jQuery Slider

You are here

PROCESSING ANGLICAN HISTORY: India and the Archbishops of Canterbury

PROCESSING ANGLICAN HISTORY: India and the Archbishops of Canterbury
Archbishop William Wake (1715-1737)

By the Rev. Dr. Joseph Muthuraj
Special to Virtueonline.
August 15, 2019

You'll forgive me if I tell you that Archbishop of Canterbury's upcoming visit to India turns out to be a non-event! This is partly because there seems to be no expectation or excitement in the Church of South India (CSI) over the news of the visit of Archbishop Justin Welby. No news is found in the official magazine CSI Life about the Archbishop's visit and nobody knows why this church visit is being organised. Many in the pews do not know who and what the Archbishop of Canterbury is and how he is connected with the CSI.

A couple of Facebook postings announced the visit of the Archbishop with only a few making their comments. One of the comments is wondering what the purpose of the Archbishop's visit and the other is commenting that the Archbishop is a 'visiting tourist'. It is the general opinion that Welby will not touch the corrupt side of the church 'because he is an evangelical and that he will go with the flow'. Another one writes about staging a protest to draw his attention to the corruption in the CSI.

One thing is certain that the programmes will be tailored to show that the CSI is doing a great job and is running its development projects very well. It is already indicating that the Lambeth team will be visiting the project sites/church buildings and that seems to become a major part of the programme schedule.

The CSI hierarchy will try to present a picture that the CSI is pioneering in projects for eco-justice and gender-justice etc. which they mostly do with foreign money. The participants in the meetings and discussions with the Archbishop will be those who are loyal supporters of the corrupt leaders of the present regime. The tour will come to an end with the guests and the hosts saying together, 'We had a fruitful time'. The Archbishop will issue a statement commending the work of the CSI and appreciating their exemplary leadership! The Reformation voice will be ignored and choked!! Both the churches will continue on their respective journeys of Deformation.

Why India again?

While Lambeth Palace has been seriously working on the programmes, it has, predictably, turned down my request to meet the Archbishop for 10 minutes when he is in Bangalore (where I live) to converse with him about my time spent in Durham diocese, Cranmer Hall and the theology department of the University of Durham in the early 1990s.

I believe that both Lambeth Palace and the CSI are not clear about why they are meeting. Is the membership in the Anglican Communion the only factor that draws them together? If the visit happens at that level, it will be a meaningless experience for either side. If the membership can take them back to the times of sharing together the ecclesiastical history and tradition, both then will have an opportunity to enlighten themselves about those past life-line connections.

It is true that those connections are known to us in colonial packages but they can be safely 'processed' in this post-colonial age. Processing is a term that describes the process of a software program manipulating or extracting data from a stored file to attain a particular result or, to change the metaphor, transforming the raw materials as food for consumption. Remember those words of Paul to the church in Rome: 'I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong--that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.' The faith-line can be felt and touched amidst other social and political factors that made colonial history.

Colonial Sin and Colonial Benevolence

Although it is said that the purpose of the visit is 'pastoral' and not 'political', attention is heavily focused on the Archbishop's visit to Amritsar where, one hundred years ago, a tragic event of hundreds of unarmed Indians were killed mercilessly by the British army headed by Colonel Dyer.

Commenting on the event, Dr Richard Sudworth, the Secretary for inter-Religious Affairs to the Archbishop has said: "I expect a fulsome and very transparent account of what happened." It was "a moment of recognising some of the sins of our history". Let the Archbishop say clearly in Amritsar what is in his mind without using too much of his gift for diplomacy.

The special concern however is, why can't the Archbishop aim for 'a fulsome and transparent history' of the Anglican churches in India? You may find a lot of activities not from the ilk of Colonel Dyer but from the services of the Anglican bishops: Thomas Middleton, Reginald Heber, Daniel Wilson, Robert Milman, Daniel Corrie, Frederick Gell, Michael Hollis etc. Bishop Daniel Wilson who was expected by the British authorities in India not to survive for more than six months in Calcutta due to climate conditions. They gave him furniture for his bungalow enough to live for a short period of time and when the bishop wanted more, they said, 'Sir, for six months this is enough!' But he went on to serve there for 26 years as a bishop and Metropolitan (1832-1858) of Calcutta diocese/province. Archbishop Welby, I understand, will be preaching at St. Paul's Cathedral in Calcutta. The tomb of Metropolitan Wilson can be found in a small room underneath the altar of the Cathedral.

Expressing support to Article 25 of the Indian Constitution

Archbishop Welby is also preparing himself to say something on Article 25 of the Indian Constitution - a matter of national importance. Article 25 stresses the 'Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion'. Whatever the message he wants to convey to the nation and its rulers it is hoped that the Archbishop reflects at least 10% of the spirit shown in Bishop's Truro Report which took a firmer stand against the persecution of Christians around the world. The Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it an honest, unflinching and hard-hitting report. The level of sympathy and support for persecuted Christians at the present moment is high in Britain and it is certainly to be appreciated as there were discussions and debates in the House of Commons (18 July) and the House of Lords (11 July) over this pernicious issue of violence and attack against Christians happening throughout the world.

How difficult it is to accept when you see a young man in India conducting the evening prayer standing by the lectern in a small prayer house getting kicked and slapped by a group of Hindu nationalists! When the person is attacked, he falls to the ground and never seeks to run away through the exit door near the altar. The congregation stands in utter shock. Some members of the congregation walk in and explain something to the attackers and they are also hit on their chest. Why would they walk in when there was trouble and why didn't they play it safe? They are ready to face such painful and humiliating ill-treatment because their Master also was beaten, slapped and spit upon.

A Narrow Perception of the Churches in India and the Caste System

The Ecumenical Advisor to the Archbishop and the Ecumenical Officer at the Council for Christian Unity Rev. Dr. William Adam does not concern himself with the past history of Anglicanism in India and its contribution to the growth of the ecumenical movement that led to the formation of a united church in south India but he describes Indian Christianity simply in caste terms which is largely seen as a poison in Indian society. He said, "It is very difficult to conceive of the ministry of the Churches of South and North India without thinking about the link with this identity as Dalits," He goes on further to assert, "It's been the warp and woof of the ministry of the Churches for many, many years."

The Lambeth visitors characterise the identity of the united churches as a community of 'Dalits' to indicate that they are right below in the caste ladder. I do not know the level of their experience of living with Dalits in India and taking part in their struggles. Caste is a vast and multi-faceted subject which should be studied with proper care, sensitivity, neutrality and objectivity. I hope that the Lambeth team knows the meaning of the word 'dalit' and has grasped its deeper social, political and psychological dimensions in Indian life.

I am reminded of the Indian fable of the 'Blind Men and the Elephant' that tells the story of four blind sojourners that come across different parts of an elephant in their life journeys. In turn, each blind man creates his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective. The noted re-teller of Indian Fables John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version of the poem Blind Men and the Elephantends thus: "Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!"

If the caste question creates a mind-set among the visitors and with it if they begin to view the entire life and functions of the CSI, they are bound to get nothing out of the trip and it will be a waste of money and time. It will be highly problematic to interpret everything they see and hear from that mono-perspective. It should be recognised that the corruption and fraud that have plagued the management of the finances and properties of the church know no caste barriers. The warp and woof of the CSI life is corruption and lawlessness. These two realities transcend all caste identities and it is this territory the Archbishop and his team must explore. Each Christian congregation will take care of its caste problems which they have been doing for many, many years.

It is a pastoral visit

What does it mean? Have the people of CSI accepted the archbishop as their pastor over them? The Lambeth team can join an 'All Night Prayer Group' in a CSI congregation praying through the whole night or until mid-night to see what they pray for. Hindus travel some distance by bullock-cart to pray in the Medak Cathedral which the team will be visiting. But the local bishop is busy building a three-storey bungalow for himself and has also recently purchased an expensive flat in Secunderabad in the three years since assuming office, as reported by local Christians.

Senior bishops and Moderators who have amassed wealth have taught the next generation of bishops how to go about in business behaving unscrupulously and undeterred. The people of the CSI think that it is all due to the Anglican episcopal system that has made a CSI bishop act in a despotic way as a lord of the diocese doing things to enrich themselves from church resources as though they are not accountable to anyone. A batch of such corrupt bishops will be adding pride and glory to the LC 2020!

The significant history that Britain and India shared is muted

The significant history that Britain and India shared is muted. The Church of England is wary of acknowledging that they brought Anglicanism to India.

We can embrace the Anglican legacy of the colonial era without inheriting the sins and prejudices of the time. We must look at the bigger picture of history without brooding over the wrongs committed either consciously or unconsciously. Only then can the true potential of our churches be realised. A fresh conversation between us has to emerge. Can the Archbishop Welby begin this new adventure?

If the archbishop could immediately connect with the British past bringing to mind the tragic event in Amritsar and if he is prepared to own the past mistake accepting responsibility for something that happened one hundred years ago, can't he reconnect with the history of the past created by the Archbishops of Canterbury? The colonial connection is every green in the memory as the some of the staff from Lambeth Palace also visited the spot not-so-distant past. The Lambeth Palace has forgotten the mission history it was part of whereas the colonial rule is recaptured with all emotions associated with the massacre in Amritsar. On the mission side, the door has long been shut and sealed and that historical relationship is diminishing and lessening in value. As I pointed out before, both the CSI and the Canterbury have erased the footprints of Anglicanism once thrived in the Indian soil.

Re-Reading and Re-Constructing Anglicanism in India

In the year 1694, Dean Prideaux of Norwich (1648-1724) a scheme in a proposal form to the Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson (1691-94) for opening an English mission in India. It contained proposals aimed at establishing an ecclesiastical organizational set-up similar to that of the Church of England. But his proposals were not taken seriously by the SPCK. But the pendulum swung back, after 120 years, in his favour as his proposals were discussed at length and key elements of them were approved as a plan of action for the Church in India at the meeting of the East Indies Mission, held on 1 June 1812. It was then decided to print those resolutions in 250 copies and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Manners-Sutton) was requested to present them to the President of the Board of Control, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Directors of the East India Company, with a recommendation that they be accepted. The result was the birth of the Calcutta diocese in 1814 which extended as far as New Zealand.

The Beginning of Protestant Mission in India: Thomas Tenison (1694-1715)

As the President of SPCK, Archbishop Thomas Tenison came to know about the beginning of the Protestant mission in a coastal village called Tranquebar in the year 1706. The mission began with the arrival of two dedicated young men from Germany called B. Ziegenbalg (24 years) and H. Plutschau (29 years). The Archbishop maintained a close relationship with them and sent letters to them and the letters took 8 months to travel to the destination. A copy of the Tamil translation of the Four Gospels and Acts (1714) was presented by the missionaries to Archbishop Tenison. In his initial letter dated 19 August 1714, the Bishop commented thus: 'Their (Tranquebar missionaries') business is not to mind (I think) so much the promoting either Lutheranism or Calvinism but the common Christianity.'

The death of archbishop Tenison in 1715 was grieved very much by Ziegenbalg in his speech to the members of the SPCK (Society). Thus he wrote, 'I condole with you the Death of the Most Reverend Archbishop Tenison, your Friend and ours,...whose favourable opinion of, and good wishes to this Mission...gave us Reason to hope the best things from his paternal Counsel and Support: But since his most worthy Successor stands completely blest and adorned with all the Virtues and Advantages of his great Predecessor, why should we doubt, but he will abundantly make up the Loss we have sustained; and by his Ghostly Counsel, and Pastoral admonitions and encouragements, feed and cherish our little Indian Church in her Infant-State?'

When Ziegenbalg visited London in 1715, in a welcoming speech to him by the SPCK the following words were said referring to mission in India: 'We have lost the most excellent person, Dr. Thomas Tenison, Arch-Bishop of Canterbury;...an eminent Promoter of this generous undertaking..'

William Wake (1716-1737)

Tenison's successor William Wake (1716-1737), as the President of the SPCK, cherished the interests of the Indian Church with liberality and affection more than his predecessors. After the death of Ziegenbalg, he was not tired of appealing to A. H. Francke (1663-1727), the missionary mentor from Halle, Germany for selecting and enrolling more missionaries from his country.

Wake kept sending letters of praise and commendation to the Tranquebar missionaries. One such letter was forwarded by Henry Newman, Secretary of the SPCK, to the Government and Council at Fort St. George, in Madras (now Chennai) in October 1716 with the comment that the Archbishop of Canterbury was a great well-wisher to the mission undertaking. The Governor and the Council at Fort St. George were quite pleased about the Archbishop's effort to sensitize the Church of England for the promotion of Christian mission in India.

Mention must be made of the New Year's greeting sent by Archbishop Wake in January, 1719 as the President of SPCK to the Tranquebar missionaries. He wrote,

'As often as I behold your letters, Reverend Brethren, addressed to the venerable Society instituted for the promotion of the Gospel, whose chief honour and ornament you are;...Let others indulge in a ministry, if not idle, certainly less laborious among Christians at home. Let them enjoy, in the bosom of the Church, titles and honours, obtained without labour and without danger...Your Province, therefore, Brethren, your office, I place before all dignitaries in the Church. Let others be Pontiffs, Patriarchs, or Popes;...you have acquired better name than they, and a more sacred fame...Admitted into the glory society of the Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles, ye, with them, shall shine, like the sun among the lesser stars, in the kingdom of your Father for ever....He who hath so liberally and unexpectedly ministered unto your wants, and who doth now daily add members to your Church; He will continue to prosper your endeavours, and will subdue unto Himself by your means, the whole continent of Oriental India'.

Ziegenbalg died on 23, February, 1719 before this letter reached Tranquebar and Gruendler too died on 8, March 1720 few months after the letter reached. The concluding paragraph in that letter reads like a final farewell to Ziegenbalg. It reads,

'May Almighty God graciously favour you and your labors in all things. May he send to your aid fellow-labourers, such and so many as you wish. May he increase the bounds of your Churches. May he open the hearts of those to whom ye preach the gospel of Christ...And when ye arrive (may it be late) at the end of your course, may the same God, who hath called you to this work of the Gospel and hath preserved you in it, grant to you the reward of your labour, -an incorruptible crown of glory'.

Sadly, the new missionary J. E. Gründler had time in his life just enough to respond to this letter. He wrote on 12 December 1719 to the Archbishop and to the Bishops of the Society mapping out his dream for future mission beyond Tranquebar. He wanted more missionaries to be sent by the Archbishop. He thus wrote, 'I may like to see 80 pious men chosen out of the Protestant Church and endued with power from above...'

The following extract from the letter (15 December 1719) spelled out further Gründler's vision for Indian mission and that happened to be his last letter to the Head of the Church of England. He wrote, 'I truly desire that the Danish mission in this land may be blessed with continual success, but I could most earnestly wish that the whole Protestant Body would unite in forming a mission for the East Indies.

On 14 December 1719, Gründler wrote to his Majesty the King of Britain about the demise of Ziegenbalg, applauded the passion and benefaction showed for the Protestant mission in India by the Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake through his 'most affectionate Fatherly letter', the laudable SPCK through its continued love towards mission and the English nation through its favour towards the Protestant mission.

The archbishop responded to Gründler's letter dated 15, January 1721 and the reply arrived when Gründler was no more. In his letter, the Archbishop remembered the sacrificial labour of Ziegenbalg and considered the death of Ziegenbalg as untimely and a great loss to the entire Christian Church. He praised Ziegenbalg as one who was 'perfectly inflamed with the love of God', 'capable of bearing great fatigue', 'having a wonderful memory' 'having a vigorous constitution of Body' and 'qualified for the work of an Evangelist'. The letter had a paragraph admonishing Gründler to continue the good work so that he might share the crown with Ziegenbalg in everlasting happiness but the final words of which sounded like his farewell message to Gründler. 'Thither will you by the same steps shortly follow him and enjoy with him the same Reward of your Labours.'

B. Schultze, the successor to Gründler, sent a reply on 2, December 1721 in which he remarked to the Archbishop that if Gründler had read the above lines, they would have 'refreshed him in an uncommon manner, and most sweetly have revived him.' The Archbishop reacted to the news about the death of Gründler thus: 'As soon as I heard that these great men removed from you to a better life, I concluded there was absolute necessity of speedily sending some other labourers to your Harvest...'

After the Ziegenbalg-Gründler era, there was an increased interest towards Indian mission among the Society, the Prelates and even among the members of the royal family. Letters to the SPCK were not solely addressed to its General Secretary Henry Newman but also to its President, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There has been a number of communications between Tranquebar missionaries and the Archbishops of Canterbury. There were a quite a few correspondences between the archbishops and A. H. Francke of Halle and none of which are found collected and preserved in the key libraries and archives except one that was written by Francke to the Archbishop Wake. The letter was dated 4 January 1722 and the contents of which bear evidence to the intensity of relationship and the corporate involvement in what the Anglicans called 'East India Mission' and the Germans and the Danes called the same as 'Tranquebar Mission'.

The Extension of Indian Episcopate: A. C. Tait

The focus shifts to the nineteenth century. The Bishop of Madras (Bishopric established in 1833) had already written to the Archbishop of Canterbury on 26 August 1873, requesting his consent to the consecration by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Rev. E. Sargent and Rev. R. Caldwell as Commissary Bishops to superintend respectively the CMS and SPG missions in the Diocese of Madras under the bishop of that diocese in conformity with the opinion of the English counsel. Although the Metropolitan in Calcutta objected to it, the Archbishop granted the permission to consecrate the two co-adjutor bishops.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a new Act, called the Enabling Act of 1919, was passed which granted powers to the Church of England decide on important measures vital to its function independent of any Parliamentary decisions. As M. E. Gibbs, who has written the only monograph on the history of Anglican Church in India (1600-1970), has put it, 'The Enabling Act gave the Church of England some power over its own affairs and solved the difficulty of the unwillingness of Parliament to find time for ecclesiastical legislation.' The Indian Anglican Episcopate grew with more dioceses coming into existence.

The Church of South India Scheme: C. G. Lang (1928-42)

Now the four Anglican dioceses in south India were contemplating uniting with the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and the Methodists. During the time of Archbishop C. G. Lang, the South India Scheme of Church Unity (uniting together the episcopal and the non-episcopal churches), in which both the Church of England and the Free Churches were interested, continued to move forward by crossing the initial hurdles. There was a mood of joy over the South Indian scheme stating "that one part of the Anglican Communion should be found ready to make this venture."

William Temple (1942-44)

Anglican acceptance of the Scheme was gradually becoming weaker and declining. Archbishop Temple advocated "partial communion" as an intermediate step towards full communion in relation to the Church of South India (CSI). Temple supported the South India Scheme in 1930, despite arguing in theory against such schemes two years earlier. He highlighted the Conference's commendation of the Scheme as evidence that the Anglican ideal was not one of mere absorption of other traditions. At the height of the South Indian controversy, Temple could still write that, in England ministries could be unified on the basis of church order within ten years, which he believed would accomplish "a vast measure of organic union". The CSI was an example or an experiment for organic union, not a federation or conciliar union.

Geoffrey Fisher (1945-61)

William Ramsey provided assistance to Fischer in coaxing the Anglo-Catholic participants at Lambeth to take a friendlier attitude towards the Church of South India. But Fisher's mild support could not withstand the strong opposition from the Anglo-Catholic group represented by Kenneth Kirk etc. The Church of South India was expelled from the Anglican Communion. For the 1948 and the 1958 Lambeth conferences only bishop Leslie Newbigin was invited personally by Fisher. The vigorous discussion that ensued between Archbishop Fisher and bishop Newbigin at the Lambeth Conference of 1958 continued until 1961. Bishop Newbigin was "almost thrown out of the Palace." One of Newbigin's parting comments to Fisher was that "it would be very much better that union should go forward even on a defective basis than that there should be no union at all."


Both the CSI Secretariat and the Lambeth Palace have to re-evaluate their history despite the feelings of uneasiness both may have in looking back on a mixed bag of glorious and inglorious moments and events that upheld or trampled human rights. This they have to do so as to create a new platform for dialogue with each other and find ways of working together by celebrating the past. It can happen if only Canterbury thinks that Anglicanism is not an exclusive cultural product and a privileged heritage belonging to one single nation or race but re-conceive Anglicanism in universal and global terms of the people of God in a universal church with less and less sense of a centripetal place of authority. The United Church in South India must show willingness to preserve and strengthen the Anglican heritage that came to it through the dedication and sacrifice of long line of shepherds of the church. Archbishop Welby may feel sorry for the incident in Amritsar but he could be filled with contentment over the fact that he stands in a long line of ministry of Archbishops who planted and watered the ministry of the Indian church. Can he re-activate that relationship in a new form which could re-vitalise the united churches? We shall see.

The Rev. Dr. Muthuraj, is a former member of St. John's College, Durham and a graduate of the University of Durham, UK. Through his publications, he has been established as a CSI historian who currently writes on the relationship between the united churches and the Anglican Communion. He has been one of the strongest voices in the global theological communion appealing for a renewal of Episcopacy to bring an end to the corruption in the Church of South India.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Prayer Book Alliance

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice


Go To Top