BISHOPS and missionaries were among the tens of thousands of people to gather in the Nehru sports stadium in Kottayam, India, on Saturday, to celebrate 200 years of the Church Mission Society (CMS) in the country.
The public event, which began with a procession, fireworks, music, and speeches, was organised by the Church of South India. On Sunday, the Church commissioned 210 missionaries. It concluded four years of events marking two centuries since Thomas Norton first brought Christianity to the city of Alleppey, in what is now the diocese of Madhya Kerala, about 20 years after the foundation of CMS in London.
Hundreds of missionaries followed in his wake, championing the right to education for men, women, and children of all social classes. Their work resulted in the foundation of the CMS College (the oldest school in the country), and the CMS Press and Industrial School, in the diocese. Today there are about 27.8 million Christians in India: that is, 2.3 per cent of the population.
Addressing the crowds, the Bishop of Madhya Kerala, the Rt Revd Thomas Oommen, praised the “great transformation” brought about by CMS missionaries since 1816. “Our mission now is to initiate a ‘New Exodus’ — to liberate our land from the clutches of slavery, which is expressed in new forms,” he said. “This is not an easy task, but it is not an impossible one.”
The Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook, who delivered a message on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, said on Monday: “The atmosphere was exuberant. Inside the stadium there was a joyful excitement; and the massive crowd singing together — in Malayalam — conveyed heartfelt thankfulness. I was most impressed by the depth of ecumenical warmth.”
He went on: “I was surprised by the huge appreciation of Thomas Norton and the first CMS missionaries across the Churches and wider community. Their self-giving generosity has inspired many church members to respond to the call to give one month’s income to bicentenary projects.”
CSI has been running a series of education and community projects to mark the anniversary, including building shelters for homeless people, offering scholarships to poor students, and supporting agriculture and church planting in rural areas. A memorial for Norton, a bicentenary stamp, and a book on the work of missionaries are also to be released as part of the celebrations.
The commissioning of new missionaries on Sunday was a sign of hope, the CMS regional manager for Asia, Raj Patel, said. “It is apt that this new wave of mission was honoured in such a joyous and momentous manner.”