During the great missionary era of the nineteenth century, many servants of God from different denominations went over land and seas to far off places carrying with them the greatest gift they could ever offer to people whom they had never known or seen before, namely, the redeeming and liberating Good News of Jesus Christ. His gospel of the grace and the love of God is found to be so revolutionary and subversive that recently it was reported in the newspapers that an East Asian country was planning to execute a person just because he tried to smuggle the Bible into his country.
In India, the country I come from, this revolutionary message has been seen as a threat by many who propound the pernicious doctrine that cultural and national identity are one and the same. They espouse the doctrine that an Indian has to be a Hindu and only a Hindu can be an Indian. This has created fear and distrust among those who for centuries have coexisted peacefully as brothers and sisters though they worshipped God by different names and followed different religious customs and rites, in the process upsetting the applecart of religious harmony and tolerance.
It is easily understandable why the Gospel is viewed as a threat. The Hindu nationalists feel uncomfortable with a message that proclaims the equality of all people since they all have been made in the Image of God. This message is at variance with their belief that men are born unequal, and with a religious and social structure that has injustice and discrimination built into its very fabric, with people divided hierarchically from their very birth. Hence, the Gospel is viewed as subversive by those who want the status quo undisturbed.
This ‘subversive’ Good News tells of the abounding grace and amazing love of God revealed in all its fullness and glory in Jesus Christ, who through his sacrificial atoning death on the cross offered expiation for the sins of the whole world, offering mercy and pardon to all repentant sinners, assuring victory over sin and death, and opening wide the gates to the seat of mercy to all peoples and all creation. Through exchanges at various levels–social, cultural, national and international–this message has been tested and found to be valid and universal, transcending cultures, nations, races, and languages in spite of the flaws in the senders (missionaries), the medium (culture/language), and the method of transmission.
But in recent times, the missionaries who had by now become our partners in mission also brought to us an equally momentous gift, the gift of unity. For historical reasons, doctrinal and also political, they themselves had been divided since the sixteenth century into various denominations. Perhaps convicted by the Holy Spirit of this intolerable sin of division among them, they were looking for an opportunity to atone for this scandal they had been living with. The mission fields also made them realize the necessity of unity. The international missionary conference of Edinburgh in 1910 set the stage for the gale of ecumenism and interdenominational cooperation to blow across the churches, sweeping away the cobwebs of prejudice and antipathy.
This paved the way for the emergence of the Church of South India in which both the episcopal and the non-episcopal traditions of the Protestant church, traditionally opposed to each other, merged on the basis of the formula known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral, namely, the primacy and all-sufficiency of the Scriptures, the Catholic creeds as the repository of the church’s tradition and faith, the centrality of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the historic episcopate. This unity forged in India in 1947 has been tested there for more than fifty years now and by the grace of God is there to stay, flourishing and growing stronger day by day.
Through the Reformed Church in America, I believe the Lord has called me to a twofold mission here, urbi et orbi, to the city and to the world. As director of Jersey Ministries of the RCA I have a challenging mission of proclaiming the Good News to all people here, beginning with the Asian Indians, bringing them all into the knowledge of the grace of God and his love through Jesus Christ our Lord through creative and innovative means. At the same time I also have a more challenging and arduous mission of working towards the unity of our spiritual parents, our partners in mission, who unfortunately are still estranged here and find themselves in different camps.
I shall therefore address myself first to my compatriots and members of my own church, the Church of South India; and then to our spiritual parents, our partners in mission.
I rejoice over the initiative and enterprise of my fellow Christians of the CSI who have made their way to this “land of the free and home of the brave” and who live in this city and in other cities here in this vast land. But I am afraid I cannot rejoice over what I hear they are trying to do here. Our spiritual parents, our partners in mission came all the way crossing oceans and mountains to unite us there, and we are obliged to reciprocate this when we come here. If not, the least we can do is refrain from inflicting one more wound in the body of Christ by contributing to the proliferation of the denominations and perpetuation of divisions.
While I appreciate the affirmation of cultural and national identity, I can only be filled with dismay over the deliberate disinclination on their part to merge with the mainstream and celebrate the oneness and unity that is ours in Jesus Christ. I am still debating within myself as to what it is that hinders them from merging with the mainstream. Is it the fear of being overwhelmed by a dominant community and thereby losing their own identity and freedom? Certainly this issue can be negotiated with the CSI synod and our partners in mission here, and their legitimate aspirations and needs can be met. Or is it any doctrinal or liturgical difference? It cannot be for all these things were sorted out before the CSI came into existence. Then what could it be? Is it because they think this way they could make their children stay within the church? This certainly cannot be the case, if history is a lesson for us to go by, for it will not only split the church but there will also be mass exodus in the next generation, which is what RCA history itself teaches us. Then what else is it?
I have a newspaper spread out before me giving a long list of Orthodox churches and other congregations openly parading their separate existence, refusing to be part of the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church. I’m afraid my compatriots and brothers in Christ are taking their cue from the wrong model. Our Orthodox brethren in India have been known for their isolationism for nearly seventeen centuries now, assuming their existence there can be accounted for since the fourth century. Should we try to imitate those who did not care to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with us, their next-door neighbors? Can the Gospel of Christ be hoarded? What kind of credibility do they or their claim have? This being the case, should we try to imitate them? Let me show you a different model.
A few years ago, a misguided person in Tamilnadu, India got himself declared bishop of the “Anglican Church of India,” a rebel outfit, outrageously flouting all canons of church order and discipline, trying vainly to mislead the flock. The Church of South India had to seek clarification from the Holy See of Canterbury to clear the confusion so that the flock could distinguish for themselves the good Shepherd from the one who was trying to “creep into the fold.” Canterbury’s response, which was published in the South India Churchman was as follows: “There is no Anglican Communion in India today. It was subsumed in the Church of South India when it came into existence in 1947. The Holy
See therefore does not recognize any communion outside of CSI!” Please note the kenosis here, denying oneself so that the Church may be united. Is this not the right model for you to follow?If my brethren still for any reason want to maintain their own separate identity, then they are obliged not to associate the Church of South India with their quixotic misadventure, for the culture and ethos, foundation and spirit of the CSI is unity, not division. Those who breathe the spirit of the CSI will tend to merge and unite, not divide or perpetuate divisions.
Having addressed myself to my brothers and sisters of the CSI, my compatriots domiciled here, I must now address myself to the world (orbi), to my brothers and sisters in the world who brought to us the most precious gift, namely the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ and the gracious gift of unity. The redeeming, transforming, liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ has broken our shackles and set us free, setting in motion a sweeping revolution and transformation, the consummation of which the rolling years are waiting to unfold! You brought to us the gracious gift of unity that our Lord prayed for in his high priestly prayer, “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). You brought us together, and we have enjoyed and tasted the fruit of unity to the full. Having given us this precious and wonderful gift, why is it that you want to deny it to yourselves? It cannot be that you want to preach to others what you yourselves don’t want to practice!
I must confess when I came here last year and was looking for an opportunity to serve the Lord in his vineyard here, in line with our Protestant tradition that compels us to look upon the whole world as our parish, I couldn’t and didn’t look upon you as Reformed, Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Lutherans and Baptists, because of the culture of unity you had imparted to us in India. In fact I explored all avenues without any hesitation, relating equally to Episcopalians, Methodists and the Reformed. I am thankful to you for this priceless legacy of unity you have bequeathed to us, as a result of which I could see you all only as my brothers and sisters in Christ and not as members of separate and mutually exclusive denominations of various nomenclatures.
I was brought up by the Lutherans, encouraged and motivated by the Anglicans (I was Associate Rector of St George’s Cathedral, Madras), inspired and instructed by the Methodists, shaped, nurtured, sheltered and molded by the Reformed (I was chaplain of an RCA College), educated by the Presbyterians (an alumnus of McCormick seminary, Chicago), trained in skills by the Catholics (I was assistant editor of a magazine published by the archdiocese of Madras) and for a time cared for by the Baptists, sponsored by the Congregationalists and spiritually warmed up by the Pentecostals. None could claim a greater ecumenical heritage and pedigree than I. You can all be proud of it for this is the glorious legacy you have bequeathed to us.
We are your spiritual offspring, and now we want our estranged spiritual parents to be reconciled and unite. The era of estrangement and separation is over and now is the appointed time for you to be reconciled lest you should appear to be hypocrites in the eyes of the world. We, your spiritual offspring, earnestly appeal to you in the name of the Lord to come together and be united even as our Lord God is eternally united in the blessed Trinity.
We are not naïve or ignorant. We are aware of the causes that have kept you divided for centuries. But if you were divided, we were much more divided; and if you could through the guidance of the Holy Spirit unite us who were much more divided, how much easier should it be for you to be united and reconciled under the guidance of the same Spirit. The formula (Lambeth Quadrilateral) that all of you agreed on when coming together in India should be able to bring you together here also.
Are we not all agreed on the primacy and all-sufficiency of Scriptures for the faith and practice of the Church? Do we not all claim as our common heritage the Catholic creeds? Have we not all accepted as means of grace and central to the life and witness of the Church, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper even though our interpretations may elude consensus? Can the historic episcopate divide us? Even that cannot and does not! For the Reformed Church, which follows the presbyterian order everywhere, still accommodates episcopacy in Hungary, and the blessed reformer John Calvin himself was not rigid in matters of church order. Don’t we have the episcopal Methodists among us? All of us know that their district superintendents discharge the functions of a bishop. Some of our CSI bishops in fact hailed from non-episcopal backgrounds, and Lesslie Newbigin, of free church tradition, rose to become not only an exemplary bishop but an able apologist of the CSI! All these prove beyond any reasonable doubt that we cannot be divided on the historic episcopate. Then what is it that divides us?
The historical conditions that once justified the emergence and perpetuation of denominations are not valid anymore. Even the doctrinal divide has been narrowed down through interdenominational dialogues and ecumenical insights, as a result of which the gray areas that still elude doctrinal consensus have become very negligible indeed. Can the twenty percent or less that still eludes our agreement nullify the agreement we have on the remaining eighty percent and still keep us apart?
I’m afraid what keeps us divided still–and it is totally unjustifiable–is what C. H. Dodd euphemistically referred to as ‘non-theological’ factors, alluding to the all-too-human element that has a vested interest in perpetuating this sinful division among us, namely, personal equations and bloated egos, properties and perks, distrust and suspicion and the fear of losing one’s identity in a larger mass.
‘Hear O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one!’ This of course does not mean the blessed Trinity has no interpersonal cooperation and fellowship. But that fellowship is perfect unity from all eternity. We who worship this Lord, can we be content with mere interdenominational cooperation and fellowship? No, nothing short of visible organic unity will do. I have been walking down the streets of this city in the last few weeks and I have felt grieved when I happened to see on the very same street five churches belonging to different denominations. Even a child will tell us what an unproductive duplication and sheer waste of valuable resources this is.
For the last few months I have also been worshipping here with the Reformed, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Lutherans and the Baptists. Did I see any difference? Believe me, nothing! Some insignificant externalities and some slight variations in the liturgy here and there. But everything else was the same. It was the same old, old story of Jesus and his love that was proclaimed everywhere. It was the same Lord who was glorified. It was the same blessed Trinity that was adored and magnified. It was the same water and the Word, the body and the blood that the faithful received as a means of grace sufficient for their salvation. It was the same amazing grace, everlasting mercy and forgiveness for repentance and victory over sin and death. It was the same Spirit that they all sought to empower them and guide them into all Truth. Tell me, how can our divisions be justified any longer?
There is also a much more practical reason for you to unite and be reconciled. America is no longer the monolithic society that it used to be but has become over the years a pluralistic, multicultural society in which diverse ideologies and faiths are battling it out for the allegiance of the minds of the people here. Some of these fai
ths, though overtly theistic and democratic, believe in values and practices that are harmful to human values we cherish with all civilized societies. Many reliable surveys and reports tell us they are making rapid strides. How are we going to face this challenge, united or disunited? Centuries ago, the raging Monophysite controversy left the Byzantine church divided and weak, and as a result, the invading Arab army marched right in. This weak and divided church was simply wiped out of its strongholds where it had reigned supreme before. We also will do well to pay heed to the warning of our Lord, “A kingdom divided within itself cannot stand!”
It is therefore time for you to get your act together and unite without any further delay. Any tarrying will only be at our peril and will lead to irreparable loss. The centenary of the international missionary conference at Edinburgh 1910 is fast approaching. What better way to celebrate it than for all of you to come together and merge into one great visibly and organically united Church of the Lord in the USA?
Am I dreaming? Perhaps I am! But the stark realities of today were the unbelievable dreams of yesterday. If I’m supremely conscious of one thing, it is this, that we are inadequate in ourselves, and cannot by our own effort bring about this unity. It has to be the Lord’s doing. We cannot put up our agenda for the Holy Spirit to act on. We need to surrender ourselves totally to his will that he may use us in accomplishing his will here on earth. But this cannot find us failing to do what we ought to do. Future generations cannot fault us for giving it a try, or for going all out to realize in our time the prayer of our Lord “that they all may be one.”I therefore earnestly appeal to you all to transcend all national, cultural, social and denominational barriers and prayerfully sort out your differences, come together and be united in the Lord Jesus, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory and honor now and for ever. The world will then know and rejoice that there is one Lord, one Faith, one Head and one Body, one Shepherd and one Flock! May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.