On 1st July 2021 Torres Strait Islanders from across the Torres Strait and throughout Queensland joined together in celebrating the Coming of the Light. I was privileged to be able to lead celebrations on Erub (Darnley Island) at the site where the first London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries came ashore on 1st July 1871, with a celebration of Holy Communion at the memorial on Kemus Beach.
There was great disappointment that due to the pandemic lockdowns in the rest of Australia (including Brisbane) none of our interstate guests were able to join us. I was one of the few non-Torres Strait Islanders who was able to be there and, in the absence of those guests myself (on Erub) and Archdeacon Chris Wright (on Thursday Island) represented the broader church.
The Anglican Church took over the mission from the LMS in 1915 and since then ABM has been very much involved in our mission. This has changed significantly over the years. Initially the mission was lead and directed by expatriates, from England or southern Australia. From the 1970s onwards other denominations started to move into the Torres Strait, which has seen some splitting and weakness in the Christian message in the Torres Strait.
However, the Anglican Church still has a special role in the Torres Strait Islands and in recent times there has been a resurgence in our work. The Anglican Church has a high regard for Torres Strait Island culture, and especially for the strong sense of community, and part of our role is to support community.
The Melanesian Brotherhood have been re-established in the old Diocese of Carpentaria and there are currently three Brothers based on Thursday Island. Another six plan to join them when the borders are again opened. Congregations are growing across the Torres Strait Islands.
What does the Coming of the Light mean 150 years on?
We do not see it as a foreign light coming in and sweeping away all that was there before.
Rather God was on both sides of the beaches that day in 1871: with the missionaries, and with the people on the beach who received them. The light of Christ which transcends all culture swept away warfare and violence in the Torres Strait Islands and lifted up the great and good things to be found in Islander community, culture and life. Our own Western culture, mired in materialism and individualism, could well benefit from the light of Christ!
So where to from here? The overall goal is to build up the Anglican Church in the Torres Strait Islands, for the glory of God, for the benefit it brings to the Torres Strait, and to enable the Torres Strait Islander church to carry out its mission sharing the light of Christ with the rest of the Anglican Church and the broader Australian community.
There are many ways in which this will be done. First and foremost is the move towards autonomy for the Torres Strait Islander Region of the Anglican Church. Younger leadership needs to be encouraged and raised up. The Torres Strait Islanders are a Melanesian people and links with the broader Anglican Church in Melanesia are being encouraged. There are mutual benefits for all concerned.
Wontulp-Bi-Buya College is very important as it provides training for current and future leaders. The setting up of infrastructure is also important, so that Torres Strait Islander leadership has an administrative base to enable practical expression of autonomy. In this last aspect we are grateful for a grant from ABM to set up an office on Thursday Island, which is now is in train.
The Diocese of North Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands region are very keen to continue this partnership with ABM.
Support through prayer is essential and is welcome.
Support for building up local leadership – through education, gathering for meetings and conferences, preparation of liturgical and educational material in local languages expressed in culturally appropriate ways, provision of means of communication, and travel – are also very important.
Longer term the aim is for the autonomous local church to be self-sustaining, but we are a long way from this. Partnerships with dioceses, parishes and individuals “down south” will also be very important, as a way of enabling the light of Christ to be shared throughout the church.
The 150th Anniversary of the Coming of the Light is tremendously important. It was a great celebration in the Torres Strait Islands; but it is really only the start of a new phase for the Anglican Church in the Torres Strait. No longer a church imposed by foreigners, it is taking its place as an autonomous and lively part of the Body of Christ. The light of Christ, which shines so brightly in the far north of Australia, needs to be shared. We look forward to working with ABM as a key partner in this mission, and cherish all the support that you all give us.
The Right Revd Dr Keith Joseph
Bishop of North Queensland