The Church of North India: Unity’s Fruit in a Struggle Unfinished
The Revd. Sunil Michael Caleb, Ph.D. is Principal of Bishop’s College, Kolkata, India, describes the Church of North India’s continuing journey towards unity
The Church of North India is a united church of Protestant and Anglican denominations which was inaugurated on Advent Sunday, 29 November 1970, on the grounds of All Saints’ Cathedral, Nagpur, Maharashtra (in central India). The inauguration brought to a conclusion some forty years of negotiations among almost all the major Protestant and Anglican denominations that had a presence in the northern part of India.
This paper addresses the theological and missional impulses behind the drive for church union. What were the obstacles and hindrances? What were the main landmarks on this journey? What has been the experience of the Church of North India since union was inaugurated? What elements in this church’s experience might be useful to Christians in other places who are struggling to overcome division?
Denominational Diversity of Anglican and Protestant Missions in India
The first arrival of Protestant Christianity in India occurred through the coming of the German Lutheran missionaries Bartholomew Zeigenbalg and Heinrich Pluetschau, who arrived in the Danish trading port of Tranquebar (modern day Tarangambadi), Tamil Nadu, South India in July 1706, having been sent by the Danish King Frederick IV. The coming of the British Baptist, William Carey, to Calcutta in November 1793 was the start of a significant amount of work by Protestant missionary organisations like the Baptist Missionary Society, which Carey was responsible for founding. Though there were a few Anglican chaplains associated with the East India Company, the Church of England officially began its work with the appointment of Thomas Fanshawe Middleton as the first Anglican Bishop of Calcutta, who arrived in December 1814.
An unfortunate result of the coming of these various churches and mission bodies into India was that the divisions that existed in the church in Europe and the United States at that time were replicated on the South Asian sub-continent. The result was a deeply fragmented Protestant presence in India, with each church bringing its own theology, polity and personnel.
Cooperation among the churches developed as the Protestant and Anglican missionaries who came from Europe and the United States soon began to consult with one another and develop friendly relations. One result of these relationships was that from 1855 there were conferences of missionaries working in India. It was at one of these conferences, held in Madras (now Chennai) in 1902, that the principle known as ‘comity’ was agreed upon, whereby different Protestant missions were recognized to be the ones working in particular territories and other missions were required to abstain from working in those territories. Though the denominations remained separate, the comity agreements were important in that the churches renounced competition and recognized each other’s validity in carrying out the mission of God.
Story of the Union Negotiations
The first step in the process of the formation of the CNI was the coming together of Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in order to form the United Church of North India (UCNI) in 1924. This church sent out official invitations to other churches inviting them to explore a wider union in the northern part of India. As the first to respond, the Wesleyan Methodist Church suggested the suitability of a Round Table Conference (RTC) for continuing discussion. At the First RTC, held in Lucknow in April 1929, the Anglicans were not represented. However, at the Second RTC, held in Delhi in November 1930, the then Church of India, Burma and Ceylon was represented, as were seven other churches, including even the Society of Friends (Quakers). After several such RTCs, a basis for negotiation was worked out, especially by four initial negotiating churches: the UCNI, Methodist Church (British connection), the Methodist Church in Southern Asia (American connection) and the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (CIPBC). This made it possible to form a Negotiating Committee, which held its first meeting in Calcutta in 1951, when the Baptists joined the process. Later the Disciples of Christ and the Church of the Brethren joined the negotiations.
The church union negotiations took the form of the production of a series of Plans of Union which were sent to the highest bodies of the negotiating churches for approval. Three successive Plans of Union produced in 1951, 1954 and 1957 were rejected. It was the Fourth Plan of Union, presented in 1965, that won the approval of six out of the seven negotiating churches. The seventh, the Methodist Church in Southern Asia (MCSA), withdrew from the proposed union in August 1970, just a few months before the union’s planned inauguration. Union negotiations for the CNI took longer than those for the Church of South India, which was established in 1947, “because the leaders felt the Baptist churches and the MCSA should be partners.”
Theology Behind Church Union
One of the most significant milestones in the story of church union in India was the Tranquebar conference of May 1919, which brought together Presbyterians and Congregationalists of the South India United Church with Anglicans. They issued a manifesto, part of which read:
We believe that the challenge of the present hour in the period of reconstruction after the war, in the gathering together of the nations and the present critical situation in India itself, calls us to mourn our past divisions and turn to our Lord Jesus Christ to seek in him the unity of the body expressed in one visible church. We face together the titanic task of the winning of India for Christ – one fifth of the human race. Yet, confronted by such an overwhelming responsibility, we find ourselves rendered weak and relatively impotent by our unhappy divisions – divisions for which we were not responsible, and which have been, as it were, imposed upon us from without; divisions which we did not create, and which we do not desire to perpetuate.
Thus the basic motivation behind the movement for church unity was the assessment that divisions of the Christian church into denominations hindered the witness of the church to the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the strong view of both Indian Christians and missionaries of various Protestant and Anglican denominations that divisions that had arisen for historical reasons in Europe were not relevant in countries where the good news of Jesus Christ had begun to be preached relatively recently.
There was also the view that each of the different Christian denominations had particular richness that could enhance a united church. Each denomination could bring gifts that would make the united church a more complete witness to what God wanted the universal church to give to India. That has proved to be the case. A good example is the Book of Worship of the CNI, which has resources from all the traditions which joined the CNI. Thus the Covenant Service has come into the CNI Book of Worship from the Methodist tradition. The Church of the Brethren has brought into the liturgical tradition of the CNI the Service of Feet-Washing and the Love Feast alongside the Lord’s Supper. The reading of the Scripture Warrant during the Lord’s Supper is a practice that has come from the Presbyterian and Congregationalist UCNI. The polity of the CNI has congregational, presbyteral and episcopal aspects, taking into the constitution of the CNI those elements which seem to be most relevant to the Indian situation.
While the union negotiations were going on there was quite clearly a view among the negotiators that a certain amount of diversity in theology and church practice was acceptable and even to be recommended. Thus the equal acceptance of both adult and infant baptism within the CNI is an example of the willingness to accept diversity that made union possible. Today it is possible for children to be dedicated in former Anglican churches and baptized as infants in former Baptist churches. Further, diversity in the elements used for Holy Communion and the method of distribution of the elements (one cup or chalice or many cups) is common and accepted.
As a researcher on the theology of the CNI, W. J. Marshall has pointed out that undergirding the negotiations for union was the deep conviction of the negotiators and the churches that work for unity was ‘an example of obedience to God’s will for unity.’ This was accompanied by dependence upon God, who, it was believed, would provide the things needed for union. The High Priestly Prayer of our Lord on the night of his betrayal and arrest, where he prayed to the Father that his followers and his disciples be one in order that that the world may believe (John 17:21), was one of the proof-texts of the movement for church unity. The pioneers for union believed that this desire of the Lord had to be respected and that it was the will of God that unity be pursued.
In sum, the union negotiations were undergirded by conviction that God wished the church to be one, confidence in the particular gifts of diverse groups of Christians, and willingness to affirm diversity in practice. These factors helped to overcome the potential for conflict and the obstacles to union that arose during the negotiations. They are also touchstones that can be useful to Christians in other places seeking to overcome divisions in their own situations.
Church Life Since Union: The Case of the Diocese of Calcutta
Calcutta, where the East India Company began its takeover of most of India, was the place where all the major Christian denominations from Europe and beyond had some presence. The comity agreements worked out among the Protestant denominations for mission work applied to rural areas, not to the city. Thus four of the six denominations that united to form the CNI and five of the seven that negotiated almost until the end (including the Methodist Church in Southern Asia, which dropped out at the last moment) had significant presence in Calcutta. Thus today the CNI’s Diocese of Calcutta includes St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Mary’s Church, Christ Church, Holy Trinity (and others) from the Anglican tradition; Sudder Street Church and Osmond Memorial Church from the British Methodist tradition; St. Andrew’s Church, Union Chapel and Bhowanipore Congregational Church from the Presbyterian and Congregational background; and the Serampore Johnnagar Church from the Baptist tradition.
Denominationally separate before 1970, they were brought together under one church banner by union and have remained faithful to the union to this day. Forty years later they are working together, and their pastors and presbyters are in constant touch with each other. Members of the various formerly divided churches are now able to become members of a different congregation in case they move house within Calcutta, which often happens. Since former Protestant and Anglican Christians still make up a very small minority of the population of Calcutta, their coming together in church union has meant that the CNI Diocese of Calcutta is able to call upon personnel and physical and financial resources which would not have been available if church union had not taken place. This has meant that the mission work of the Church of North India through the Diocese of Calcutta, including its schools and colleges, has been made stronger. For example, both St. Paul’s Mission College (a formerly Anglican college) and Scottish Church College (founded by the Church of Scotland) are run by the Diocese of Calcutta, which has available to it a board that pools the total talent that is available among the small Christian community in Calcutta. The presence of one Protestant denomination (though Baptists and Pentecostals still have a significant presence) has given the church in Calcutta more influence on society than would have been the case if the old denominations still existed.
Church Life Since Union: Identity and Conflict in Process
The union of Christians who had been born and brought up in different Christian denominations, or converted from a different faith tradition into a particular kind of Christianity, was always going to be a difficult proposition since, very often, one of the identities that people cling to most strongly is the denominational one. It was perhaps inevitable that people would continue to see themselves as members of their previous denominations as well as members of the CNI. As long as not much changed at the local congregational level in terms of liturgy (and even polity in some cases), they were quite happy to be part of the larger grouping of the CNI that had come into existence.
However, as the pre-union generation has passed away over the last forty years, people’s personal self-identification as Presbyterian or Methodist or Anglican has been abandoned in most local churches, and a new identity as a member of the CNI has emerged. This identity has also been strengthened by the emergence of new denominations such as Assemblies of God and the Evangelical Church of India, which force the CNI members to recognize who they are.
There have been two evaluations of the Church of North India, one whose work began in 1985 but whose report was presented in 1990, and another whose work began in 2006 and whose report was presented in 2008. Thus the CNI was evaluated after 20 years of union and then again after 38 years.
The report of the Evaluation Commission of the CNI, which brought out its report in 1990, contains statistical data about the impact that church union had on the congregations. The report concluded generally that church union had been accepted by the vast majority of the members of the Church of North India and that they were reasonably satisfied with church union. Remaining divisions were not over issues of theology, which were the issues debated at the Round Table Conferences and the Negotiating Committee meetings, but rather over matters of property, which were not adequately addressed by the pioneers of union.
According to the report, “Sixty-five per cent of presbyters report that their congregations are ‘fully satisfied’ with the Church Union, 16 per cent report ‘mostly satisfied’. Only 2 per cent say their congregations are ‘partially satisfied’ and another 2 per cent say their congregations are indifferent towards the Union”. Some of the congregations that expressed dissatisfaction with the union said that they were not against the concept of union itself, but against the unfamiliarity of the new discipline which they were under. Congregations found it difficult to change fast, and most felt that, in time, all would favour the union.
The aspect of church union most acceptable to church members, according to the survey, was the mode of worship, followed by theology and church structure. Least acceptable was the arrangement of property and finances, something to which the church union negotiators had paid little attention. The report found that the reason for revolt against church union by some people, wherever it took place, was not theological, but rather loss of recognition, loss of advantages, and fear of domination by another group.
The positive aspects of church union do not hide the fact that not all has been well after union everywhere, and that some serious divisions occurred. As the report put it,
as soon as the Union became effective, several congregations split. Some indulged in physical violence, some went to court to defend their rights to that property, and some left the Church and formed their own congregations or elected their own bishops and revived the defunct denomination.
Among congregations that left the CNI, some came back, not necessarily as congregations, but as individual members or in groups. One example is the Agnes Henderson Memorial (1840) Church in Nagpur, Maharashtra, which was a former UCNI church. In the mid-1980s, the majority of its members refused to continue as members of the CNI, and their youth captured the church building and the parish hall. The minority of families who remained with the CNI worshipped outside the church. No talks could resolve the conflict, and the matter went to the civil court, which decided in favour of the CNI. As time passed, members who had joined UCNI realized that they were losing out on such things as jobs in CNI-run schools and colleges and sponsorship for higher studies, which were available only to members of the CNI. As a result, the majority of UCNI members came back to the CNI fold, though today the few continuing UCNI members control and worship in the parish hall. The CNI church is again flourishing and is one of the largest congregations of the diocese.
A similar situation developed in a formerly Anglican congregation in Batala, Punjab, in the Diocese of Amritsar. Soon after union the priest of Epiphany Church, Batala, rejected union and decided that he did not want to join the CNI. Since the church was in his possession, those of the congregation who were with the CNI had perforce to use the chapel of the Baring Union Christian College, Batala, where the college’s CNI chaplain presided at services. This stalemate continued for thirty years, long after the departing priest himself had died. Slowly, the formerly Anglican congregation dwindled and the CNI congregation increased until at last a day came when the CNI members, assisted by other CNI congregations, felt confident enough to reclaim the church building and compound with their strength of numbers. They camped for days in the church to ensure that it would be safe from attack. Since the numbers with the CNI were so large and so determined, those of the dissident party were unable to counter them and finally had to leave the church to the CNI.
The Evaluation Report of 2008 provides another example: ‘The story of the united church 38 years after the union has not been easy. . . Church councils in the UCNI areas have been revived, for example the Kolhapur Church Council, which is in constant conflict with the Kolhapur Diocesan Council (CNI).’ Another example is the split that occurred in the Diocese of Eastern Himalaya when some congregations revived the UCNI they had left to join the CNI. The authors of the 1990 report put it well when they state, ‘Therefore loss of neither membership nor property should be considered final, or as a failure of Church Union. Such splits will always be there. Depending upon the churches’ efforts, most of the lost members should come back bringing with them a part of Church property.’
As regards the merger of property held by the uniting denominations, it is clear that the leaders of the union negotiations underestimated or deliberately ignored property issues that could have been anticipated. The result has been an almost unending series of court cases where a few people claim that the denomination that joined the CNI still exists and that since they are its members they have a right to its property. Thus in Gujarat, a group claimed to be continuing members of the Church of the Brethren received ill-advised support from the parent body in the USA, and laid claim to church property that was brought into the CNI by the Church of the Brethren. Court cases continued for many years, and only in 2009 did the Supreme Court of India hand down a landmark judgment that the CNI was the legal successor to the former Church of the Brethren in India. Very similar is the case in the Diocese of Amritsar, where considerable prime property, including the bishop’s residence, continues to be occupied by self-styled Anglicans who make use of India’s slow judicial process to cling to church property while claiming that the CNI is not the legal successor to the former CIPBC.
The overall positive evaluation of the CNI’s members is a tribute to the thorough preparation undertaken by those who planned and negotiated the union. Their neglect of property issues sounds a cautionary note for Christians negotiating other issues that have ramifications for finance and property, as well as theology and pastoral practice. Clearly, the extent to which adversaries since union have felt impelled to resort to civil litigation has been a negative development in the CNI’s efforts to resolve conflicts. Yet the CNI’s encouragement to take a long view of conflict resolution, a view extending to decades, is important for all Christians who seek to act in the will of God, for whom a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8).
Church Life since Union: The Case of Bishop’s College
Bishop’s College, Calcutta (now Kolkata), is a good example of how an institution of one the churches that joined the Church of North India coped with the changed situation. Founded in 1820, Bishop’s College was the main theological college of the CIPBC, responsible for training Anglican priests for the whole South Asian region. The college had been very much influenced by the Oxford Movement and High Anglicanism and thus was deeply steeped in the Anglican tradition.
With church union the college went from being an institution of the CIPBC to being one of the CNI. However, the leaders of the CIPBC wisely amended the constitution of the college to ensure that it fit the changed situation after union. Faculty from non-Anglican church traditions such as the Church of South India, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, the Church of Scotland and the former Methodist Church were invited to join the staff. Non-Anglicans were invited to lead retreats for the students and to preach at Holy Eucharist in the chapel. Further, the question of what would replace the Book of Common Prayer (1960) in the chapel services was resolved by a committee comprised of both staff and students which made suggestions for a more ecumenical worship pattern using inputs from other church traditions. Even the college emblem of a ‘coat of arms’ was changed in order to conform to the CNI emblem. In sum, maturity and openness of outlook allowed the principal and faculty of Bishop’s College to smoothly accomplish the important transition from being the theological college of one denomination to serving a united church effectively.
Continuing Efforts for Wider Union
Since its founding in 1970, the CNI has made efforts to initiate wider union. Some attempts were made to see if the MCSA would change its mind, but that did not bear fruit. More significant has been the effort for union with the Church of South India and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar. In 1978 a Joint Council of the three churches was formed, and it held discussions about how unity and witness could be strengthened. Discussions at one point extended even to considering what the new church would be called. However, as time wore on, enthusiasm for organic union declined, perhaps mirroring a similar decline throughout the Protestant world. It became clear that the Mar Thoma Syrian Church’s vision of what greater union would entail differed from that of the CNI and the CSI, and the goal was reduced to a form of conciliar union where the identities and structures of the churches would remain intact. Hence in 2004 the three churches formed the Communion of Churches in India (CCI), a form of conciliar union. The Joint Council and later the CCI has been confined to these three churches, and they have not been able to convince other denominations to join them.
Today, forty years after church union, a new generation of men and women who have never been active in the former denominations, beyond being baptized and confirmed in them, has assumed leadership within the CNI. They have virtually no theological or doctrinal reasons to wish to revive the former denominations. Having grown up in the CNI, they share its theological understanding and are unlikely to want to return to their background denominations on theological grounds. What does remain, however, is the temptation for disgruntled elements and those with a vested interest in property to revive a former denomination ostensibly for theological reasons, but in reality to advance self-interest.
The story of the formation of the CNI and its struggles since union shows how divisions which hampered the churches’ witness were overcome. It is evident that such a union could take place only with the fine and mature leadership existing in the Indian church at that time. Leaders were able to overcome petty self-interests and work for the larger cause of the coming reign of God. Overcoming conflict in churches, therefore, depends a great deal on the development of mature leaders willing to be utterly committed to doing the will of God no matter what the cost
While differences among the denominations were inherited from the mission churches, their Indian successors had been formed by them, and overcoming them for the sake of unity in mission was not easy. For conflict resolution and reconciliation among Christians, history demonstrates the importance of clear theological vision that comprehends how God’s will for unity outweighs other theological divergences, regardless how firmly rooted. The Indian experience illustrates the importance of confidence that diversity within the church is not only inevitable but may enhance the life and witness of God’s people in the world.
Since 2007 Sunil Caleb has been principal of Bishop’s College, Kolkata, where he previously taught theology and Christian ethics. He holds a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from the University of Kent, B.A. from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, B.D. from United Theological College, Bangalore, and M.A. in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. His places of service as a presbyter of the Church of North India include Shimla and Kolkata. He and his wife Beulah are the parents of two daughters.
1 See Cyril B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, 5th Edition (Madras: Christian Literature Society 1990), Chapters VIII & IX.
2 Cyril B. Firth, op cit, p. 234.
3 Dhirendra K. Sahu, United and Uniting: A Story of the Church of North India (Delhi; ISPCK, 2001), pp. 34-35.
4 Dinesh C. Gorai, Church of North India in Retrospect: A Movement for Unity, Witness and Service (Unpublished paper presented at Calcutta, 28 November 2009), p. 1.
5 Quoted in Sahu, United and Uniting, p. 58.
6 Dhirendra K. Sahu, United and Uniting, p. 61.
7 Dhirendra K. Sahu, United and Uniting, p. 60.
8 W.J. Marshall, A United Church (Delhi: I.S.P.C.K., 1987), pp. 119f.
9 As a condition for its joining the CNI, St. Andrew’s Church in Calcutta, a former Church of Scotland congregation, obtained a dispensation that it could continue its practice of having life-time elders who are appointed by the existing elders and not by the electoral process specified in the CNI Constitution.
10 Profile of a Christian Church: Report of the Evaluation Commission to Study the Life and Work of the Church of North India (Madras: Institute of Development Education, 1990).
11 Evaluation Report of the Church of North India, presented at the 13th Ordinary Synod of the CNI, 17-21October 2008.
12 Profile of a Christian Church, p. 60.
13 Profile of a Christian Church, p. 60.
14 Profile of a Christian Church, p. 61.
15 Profile of a Christian Church, p. 63.
16 Related by Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy, Bishop of Amritsar (CNI), to author on 20 July 2010.
17 Evaluation Report of the Church of North India, p. 83.
18 Profile of a Christian Church, p. 63
19 Ernest W. Talibuddin, Bishop’s College 1970-1995, Transition: A Historical Reflection (Calcutta: Bishop’s College, 1996), p. 34.
20 Bishop’s College 1970-1995, Transition, p. 35.
21 Bishop’s College 1970-1995, Transition, pp. 42-43.
22 See V. V. Thomas, Conciliar Ecumenism: The beginning of the Former CSI-CNI-MTSC Joint Council. (Bangalore: BTESSC/SATHRI, 2008).
23 The Mar Thoma Syrian Church saw inter-communion as being a good enough target for church union, while the CSI and the CNI thought that one administration was what should be aimed for. Cf. V. V. Thomas, Conciliar Ecumenism, pp. 81-83.