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Against Walkabouts

The late 20th century greeted the birth of something never before known in the Christian Church: the bishop-search website. I shouted briefly into the wind as an undergraduate that it was an essential archival project that someone should undertake to capture the data contained on them — the personal statements and statistics, the timelines, the members of search committees, the diocesan profiles, the resulting votes. This has not come to pass in any formal way, and more is the pity.

The ways in which we choose our leaders say much about our common life, and they do so in a way that is multivalent across the Episcopal Church, different in each diocese and region, as rich a snapshot as it may be possible to take in one stratum of how we live and move. That bishop-search websites are usually separate from diocesan websites makes such a project all the more complex, as does their explicitly temporary quality. They come and go within two years; a consultant collects a fee for making the thing; and it is gone.

A prominent feature of the episcopal search process in current speech is the walkabout: the regional diocesan opportunity for episcopal candidates or nominees to speak to their possible future congregations. The simple structure allows for questions and answers, mutual listening, and reciprocal eyeballing. Is this the person God is calling to this ministry? Is this the place where God has chosen to have a new link in the apostolic chain? Is this voice the one for this moment and for this people here gathered?

As is so often the case, the problem is not the thing, but the word.

The second half of the 19th century was a remarkable period in the movement of peoples and languages throughout the western Pacific Ocean. “God’s gentlemen” took England’s Bible, prayer book, and hymns from Oxbridge to islands where the name of Jesus had never been spoken, and today’s robust churches of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Polynesia, and Melanesia came into being.

Americans have generally forgotten that it was a martyrdom on the remote island of Nukapu that would anchor the Church permanently in Oceania. Oral and written tradition are exquisitely confusing about just why John Coleridge Patteson was murdered on the shore of Nukapu in 1871, but he became one of those Eminent Victorians whose death on the edge of Empire also defined it. Patteson may have violated local custom by making a landing inappropriately, but there is nothing quite so stark in the literature of the period as the ritualistic vision of his corpse, found later with “a canoe, covered with a palm fibre matting, and a palm-branch in his hand.”

No one aware of the power of the waters of baptism can read the account of the gentlest of sailor-scholar-cricketer-translator-bishops being speared to death with words of blessing in his mouth and fail to feel a pang of admiring pain. The grandchildren of the grandchildren of the men who murdered and the man who was murdered have met and forgiven one another — on equal footing, as Anglicans together aware of the immense disruptions of contact made badly.

Patteson was almost certainly killed in part because he was mistaken for a Blackbirder — a colonist who visited the islands that are now Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Solomons, Polynesia, Tonga, Tuvalu, in order to “recruit” labor for plantations as far afield as Fiji, Australia, and even Peru. The recruitment was nothing short of kidnapping (usually temporary), but the labor was nothing but slavery.

This is the story of how English came to the western Pacific: through the speech of taskmasters who abused and exploited Pacific Islanders for a few years at a time, and then returned them to their home islands as men broken by the imperial project. (By contrast, missionaries worked through immense and beautiful labor in local languages.) The snatch-snatch boats differed from the transatlantic slave ships in that they moved in two directions, and there was no Triangle Trade of the same kind in the one as there was in the other. The Blackbirded men worked the copra and sugar and harvested the bêche-de-mer, but they were not exchanged for molasses or Carolinian rice. It is a permanent shame for the European Church that the victims of both historical processes became better Christians than their captors, and that they remain so today despite the generations of trauma and cultural destruction that ensued.

This is also the story of how walkabout came into English usage as a noun or a verb. The OED citations are desperately offensive to the sensibilities of the Episcopalians who use the word so blithely. Some would not pass — and should not pass again — into print. These are the mildest:

When the executioner had adjusted the rope, and was about to pull the cap over his eyes … he said, in a tone of deep feeling … “Bail more walk about,” meaning that his wanderings were all over.

The keepers of local memory remembered [them] not only as walkabouts and ne’er-do-wells but as objects of mystery and yearning.

During his walkabout, the aboriginal youth wanders into the bush alone for several weeks or months, avoiding the company and conversation of other humans.

We had visitors every day in the shape of travellers, or, as the blacks call them, “walkabouts.”

You like Billy the best even though he’s gone away on walkabout and Gordon’s got brains and working in the city.

These bloody boongs, they’re always going walkabout.

Jack’s only defect so far as station management was concerned was that at any time he might feel the aboriginal need to go “on walkabout.”

The definitions ascribed to walkabout are as varied as they are inapplicable to the bishop-search process:

Journeying undertaken on foot into the bush by an Aborigine who wishes to live in a traditional manner for a period; an instance of this; (occasionally also) the area covered by such journeying.

To go on a migration.

To go missing.

The meaning An informal stroll through a crowd carried out by a public figure is tertiary, and not attested in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1970. It is never cited there in American English. The first instance referring to a bishop in a crowd is from 1980.

As an individual, I am not opposed to the process of linguistic appropriation. I love languages, their scripts, their histories, their study for its own sake, and especially the untranslatable. I pepper my speech and writing gleefully with German and French, Japanese and Latin, and English is somehow richer for this kind of pepper. We don’t stop saying sauerkraut anymore because of the last Reich, or Brie because of Vichy collaboration, or sushi because of Bataan, or ergo because of the destruction of Carthage. Hang someone for this and the gallows will be full for decades.

Yet I submit that we need a new term in our bishop searches, one without the culturally fraught 19th-century language exchange of Blackbirding as its only background. There are current scholarly, academic, and journalistic registers in which walkabout seems to be accepted and useful, but they are geographically specific. Americans are not Australasians by location, word usage, or experience. My speech is of necessity and design different from the speech of persons whose lives and words have been formed in contexts other than mine. They are my friends as I hope to be their friend, but it is self-trickery to think that we can use a word to mean only something we think it means, and so to fail in some way to look at its provenance.

Richard Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.


  1. How about “Visitations”? This would account for visits to not only parishes, but to other
    organizations within a diocese.


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