Solomon Islands with Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Mar. 15-28.
To get to the cocoa and fruit farm, Archbishop Fred Hiltz has to wade across a river. Under the hot midday sun, the shallow water feels like a bath, but the slippery brown stones make for slow going. The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada removes his sandals. A local priest offers a hand. They step in together.
This barefoot jaunt is but one of many for Hiltz on his first trip to the Anglican Church of Melanesia, located in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Made up of some 1,000 mountainous islands, the Solomon Islands lie northeast of Australia and include Guadalcanal, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during WWII.
Although Hiltz is honoured in many ways, the time he spends exploring the grassroots of ministries here-in this case, a farm supported by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund-proves to be among the most memorable.
He travels light. A small duffle bag holds his vestments, and his suitcase is filled with gifts such as maple candy, church calendars, a pectoral cross, a chalice and a paten.
Typically, he has brought his faded Bluenose ball cap with “Bishop Fred” embroidered on the back. It was a gift from his Lunenburg, N.S., parish some 18 years ago. On our sunny ride back from the farm, Hiltz gives this much-loved hat to a clearly delighted Rev. Eddie Rubaha, vicar general of the diocese of Ysabel. It is what friends do. By the end of the trip, the primate is laden with his own gifts, including a new hat with the blue and green flag of the Solomon Islands.
Anglicans in Melanesia and Canada have been connected since 1963, when a Melanesian representative attended the Toronto Anglican Congress. The partnership expanded into many areas-especially theological education-and although General Synod no longer provides core grants, the church of Melanesia remains a priority partner. “The people there say that the heart of partnership is human relationship,” says Hiltz. “They just ran out to meet us, literally.”
Accompanied by Dr. Andrea Mann, global relations coordinator for General Synod, Hiltz is treated to a jam-packed tour of ministries close to the church of Melanesia’s headquarters in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Our host: Archbishop David Vunagi.
Sometimes Hiltz is greeted by warrior dancers; at other times by marching bands, choirs or students with garlands of frangipani. Bumping along in a pickup truck owned by the church, we see many ministries with a Canadian Anglican connection. At St. Nicholas School, there are classrooms funded by our church. At Bishop Patteson Theological College, we meet a professor who studied abroad on a Canadian scholarship. We hear many thank-you’s.
In turn, Mann offers our thanks. “You have welcomed and guided our mission personnel and theological students,” she says, “taught us about self-reliance in community development and raised early warnings about consumer behaviour, climate change and rising sea levels.”
We are never far from the bright blue Solomon Sea-lifeblood for many here who rely on subsistence fishing and farming. On land, plant life is lush. Orchids bloom in tree stumps. Green ferns wind around telephone wires.
The church grows here, too: the Anglican Church of Melanesia is the biggest denomination in the Solomon Islands with some 200,000 members in a nation of only 600,000. The province, known in full as the Church of the Province of Melanesia, includes the nations of Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Here, churches are considered one of society’s three major forces, alongside traditional culture and government.
The Rev. Sam Ata testifies to this influence. He is chair of the Solomon Islands’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which has been investigating the ethnic tensions of 1998 to 2003, where scarce jobs and disputed land claims sparked violence between the islanders of Guadalcanal and Malaita. Tens of thousands were displaced and more than 200 people were killed.
The churches helped recovery. They first called for the TRC and hosted public hearings. Now, some will continue the work by providing trauma counseling and exhuming bodies. “People trust the church here,” says Ata. “It has a powerful influence.”
The TRC is just one way the church of Melanesia does outreach. Its dozens of social programs include visiting the sick and imprisoned; caring for victims of domestic violence; and giving young, unemployed adults practical skills such as carpentry and sewing.
The partnership between the Canadian and Melanesian churches is being renewed through a formal covenant and many questions are being asked. How can we support their new university? Learn from their active youth ministry? Help a sisterhood finish a retreat centre?
Our friendship of almost 50 years is a living one. As Vunagi puts it, “We want to go from strength to strength.”
For more stories about the Church of the Province of Melanesia, see