Jonathan Holland: The Destiny and Passion of Philip Nigel Warrington Strong, Lakeside Publishing, pb., £20.00 (available on Amazon)
This book review by Paul Richardson first appeared in The Church of England Newspaper and is published here with his kind permission.
A significant figure in the Anglican Communion in his time, Philip Strong will be remembered by few people in the Church of England today. In an age of ‘expressive individualism’ and the quest for personal fulfilment Strong’s devotion to duty marks him as the product of a very different period in time. This is someone who made a definite religious commitment at the age of 14, wrote it down and never swerved from the path he had chosen. For the distinguished Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick he was ‘the most Christian man I ever had the pleasure of knowing.’
Strong was born in 1899 and grew up in a country vicarage. He studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was friends with Malcolm Muggeridge and formed a close bond with Alec Vidler. Ordained by Hensley Henson, who was suspicious of Strong’s Anglo-Catholicism but who came to respect him, Strong served a curacy and two incumbencies in working class parishes in the North of England. In 1936 the call came to go to Papua as the diocesan bishop. The night before his consecration Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang pointed to a crucifix and told Strong ‘you can thank God there will be more of that in your life than there is in mine’.
Jonathan Holland describes the challenges Strong faced as he took up his new responsibilities in this carefully researched and well-written biography. Selections of Strong’s diaries have been published, edited by the historian, David Wetherell, who has also written a history of the Anglican Church in Papua from 1891-1942, but this is the first biography of a man who spent 27 years leading the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea before going on to serve as Archbishop of Brisbane and eventually Primate of Australia.
Money and personnel were in short supply when Strong took up his post in a country about which he knew little and which he had had to find on a map before accepting the post of bishop. But the greatest challenge he faced was the second world war and the arrival of Japanese troops in a country they saw as a springboard to the invasion of Australia. Faced by the invasion Strong had no doubts about the role the missionaries should play. In a broadcast over the mission radio network he told them in eloquent words they should stay with their people. His moving address can be read in Love’s Redeeming Work, an anthology of Anglican spiritual writing. He later said the women missionaries could leave if they wished but did not insist that they do so.
Strong’s action drew criticism at the time and still provokes questions. The father of one of the women missionaries executed by the Japanese, Mavis Parkinson, was bitterly angry with Strong and the bishop did not handle an interview with him very well after the war. Although it has taken time for the full story to come out it is clear that some of the missionaries were betrayed by local people afraid of Japanese retaliation. A young English priest, Vivian Redlich, was murdered by Orokaivans.
Holland is balanced in his discussion of what happened, doing justice to the courage and faith of the missionaries, but referring to some of the questions raised about Strong’s decision to ask the missionaries to stay at their posts. One point he does not make is that in the Soloman Islands the South Seas Evangelical Mission evacuated its missionaries when war broke out while Anglicans like Charles Fox stayed, hidden in the jungle. After the war the people refused to go to services led by missionaries who had abandoned them.
One Anglican missionary in Papua who stayed hidden in the jungle throughout the war was Romney Gill, brother of Eric Gill. I found the service register he kept during the war years recording ‘mass at X1’, ’mass at X2’ and ‘mass at X3”. After the war he identified these places. They were all close to his mission station occupied by the Japanese. He was not betrayed.
Holland is fair in describing Strong’s strengths such as his dedication to prayer, his sense of duty and his humility but he also records his weaknesses. He was an authoritarian who rarely consulted before he made a decision. He prayed about an issue and then acted, often saying he felt inspired by God. This was how he made the remarkable decision to appoint the young George Ambo as the first Papuan bishop.
Moving to Brisbane at 63 Strong found it difficult to adjust to working with a Diocesan Council and a synod and to co-operating with an able but determined registrar. He was more at ease when he became primate and made trips outside the diocese. He proved to be a unifying figure in the Australian church, not least because he was respected in Sydney. Archbishop Marcus Loane summed him up as ‘an Anglo-Catholic at the altar and an evangelical in the pulpit’, adding ‘both Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics saw in him the qualities of true saintliness’.