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Papua New Guinea: Primate Speaks Out

Posted on: July 26, 1996 2:42 PM
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"The Church in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is being shaken up. It will be interesting to see how God will lead us, to speak to and contain these changes", says the new Archbishop-elect of Papua New Guinea. Bishop James Ayong was in Australia this month for a 10-day visit. It is a month since his election as Primate, and a year since his consecration as the Bishop of Aipo Rongo (succeeding Paul Richardson, now in Wangaratta). He is to be enthroned Archbishop of PNG on 13 July at All Souls', Lae, the church where he was ordained deacon 13 years ago.

James Ayong sees his role as Primate as one of unity, both within the Anglican Church in PNG, on the ecumenical front, and within a diverse population of many tribes. The five dioceses in PNG cover an area with 800 languages. In PNG's population of 4 million, 200,000 are affiliated Christians, of whom 80,000 are Anglicans. One of his projects will be to work towards a common liturgy that respects and incorporates PNG culture, and can be used across dioceses. (He assisted with the translation of the Bible into Pidgin in the 1970's.)

Western culture's effects

Bishop James attended the Oceania Region pre-Lambeth meeting in Brisbane, and was a visitor at the General Synod International Affairs Commission meeting in Canberra, 1 July. During the course of his visit, he had briefings with Bishops George Browning, Richard Randerson and Paul Richardson, and preached at two Sydney parishes. At Lambeth, he hopes to get across concerns about the destabilisation of community and family life under the influence of western culture. This, combined with environmental and commercial exploitation, is weakening many communities in his country.

He reports that the New Tribes Mission seeks to transform indigenous culture into "a very western Old Testament style of life. They create a new culture, get people to shift from their villages, from their old communities. and forbid them to do what they have done customarily. They make them stop feasting, dancing, and eating certain types of meat."

Sects, cults and love

Bishop James is scathing about what he observes as the rise in new sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. These, he says, "have emerged with their forms of worship and peculiarities of doctrine and dogma. They create confusion within already established Christian communities. This results in division and bad feeling, as they re-baptise those already baptised in the church. "However this is a free country and the heart of the Christian gospel is love, which means freedom to choose to respond to God's love. The gospel teaches us, 'To know God is to have eternal life. To serve God is to be truly free'. People are free to choose where they will go and what they will do.

"However, it is important for me to stress that many of these sects distort gospel truth and sow the seeds of disunity and division. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of unity and love ...Arguing with new sects and groups is a waste of time and fruitless. We just need to get on and proclaim the gospel as the Church has received it."

Ecumenical links

Ecumenical sharing in property, worship and joint locum arrangements have been strengthened by a covenant, signed earlier this year, between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. They have pledged to continue to relate to each other at their present level.

Joint arrangements in theological education so far take in the Anglican/Lutheran Balob Teachers College in Lae. Promising students at Newton Theological College in Popondetta are recommended to go on to Martin Luther Seminary in Lae. Newton is where James Ayong was principal from 1989-94.

'Church is silent on West Irian'

Bishop Ayong wishes activities on the border with Indonesia were properly monitored. "The general public is not being well informed about the situation. I wish we had more Anglican parishes in West Irian. The Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches are on the ground, hence they are more informed about what is happening on the Indonesian side of the country." Such a Christian presence is needed, he argues, to counter the vagueness from within the PNG Council of Churches, says Bishop Ayong.

"The Church is silent on West Irian. If we could only squeeze some information from the government, we would know what is happening."

Reversing the aid flow: top-down to bottom-up

"As Archbishop, I aim to take the Anglican Church in PNG through new change", says Bishop Ayong. He described this as the reversal of the current process by which parishes are funded by the province which in turn is funded by the partner Churches.

The PNG Church will work towards complete independence, with local parishes supporting their diocesan, and in turn, their national Church, "eventually filtering up into provincial giving". From top down, it will become a bottom up funded province. "It will mean some hurt, and some struggle, but we hope some good will come out of these changes.

Leading PNG to God

"The Christian churches are the ones in the country who are doing the most for development in such areas as education and health, and personal, moral and spiritual development. The Church sees humanity in totality - body, mind and spirit. The Christian influence must penetrate the political, economic and social areas of our country, if it is to grow and mature. This is what it means to lead PNG to God."

Church and government

"The Christian Churches together can play a major role in political, economic and social growth only if the government honestly and actively recognises the role the Church is playing, and becomes an active partner with the Churches in the important task of developing PNG as a Christian country.

"The mainstream Churches, which include the Anglican Church, are together more than ready to co-operate with the government in terms of contributing to the development of this country. Realistically we need to emphasise that there is still a lot of room for the government and the public service bureaucracy to improve this co-operation from their side.

"Leaders in Parliament today, seem to detach themselves from ordinary rural communities. I do not believe that many of them have any real desire to serve their people, as they fail to observe how some companies are taking advantage of our people's great need for employment and are underpaying many for their excellent and long hours of work."

Migration from Asia is having a marked impact on business and industry in PNG, said Bishop Ayong, mainly in timber, mining, and cement factories. There is "some suspicion of corruption in the Department of Labour which makes us hesitant to go to them for appeal," he said. "The Immigration Department and Department of Labour seem to be blind to some overseas companies (some in partnership with the PNG government) by allowing work permits for positions which should be legitimately occupied by available and qualified PNG citizens. The bureaucracy is becoming an obstacle to growth in both urban and rural situations, because those who are involved are insensitive towards the people whom they are paid to serve.

"An example of this is the way the Education Department treats teaching staff in some schools. Perhaps the present structure is too cumbersome and complicated, or it may be outdated and should be reformed."

James Ayong the man

James Ayong was born in a cave in Kumbun, West New Britain, as bombs were falling nearby during the time when the Allies were trying to recover the area from the Japanese. His parents are missionaries in West New Britain, amongst the Arawe and Lolo tribes. He has served as purchasing officer for the Anglican Diocese of Lae, parish priest, and theological college principal. Bishop Ayong holds a Diploma of Theology from Newton, a Bachelor of Theology from Martin Luther Seminary, and a Master of Arts from Chichester Theological College, England. He turns 52 this September.

Climbing hills, crossing rivers

As Bishop of Aipo Rongo, James Ayong relished the wide pastoral capacity of the position. "It is vital for a bishop to continue pastoral visits to remote areas."

In all its rugged glory, pastoral visiting takes on a new dimension in PNG. He gets around in MAF Cessnas, and often walks for weeks meeting up with people, before being picked up at the next airstrip. The episcopal 'patrols' sees the bishop climbing mountains, crossing rivers, and often carrying his own pack.

"I am leaving myself as the leader of the Church, open to God that his will and purpose may be fulfilled," he said. "It is a big responsibility, but knowing that everybody is praying for me, I believe that God will carry out his work through me during my time as archbishop."