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Aloha kakou.

In 1793, Captain George Vancouver visited what were then called the Sandwich Islands on a voyage of cartography, diplomacy, trade and exploration. Before he left Hawai'i, history tells us that Vancouver gave his word to King Kamehameha the Great that on returning to England he would ask King George III to send missionaries to Hawai'i in gratitude for his warm welcome to the archipelago. (Some sources report that Kamehameha had specifically asked Vancouver to send Anglican missionaries.)* Vancouver dutifully proposed the idea to responsible authorities on his return, and the matter was forgotten in short order, dismissed as unpragmatic as well as constitutionally impossible.

Kamehameha and EmmaFor more than half a century thereafter, ecclesiastical, legal and political impediments relegated the Hawaiian islands to be 'isles that wait' with respect to this promise. In the interim, French Catholic and American Congregationalist and Presbyterian missionaries arrived with evangelical strategies distinctly different from ours. In 1822, Liholiho Kamehameha II wrote directly to King George IV: 'we wish the religion of your Majesty's dominions to be practised here.' Inaction was his reply. Members of the reigning Hawaiian royal family visited England, met Queen Victoria, worshipped at Westminster Abbey, and returned with striking impressions of dignified worship in an awe-inspiring setting. They returned, and renewed an invitation that echoes down the centuries from Macedonia and the Book of Acts: 'Come over and help us.' Finally, a petition from Kamehameha IV made its way directly from Honolulu to the then Bishop of Oxford, who set in motion the work of a committee to send a bishop and priests in response to this invitation--a request unparalleled in modern times.

The Flag of Hawai'iStill, the church resisted. Even after concrete plans for sending a mission to Hawai'i had been made, the press was full of protests against the possibility of consecrating a bishop for territory outside the British Empire. By the time Thomas Nettleship Staley arrived in 1862 as the first Bishop of Honolulu, the Anglican mission was but one among many contenders rather than first in the field. No sooner than he arrived with a handful of assistants, however, Anglican sacramental and cultural life began to flourish almost ex nihilo. The 1860s became to Hawaiian Anglicanism what the Quattrocento is to Italian art. King Kamehameha IV himself translated the Book of Common Prayer and many hymns into his first language. A cathedral, royal mausoleum, schools and churches rose in striking beauty from the islands' lava. Educational work proceeded full-steam ahead with the encouragement of Hawaiian, English and American teachers, as well as John Keble and E.B. Pusey. Perhaps most notably, King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma forged through daunting lives with heroic patience, virtue and charity; today they are commemorated on the calendar of the American Book of Common Prayer.

He Lanakila ma ke Kea/Victory by the crossThe Anglican mission was not without its significant problems over time--including inevitable personality conflicts, inter-mission pamphlet warfare, property disputes, and, later, crippling internal accusations of apostacy--but once it was allowed by Church and Crown to puts its oars in the water, it flourished to a degree that no one could have expected. We have no way of knowing whether the gentle, steady upwelling of Anglican life in the 1860s would have taken place with a different cast of characters 70 years earlier when the mission might have begun. (Something tells us that Wesleyan Anglican seriousness could have met with a good hearing on Maui shortly after Vancouver's initial visit, though.) And it is difficult to know just why the Anglo-American mission was finally allowed to proceed when it did; at least one scholar believes it had as much to do with a pressing need for Hawaiian sugar during the naval blockade of Confederate states during the American civil war as it did with genuine promptings of piety and the work of the Holy Spirit. (We do not doubt for our part that the Holy Spirit could have been working through fluctuations in the sugar market.)

But these questions are as academic as they are immaterial; the lessons of Anglican beginnings in Hawai'i are clear, fascinating, warning and inspiring. A church that allows itself to be fettered by artificial canonical impediments about jurisdiction can hamper the spread of the Gospel indefinitely--for as long as decades--while people with the hope of glory and eager for the means of grace stand and knock. Hesitation at self-evidently crucial moments in social or political change can undermine the credibility of the Christian faith and the effectiveness of those sent to preach it. Finally, churchly infighting can hobble the Church's potentially critical opportunity to serve as a terrestrial colony of heaven: a place of health and stability during times of geopolitical upheaval.

This Ascensiontide, as we watch our Lord go up with a merry noise to prepare a place for us on high, our thoughts turn to the readiness of the Church on earth to prepare a place for those who stand to benefit from her care here. Hawai'i has lessons for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Happy Ascensiontide. See you next week.

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Last updated: 28 May 2006

* In the preface to the Hawaiian Book of Common Prayer, Kamehameha IV wrote: "Ua kauohaia aku o Vanekopa e hoonna mai i ke Akua oiaio. Ua kii aku o Iolani i ka aina e, e lawe ia mai." "Vancouver was asked to send us the knowledge of the true God. Iolani [Kamehameha IV's name before coronation] visited foreign lands to obtain it."]

(Click for an update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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