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12 August 2016

Canon Dan O’Connor writes:

“AS WE neared the compound, I saw laundry being thrown over the wall, colourful laundry. Only it wasn’t laundry. It was children being tossed to safety by their parents, over the glass-sharded wall and into the Bishop’s gardens.”

That was in New Delhi in 1984, and these were the children of Sikh parents, terrified by the murderous mob that emerged in response to the killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard. The Bishop was Maqbul Caleb, who, over the next few days, with his wife, Jane, sheltered about 30 Sikh men, women, and children in their home, earning enduring gratitude from the community.

Most of the rest of Bishop Maqbul’s life, until his death on 1 July, aged 85, was relatively peaceful. He came from a Punjabi Christian family, born in Karachi, in pre-Partition Sind. His father (and his two older brothers) were army professionals. After Modern School in New Delhi, he graduated from St Stephen’s College, where the influence of the Principal, David Raja Ram, the chaplain, members of the Cambridge Brotherhood, and the Student Christian Movement led him to offer himself for ordination. There followed theological studies in Canada on a World Council of Churches scholarship.

While on his way back to India, at an SCM conference in England, he met a young English woman then studying at London University, Jane Blyth. They were married in 1962. Maqbul had been ordained priest in the diocese of Amritsar in the then Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, in 1958, had served briefly at Palampur and Ajnala, and then served a curacy in England, in St Albans diocese, when he seized the opportunity to study for a London B.Ed.

Maqbul’s pre-episcopal ministry, back in India with Jane, was largely in two educational chaplaincies, the first, from 1962, at Bishop Cotton School, Simla, a blazered and enthusiastic boys’ boarding school, during which time their two children were born. Three years at the old mission station at Kotgarh, further into the Simla hills, where Maqbul was also headmaster of Gorton High School, were followed by seven “happy years” in the Punjab plains as chaplain at Baring Union Christian College, Batala, where he and Jane both took the opportunity of studying for MAs in English literature.

This was the period of the formation of the Church of North India, when some Anglican churches, including the local one in Batala, dug in their heels. Maqbul held out for the union, later recalling how he enjoyed “the great experience of working together in a near-chaotic situation”. He was also involved at the college in the pioneering work of the Christian Institute of Sikh Studies, in research on the Punjab Church’s poor landless majority, and on interfaith relations and dialogue.

In 1976, they moved to Christ Church, Sector 18, in Le Corbusier’s new city of Chandigarh, a congregation with many professional members, where Maqbul was, for a year, Moderator’s Commissary of the diocese of Chandigarh. He was consecrated, in January 1980, as Bishop of Chandigarh. Sensitive to Punjab Christianity’s largely Dalit membership, he chose to to be installed in a small village church, Bal, in Gurdaspur district.

As he wrote later: “When I hear the singing of the Zaburs in the villages, I feel that the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Liberator is really understood in the hearts of the people.” At the end of his brief time in the diocese, the report he wrote, with its mention of 12 new churches under construction (alongside Jane’s establishment of a Home for the Aged in Ludhiana) reflects a deeply pastoral and missionary episcopate.

Resisting “as long as it was decent to do so”, Maqbul was installed as Bishop of Delhi in 1982. This was, of course, at the heart of the nation’s life, and a very different sort of ministry, with many official and representative obligations, and chairmanship of numerous prestigious institutions, but still, essentially for Maqbul, a pastoral ministry, with as many congregations in neighbouring Hatyana as in the city. It enabled Jane to take up editorial work with the ISPCK and the Centre for Scientific and Innovative Research Studies. It was a period of prodigious urban expansion, and, again, Maqbul was busy acquiring land for new churches.

Wanting more time for prayer, study and reflection, Maqbul surprised many by taking voluntary retirement in 1990, moving with Jane to their family home in the small hill-station of Dallhousie, Himachal Pradesh, in the diocese of Amritsar. There, his old friend Bishop Anand Chandu Lal recruited him to transform Khyber House, a former missionary holiday home, into a training-cum-conference centre, beside which they built a Sadhu Sundar Singh chapel. The house’s busy new life proved “a wonderful time” for him and Jane. After a decade, and with declining health, they were glad to hand on the centre’s work to Amrit and Anand Chandu Lal.

Maqbul’s autobiography, Count Your Blessings, must be the most selfless ever written. Some half of it taken up with generous profiles of people he knew and worked with in north-west India — “as a hen gathers her chickens” — the record of a gentle, modest, and wise pastoral ministry.

Maqbul Caleb died at home in Dalhousie, leaving Jane, a son, Sunil, Principal of Bishop’s College, Kolkata, and a daughter, Leila, a public-health consultant in New Delhi, and three grandchildren.

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