The Church in North India
The Derbyshire Churches link with the Church of North India (CNI) goes back to 1977. As an ecumenical partnership, this link was unique until more recently the Diocese of Lincoln linked with the Church of South India.
The 1999 visit followed a review of the partnership in 1998, when most of the CNI Bishops visiting Derbyshire were in Britain for the Lambeth Conference. The hope was to build on what had gone before, to develop relationships, and to strengthen the links within the partnership on both sides. A representative group of twenty-six people was selected from the Derbyshire Churches.
After the initial period of orientation in Delhi, our group of twenty-six was divided into six smaller groups and sent to visit different dioceses in North India. I travelled with four others to visit the dioceses of Nagpur and Sambalpur. It should have been Cuttack and Sambalpur, but a last minute change of plan was necessary because the cyclones hitting Orissa had made it difficult to get to Cuttack.
Both in Delhi and in each of the other two dioceses I visited, the programme had been well organised and provided opportunity for an extensive look at the work of the CNI. My only criticism would be that it was a little too full! It would have been useful to have more space for reflection (and relaxation) during the visit itself.
The Church of North India
The Church of North India was formed in 1973, bringing together Christians from five different denominations. Some groups have remained independent, so it is still possible to find, for example, Baptist churches or Methodist churches, which are not part of the CNI. Unlike churches in Britain, which tend to want to iron out any differences before agreeing to work together, the Churches of North India saw the need for a united church and went ahead, working through the differences in the worship and the ongoing mission of the church.
During three weeks we visited some forty Christian institutions, all servicing the poor, the needy, and the unreached - serving all who needed them, of whatever faith. And I could not fail to be impressed by what the church was trying to do, in terms of practical and holistic mission, often with so few resources.
The overall impression was of a servant church, a theme encapsulated by the CNI logo, with its motto of "Unity, Witness, Service". And I came home with a very big question: what on earth is the church in this country doing? I wonder whether we even have any notion of what it means to be a servant church here in Britain - or somewhere along the road have we lost the vision of Christ, on his knees, with a towel around his waist? Of course, there are individuals engaged in all kinds of meaningful service ‘in the community’ here in Britain, and churches involved in mission in their communities. But by and large, as I speak in churches around the three dioceses in which I work, Sunday after Sunday, I see churches which are focussed on internal concerns, often preoccupied with the maintenance of expensive buildings which are not even used from Monday to Saturday. There is nothing in this country which even comes close to the servant church I experienced in India.
Our visits around the Delhi Diocese were wide ranging, taking in some of the most prestigious schools in New Delhi, as well as work in some of the poorest slums of Old Delhi, in the work of the Delhi Brotherhood. It was encouraging to see that Christian schools and hospitals have such good reputations, with schools often attracting fierce competition for places from adherents of other faiths, because of the standard of education.
We saw an impressive amount of work, and met many dedicated Christians exercising professional careers mixed with Christian ministries. My only question would be about the relationship of the local church congregations to their diocesan institutions. On a number of occasions we tried to tease out information about this from our hosts, but no amount of questioning seemed to give any answers.
Our programme in Nagpur was probably the most frantic of them all! We saw so much in the space of only three and a half days. The diocese is extremely well organised, and gave the impression of being financially better off than some (relatively, of course!) Most of the diocesan projects and institutions are run under the direction of Mr Thangavel (Kutchi), the Diocesan Development Officer - a remarkable man, with a great sense of humour. I am sure he could teach our churches here a thing or two about mission in the community, not to mention other dioceses in the CNI!
Kutchi’s daughter Shona, a charming young lady of about twenty-one years, works as the Diocesan Communications Officer. She followed our visit with all sorts of photographic equipment, including a video camera. At the beginning of each day during our stay in Nagpur, we were not only presented with a resumé of that day’s itinerary, but also with notes on what we had done the previous day, complete with photographs scanned in! At the end of our stay, we were each given a folder containing a complete write-up of our visit, colour photos with captions, and a Video on CD to take home and play on our computers. It’s a little ironic to come home with a gift such as this, which I don’t have the technology to use in my presentations in parishes here in the UK!
Since returning, I have received regular reports from the Nagpur Diocese by e-mail. It is no wonder they are able to attract funding for their projects - they certainly know how to do it.
We were very grateful to the Bishop of Nagpur, who had taken the five of us as extra visitors, in addition to the other six he was already expecting, at only twenty-four hours notice, when our plans were changed due to the cyclones in Orissa.
Having visited the different dioceses of Delhi and Nagpur, Sanbalpur was different again. Orissa is one of the poorest states in India, and the poverty and the struggles of the Church were self-evident. None-the-less, we probably received our warmest welcome here. There were none of the more elaborate bouquets of flowers and speeches, but just as many genuine offerings of real welcome and hospitality: I think of the children at Balangir School who gave us flowers picked from the gardens that morning, the boys from the hostel who poured water on the ground in front of us, a symbolic washing of the feet, and the girls at the hostel who washed our hands and dried them for us, before serving us food which they themselves had prepared. Throughout our stay our hosts were very sensitive to our needs, making sure we had bottled water to drink, and even offering us the odd opportunity to rest! Very welcome, considering the heat and the humidity, which was almost unbearable at times, especially when the temperature soared to 117 degrees - even hot for that time of year for the locals!
The Bishop of Sanbalpur was a lovely man, and an excellent pastor. Wherever we travelled (and we travelled quite a bit in this Diocese, on some extraordinary roads, to some fairly far-flung places, in some even more extraordinary vehicles!) Bishop Tandy would always greet members of his congregations by name. He seemed to have a relationship with them all, even the smallest children. He even gave one of his own Pectoral Crosses away to one member of our group.
The Church here had quite a different "feel" from that of the Churches we had experienced up to this point. Partly because of the threat of persecution (see separate note below), and also because the Bishop and many of the Clergy had been Baptists before the formation of the CNI, so there was a very strong evangelical Baptist influence. Many of the Diocesan projects had been funded by the Baptist Missionary Society, and until her retirement and return to the UK last year, a BMS missionary had run the Girls Hostel at Balangir. We sensed that they were still keenly feeling her loss, and also the loss of a great deal of BMS funding, for reasons we failed to ascertain.
Persecution of Christians in Orissa
It became very evident to us that persecution is a daily reality for Christians in the Diocese of Sambalpur. We heard many stories, including the story of a tribal village which had converted to Christianity: the villagers fear to use a certain track through the forest because of threats from the neighbouring Hindu villagers. Many of the Christians here had been beaten by neighbouring villagers. We met a lovely Christian man who was manager of a cement factory. When we asked about his relationship with his workers, we discovered that he was the only Christian in the place, and his life was made very difficult by the workers, who really wanted rid of him.
Whenever we were travelling around the Diocese with the Bishop, we noticed that he travelled "incognito", without his clericals, and with his pectoral cross tucked inside his shirt out of sight. We sensed that our friends who were hosting us were very concerned about our safety. We were not allowed anywhere unaccompanied, and we were locked into the Diocesan Guest House at night. Quite an unnerving experience, compared with the freedom we experience in this country which we so much take for granted! In one village, the police turned up shortly after our arrival, wanting to know who we were, what we were doing there, and could they see our passports? The Bishop was sure that he would receive more enquiries after we had left. The anxiety of the Christian Church was almost tangible, something I had never before experienced. It certainly made us more appreciative of the freedom we have here in Britain.
At a meeting of Ecumenical Church leaders, arranged for our benefit, we received a passionate plea from several of the leaders to take home to our country stories about the persecution, which they said is nothing short of an abuse of basic human rights: the right to chose your faith. We were urged to lobby our Government to put pressure on the Indian Government to end the persecution, and create a nation of religious tolerance - for which India was once famous.
The persecution has arisen because of particular fundamentalist evangelical American groups, which have come in seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity using overt evangelistic methods. Unfortunately, the BJP extremists in Orissa have "tarred all Christians with the same brush" - hence the persecution. It is not widespread all over North India, but is experienced in certain areas.
I wondered whether there is more that CMS could do, in terms of advocacy and awareness raising, to help our suffering brothers and sisters in this part of the Church of North India?
Reflections on partnership links
The visit has convinced me of the value of encouraging links between Churches in Britain and Churches overseas (not that I probably needed too much convincing!) We all learnt and received so much from our brothers and sisters in the Church of North India, and returned with new inspiration for our mission and ministry here.
Whilst I had done a certain amount of preparation for the visit in terms of reading etc., nothing could have prepared me for the warmth and generosity of the hospitality we received, from people who had so little themselves. It was very humbling to be treated almost as VIPs, showered with gifts and garlands of flowers wherever we went. And alongside that came the realisation that it was of real value to our hosts that we had taken the trouble to travel all the way from Britain to visit them, to spend time with them, and to listen to their stories. I hope that some lasting relationships will have been formed, of real mutual benefit, as a result of our visit. And I am reminded of Paul Spray's message at our Bicentenary Conference in September, that the fostering of real person to person links across the divides of culture and background is something unique that mission agencies such as CMS can offer to the Christian Church today.
But there was the inevitable issue of finance! There is still the tendency to see Westerners as money providers, however much we try to emphasise the importance of not letting any partnership become money focused, and say that this can "skew" the relationship. We were taken to many unfinished projects, and came home with a number of requests for funding for CMS. In each case, I simply made a note and said that all I could do was take the request back, but as far as I'm aware all CMS funding normally goes through the Church of North India - so no direct requests would even be considered unless they came through the CNI.
It was difficult to convey that in Britain we too have problems, albeit of a very different kind, and that we are not necessarily rich: it is all relative, and our standard of living is higher. But Indian Christians have so little, in a sense who can blame them? In their situation, we would probably do the same!