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A dying and resurrection in India

22 September 2017

Israel Selvanayagam reflects on the first ‘United Church’, 70 years after its inauguration

Ecumenical pioneer: the Rt Revd V. S. Azariah

Ecumenical pioneer: the Rt Revd V. S. Azariah

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.

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