A glance at a newspaper ad sends a British priest to one of the most remote churches in the world.
By Matthew Townsend
If God whispered in your ear about a pastoral call on Ascension Island — on which about 800 people live in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1,000 miles from Africa and 1,400 miles from Brazil — how would you respond?
Part of the British Overseas Territory islands of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, Ascension is not the most isolated of the three islands: that distinction belongs to Tristan da Cunha, which is home to 250 people, two churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic), potato patches, and a port. Tristan is only accessible by boat.
Ascension offers a slight upgrade: it has a runway, built long enough to land the Space Shuttle, but civilians can only fly in or out once a month. Access to the island is not just limited by sparse flights and long distances — the British government also controls who can settle upon or even visit the unusual volcanic island. St. Helena, about 800 miles from Ascension and population 4,500, is less isolated but equally far from any mainland. It owes newfound accessibility to an airport that opened in 2016. Flights to St. Helena are now weekly, when the island’s notorious wind shear is manageable.
St. Helena is also the seat of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s Diocese of St. Helena, which includes Ascension. Tristan da Cunha, much farther south than St. Helena or Ascension, is a mission within the Diocese of Cape Town. As a measure of just how far removed these islands are, the Diocese of St. Helena celebrated its first on-island episcopal consecration in November 2018, when the Rt. Rev. Dale Bowers became the diocese’s 16th bishop since 1859.
Ascension is not your typical clerical posting, and its sole Anglican parish — St. Mary’s in Georgetown — is about to receive a commensurately atypical cleric. The Rev. Gavin Tyte, a priest in the Church of England who is also a professional beatboxer (vocal percussion; check YouTube), responded to that call and is set to make the move.
As of this writing, he was scheduled to fly to Ascension with Helen, his fiancée, on March 3. He and Helen were likewise set to be wed on Feb. 22. Tyte (or TyTe, as he is known in music) took a few minutes before the start of his new adventures to correspond with TLC’s Matthew Townsend. The conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.
How did you hear about the vacancy on Ascension?
I saw the job advertised back in 2015. It was advertised in a national newspaper as the “best vicar job in the world.” I confess that I’d never heard of Ascension Island, but there was no way I could apply for the post and so I forgot all about it. Life over the past few years has been very difficult and, at times, traumatic.
Back in June 2018, I was lying in bed and I prayed, “God, where do you want me to be?” The next morning I sat at my computer and a thought popped into my head: to do a search to see what was happening on Ascension Island. To my surprise I saw that the job had been advertised for several months. I called up Canon Nicholas Turner [a commissary in England who helps with vacancies], and it turned out that they hadn’t yet managed to appoint anyone, and the Bishop of St. Helena and the canons were meeting the very next day to discuss re-advertising the post. Canon Turner asked if I wanted to apply and, well, the rest is history.
What drew you to the job?
I have always been fascinated by island life. One of my favorite places in the U.K. is the wild and remote Outer Hebrides. The big skies, ocean, and the barren, rugged terrain fuel my heart and mind. Oddly, when I meditate, I often withdraw in my mind to a small island with a mountain in the middle — a spiritual place where I talk to God — so perhaps it is no surprise I was drawn to a small island in the South Atlantic. I also love the outdoors, and I’m a keen kayaker, angler, cyclist, birdwatcher, and hiker. So, Ascension sounds just about perfect.
Have you been to Ascension yet?
I have never been to Ascension. At the moment it’s quite difficult to get to. You have to fly from London to Johannesburg, then from there to St. Helena, and from St. Helena to Ascension.
What will your work entail? What is mission and ministry like in such an isolated place?
Like many parishes, the church needs to be imaginative and develop creative ways of connecting a largely secular community to God. Ascension Island is an interesting place, as it’s a working population. There are about 800 people living on the island and one flight a month in or out. There are no indigenous people, and you cannot live on Ascension over the age of 18 unless you have a job or are the spouse of someone with a job. Therefore, there are few retired or elderly people. Many people work for the Ascension Island Government, and there is a Royal Air Force base and a U.S. Air Force base on the island.
In some ways it’s like a large chaplaincy post. Although some people have lived on-island for many years, contracts of employment are typically three years or so, so I expect there is quite a transient population. When I get in post, my first job will be to prayerfully listen to God, the parishioners, and wider community. I think it would be unwise to go in with a plan of action or a set of predetermined goals.
How can people pray for your new work and the work of the church, in general, on Ascension?
We would love it if people would pray for Helen and me as we begin this ministry — that we would make good friends and help people encounter God and be sustained in that encounter. We hope and pray we will be Christ to those we meet and bring life and love into the lives of others.
What’s it like to prepare for marriage and a move to the middle of the Atlantic at the same time?
Helen and I are to marry on Feb. 22, and then we fly on March 3. To say that life has been busy is an understatement. We had to crate our belongings, which had to be with the shipping company by Feb. 14. As we are taking two kayaks, I hand-built custom crates and filled the kayaks and every inch of space with all sorts of things.
The wedding is going to be a simple affair at our local parish church. With the impending move, the wedding has taken a bit of a back seat. At the time of writing, we have a church; friends taking the service, playing the organ, and reading; a reception venue at a friend’s café and tea rooms; a dress; rings; and a whole bunch of lovely friends coming along. It will be wonderful.
Will you continue your musical endeavors from Ascension?
In the U.K. I have been known as the “beatboxing vicar,” as I have been, amongst other things, a professional vocal percussionist. I’m sure I will be beatboxing with the children at the school on Ascension. I hope, too, to continue writing the hip-hop Gospel of Luke, a rhyming version of Luke’s gospel. I have completed eight chapters, and it’s definitely my best written work to date.
Starting a new life as a new family in a new place thousands of miles away from home is both exciting and terrifying. All we can do is trust God day by day to meet all our needs — and pray that we will stay close to him in all we do and who we are.
An Extended Stay with the Saints
Late last year, the Diocese of St. Helena drew headlines when Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and other visitors from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa came to the island to consecrate the diocese’s 16th bishop. While consecrations often fly below radar, this one caught attention because it was the first to be held within the diocese since its founding in 1859. Makgoba was also the first metropolitan archbishop to visit the island in over 30 years.
While distances within some North American dioceses challenge the imagination — as well as bishops and primates called to traverse them — a visit to St. Helena once required weeks of travel at sea. An airport opened in 2016, making the November consecration of Dale Bowers possible. A native of St. Helena who also served there as a priest, Bowers is now responsible for the three parishes and 12 churches on the island and St. Mary’s, Georgetown, on Ascension Island — about 800 miles away from St. Helena.
Even though flights are now possible, unpredictable weather conditions within the diocese can turn arriving and departing into a waiting game. After the consecration, Makgoba — along with his chaplain and two other bishops — spent an extra week on the island after repeated flight cancellations. Makgoba wrote on his weblog that they walked the island, took historical tours, napped, read, and joined the Bowers family for a fish dinner. Makgoba even fit in piano practice.
While their unanticipated week of island life wreaked havoc on the bishops’ calendars — blog posts cited Makgoba’s “avalanche” of scheduling regrets — it afforded an unusual opportunity to the Saints (as the inhabitants of St. Helena are called). The party was present for another Sunday, with yet another bishop on the island: the newly consecrated Bowers.
“My chaplain, Mcebisi Pinyana, preached at St. James’ Church, Jamestown, and instead of being at St. Mary’s in Orlando East in the Diocese of Johannesburg, I celebrated at St. James, accompanied by great music and the choir,” Makgoba wrote.
“Bishop Allan Kannemeyer preached at another parish, while Bishop Stephen Diseko celebrated, and Bishop Dale Bowers went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a rare happening on the island that you have so many bishops in so many parishes on one Sunday.”
Matthew Townsend, with reporting from ACNS