The Right Rev David Hand

Archbishop of Papua New Guinea who crossed jungles and climbed mountains to follow his calling
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey David Hand, priest: born Clermont, Queensland 11 May 1918; ordained deacon 1942, priest 1943; Missioner, Diocese of New Guinea 1946-50; Priest-in-charge, Sefoa 1947-48, Sangara 1948-50; Archdeacon, North New Guinea 1950-65; Bishop Coadjutor of New Guinea 1950-63; Bishop of New Guinea (from 1975 Papua New Guinea) 1963-77; CBE 1975, KBE 1984; Archbishop of Papua New Guinea 1977-83; Bishop of Port Moresby 1977-83; Priest-in-charge, East with West Rudham, Houghton next Harpley, Syderstone, Tatterford and Tattersett 1983-85; died Port Moresby 6 April 2006.

Bishop David Hand was one of the very few people left who have walked through equatorial jungle and climbed mountains to discover people, tribes and villages that have never before had contact with "the outside world". A pioneer of extraordinary energy and determination, he was willing to risk accident and attack in order to do what he believed was his calling.

Very few opportunities remained in the 20th century but Hand found them, especially in the highland remoteness of Papua New Guinea. When asked whether it might be better to leave undiscovered tribes in their undiscovered state he would reply simply that developers and exploiters of natural resources would find them one day and it was much better that the Church, which would at least attempt to defend their cultures, customs and lives, found them first.

I first encountered him in 1964, in open shirt, battered hat, shorts and pectoral cross, striding into a school at the end of the Kokoda trail; the path the Japanese failed to master in order to cross the Owen Stanley Range and establish Port Moresby as a base from which to attack Australia. It was Martyrs' Day - commemorating the missionaries, expatriate and indigenous, who refused to leave during invasion and paid with their lives. These were the men and women who inspired David Hand; in their steps he literally trod, establishing the Anglican Society of St Francis in the very village where the martyrs' betrayers had been executed after the Second World War, promoting a beacon boarding school in their memory.

Hand always saw the integrated benefit of the Church's working in health, education and worship as an indivisible trinity of action. He was large, the build of a rugby prop forward, born in Australia but raised in a Norfolk vicarage and schooled at Gresham's, Holt, and Oriel College, Oxford. He was a "pom" to whom Australians could relate on equal terms, with a boundless capacity for the enjoyment of the good things of life. Personally he was simple to the point of frugality but he was well able to appreciate the fruits of grander hospitality when offered (he was particularly partial to a decent malt whisky). His commitment was evident in his indefatigable speaking, fund-raising and staff recruitment. He was not a person to whom one said "No" lightly.

In 1953 the Martyrs' School had been utterly flattened when neighbouring Mount Lamington exploded. Hand, without phones or radios, was among the very first in to the region afterwards, burying the dead, looking for survivors and organising distant help. He drove, and wrote off, several Jeeps reconstructed from Second World War wreckage until colleagues insisted he was driven, the danger to the vehicles being too great for an acceptable risk.

David Hand spoke several of the myriad languages of Papua New Guinea fluently and worked closely with an American-based evangelical School of Linguistics to encourage bible translation and indigenous liturgies long before the latter were recognised as important.

Forty years later I clearly remember a sensitive sermon about the emergent Christian church of Papua New Guinea. The Sisters of the Church at East Grinstead (now Ham Common) had made him an exquisite cope depicting Psalm 124,vii, "Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler" - with a bird of paradise escaping from a local trap. As Hand was preaching, he was evidently getting cross. After the service, departing people could hear his roar from the vestry berating the unfortunate translator who, unable to comprehend the sermon, had improvised another of his own, not realising the bishop understood every word of Orokaiva.

David Hand was a passionate man in everything, his dedication and his temper. He was complete, his entire self absorbed in his work, restlessly pushing the boundaries, achieving in short time what others would take years to imagine. He was a real example of the term "vocation".

Under his leadership the vast mountain jungles of the mainland and the dispersed islands of New Britain became the Anglican Province of Papua New Guinea, and he its archbishop. Deeply committed to indigenisation, Hand worked rapidly to ensure his brother bishop George Ambo was not only the senior diocesan under his care but his heir apparent as primate.

New bishops were appointed regardless of their nationality, Australian, English, Papuan, Melanesian, reflecting a church which resolutely stood against racial discrimination and recognised ability. One of the first of these choices, John Chisholm, after "apprenticeship" in New Guinea became the first primate of the new Province of Melanesia.

Hand's own churchmanship was what in those days would be termed "high"; he understood the way vestments, colour, symbolic act, speak eloquently when language barriers obstruct; but he worked tirelessly at stable and helpful ecumenical relationships with all the major denominations. His relationships with Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Free Church Congregational ("Papua Ekklesia") churches were outstanding. Denominations did not vie for attention, but worked co-operatively across the country in areas, distributing manpower and resources more effectively under the terms of the "Comity of Missions" arrangement created between the First and Second World Wars.

He was, however, resolute in his opposition to Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses who failed to respect these agreements and added severe difficulties, such as not eating pork, to a people whose only large animal was the wild pig.

Hand was remarkably welcoming of charismatic revival when it happened, respecting its spontaneity in worship and its openness to indigenous influences, but deeply saddened and concerned by the activities of US-funded evangelical and Pentecostal organisations in recent years which, he would say, recreated the old heresies of the famous New Guinea Cargo Cult mentality which so disincentivised the population from work and development.

David Hand was ordained priest in 1943, and first came to New Guinea, then part of the diocese of Queensland, after a curacy in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, in 1946. Only four years later, at the age of 32, he became Bishop Coadjutor, being promoted Bishop in 1963. Two years after Papua New Guinea's achieving independence from Australia, in 1977, he was appointed Archbishop, serving until 1983, when he reached 65.

After a very brief sojourn in Norfolk, he spent his retirement in Port Moresby. He took PNG citizenship as a signal of his commitment to the country and people, he was knighted, he continued to live simply with an eclectic household of people he wanted to help and sent letters everywhere asking for more. The world needs more big characters like him.

Colin Slee