John Ellis, Immediate Past Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, brings a little sunshine to August’s Chapel of the Month with a trip to Polynesia.
“Go and make disciples of all nations”
Moorea is all you could wish for in a Pacific island. This speck in the ocean can provide a luxury holiday experience with all mod cons in a fake Polynesian hut. But should you find yourself there, turn off the perimeter road at Papetoai and walk down to the beach. Alongside you will see a lovingly tended and beautiful octagonal chapel with exceptional acoustics. You will also be contemplating a turning point in world history.
The London Missionary Society was formed to be an ecumenical sponsor of missionary activity. Its first overseas project resulted in thirty missionaries landing in Tahiti in 1797. There was no evangelistic response whatever and local politics resulted in them all being expelled. Most despaired and left but a handful believed God had plans and moved no further than to the adjacent island of Moorea. There they created a base at Papetoai. Still there was no response to the Gospel.
After twenty long years, the tide turned, they rejoiced in the first Polynesian baptism and in 1822 were able to form the first Christian church. In 1827 it erected its distinctive chapel on the site of a former native temple. Work was able to resume on Tahiti and from there the evangelisation of the Pacific Ocean islands was led through the remaining decades of the nineteenth century. While the focus may have moved elsewhere, the Papetoai chapel stands quietly amongst the coconut palms as the oldest Christian church in the Pacific.
In 1842 the French took political control of what is now French Polynesia and the LMS handed over the Church leadership to the French Protestant Mission. They refurbished the church in the 1880s but always acknowledged the crucial contribution of the LMS pioneers and erected a memorial to them in the church. Some of their graves are outside, alongside the ocean that was their highway.
In 2016 the Maohi Protestant Church in French Polynesia came home to its historical roots by joining the Council for World Mission, the equal partnership of Churches that succeeded the imperial model of the LMS.
All this may be 10,000 miles away but Chapels Society members who think of John Williams as a missionary martyr rather than a guitarist will have spotted the link. For decades, almost every British Congregational chapel had its Missionary Sunday when the octagonal LMS hut collecting boxes were opened. Sunday School scholars collected ship halfpennies to fund the work of the John Williams missionary ships around the islands of the Pacific. Vivid stories of dedicated service were told and in the chapel at Papetoai they spring into life.
And is our organist striking up:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North,
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.