The Gender of the Church: Conflicts and Social Wholes on Ambrym

Article excerpt


In 1912 Pastor T. Watt Legatt wrote a letter to "The New Hebridean Magazine", the journal for the British colonialists in the New Hebrides. In this letter he expressed his utter horror at the position of the Melanesian women:

   The outstanding feature of Woman's position is that of inferiority.
   In some places she cannot pass in front of a man. She may be bowed
   to the earth with a heavy load, but if a man comes along she must
   crush herself into the bush at the wayside to allow him a clear
   road. When he is seated she must make her way behind him, and if he
   is of high rank, crawl out of the sight on her hands and knees.

He was not alone in having this opinion. Frater, who visited the northern islands of New Hebrides in the early part of the 20th century, wrote:

   Apart from the fact that we are carrying out the Lord's command,
   I do not think a stronger argument for mission work could be
   obtained than the great change it makes for the lives of women.
  (Frater 1922:119)

In spite of the influence the church has had on the lives of women in this region the church has traditionally first and foremost been looked upon as a new arena for male power, and male leadership in the church has been looked upon as a continuation of traditional male leadership (Allen 1981; Rubenstein 1981). However, more recently, the connection between church and women's lives has been a matter of more anthropological focus (Jolly and Macintyre 1989; Jolly 2003; Douglas 2002, 2003; McDougall 2003; Paini 2003). I will in this paper show how the church on Ambrym has become first and foremost a female gendered institution. I argue that the female appropriation of the church has influenced the relation between the genders in certain practices and also the relationship between the church and kastom. Whereas the church has become a female institution, kastom has to a certain extent become male. This gendered relationship between church and kastom is, as I will show, one of mutual interdependence, rather than exclusion and opposition. I argue that one of the reasons why the church has become female gendered is the connection between the way the church has come to represent social communities and the way structural premises underpinning kinship and marriage make connection-making a female gendered practice. I will therefore start this argument by showing how the church becomes gendered and thereby how it has become an idiom of social belonging.


The village of Ranon, with about 150 inhabitants, lies on the north-western coast of Ambrym. Ambrym is part of the chain of islands making up the nation Vanuatu. These islands were officially colonised in 1906 under the name of New Hebrides as a joint British-French condominium government. As a result of the dispersal and remoteness of many small islands and maybe even more the character of this dual, and often split joint colonial administration, Vanuatu was never really efficiently colonised. On the contrary, the impact of colonialism has been very small compared to other French colonies in the Pacific such as New Caledonia, or British colonies like Fiji. On Ambrym there was also at first a strong resistance to the establishment of a mission. Both the Melanesian Mission and London Missionary Society made efforts to build a mission on the island, but had to surrender because of 'native hostility' (see also Patterson 1976; Miller 1981, 1989; Rio 2002). From the year 1900 and onwards the Presbyterian mission made an effort to get a foothold on the island, but they were not very successful. In the first part of the 20th century the non- Christians were the majority on the island, and very few men who were part of the graded society (the mage) had joined the church. The graded society has been thoroughly described in the literature from Vanuatu (See Allen 1981; Rubinstein 1981; Patterson 1976, 1981; Jolly 1995; Rio 1997, 2002). …