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People, look East . . .

01 December 2023

Almost one quarter of a million Christians of Indian heritage live in the UK. Some of the Anglicans talk to Madeleine Davies


The Rt Revd Smitha Prasadam at her consecration in York Minster to be Bishop of Huddersfield, in June. Her parents were pioneer mission partners with CMS

The Rt Revd Smitha Prasadam at her consecration in York Minster to be Bishop of Huddersfield, in June. Her parents were pioneer mission partners with ...

AMONG the Indian students present in Britain in the 19th century was Cornelia Sorabji. The daughter of the Revd Sorabji Karsedji, a CMS missionary, she was the first woman ever to study law at Oxford University, taking up a place at Somerville College in 1889, driven by a desire to help purdahnashins: women in India who lived “behind the curtain” — confined to the private domain. In 1923, she became the first woman to practise law in India.

“Dear old ladies were always trying to convert me — for instance — the heathen at their gates,” she wrote. Attempts to explain that she was, in fact, a Christian were met with the reproach: “But you look so very heathen.”

The “dear old ladies’” bewilderment — the story is told in Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain: 400 years of history (Pluto Press, 2002) — is one that persists to this day, even if attitudes to other faiths have improved. Vasantha Gnanadoss, a member of the General Synod from 1990 to 2015, recalls being frequently asked whether she was a Hindu — “despite the fact that I was serving on General Synod!”

The Vice-Dean of Emmanuel Theological College, the Revd Shemil Mathew, recalls with some amusement the answer given by his son, when he was asked at a recent church visit whether he knew that his name — Thomas — appeared in the Bible. The questioner may not have been expecting an account of St Thomas’s reputed arrival in India in the first century. The history of Christianity in India is ancient and rich.

It is also a history intertwined with our own, here in Britain. Visram’s study begins at St Dionis Backchurch, in the City of London, and the baptism of “Peter”, an “East Indian” in 1616. The occasion was attended by a packed congregation, including the Lord Mayor, and governors of the East India Company, established just 16 years earlier. The Archbishop of Canterbury had given his approval.

Peter had been brought to Britain two years earlier, having been taught to read and write English by the Revd Patrick Copland, a Company chaplain on the Coromandel Coast on south-east of the subcontinent. The Company had voted to pay for further schooling in England so that he could be “instructed in religion and sent back as a missionary to proselytise his own people”, Visram writes.

If British people are uninformed about India’s indigenous Christian population, they will probably have some awareness of British India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Empire. At the time of Peter’s baptism, it would be two centuries before British missionary activity in India took significant root (several centuries after the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries). The East India Company opposed it, fearing that it would be resented by the Indian population and hamper trade.

Nevertheless, in the 19th century, Anglican and Protestant missionaries expanded their efforts in the country, combining proselytism with the establishment of educational institutions that stand to this day. Of the 226,000 Christians of Indian heritage in the UK, many would be able to trace their faith to this missionary activity.

GROWING up in Kerala, Mr Mathew was educated entirely in CMS institutions, from nursery to the college where his father served as a professor. He worked for the society after finishing a theology degree at Gloucester. Yet, while he has traced the conversion of his great-grandfather to Anglicanism through the influence of CMS missionaries in the 19th century, the family are “Thomas Christians”, who can trace their family back to Namuthiri (a caste group) — families believed to have been converted by St Thomas.

In an article for the CMS journal Anvil, he has explored CMS’s “misconception that the Church in India was inferior to the Church of England and that it would accept the reforming steps proposed by the missionaries”.

DIOCESE OF LEICESTERBishop Saju Muthalaly with his wife, Katy, and four children

The Bishop of Loughborough, the Rt Revd Saju Muthalaly, describes the perception that Indian Christians are solely the product of colonialism — one also being played out in India itself — as “nonsense. . . The diminishing of the St Thomas tradition is actually a Eurocentric, colonial idea.”

Like Mr Mathew, and the Bishop of Liverpool, Dr John Perumbalath, Bishop Muthalaly traces his family’s faith to St Thomas and to the Syrian Orthodox Church, which took root after the arrival of two Syrian Fathers in the ninth century.

Bishop Muthalaly, who was appointed in 2021 (News, 19 November 2021), came to the UK in 2001 as a 21-year-old on a gap year with the Christian charity Care Force, and recalls the warm hospitality that he received — an experience that he contrasts with that of the Windrush generation. He stayed with a Messianic Jewish family, whose hospitality made him feel like an older son. Soon after his arrival, he met his wife, Katy.

“I am always drawn to the words of Jesus, who says that everyone who has left houses and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers for the sake of the Kingdom of God will receive 100 times as much,” he says. Relationships have meant that England has become a “place of home”, he says — which is not to say that there are not other places in the world which would also bear that name for him.

Growing up in a leprosy hospital in Bangalore, where his mother worked as a nurse, helped him to make sense of Christianity. “From an early age, I witnessed my mum being a very prayerful, caring person, who really had a big heart to work among the most ostracised people in the world. Leprosy is an unbearably cruel affliction, and its real scars are relational: people with leprosy experience discrimination, exclusion — it’s heartbreaking. . .

“It really made me think, as a young Christian, how do we, as followers of Jesus, make sense of that crucified Saviour in a broken place like a leprosy hospital? This was a Christianity that made perfect sense in terms of making this world a better place. . . My friendships were with children who lived with the condition of leprosy. I played marbles with them.”

He laughs when describing himself as a “reluctant convert to Anglicanism”, despite the fact that both his grandmothers were Anglican. Among the aspects that drew him was its global character, he says: “I say the apostolic and Nicean creeds with Anglicans from Bangladesh to Burundi to Brazil.” He has also “fallen in love” with the Church’s liturgy: its seasons, and the “great joy” of the sacrament.

Leicester is home to the largest Indian population in the UK: about 93,000 people. A relatively recent arrival, Bishop Muthalaly is conscious that Indian Christians have long been blessing Britain, “serving in workplaces in pretty much every layer of British society for a very, very long time”. Conversations with those who worship in the Syrian Orthodox Church here have been informative, he says.

“I think it’s a Korean philosopher who says the Church in the West is too alive to die, and too dead to live. So, I think in some ways, what the Church desperately needs is the fanning into flame of something that is significant: the crucible where God is doing something interculturally for the next generation of people. And we, as bishops, long to see a Church that is intercultural, and, therefore, we play our part not just as observers, as externals, but as full participants in the life of the Church.”

He has not been to any Orthodox gathering without a large number of young people present — a demographic often absent from C of E churches. “That is one of the great gifts: they come with children, and they come with a heritage, and they come with a desire really for their children to be discipled.”

Indian Christians also bring 2000 years of remaining faithful and flourishing in a “predominantly pluralistic society” — a gift that the C of E “desperately needs now”, he suggests. While Christians of Indian heritage in Britain need “welcome and embrace” from our Established Church, “what we need is not making the mistakes of the past by telling people ‘Your kind of people worship down the road.’”

THE Rt Revd Smitha Prasadam, now Bishop of Huddersfield, arrived, aged ten, in the UK in the mid-1970s. “Am I allowed to say I was disappointed when I came to the promised land?” she laughs. “People had said to us, ‘Oh, Britain is a cold country.’ Well, I arrived in the middle of a drought.”

But there was “disappointment at a deeper level”, she says. Having been raised in the Church of South India — a United Church formed in 1947 from Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians — she expected that the Church of England would offer “the widest and broadest of welcomes”. While some communities offered “profound love”, she also experienced alienation, and “a sense of disappointment that people saw difference rather than commonalities, sometimes”.

Her mother, Canon Jemima Prasadam, was the first Indian woman ordained in the UK, serving in inner-city Birmingham for many years (News, 14 February 2020). “I think one of the things that I recognised in my mother’s ministry is something about resistance,” Bishop Prasadam recalls: “resistance to conform to stereotypes. Some of those stereotypes are to do with a colonial understanding, or about a woman’s place, or subservience.” For her own part, she was resistant to following in her parents’ paths, she says: “But I did follow a fine Asian pattern of going into the family business!”

Both of Bishop Prasadam’s parents were pioneer mission partners with the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Two uncles were named after missionaries, and she can recall playing among the graves of the descendants of Danish missionaries. As documented by Rozina Visram, there is a long history of Indian missionaries in the UK. The Revd E. B. Bhose, a Bengali Christian said to be on the staff of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, was appointed as a chaplain at St Luke’s Lascar Mission in Victoria Docks, in 1887. Aziz Ahmad, a Muslim convert to Christianity, worked as a “native missionary” among Lascars in Glasgow.

Christianity in India “feels both indigenous and colonial”, Bishop Prasadam observes. Her maternal grandfather came from a Shivite Hindu background, but accepted Christ after serving in the First World War — one of about one million Indians who fought on behalf of the British Empire — having been “profoundly struck” by the way in which military chaplains cared for the wounded. She recalls the cross tattooed on his arm, and explains that, as a Vaisya, his caste mark was a horizontal line on the forehead.

Sara CuffMembers of the congregation during a service at the Lancashire Asian Christian Convention, in August 2023

By contrast, her paternal grandfather, from the Brahmin priestly caste, had a vertical line. “So you see a cross has always adorned my forehead.” When her great-grandfather on her father’s side, Goruganthula Narayanamurthy, successfully ran away from home on his third attempt to renounce Hinduism and be baptised, it was the CMS who “gave him shelter and nurtured his fledgling faith in Kakinada”.

He went on to be an evangelist in the Krishna-Godavari diocese, in Andhra Pradesh, and, when he died, insisted that on his grave should be the date of his baptism, not his birth. “As a family, we are indebted to the work and witness of CMS, who went to India from these shores, but we reflect how the UK has now become our mission field.”

When it comes to the contribution of Indian Christians to the UK, she names spirituality first: “A rhythm and a pattern of prayer and discipleship which is as natural as all the other rhythms of our life and conversations. Conversation with God is a natural thing.” Like Bishop Muthalaly, she also refers to hospitality (“Have you ever been to an Indian home and walked out without a bellyful?”) and also spontaneity — an “openness to encounter” born out of living among other faiths — and the ecumenism embodied by the CSI and the Church in North India.

Indian saints can be “overlooked”, she suggests, mentioning the two who appear in the Common Worship calendar: Pandita Ramabai (“Not enough is known of her social reform and working to educate women and children, and to give voice to the gospel”) and Sadhu Sundar Singh (“the St Francis of India”). And she mentions “pan-Indian values”: the commitment to caring for the stranger, the elder, the child. “With growing age comes greater wisdom and huge respect,” she observes. “In a Church in a society where ageing is an issue, we can learn from Indian Christians that the care of elders is another gift.”

THE Indian diaspora in Britain is large: about 1.5 million, of whom more than 40 per cent were born in the UK. It is also young: about one third are aged from 18 to 34 (compared with 20 per cent of white British people). High levels of academic and professional achievement (British people of Indian heritage are the most economically successful of all minority groups in the UK, according to ONS data) are mentioned in a recent report by Grant Thornton, produced in partnership with the Indian High Commission, which celebrates them as “one of the most prosperous and dynamic ethnic-minority communities in the UK”.

Asians in Britain traces the history of this, exploring the longstanding presence of an Indian middle class, including doctors, barristers, and journalists. The first recorded student to take up British higher education was Dhunjeebhoy Nowrojee, a Parsee convert to Christianity, who studied theology at the Free Church College, Edinburgh, and was ordained in 1846.

AlamyCornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), the daughter of the Revd Sorabji Karsedji and the first woman to study law at Oxford University

But her book is also a history of racism and exploitation, of immigration and labour laws shifting in response to British demands and prejudices. It includes the tales of the Indian servants, “ayahs” (nannies), brought here by families who had made their fortunes in India, and of the Lascars who manned the ships of European Powers and faced appalling conditions on board, and destitution without a return passage to India.

Ayahs could also be left stranded in Britain. In 1891, the Ayahs’ Home was set up in London, its management later passing to the London City Mission. Its chief object, Visram writes, was to bring the residents “under Christian influence . . . binding the colonised in a web of gratitude and loyalty”.

Those in the professions were not immune. Possibly the first person of South Asian heritage to be the incumbent of an English parish was the Revd Shapurji Edalji, the Vicar of Great Wyrley, whose brilliant solicitor son, George, became a cause célèbre after being accused of mutilating a horse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle championing his innocence. Julian Barnes’s novel telling the tale — Arthur & George — brought the case to further attention in recent years.

Visram’s history also reveals the part played by Indians in confronting racism in Britain. In 1921, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society appointed Kamal Chunchie to the Seamen’s Mission, for mission work among black and Asian seamen. He established what has been described as London’s first Black church, in a hall in Canning Town, and also, in 1926, the Coloured Men’s Institute. He addressed Methodist gatherings around the country, “exposing the hypocrisy of Christian England where black peoples faced discrimination, while the missionary message ‘back home’ painted a different picture”.

Church TimesVasantha Gnanadoss addresses the General Synod in 2009

Records of the Synod highlight the part that Miss Gnanadoss, a member from 1990 to 2015, has played in building on this legacy. From pressing the Archbishops’ Council to collect ethnicity data in the Church (News, 26 November 1999) to securing a policy banning clergy from being members of the BNP (News, 6 July 2012), she has consistently held the feet of the Church’s leadership to the fire, writing in 2020 of “40 years of platitudes” (Letters, 19 June 2020).

For years, she highlighted the lack of people of colour in senior posts (Comment, 29 January 2016). “I used to get very irritated when people said ‘We have to help them understand the Church,’” she recalls. “This would be people who probably know more about the Church of England than white people.” Another notion she sought to challenge was “that people of Indian heritage should serve in a mostly Indian area . . . I think that is completely wrong.”

The great-niece of Bishop Samuel Azariah, the first Indian bishop in the Anglican Communion, she arrived in the UK from India as a child, and was brought up “to mix with everybody, not just think of myself as part of the Indian community”, she remembers. It is an approach that she continues to favour (“We have to be careful, when we form into groups, that we don’t just mix as Asians or black people”) and sees represented at her church, All Saints’, Battersea, which has a large Filipino congregation. “Everybody mixes together.”

While she recognises progress made — including recent episcopal appointments — she longs for a greater recognition of the theological contributions of Indian writers, in the syllabuses for ministerial training and elsewhere.

SEVERAL hundred miles north of Southwark, Mr Mathew is singing from the same hymn sheet. As Vice-Dean of Emmanuel College, launched in the north-west two years ago (News, 15 October 2021), he has been establishing partnerships with theological colleges in India, Palestine, and Rwanda, to give students online access to the teaching of colleagues in these countries (News, 11 August). At the college’s recent Global Theology day, the Mar Thoma seminary in Kerala joined online.

Like Bishop Muthalaly, he came to the UK as a young man on a Care Force gap year, having finished his degree in India, and securing a scholarship to study at the University of Gloucester before his ordination in 2014. The formation process exposed him to racism, he says. Despite having five degrees — two of which were in English literature — and having taught at two theological colleges, he was told that his English was not good enough for a curacy.

The experience prompted him to join other ordinands at Cuddesdon in establishing AMEN (the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network) in 2014 (News, 16 May 2014). The “eureka moment” that generated the name came while he was giving his young son a bath, he recalls: “He looked at my hand and his hand — he’s a lot fairer than me. He thought I was dirty and started to scrub and scrub my skin. So, I prayed for him growing up in this complex world of colourisms, and said ‘Amen’, a word he knew as well. At that point, it kind of dawned on me that AMEN will work as the name for this new network.”

Like other interviewees, he highlights Indian Christians’ experience as a minority, of living in a multicultural society, as a gift brought to the Church here.

“Our faith is quite different, in the sense that we don’t have the burden of Enlightenment rationalism; so we don’t always think ‘This has to be black and white.’” he says. “This is quite evident in discussions we are having about how the Anglican Communion responds to LLF, because a lot of the Indian Christians will say that the truth is not black and white . . . and also, we are not hard on facts.

“A good story is more important, because we still understand the value of myths, which are not non-historical, but history told in a different way. There’s a huge difference how we understand things.”

After more than two decades in the UK, where feels like home? “I think home is where we are as a family, and that is what is our calling as Christian, because the world itself is not home,” he observes. “I think home is where God called me to be.”

CURRENTLY undertaking doctoral research that explores the relationship between the Church of England and minority-ethnic communities, Mr Mathew has a particular interest in the caste system. His supervisor is Canon Anderson Jeremiah, a lecturer in world Christianity and religious studies in the department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, and the Bishop’s Adviser for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Blackburn.

Dr Jeremiah grew up in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India and the heart of historic Anglican missionary work. His academic interest in caste was born of personal experience, as a Dalit — an “Untouchable”. As a child, he was made to sit on the floor rather than the bench at school. When playing with friends at their homes, he was given a different type of drinking glass. All of this took place in Christian contexts.

At seminary, the same practices were evident. He is cognisant that, in many Orthodox and Mar Thoma churches, Dalits cannot receive communion. “I became acutely aware of it, and that is why I wanted to study, to see how to challenge that.”

Extensive study of the history of the modern missionary movement since the 17th century has proved revealing. It took decades for missionaries to realise the ineffectiveness of attempts to reach out across caste lines — that people did not wish to be in the same prayer group, for example, as those of a different caste. And so they decided to restrict themselves to work with particular caste groups. In effect, denominational identity became inextricably bound up with caste identity. “People know, even today, if you say you are an Anglican from Vellore, they know what your caste is.”

Canon Anderson Jeremiah and the Revd Shemil Mathew in Blackburn Cathedral

Most of the converts come predominantly from Dalit communities, because they responded more positively than high-caste communities. But Christianity did not result in social emancipation: “They are still at the lowest of the power structure.”

This still applies in the Indian diaspora in the UK, he reports. He is aware of a CSI congregation here who rejected a suggestion that he preside at the eucharist. And this was not the only prejudice that he has experienced. Having been ordained in the CSI, he served in the Scottish Episcopal Church for several years after arriving in the UK. But, when he moved to take up his post at Lancaster, it took almost ten months for him to secure permission to officiate in the diocese of Blackburn, despite a letter from the Bishop of Edinburgh. Later, having been encouraged to take up a parish appointment, he was told that he was ineligible, because he had an Indian passport, and someone from the UK must have first refusal.

“This kind of caste-based discrimination that I experienced in India was followed by being designated as a person of colour who doesn’t belong in the mainstream Church,” he summarises. “You need to go the extra mile in explaining who you are.” He has had to develop a “very thick skin”, he says — and he has been unafraid to challenge bishops. He played a formative part in the establishment of the Anti-Racism Taskforce, which preceded the Racial Justice Unit, and the diocese of Blackburn now has a number of priests from the South Asian community, including representation on the Bishop’s Council.

Dr Anderson is the son of a CSI priest, while both his parents had fathers who converted from Hinduism. He contrasts this background, with its roots in the “modern missionary movement”, with that of traditional St Thomas Christians such as Mr Mathew.

“As far as from my experience, I think Anglican missionaries and the Reformed missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries are critical in lifting vast numbers of Dalit communities out of complete social stagnation and exclusion,” he observes. “I am sitting here today because of the education that has been made possible through their educational missionary work.”

Yet he is conscious that, while as a Dalit Christian, he is “probably one among millions of young people who were able to break out of that cycle and pursue our education and secure a doctorate”, he is also something of an exception. “I am the only person from a Dalit Christian background to have a recognised academic position in the UK,” he says. “That itself says how difficult it is for people to break out of the cycle. . . It doesn’t just simply end in India, but continues abroad.”

FIFTY miles south of Lancaster, the Revd Tabitha Rao is nearing the end of her time as Associate Priest at Liverpool Parish Church. She grew up in North Karnataka, attended Christian schools, and arrived in the UK in 2009, at the age of 24, to study for a second Master’s degree, in environmental management.

Like others interviewed, she comes from a clergy family, and, like Bishop Prasadam, was determined not to follow this path, pursuing science instead. In Liverpool, she found a home at an Evangelical church with a strong student congregation, St James in the City, where the priest asked her whether she had considered ordination. She then spent a year at the cathedral in further discernment, where the team were “so supportive”. Her curacy was served at St Bede with St Clement, Toxteth.

Asked what struck her about cultural differences from the Church in India, she mentions “the numbers, to be honest. There’s a growth in the number of baptised Christians in India. . . When I travelled to the UK, I had one thought: that I was travelling to a Christian country. It is still a Christian country, but my views were so different, because we learned about the Church of England and the Anglican Communion from a very young age. . . Church of England is like a mother Church . . . But when I came here the numbers were a bit low. And I thought, So why is it so? And, back at home, we speak about faith very openly.”

TABITHA RAOThe Revd Tabitha Rao serves in Liverpool diocese

She speaks of being “really grateful to God” for having never experienced racism, feeling “very welcomed in the diocese of Liverpool”. But she is conscious of standing out and challenging expectations.

“I always feel it’s a privilege because everyone knows me,” she says. “I don’t feel sad at all. When people see me here in the city centre: ‘Ah, you’re a priest!’ . . . They think that [Indian culture] it’s a very conservative culture. So, people do have this conversation. ‘Ah, you’re Indian, and you’re a female, and you’re a priest in a city centre.’ So that helps me to have conversations to explain that. . .

“Especially when I am in the cathedral, I know I am the only brown female person processing. . . So I have people looking at me, and coming to talk to me. . . I feel being called to minister in a city centre is truly a gift.”

THE Church that Mthr Rao has joined is a very different one from that in which “Peter” was baptised, 407 years ago. Bishops Prasadam and Muthalaly are two of four bishops of Indian heritage now helping to lead it, alongside Dr John Perumbalath and the Bishop of Kirkstall, the Rt Revd Arun Arora. It is a Church in which “reverse mission” is under way — in which Indian Christians are arriving from a country in which the Church is growing and are keen to evangelise one where it is in decline. “There are more Christians in India than there are in England,” Bishop Arora recalls telling his mother, in his account of his conversion in his book Stick With Love (SPCK, 2023).

Bishop Muthalaly believes that the Church in England has something to learn from the Syrian Orthodox perspective of his upbringing in a leprosy hospital.

“One of the big things is the paradox of the transcendence and immanence of God,” he observes. “When you go into the Orthodox church, you will see that God is magnificent, God is transcendent, and yet often we are invited in the same liturgy to get our hands dirty. . . God is scandalously hospitable, and the Indian people embody that. And the Church, I think, in England, needs to in some ways recover this.”

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