Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Vision and Reality: Personal Reflections on the Church of South India, 1947-97

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Vision and Reality: Personal Reflections on the Church of South India, 1947-97

Article excerpt

The year 1997 marks two jubilees -- of India's political independence and of the inauguration of the Church of South India (CSI) -- which are closely related in the consciousness of Christians. As citizens of the country and members of the CSI we rejoice in both. It is striking that a little over a month after India became independent a united church came into being in a divided country. In a small but significant manner the united church became a sign and symbol of hope for larger unity.

A church in its context

The life of any religious community cannot be described and interpreted apart from the historical developments in the life of the nation. This observation is biblically and theologically sound, because faith is the response of people to the will of God as they come under the pressure of historical forces. Faith provides people with a vision that beckons them to move into the future with hope. Less than six months after independence, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, was assassinated. The very first CSI synod (March 1948, Madura) adopted a moving resolution on this event; all members of the synod stood in silence, and the moderator offered a prayer for the slain Mahatma. This signalled from the outset that the church participates in the life of the nation, no less in its tragedies and conflicts than in its joys and hopes.

A quick glance at the historical developments during these fifty years will help us to put the life and growth of the CSI in proper perspective. Most historians divide these five decades into three periods. The first extends from Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech in 1947 to the Chinese invasion in 1962, which shattered India's self-confidence as a nation and its assumed friendliness towards China and other countries. The church shared in these agonies of self-doubt. The second is from 1962 to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In addition to restoring India's self-confidence, this shattered the fundamental principle of partition: the notion that religion, in this instance Islam, would provide the ideology for the new state. Pakistan, as a state with Islam as its theocratic base, could not hold together people of two different cultures. A theocratic state would be impossible in a multi-religious society.

The third period is from 1971 to the present, with a coalition government now in power in the jubilee year of the nation. This includes the period of emergency under Indira Gandhi (1975-77), when the nation rapidly lost its democratic foundations, and political corruption became a way of life as never before. Political analysts regard the emergency as a time when the "dynastic" rule of the Gandhis was strengthened and the Congress Party founded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru lost its moral authority. As a consequence, parliamentary democracy suffered grievously. The record of the church in India, including the Church of South India, during the emergency is not one to be proud of in this jubilee year. It is necessary for the church to remind itself of its failure -- except for a few courageous individuals -- to protest against the abuse of power. "The struggle against power," writes Milan Kundera, "is a struggle of memory against forgetfulness."

Many would describe the present state of public morality and sense of public accountability as a descent from the lofty vision of 1947 into a state of "degeneration". Rajni Kothari remarks that we live in "desperate times". But while there is a great deal of whining criticism about this, others would say that in spite of grave difficulties these years, moving into the 21st century, should be regarded as a period of turmoil and transformation. Salman Rushdie describes it as "a second renaissance" after the first one that ended in 1947. It is a period of "the churning of the ocean", out of which not just dangerous elements but new creative movements are likely to emerge. "Decay still outweighs regeneration," writes James Manor, a Commonwealth historian, "but the latter comes often enough to inspire cautious optimism about the prospects of Indian democracy. …

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