NEARLY 4.5 million Christians are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the formation of the first organic reunion of Churches in the history of the ecumenical movement — the Church of South India (CSI).
With great faith, Anglicans, Wesleyan Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists had set out to negotiate union in 1919. The United Church was inaugurated on 27 September 1947. Only a month earlier, India had gained independence after three centuries of British rule.
The Bishop of Dornakal, the Rt Revd V. S. Azariah, the first non-white Anglican diocesan bishop, based in South India, initiated the process with the help of his missionary colleagues. The Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 was the basis of the proposed union: the two Testaments, the two Creeds, the two greater sacraments, and the historic episcopate, locally adapted (in constitutional form). The unique vision was not simply of a communion of Churches, but of a new Church: of dying to denominationalism and rising to organic unity.
THERE were many hurdles to be overcome and issues to be clarified. The question of the supplemental ordination of the ministers of the non-episcopal Churches by a bishop became the most controversial towards the end of the process, but prayerful openness led to mutual recognition of ministries.
Ignorance of each other’s positions was acknowledged, and, when meetings were held, accommodating delegates of one denomination in the homes of others fostered friendship; for a few, this was a life-changing experience.
Amid some Indian theologians’ criticisms that Western ecclesiastical battles were being waged on unsuitable South Indian soil, some Indian participants in the negotiations pursued the desired unity with great vigour; and missionaries who wanted to test the waters to see what might be repeated in their home situation understood and supported them.
At the same time, other church leaders provided comment and clarification from a distance, among them, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. As the original manifesto affirms, “We aim not at compromise for the sake of peace, but at the comprehension for the sake of truth.”
The Methodist missionary J. S. M. Hooper, who was convener of the Coordination Committee for the last 12 years, was respected by his colleagues of other denominations for his faith, firmness, and friendliness, and so he was asked to give the inaugural address in St George’s Cathedral, Madras (now Chennai).
In it, he said: “God has matched us with His hour; the CSI has an unparalleled opportunity. The reconciliation between our divergent elements enables us with fresh conviction and force to proclaim the gospel of reconciliation to all the clashing elements in this nation.”
Similarly, no one dissented when the Rt Revd Michael Hollis, the celebrated Bishop of Madras, was invited to be the first Moderator of the CSI. The Rt Revd Lesslie Newbigin, a Presbyterian, was the youngest of the first team of CSI bishops. He participated in negotiations, and became a spokesperson for organic unity that was biblical and theological, for the sake of effective mission in a multi-faith context.
H. A. Popley and his Indian colleague K. T. Paul contributed with their Congregationalist emphasis on the spiritual equality of all Christians, and the local congregation as the locus of mission.
When the CSI was formed, it was widely regarded as a beacon of light in the ecumenical movement, as well as a sign of achieving the Church’s selfhood in India. At the same time, there was opposition, particularly among Anglo-Catholics, who withdrew their support for CSI and refused to recognise the ordained ministry of the United Church. This continued to be a source of contention in the Church of England until the mid-1950s.
In India, there were jeers, too, that “CSI is a mud horse which will crumble by one stroke.” Contrary to expectations, however, the CSI’s membership has grown four-fold. Its contribution to the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies, particularly in interfaith dialogue and contextual theological education, is significant. It is a vibrant Church in worship and spiritual expression, and vigorous in its missionary outreach.
INFORMED members of the CSI are concerned, however, about certain aspects of the Church’s life and witness today. For example, the vibrancy and vigour of most of its congregations are tainted with fundamentalism and false piety. Scandalous cases of corruption have shocked many. It is a cause of agony that the Church has not attained the maturity to ensure a decent way of electing its leaders, starting from its bishops.
Theological education and ministerial training, which are flourishing, mostly provide paper qualifications only, since the new challenges given to the candidates are often openly ridiculed.
While the CSI enjoys partnership with many worldwide ecumenical bodies, the bishops have found advantageous the Anglican Communion’s unilateral absorption of CSI as one of its Provinces (along with two other united Churches in South Asia), the official visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the “Chief Shepherd of the CSI”, and their full membership of the Lambeth Conference since 1998.
Some of those who are aware of the history of the negotiations, and of the specific nature of the CSI as an organic unity, not as a communion of denominational Churches, argue that this development represents a distortion. In connection with other constituent members (Methodist and United Reformed), it also presents complications.
But those who are concerned about these issues are, of course, proud to be part of this pioneering organic unity, part of movements for the reformation of the CSI, and deeply committed to making it “an ever-reforming Evangelical Church”.
The Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam is a presbyter of the Church of South India and a former Principal of the United College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham, and of the United Theological College, Bangalore.