Hidden histories

Hidden histories

Sometimes it is helpful to catch a glimpse of how others see us.

The occasion was an afternoon tea. The setting was the mother church of the Busan Presbytery in South Korea.

We had taken a tour of the presbytery’s historical reconstruction of its origins in the old girls’ school next door to the Busanjin church. We had already visited a number of the churches, as well as schools and hospitals founded by the Australian missionaries.

We had been to the wonderfully-appointed cemetery for those first missionaries and the splendidly set up exhibition centre telling the story of the coming of the gospel to this region and the vision of those first Presbyterian missionaries, who had set out mainly from Victoria over 120 years ago.

Myong Duk Yang and Clive Pearson would subsequently visit the Busan Presbyterian Theological University and hear of how its history department was seeking to commemorate and research that past and the historic connection between the Presbyterian Church of Korea and the Uniting Church.

In the course of the visit John Brown would preach at the Il Shin Hospital service.

This “we” would also include Ross and Pam Chambers, John Jegasothy, Terence Corkin and Kisoo Jang. Andrew Dutney would join us later.

We were special guests of the Presbyterian Church’s Assembly, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Assembly. They had invited a significant number of members from the Uniting Church because of a covenantal relationship and the deep respect they had for us and for the contribution of missionaries in the past.

The ministers and elders of Busanjin gave each of us a copy of the history that the presbytery had commissioned for the telling of its story of mission, conceived in terms of proclaiming the gospel, education and care.

It is a wonderful story, which today’s missional church often knows nothing about.

The members of the Busanjin church did not hold back. They told us that the link between our church in Australia and their region was now vulnerable. They wanted it to be lively and full of exchange and commitment.

They were adamant: if the Uniting Church in our present drops the baton now — and that is the risk they discerned — it would be difficult to recover the link.

We felt a great sense of unease. The present focus in the life of our church often feels like it is more concerned with its own institutional wellbeing and survival. Its overseas and ecumenical vision seems to be narrowing.

It is evident that the Camden Theological Library, the Uniting Church archives and United Theological College have been to the forefront of nurturing this pivotal relationship with one of the world’s largest Protestant churches. There is a sense in which this historic link is now being preserved in and through Parramatta.

The Rev. Frank Cunningham was one of those missionaries. From 1913 through to 1941, and again from 1947 through to 1950, he served in Korea. The context was one of Japanese invasion and war.

What was so memorable about his contribution was his “extraordinary proficiency in the Korean language” and his revision of the Korean translation of the New Testament.

This larger story furnishes the background for a special event that took place in the Camden Theological Library in November. Mrs Gwen Cunningham (Frank’s daughter-in-law) and her two daughters entrusted to the library a Korean Bible and hymnbook, which had recently been presented to the family by the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea as a token of appreciation of the contribution made by the Rev. Frank Cunningham.

Clive Pearson is Principal of United Theological College.


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1 thought on “Hidden histories”

  1. You can read some of the story in a book by Sang Gyoo Lee, To Korea with Love: Australian Presbyterian Mission Work in Korea, 1889-1941. Melbourne: Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 2009. Particularly interesting is the account of how Korean Christians, especially Presbyterians, dealt with the issue of the shrine oath imposed by their Japanese rulers.

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