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United, not Anglican, Churches in India

16 August 2019

Archbishop Welby’s forthcoming visit raises some hard questions, says Israel Selvanayagam

Church Times

A replica of Archbishop Robert Runcie during his visit to India in 1986

A replica of Archbishop Robert Runcie during his visit to India in 1986

PREPARATIONS are well under way for the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to India and to the Churches of South India (CSI) and North India (CNI) in September (News, 2 August). Such a visit should be an occasion for celebration — but, in fact, it raises some sharp and uncomfortable questions about how it is being understood. Far too many see it as a visit by their “chief shepherd” to two Provinces within the worldwide Anglican Communion. But that cannot be so.

When the CSI came into being in 1947 (followed, in 1970, by the CNI) as the first organic unity, it had been clearly understood and stated by Anglican church leaders such as Archbishops Temple and Fisher, and by Bishop George Bell, as well as by leaders of other denominations, that it would not, and could not, become a Province within the Anglican Communion. In lending his support, Archbishop Fisher wrote, movingly: “It was a separation, accepted in the belief and hope that by it the cause of ultimate unity will be served.”

Church TimesArchbishop Robert Runcie during his visit to India in 1986

So, in 1947, the Anglican dioceses of South India ceased to exist and became dioceses within the independent Church of South India. Michael Hollis, for example, who prophetically described the creation of the CSI as “the most important event in church history since Pentecost”, ceased to be the Anglican Bishop of Madras and became the CSI bishop in Madras, and then the Moderator of the whole CSI.

It was costly. There was opposition, and some funding was stopped. Jeering voices prophesied: “CSI is a mud horse that will crumble at one stroke.” Hollis was not allowed to celebrate communion in Anglican churches and institutions in England unless he could make an undertaking that he would not do so in non-Anglican churches. There were some parish churches putting notices that CSI members would not be welcome at communion.

But there was also a powerful sense among many more that, in bringing this to pass, former Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians were being led by the Spirit to realise Christ’s will that “they be one”. As the Revd Marcus Ward put it: “Three Churches (Anglican, Methodist, and the pre-existing union of Congregational, Basel Mission, and Presbyterian) died that one must live.”

This was and remains a thrilling and courageous event that, it was hoped, would inspire Christians everywhere. The United Church confounded the jeerers by growing three-fold, then four-fold, in the following 70 years.

THERE was a disappointing lack of interest, however, among Anglicans. The founders’ hopes and prayers that their mother Churches might become one, as they had become one, were disappointed.

There has been much to celebrate, but, in 1986, Archbishop Runcie, before his own visit to the sub-continent, expressed a profound sadness that, after nearly 40 years, there was still not full communion between the Church of England (and the Anglican Communion) and the CSI and CNI. The content of discussions that took place during the Archbishop’s visit are unknown. Two years later, however, after the 1988 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion (unilaterally) declared that the Indian Churches of organic unity were in full communion.

But what was surely an attempt to heal past hurt seems to have begun a process by which, without it being openly declared or necessarily intended, the leaders of the United Churches of India increasingly seemed ready to accept (or perhaps even to invite) a relationship in which they are understood to be part of the Anglican family. In other words, Provinces within the Anglican Communion (with their bishops now) are members, without being aware of the implications in relation to the original vision that took 28 years of hard work and sensitivity to other constituents of the union.

Church Times Archbishop Robert Runcie during his visit to India in 1986

For the first time, six bishops of the CSI were invited as guests to the 1988 Lambeth Conference. All the bishops were invited as members to the 1998 Conference. Subsequently, in the same year, a clumsy invitation was given for the Moderators to be members of the Primates’ Meetings, and they first attended that held in Cyprus. Representatives began to be included on the Anglican Consultative Council, too.

Noticeably, Anglicans continued to refer inaccurately to an “Indian Communion of Churches”, indirectly denying their organic union. CSI and CNI bishops, together with their wives, were invited to Lambeth in 2008, and Archbishops made highly publicised visits to India, though without return visits by a Moderator, or parallel visits of leaders of non-Anglican constituents of CSI.

Most woundingly, the Prayer Cycle of the Church of England notes only the names of the bishops of pre-CSI Anglican dioceses: for example, Pentecost 2017. At the Primates’ Meeting in October 2018, the present Archbishop, flanked by the Moderators of the CSI and CNI solemnly but insensitively declared these two Churches to be the true successors of the Church of England in India.

Incidents such as these prompted the “Friends of the Church in India” in the 1990s to ask the pointed question: “Is the CSI Anglican?” The question received only a deafening silence.

In October 2017, when confronted with questions about the relationship between the CSI and the Anglican Communion when the Moderator was a guest together with his counter part in the CNI, his response was: “There is confusion, and it will be rectified.” The Archbishop did not respond at all.

THIS whole process betrays, on the part of Anglican leaders, at best, a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be an organically United Church, and what that status must always imply as far as relations with any denomination goes, including Anglicanism. And, sadly, it may represent a betrayal within those Churches themselves of the high ideals that brought them into being, laying them open to the charge of unwittingly allowing themselves to be lost in a latter-day neo-colonial embrace; an embrace that endangers their hard-won organic unity and dulls the sharp challenge that organic unity represents to all denominations.

Whenever I have attempted to clarify these questions, they have been largely brushed aside as unimportant, or ignored altogether. This raises in my mind whether, for the sake of clarity and truth, it would be better for CSI and CNI bishops (and wives) either to withdraw from Lambeth Conferences or, better, come with representatives from other Churches, as welcome guests rather than members.

I would be relieved to know what would be the perspectives of leaders and members of the CSI who seem unaware of the seriousness of the above developments. Of late, I have written to the officers of the CSI with a request to organise a meeting with the Archbishop during his visit of a select group of theologians and church historians who are deeply concerned about this issue.


IF ARCHBISHOP Welby was visiting the two United Churches of India in September on behalf of the Anglican Communion to promote friendship and mutual learning, to discuss partnerships and mission, and was carrying with him an invitation for the Moderators of the CSI and CNI to visit him in London on a similar footing, how different all this would be.

Bishop Hollis once wrote rather caustically: “We (in Britain) are not really unhappy about what we too easily call our unhappy divisions — not unhappy as our Lord is unhappy.” Over the past 70 years, the United Churches of India have challenged that profound and continuing complacency.

The best way for the Anglican Communion — particularly the Church of England — to show that it is ready to receive as well as to give, to learn as well as to instruct, would be to take the example of organic unity presented by the Indian Churches fully to heart and avoid anything, including any well-meaning gesture, that might compromise what they, by the guidance of the Spirit, have so bravely achieved.

It is time to bury once and for all any possible hint of Anglicanisation, whether by stealth or design, while, of course, treasuring what was inherited from Anglicanism. This is not the time for any creeping recolonisation. It is time for the true story to be told.

The Revd Dr Israel Selvanayagam is a presbyter of the Church of South India, a theological educator, and a former Principal of the United College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham, and of the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

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