

The brothers’ ministry is wide-ranging.

“They will visit villages and put on religious dramas,” he said. “They visit the sick and do healing. They teach young people and help out in the villages.”

Mr. Blyth, who grew up in Toronto and has experience with indigenous communities in Canada and the South Pacific, will train the new members in counseling and preaching skills. “I have curriculum organized for three years and when we find enough money for beds, the boys can come,” he said.

Part of the reason for his stay in Vancouver was some low-key fundraising.

“I need to start off with $5,000 US for books, supplies and teaching materials,” said Mr. Blyth. “They are rice farmers in Palawan and very poor. We bought a tract of land to grow rice and the Church of Melanesia helped to pay for that. The bishop of Palawan pawned his episcopal ring to help pay for it.”

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the partnerships department of General Synod and others have also contributed to the new venture.

For the last four years, Mr. Blyth has been a “flying tutor pastor” to the brotherhood, which maintains houses in the Solomons, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, in addition to the Philippines.

The Melanesian Brotherhood is different from any other, said Mr. Blyth. Members of the order take vows for three years, then they may renew or be released. They are generally young men; the head brother is 28 years old.

“It’s the largest Anglican religious order in the world, with 350 to 400 brothers, about 250 novices and 10,000 companions,” said Mr. Blyth. Recently, members of the 77-year-old order were instrumental in bringing peace to the Solomons, mediating between warring factions.

Mr. Blyth, who graduated from the University of Toronto, first arrived in the South Pacific in 1995 as a volunteer in mission and began working with the brothers in 1999. He served as chaplain at Vancouver School of Theology and dean of Calgary before that. From the mid-1960s to 1980, he was a priest in the diocese of Caledonia, mostly working in native communities and was adopted by the Nisga’a. For many years, he was a member of the celibate Order of the Holy Cross, an order based in New York State.

He said he has been inspired and renewed by his involvement with the Melanesian Brotherhood.

Rev. John Blyth can be reached until his departure through Rev. J. David Retter, St. James Church, 303 East Cordova St., Vancouver, B.C. V6A 1L4, phone 604-685-2532.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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