02 November 2006

IN THE Rt Revd Dr Peddi Victor Premasagar, who died recently, aged 78, the Church of South India regained the true image of a bishop and Moderator. He was informal in his dealings, dressed in simple attire, went about in slippers, and relished simple food. His ever-smiling countenance kept people at ease.

Victor Premasagar was born in Medak Mission Hospital. His grandparents came to Medak from their native village, Wadi, during the decade-long famine of 1910, to find work under the "Food for Work" programme undertaken by the Revd Charles Walker Posnett. They asked Posnett to baptise them, but were told to go back to their village to be baptised there. Rathnaiah, Victor’s father, was also baptised, and later, with his wife Devakarunamma, became an evangelist. They were blessed with three daughters and two sons. Victor was the eldest.

Victor was educated at the mission schools — Medak and Sangareddi, and Wesley Boys High School at Secunderabad — and at Andhra Christian College, Guntur. He took logic and philosophy as optionals. He took a keen interest in games and sports.

He took a BD at the United Theological College, Bangalore, and, after ordination as a deacon, married Daisy, who left a staff-nurse job with the government hospital to join Victor in the ministry. They were blessed with a daughter, Munni. They worked in Siddipet, Mancherial, Soan, and Shankarampet rural pastorates.

While teaching at the Andhra United Theological College, Dornakal, Victor received a scholarship to read theology at Cambridge. On his return, he taught at the Andhra Christian Theological College, Rajahmundry. He became its first Indian Principal when the college moved to the new campus at Secunderabad. He also studied for a doctorate at St Andrews. During these periods in the UK, Daisy Premasagar worked as a nurse at Papworth Hospital near Cambridge, and Craigton Hospital near St Andrews.

While he was still the Principal, Victor was elected as the General Secretary of the Church of South India (CSI) synod in January 1980, at Madras. He became Bishop of Medak diocese in 1982. He was elected as the Deputy Moderator of the CSI for the biennium 1986-88, and the Moderator consecutively for two terms, 1988-90 and 1990-92.

Invitations to be a visiting professor poured in. He had a mastery of Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and German, and taught in the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. He became the President of the Senate of Serampore, Calcutta. From his retirement as Bishop in 1992, till his death, he returned to teaching: first at St Andrews, then as Director of Doctoral Studies at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Centre, Chennai, and as Principal of Bethel Bible College, Guntur. Thanks to his efforts, this college was affiliated to the Senate of Serampore.

Conducting Bible studies was his forte. He chaired the Bible Society of India, the Christian Literature Society, and belonged to important organisations, including the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action. He was very popular among the Related Mission Boards and donor agencies. They held his uncompromising commitment to the Church’s cause in high esteem.

In Medak diocese, where he was the first son of the soil to become Bishop, he truly inherited a zeal for mission and the strengthening of local congregations. Despite his academic excellence, gift for oratory, and administrative acumen, he focused on local congregations. As Principal of ACTC, he organised a consultation on the Patterns of Ministry and evolved a "Four-Tier Ministry" for a given congregation, which would meet its needs in teaching, preaching, diaconal, and sacramental ministries.

In 1982, there were about two pastors for a pastorate of about 25 congregations. The diocese’s financial position was also not too encouraging. The new Bishop restarted the evangelists’ training school, and his appeal to churchpeople in the diocese to contribute three per cent of monthly income towards this training had a positive response. Many steps were taken to improve the financial and living conditions of the church workers. Many village churches were constructed.

Bishop Victor encouraged higher education, secular and theological. Many pastors were sponsored for doctoral work and overseas study. In 1983, he opened the diocese’s first-ever degree college in the Wesley Girls High School. Many institutional buildings were constructed.

He established partnerships with the Churches abroad, notably in Liverpool. He encouraged leadership at all levels, and a breath of fresh air was felt in the diocese during his 11 years. There was a continuous flow of overseas visitors seeking first-hand experience of church life in Medak diocese.

In 1984, Bishop Premasagar received the Queen, and preached at Holy Trinity, Bolarum, Secunderabad, where she was attending Sunday worship. The visit of Archbishop Runcie to Medak diocese in 1985 remains a unique testimony to Bishop Premasagar’s ecumenicity.

His entry into the CSI synod had brought a theological and pastoral outlook to the post of General Secretary, hitherto seen as purely administrative. The CSI was riven by factionalism: this reached its zenith in the diocese of Krishna-Godavari, and the attempt on the lives of the former Moderator, the Rt Revd Ananda Rao Samuel, and his wife, in an ambush, when attackers set light to their car. Bishop Samuel survived, but his wife succumbed to her injuries.

Into this cauldron Victor entered as the Commissary. He brought about reconciliation between the warring groups, and his peace efforts made those who had masterminded this savage attack voluntarily admit to the crime. He got a new Bishop installed.

As the General Secretary, he led the Church in a review of her earlier mission tasks. All the dioceses were engaged in this. To monitor and assist in implementing of the priorities that were identified, several departments were established at the synod level.

The focus on the "congregations" did not dim for him as Moderator. He firmly believed in the dictum: "Think globally and act locally." So he initiated a programme called VELCOM (Vision for Equipping the Local Congregation in Mission).

Bishop Premasagar was a constructive participant in the National Council of Churches in India, the Christian Council of Asia, the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the United Bible Societies. At the 1983 WCC Vancouver Assembly, he took up the cudgels against the proponents of the previous Nairobi Assembly’s doctrine of "conciliar unity". He said that Jesus Christ had not said in his high-priestly prayer that "they may all meet in the councils", but "that they may all be one".

He attended two Lambeth Conferences as General Secretary and Moderator. CSI tended to be treated as an Anglican Church. He had the courage to declare in the open conference that the CSI was not a member Church of the Anglican Communion, but was participating on equal status as an independent Church.

Bishop Premasagar was a great ecumenist, and at home with any Church. His advice was sought by one and all. The Supreme Court of India recognised his statesmanship and his good standing among all denominations, and appointed him Court Commissioner of Samavesam of Telugu Baptist Churches (STBC), which was split in two.

He conducted elections, and handed over the charge to the Governing Body of STBC, within the time limit of less than two months given by the Supreme Court, and reported to it. The Court singled out for praise "the efficient way in which the Bishop had discharged his duty".

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