The Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, known as the Diocese of Kuching, has begun a year of celebrations to mark 170 years of Anglican mission in the region.

It launched celebrations with a forum, “The Diocese of Kuching: Past, Present and Future.” More than 1,000 people heard the Rt. Rev. Donald Jute, 14th Bishop of Sarawak and Brunei, discuss his vision for the future.

The diocese is noted for work in education and healthcare. Politicians and business, corporate, and civic leaders, many of them alumni of mission schools, attended the forum. On June 10, St. Thomas’s Cathedral hosted a service of dedication for new archdeacons and canons.

Anglican work began in Sarawak, in Borneo, on June 29, 1848, and was originally known as the Borneo Church Mission. A party of missionaries came at the invitation of the Rajah of Sarawak. They were led by the Rev. Francis Thomas McDougall, who was a doctor and a priest.

The rajah gave a generous land grant and the mission built a church, a school, and a dispensary. There are two distinct Anglican approaches to mission strategy. The Society for the Proclamation of the Gospel (SPG) espoused “the high church principle.” In  this strategy a bishop would effectively bring the church with him and the work would grow from that root.

SPG supported the project and granted £5,000 to launch the new diocese. But the project hit a snag. In an issue not unlike problems surrounding the consecration of Samuel Seabury, the sponsors found that British law stood in the way of creating an Anglican diocese outside the territorial limits of the British Empire.

Eventually the sponsors resorted to the expedient of founding the diocese on the island of Labuan, which had become a British Crown Colony in 1846. The Bishop of Labuan could then be appointed Bishop of Sarawak by the rajah. This practice prevailed until Sarawak became a Crown Colony in 1946.

The Letters Patent creating the new diocese were issued on Aug. 6, 1855. Francis Thomas McDougall became the first bishop, and was consecrated on Oct. 18, 1855, in Calcutta.

The Anglican work extended further when, by an Act of Parliament in 1869, the Church in the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, and Malacca) was separated from the See of Calcutta under the episcopal care of the Bishop of Labuan. This arrangement lasted until 1909, when the Diocese of Singapore was founded. More recently the dioceses of Sabah and West Malaysia were carved out.

By dint of colonial history, to this day the Diocese of Singapore claims a huge tract of territory extending from Nepal in the north to Indonesia in the south. In the last two it launched Anglican missions in these areas, appointing clergy with the title of dean.

John Martin