Battling with ancestors and AIDS

02 November 2006

“WE UNDERSTAND what goes on in another part of the Anglican Communion, but our ways and world-views are different,” the Archbishop of Papua New Guinea, the Most Revd James Ayong (right), told a meeting in London last month.

He said that his Church “faced many challenges — not problems” in a country where half the health service is run by Churches and missionary organisations, and where the literacy rate for women is as low as five per cent in some Highland areas. HIV/AIDS is sweeping the country, and the Archbishop warned that the disease is now moving into the remote Highland areas.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is an independent country, half of the island of New Guinea, just off North Queensland, Australia. The Anglican Church there was founded as a missionary diocese from Australia in 1898, and become a separate province in 1977, two years after the country celebrated independence.

Archbishop Ayong said that the Windsor report had been accepted in PNG, and he had personally “not come away disheartened” from the Primates’ Meeting. He was satisfied that “a conclusion had been reached in the communiqué”. But he stressed the need to carry on the work of the Church in his country.

There are five Anglican dioceses in the province of PNG, run by five bishops, including Archbishop Ayong. Close links with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a whole are maintained through the PNG Church Partnership in Britain, which hosted last month’s meeting with Archbishop Ayong.

He said that one of the greatest challenges in PNG is communicating the gospel in the more than 700 languages spoken by tribal groups across the country, where there is “a strong belief in spirits”. The belief that ancestors who died a long time ago “are still watching us” is prevalent.

He described the current situation in PNG as “a very testing time” for the Church, as many clergy were living and working in isolation because of the mountainous and forested terrain. As Archbishop, he is trying to organise more central gatherings of clergy.

The Anglican Church in PNG reflects an Anglo-Catholic tradition, and the Archbishop said that there were “very healthy” ties with the Roman Catholic Church in the country, as well as with the many missionary organisations. He highlighted the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, which provides small planes and runs airstrips in parts of the country that would otherwise be inaccessible. “We all work together, and our whole aim is to make Christianity become a reality in people’s lives.”

This was done in many ways, he said, including the provision of health facilities: a new HIV/AIDS clinic has just been opened in the capital, Port Moresby, a joint venture by the Anglican Church and the Salvation Army.

THE FIRST Papua New Guinean Anglican priest was ordained in 1914, and the first indigenous bishop was consecrated in 1960. Now four of the five diocesan bishops are indigenous, as are an increasing number of senior church figures.

The Revd Peter Ramsden, Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Long Benton, in Newcastle, spent ten years as a priest in PNG in the 1980s and ’90s. He said that his first post, in the jungle area of Koiambe, was “a traditional missionary outpost, complete with its own airstrip”. After his time, it was taken over by a PNG priest. “This is happening more and more. . . Increasingly, priests are coming from PNG itself.”

Peter and Jean Rookes were recruited by the Church on behalf of the PNG government to work in the health service. They returned last month after eight years. “We were originally taken on for four years; I was the National Health Secretary, and Jean was the national co-ordinator for the village health programmes. In fact, it took us longer to train PNG nationals to do the job, but they are now in place.”

They both said that the serious health problems (pneumonia, malaria, and conditions related to childbirth), along with the “alarming increase in HIV/AIDS”, meant that the Anglican Church in PNG focused more on poverty and deprivation than on homosexuality.

In his Easter message, the Bishop of Port Moresby, the Rt Revd Peter Fox, said that HIV/AIDS was “the biggest threat to our nation there has ever been — more devastating than any war or natural disaster”.

He stressed the need for churches to act on HIV/AIDS, and become centres of information, education, support, and healing. He recommended that congregations should “red-ribbon churches”, using the international symbol of concern for HIV/AIDS. “The red ribbon transcends differences of race, creed, and colour. All of us may be proud to wear it, but let us go one step further. I call on every church in my diocese to display the red ribbon on their noticeboards, outside and inside the church building.”

Bishop Fox expressed his wish that every congregation should have some of its members trained in education and counselling on AIDS-related issues. He also spoke of the need to promote commitment to faithfulness in marriage, and, for single people, commitment to Christian standards of sexual morality.

“The Christian Church must lead the way. People listen to us. They watch how we behave. We can help to overcome discrimination and stigma against HIV-positive people.”

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