The church, its calling and mission

By Rev. Dr. E. C. John
Jesus said to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”
(John 20:21).

A little over sixty years ago, the Rev.David Chellappa, then Principal of St. Paul’s High School, Bepery, later Bishop in Madras, addressed a Youth Conference at Pallam near Kottayam, attended mostly by mission – oriented college students. His theme was ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. We felt enlightened and motivated to serve the church and the nation. We were full of hope, longing the dawn of our national independence.

Another inspiring speaker was John Doraisamy, the Secretary of the National Missionary Society, who enlarged our vision of the Nation and the need to dedicate ourselves for God’s mission in our country. Similar events were happening in those days in other churches in Kerala and at the SCM conferences. As a result, several young men and women dedicated themselves for service in Kerala or in other parts of our country. This generation has almost died out.

Some months ago, a much respected educationalist told me “I want to withdraw from the CSI”. I said, “but where shall we go?” Two other prominent educationalists felt the same way. Two friends, generous supporters of the College and who had held responsible positions in the local CSI parish, had left the CSI and joined another Church, I learnt, when I visited them after my return from teaching in Germany. I asked one of them, why did you leave the CSI?  “O! Our pastor has only time to talk about the election for a new bishop and about his chances of becoming the bishop. We were fed up.”  The other also left due to the ‘church politics’. A young couple who had come to Bangalore from another State and joined a CSI congregation left it for another for more friendly and warm fellowship. This catalogue can be continued. Each of you, present here, may have his/her catalogue to narrate.

I begin my presentation with the affirmation of faith, “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” and also affirm that, the Church of South India is part of it. There are many, many lay members in our Church, some clergy as well, who believe so, and seek to fulfill the commission of the risen Lord, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. This means in essence, to become a disciple of the risen Lord.

In view of certain disturbing happenings in the CSI in the past, contrary to this mission of God, it is urgent that we reflect both on the past with deep sorrow, and a sense of collective guilt, and look to the future with the will to reform both ourselves and the Church.

As we look to the future, as members of the Church of South India, there are a few glaring defects which need correction. The Church should examine its election procedure at all levels, from the local level (pastorate, institutions) to the diocesan and synod levels. A beginning was made by the Theological Commission 1986-88 and presented at the 1988 synod. But it has not been followed up though it was referred for further study. As for the synod level elections especially for positions as Moderator, Deputy Moderator, Secretary and Treasurer, what is happening now is not at all satisfactory.

Panels are prepared and candidates or their agents make their rounds of visits to canvass – which in itself would have meant a disqualification in the past, perhaps offer also handsome gifts to make the delegates vote according to their proposals. The Bishop may play a decisive role in persuading the delegates to vote according to his suggestion. He would thus be preventing a free and fair election. How can delegates exercise their votes responsibly and consciously when they do not really know the nominated candidates?  Election of Bishops during the last two decades, at least in some cases, involved bribery and other corrupt practices. Huge gifts of money have been given, it is alleged. A code of conduct has to be worked out, as for example, in the Orthodox Syrian Church.

At the Seminar of the ‘Re-thinking’ group Oct. 1, 2, 2009, Rev. Dr. K.C. Abraham drew our attention to the “exercise of power and authority in the Church”. The power and authority may be exercised in a patronizing or feudal manner or according to the deals made prior to the Bishop’s election or unilaterally with favours granted to certain persons (e.g. transfers, appointments, foreign placements, study leave etc.) or ‘punishments’ (e.g. inconvenient transfers). He said that a critical assessment of the function and exercise of Episcopal ministry and authority, the role of the committees with whose counsel the Bishop is to take decisions is an urgent need. Have we departed from the CSI’s vision of Episcopacy?

Faithfulness and accountability in the use of church money and facilities is a must for clergy and bishops e.g. use of phone, car etc. for personal needs. In 1 Tim. 3, in the list of qualifications for the Bishop it is said that he should not be a lover of money. In the early church the bishops kept the money for the regular weekly distribution for the poor and hence this clause. In any case, in view of what is talked about the assets of some of the bishops, it would be a good gesture, for the bishops both before their consecration as Bishops and before their retirement, to declare their assets and those of the family members.

Those who were directly or indirectly parties in the administration of tsunami funds should not be considered for election for officers at the Synod level. The administration of finance at the Synod and Diocesan levels should be scrutinized by impartial auditors and any irregularities should be rectified. Proper guidelines should be followed in every department with regard to the administration of finance.

There have been glaring instances of nepotism. It would be a good example if immediate relatives of the Bishops and clergy are not appointed to positions in the dioceses, unless after due advertisement they also go through proper, impartial selection procedure. Should a bishop be the manager of all the diocesan institutions? Or is it not enough if he is a member of the management committee.

If and when a property of the church/mission or institution needs to be sold, it should be done only after proper consultation and advertisement, and then sold only on a competitive basis in the open market. It will be good to remember that the former mission properties were acquired by the free gifts of overseas’ mission friends and by mission friends in our own country for Christian missionary work. Some of the church properties were granted by the ecclesiastical department of British Government in India for the sole purpose of Christian worship. In the past some prime properties were sold privately to interested parties.

We have many devout lay people who do not wish to take any part in ‘church politics’ but wish to have the spiritual ‘uplifting’ experience of worship, strengthen fellowship with one another, hear meaningful sermons and meet friends. They give for what they think are worthy causes. Some are disappointed or join other churches or fellowship groups as already mentioned. Lack of proper pastoral care and visits is much lamented. Are theological colleges and Bishops giving guidance to the candidates for ordination and clergy? Does our common life in the Body of Christ show signs of a mutually caring fellowship (koinonia)?

Together with all our people, lay and clergy (including bishops) we need to reflect a new what the churches’ apostolic function (being sent into the world) to the society, nation and to the earth actually is.

I recall an address by Bishop John Robinson, the author of In the End God, The Body, Honest to God etc., at a retreat for Ordinands in Cambridge in which he emphasized that to be a minister of the Gospel is a high calling. He said, we must hold a very high view of the ministry. But this should not spill into our persons and make us feel puffed up, arrogant or swollen-headed. We are only servants. The awareness of the Risen Lord’s commission as those sent into the world should be the motivation for us all.

The Author is Rev. Dr. E. C. John, former principal of the United Theological College, Bangalore is a pastor of the Church of South India and an acclaimed Old Testament Scholar and Theologian. He lives a retired life in Bangalore.

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