The International Impact of the Formation of the Church of South India: Bishop Newbigin versus the Anglican Fathers

Article excerpt

The formation of the Church of South India (CSI) in 1947 was looked upon with great interest around the world, particularly as it pioneered the reunion of episcopal with non-episcopal churches. This event in South India impacted mission-church relationships, for it demanded new structures to accommodate new relationships. (1) It not only affected India but reverberated globally, and especially it challenged old assumptions within the Anglican Church.

As Christianity became globalized in the twentieth century, the heartland of Christianity shifted southward, and a growing concern arose to recover the unity of the church rather than continue the divisions inherited from old Christendom. This perspective led many to view the union schemes in the Indian subcontinent as potential models to be emulated in their own quest for unity. (2) Lesslie Newbigin, one of the fourteen original bishops in the CSI, urged others to look to the South India Scheme (SIS) as a model for full organic and visible church union that had actually come to fruition. In contrast, the Anglican Church preferred the Ceylon Scheme or the North India Scheme, even though both were still being formulated and neither had led to any united church. (3)

The 1948 Lambeth Conference endorsed the Ceylon Scheme in preference to the SIS. At that time, however, the success of the SIS was encouraging significant progress toward reunion in other countries. At such a critical juncture, Newbigin was alarmed by what he perceived as Anglican interference in these other union efforts. With the outcome of these efforts at stake and with their implications for the larger ecumenical movement, Newbigin felt compelled to enter into debate with the Anglican Church. (4) This article details the nature of that debate through Newbigin's involvement with the Lambeth Conferences of 1948 and 1958. (5)

Although by the 1958 conference Anglicans had mellowed in their response to the CSI, they still continued to endorse the Ceylon Scheme for reunion rather than the SIS. The pronouncements at Lambeth led to a heated dialogue between Newbigin and Geoffrey Francis Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury. The debate continued until 1961, when Fisher was succeeded by Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey.

The Lambeth Conferences

Lambeth 1948. The CSI was inaugurated in 1947, with Newbigin consecrated as bishop of Madurai and Ramnad. At the request of Bishop Michael Hollis, moderator of the CSI, Newbigin attended the first assembly of the World Council of Churches (in Amsterdam) and then, in that same trip, represented the CSI to the Lambeth Conference (in London). (6) The tone of the meetings was typified by one of the questions a bishop raised about the CSI: "I see that you ask ordinands to accept the Nicene Creed but candidates for baptism only to accept the Apostles' Creed. Which are the items of the former, not included in the latter, to which you take exception?" Such questioning made Newbigin realize that "this was not a discussion about the Church of South India at all. It was about English ecclesiastical and social and cultural differences." (7) After the formal conference and the times of private conversation with various bishops, Newbigin nevertheless could record, "I think the visit has undoubtedly been worth while." (8)

This optimism was dashed when Newbigin read the formal published report from Lambeth, which revealed that the conference had failed to give its approval to the SIS. Newbigin was bitterly disappointed. The main sticking point was that the SIS provided partial rather than complete communion with the Anglican Church at the time of its inauguration. (9) The negative response of Lambeth not only affected Anglican relationships with the CSI but also threatened to delay or defeat other embryonic union schemes. Newbigin and others involved with the formation of the CSI firmly believed that what had been achieved in South India would serve as a model for other reunions around the world, with negotiations then under way in Australia, New Zealand, East and West Africa, and Canada. …