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Standing down the ghosts of the past

09 March 2018

The spectre of paternalism still haunts mission, Leslie Nathaniel explains


The Baptist missionary William Carey (1761-1834) baptises a Hindu convert, a carpenter, Kristno, in the Hooghly River, India, in this American etching and line engraving from 1837

The Baptist missionary William Carey (1761-1834) baptises a Hindu convert, a carpenter, Kristno, in the Hooghly River, India, in this American etching...

CONVERTS to Christianity in India can be traced to the fourth century, when the first cells of Celtic Christians were being established in Britain. Further back, a strong tradition holds that St Thomas the Apostle reached the coasts of southern India: evidence of the single-minded commitment of the Early Church to taking the good news to the furthest reaches of the known world.

All of this should tell us that Christian mission cannot simply be understood as going hand in hand with colonial interests and empire-building. By the time British influence in India began to take hold, Christians, whether of the ancient Syrian and Orthodox tradition or Roman Catholic, already represented a recognised and well-integrated minority.

None the less, it must be equally affirmed that the impetus of the so-called “modern” missionary movement of the 18th to 20th centuries was intricately interwoven with, and even inspired by, a belief in Western civilisation’s supremacy over the more “primitive” cultures of its colonial subjects. From the founding of the East India Company onwards, British influence and power over the Indian subcontinent grew steadily, to the point of direct rule.

Britain initially followed the principle of non-interference in religious and cultural matters. It was not until 1813, under the influence of friends in Parliament who were members of the Clapham Sect, that the Charter Act, or East India Company Act, relaxed the rules preventing missionaries’ entering India. By that time, numerous missionary endeavours had circumvented restrictions: the Baptist William Carey, who entered India without a permit, is perhaps the most famous example.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the British Empire assumed that its superiority was unassailable. In Europe, the prevailing opinion was that the culture and religions of India were “the beastly devices of the heathen”. Missionary endeavour in India made full use of the facilities and privileges granted by the government not only to enter the country, but to acquire land and expand, with little regard for the religious and cultural sensitivities of the communities that it claimed to serve. It enjoyed — largely uncritically — the protection of the colonial power.

 USPGMembers, c.1970, of the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ, founded on the vision of Bishop Westcott in 1877 as the Cambridge Mission to Delhi, with the aim of fostering a distinctively Indian indigenous Church. Members founded St Stephen’s College, Delhi, in 1881, now a prestigious university college. C. F. Andrews served with the Brotherhood for a time

IN HIS book Paternalism and the Church (Oxford, 1962), Michael Hollis, a retired missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), who had served from 1942 to 1954 as the Bishop of Madras, and subsequently taught church history to theological students in Bangalore, reflected on the patterns of paternalism which had been employed, at times instinctively, by mission and missionaries in the 19th century.

Missionaries cultivated dependence on, and obsequious support for, what they did and decided, he argued. For an Indian villager, a missionary was part of the ruling race: he lived and dressed like a European; he had a large protected house with many servants; and he projected authority and wealth, even though, in comparison with the government servants and European businessmen, he received meagre compensation.

The missionary was to be approached with caution. He was a source of benefits, and his disapproval was faced with trepidation. The missionary’s personnel (servants, butler, catechist, writer, head clerk) all served to project this image. An Indian Church was being prepared, but it was not expected to be responsible; nor was it trained to take on responsibility. It could be said that the security and identity of Christians seemed to be inextricably bound up with the Western mission enterprise, resulting in dependency that was not only financial and social, but also psychological.

To quote Hans-Ruedi Weber, in Asia and the Ecumenical Movement 1895-1961 (SCM Press, 1966): “Many [missionaries] covered up their uncertainty by outward authority, making absolute their own moral, doctrinal and liturgical heritage and imposing it on others instead of making together with the converts the pilgrimage to the centre of the Church and world and receiving there in worship and study a greater fullness of spiritual discipline and knowledge.”

“Mission funding generated in the mission homelands determined church policy,” Hollis writes. “All mission activities, including hospitals, educational institutions, printing presses, and technical institutions, required money from the West. Money was not only a key to framing mission policies, but a source of power, status, and security. Therefore, any post in the Church which brought with it the control of money was eagerly sought after.”

A reminder of the stark inequality between the dominant voices of the Western Churches and the hugely under-represented younger Churches can be found by looking at the first World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910. Among more than 1200 Western delegates were just 17 Asians, and even these were registered as representing British and American organisations, ignoring the fact that some of them, such as V. S. Azariah — consecrated the first Indian Anglican bishop just two years later — could have represented their own Churches or missionary societies.

That Asians were consulted at all was at the insistence of the YMCA’s John R. Mott, in the face of strong opposition. It was he who, knowing what he was letting the conference in for, encouraged the initially hesitant Azariah to speak freely and frankly on the sensitive issue of failures in the relationships between foreign and indigenous workers. So, “the first shot in the campaign against missionary imperialism”. as it came to be known, was fired

Taking heart, Azariah told the assembled conference: “We shall learn to walk only by walking — perchance only by falling and learning from our mistakes, but never by being kept in leading strings until we arrive at maturity.”

He called to mind the quality of the relationships that Christ had established with his disciples, and made the impassioned plea: “Give us friends!” It was the clarion call for a radically new relationship, based on equality, mutual respect, and mutual support.

USPG/Leah GordonFr Jai Kamur BAC at the Church of North India anniversary commemoration service at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, New Delhi    

THIS much-quoted appeal was prefaced by an acknowledgment of the sacrificial and devoted service of missionaries: “Through all the ages to come, the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body,” he told the gathering. “You have given your bodies to be burned.”

This was no diplomatic ploy. The high regard, appreciation, and recognition of many achievements of the missionaries, often at high personal cost, were genuine, and they continue to be felt, not only by Indian Christians.

Individual missionaries were already fighting social evils such as sati (immolation of widows) and child marriage by the beginning of the 19th century. Ram Mohan Roy, considered to be the first great Indian social reformer, lent his active support to these campaigns. The contributions of Charles Freer Andrews to the abolition of indenture are regarded as among the outstanding missionary achievements in colonial history. Missionaries also played a widely recognised positive part in movements for liberation from the shackles of caste, and in furthering the education and training of those facing discrimination and exclusion, including women.

Protestant Western missions and missionaries pioneered medical work in the Indian subcontinent, although most Christian medical work began as an afterthought, as, in the course of their evangelistic work, missionaries were confronted by the sick and the dying.

In the field of language and translation, individual missionaries made enormous contributions. For years, translations by missionaries of classical Sanskrit texts, as well as the Bible, into regional languages formed the main part of the lingua franca literature of India. It was a contribution that went far towards establishing “structural unity among the vernaculars and . . . their uniform development”.

To highlight just one outstanding missionary, Bishop Robert Caldwell continues to be held in high regard among the Nadar community of Tirunelveli, whom he served for 40 years. He arrived in India in 1836, initially in the service of the Congregational London Missionary Society (LMS), before he joined the SPG.

Canon Daniel O’Connor, an SPG missionary in India and church historian, writes that Caldwell lived “nearly on a level with the natives and among the natives”. Caldwell’s Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856) has been celebrated for its brilliance, and, to this day, he holds a place of honour in the state of Tamil Nadu, in recognition of his contribution to the education and social development of village communities.

The newly arrived missionary who did not already have a deep respect for the culture and traditions of India could soon acquire it, provided he or she came with an open and enquiring mind. Many did not; but others spent the best part of their lives living and working in solidarity with the local people. The respect and love was often mutual, and the gospel values that the missionaries proclaimed were freely embraced.

USPG/Leah GordonKiran Bala, a USPG director, and Asha Kasgar (to her left), a worker, take notes about Bobby Kumar’s (far left) case at the community court at the Mahila Panchayat women’s empowerment centre. It is run by the Delhi Brotherhood Society, a USPG partner

WITHIN this wide framework of colonial domination and missionary paternalism, on the one hand, and the valuable contributions of missionary endeavour, on the other, an intense struggle and yearning for authenticity was emerging among young Indian theologians, within the broader movement for national independence.

They strove for a religious authenticity that was integrated into national identity. Questions about the historic episcopate became less central than those asking: What makes me Indian? What makes me Christian? Can I be a true patriot and a faithful Christian at the same time? How can Christians in India be a witness to Christ, who called his disciples to be one, when they project a disunited, distorting face of Christ? At the same time, Christian missionary activity was seen as intertwined with colonial occupation (and in the eyes of Hindu nationalists it still is).

The movement that gained the greatest momentum over several decades sought to overcome denominational divisions between the Churches planted by and inherited from the Western parent mission societies. Each Church had developed a distinct profile in terms of church order, liturgy, and language, and even doctrine. In practice, these Churches also responded differently to issues of caste. In some areas, Anglicans, out of a wish to accommodate tradition, agreed to separate the so-called “Untouchables” from “Caste-Christians” in the church by erecting a wall. On the other hand, the Basel Mission introduced the rule that every baptism was followed by a fellowship meal at which people of different castes ate together.

While this movement enlisted the wholehearted support of most missionaries in the field, regardless of their denominational identity, the parent societies struggled. As negotiations continued among Anglicans, Wes­leyan Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists seeking unity (News, 22 September), SPG underwent a tortuous process of squaring its theological position — that of the Church of England — with the facts that were emerging on the ground.

One of the main issues was how to maintain the loyalty of the support base, which was being influenced by the missionaries who were in support of union. The Church Missionary Society (CMS), under the leadership of Max Warren, played an independent supportive part.

It was Hollis who cast the deciding vote for church union. On 27 September 1947, just weeks after India attained its independence, the United Church of South India (CSI), comprising the Anglican, Methodist, and Reformed Churches, was born. Hollis was elected as its first Moderator. Back home, his stance had not been appreciated, and nor were his wisdom and perspicacity sought on his return from India. Azariah described him as a “martyr for the cause of unity”. The Church of England took about 40 years to recognise the CSI’s Orders.


ALAMYA blind man is led to a picture of Jesus in Chennai

MISSION is God’s call to his people to go out from their comfort zones to spread the good news in Jesus Christ, “in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the world”. Today, we must learn from history, and reorder or replace paradigms that have served us ill with new perspectives to build the future. The past, with its burdensome heritage, must not be forgotten, but it should cease to dominate.

New models of mission engagement are, in fact, well-established in many of the traditional mission agencies, thanks to consultation and new structures based on the equality of partners who participate in formulating policies, make decisions jointly, and provide each other with resources. The traditional bilateral relationships have, to a significant extent, given way to multilateral and South-South exchanges of personnel and programmes.

But, despite these positive shifts, pitfalls similar to those of the past are never far away. One obvious risk is the donor-receiver mentality, which exists even though our globalised world teaches us daily that the “haves” and the “have-nots” are to be found in all parts of the world, and cannot be equated simply with material wealth or poverty. Here, a significant shift in mindset has yet to take place. The dependency that Western missions were instrumental in fostering stymies creative and equal partnership in mission. The memory of this can, however, prompt us to show sensitivity, on the one hand, and guard against an obsequious approach, on the other.

Far from being laid to rest, the ghosts of the past lurk in the shadows, and are too readily conjured up, both on the side of the so-called “perpetrators” as well as the so-called “victims”. These ghosts can paralyse the will to change and tackle the pressing issues of our time. This goes not only for those at the top, but at the grass-roots, in parishes, congregations, schools, and institutions.

Partner churches in the South continue to feel the impact of the colonial era, and Western mission agencies, conscious of this legacy, feel embarrassed to speak out on sensitive issues. This creates an atmosphere of tension, fragility, and frustration. Western missions carry a heavy burden — and so they should, many argue. Yet guilt can stand in the way or be instrumentalised, acting as a destructive force in relationships between Christian brothers and sisters. It deters partners from challenging one another or acknowledging mutual need. We must bear in mind that Christians in India continue to face accusations of divided loyalties, and demands that they prove their Indian identity.

There is a perception that mission is principally being worked out by supra-level special committees and boards, more or less separated from the living roots — their source of sustenance set in the liturgical, sacramental, and communal life of the congregations. This must be guarded against, lest they become self-determining operations. We find that the Churches in the West still manifest an inward-looking approach in their mission thinking, and a failure to recognise the truth that we need each other and can be enriched by the hidden blessings in the other. The question is: Who sets the agenda?

In short, if mission confidence is to be achieved in today’s increasingly pluralistic and secularised world, we need a new spirit: an intentional Mission First move, in which mission is central to the Church’s understanding of itself and is held in common, an enterprise in which all partners, with their diverse identities, are stakeholders, bringing their particular charisms and contexts to the table.

This will take place through a global interchange in which no one dominates, and none of the partners are threatened, or lose their own identity, but all are equal participants in God’s mission of spreading the gospel, so that the good news reclaims its primacy, and unites the participants in giving visibility and effectiveness to the one household of the Church worldwide.


Canon Leslie Nathaniel is Chaplain of St Thomas Becket’s, Hamburg, in Ger­many. Born in South India, he worked with the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2009 to 2016, ini­tially as the Deputy Secretary for Ecu­menical Affairs and European Secretary for the Church of England, and later as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ecumen­ical Secretary.

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