Bishop Andrew recently visited Chennai on behalf of Archbishop Justin, enjoying a warm welcome and taking part in joyous celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Church of South India.
Life is not getting any easier for Christians in India. That was the message that came across most clearly during my four-day stay in Chennai (formerly Madras), culminating in a joyous celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Church of South India.
In a growing number of Indian states it is now against the law to convert from one faith to another. Scores of overseas organisations (Compassion International most prominently among them) have had to withdraw from India, leaving tens of thousands of previously supported children in a highly precarious position.
There is clear and mounting evidence of a growing intolerance in the right-wing political establishment, combined with fiery rhetoric about Indian identity and a steady erosion of religious freedoms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told church leaders that he plans to cut the umbilical cord of their support from the West, and seems to be going about it most effectively. My own difficulties in obtaining a visa to attend the Church of South India celebrations on Archbishop Justin’s behalf are now repeated by many other Christian leaders and charity workers, most of whom have happily travelled to India for decades.
“There is clear and mounting evidence of a growing intolerance”
Perhaps the biggest issue currently facing church leaders is whether the ‘umbilical cord’ to be cut includes the church’s historic assets of schools, hospitals and the rest.
A slew of court cases is increasingly forcing churches to prove their ownership of buildings they have held and operated for decades, even centuries. There is a scrabbling around to discover ancient trust deeds that have often gone missing or (maybe) never existed in the first place. Large amounts of time, money and emotional energy are being diverted from frontline mission activity.
There are even questions being raised in Parliament about whether the Church should run schools and hospitals at all, and demonstrations taking place outside schools which hold Christian assemblies. Threatening letters are being received by staff at the offices of the Indian S.P.C.K. – the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
And so to the Church of South India itself, founded as a ‘united and uniting church’ in 1947 and claiming a membership of around four million people in the south of the country.
A day-long presentation of their activities in a ‘Global Partners’ Meet’ on the Monday of my visit revealed a church that is thoroughly engaged in a whole range of social issues, from micro-finance to transvestism via gender equality and global warming - such a bewildering array, in fact, that it was hard not to question whether the quantity of initiatives might be undermining their quality.
“The idea of a ‘borderless church’ seemed to be becoming a new mantra“
One larger theme that emerged was the Church of South India’s impressive and long-term commitment to the Dalits, people at bottom of the Hindu caste system who are still facing widespread discrimination in India, despite laws to protect them.
Another key theme was an increasing shift from projects to campaigning; and the idea of a ‘borderless church’ seemed to be becoming a new mantra, building on the Church of South India’s justifiable sense of pride at having broken down denominational boundaries more effectively than anywhere else in the world.
Discipleship was seen primarily in terms of teaching Christians to embrace a commitment to the poor and a whole range of wider social concerns. A new Sunday School curriculum was being drawn up with a focus on justice, equality and sexual identity, and it was a great pleasure to meet India’s first woman bishop, Rt. Revd. Pushpa Lalitha.
We were wonderfully hosted, the group of around 20 Anglicans, Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians, Lutherans, Korean Pentecostals and others who made up the global partners. We were regularly welcomed, applauded and given shawls, flowers and turbans (!) as well as being provided with a tourist trip to the World Heritage site of Mamallapuram on the Tuesday of our visit.
“I was surprised and honoured to be invited to preach”
Archbishop Justin’s greetings were well received by the crowd of several thousand at the colourful and lengthy festival of speaking, singing, drumming and dancing on the afternoon of the main celebrations. I was surprised and honoured to be invited to preach at the colourful and lengthy Eucharist in St George’s Cathedral exactly 70 years after the Church of South India was founded.
Is this church in a state to face the harsher persecution that may be coming its way? Out of a desire to present itself as a respectable not-for-profit organisation, faith seemed somewhat peripheral to the main thrust of the activity at times, but we came across a determination and steeliness in the church too and a strong sense of Christian (and Church of South India) identity, which the current troubles are only serving to enhance and strengthen.
"The noises, colours, tastes and smells of Chennai will stay with me for a very long time"
Meanwhile the noises, colours, tastes and smells of Chennai will stay with me for a very long time, with its drastic disparities between rich and poor, its anarchic if strangely effective approach to traffic management, the wonderful welcome from Chennai’s people, and its huge stretch of urban beach - a reminder of the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, which caused such incalculable devastation and terrible loss of life in Chennai and right across the Indian Ocean.
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