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Huge crowds celebrate bicentenary of south Indian church

Posted on: November 14, 2016 12:17 PM
Priests from the Church of South India are amongst a congregation of tens of thousands of Christians celebrating the bicentenary of the diocese of Madhya Kerala in Kerala state.
Photo Credit: Shemil Matthew / CSI

[ACNS, by Adrian Butcher] Tens of thousands of Christians from across southern India joined moderators, bishops and other dignitaries from around the world at a huge celebration to mark the bicentenary of Madhya Kerala diocese on Saturday (12 November). The gathering, at the Nehru Stadium in Kottayam, was the culmination of four years of events and projects to commemorate the arrival in the southern state of Kerala of the first CMS missionary, Thomas Norton, in 1816.

“It is a great day of blessing as we gather here, an ocean of faithful witnesses thanking God for the mercies he has showered on us in Kerala through these past 200 years,” the Bishop of Madhya Kerala, the Rt Revd Thomas Oommen, said as he paid tribute to the work of the first missionaries.

“Ever since the arrival of the CMS missionaries, our land has been witnessing a great transformation. During the past four years of our bicentenary celebration, we have been thanking and praising God, and also honouring those missionaries who were agents of that transformation.

“We are now recommitting ourselves to the cause of mission,” he said. “Our mission now is to initiate a ‘New Exodus’ – to liberate our land from the clutches of slavery which is expressed in new forms.

“This is not an easy task but it is not an impossible one, provided that God is with us. Therefore, let us humble ourselves and recommit ourselves to engage in this New Exodus.”

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The diocese of Madhya Kerala is part of the united Church of South India (CSI). The CSI moderator, the Most Revd G Dyvasirvadam, praised the way the church in the diocese has followed the example of the first missionaries who provided educational opportunities to the local community.

“Madhya Kerala diocese of the Church of South India can be proud of the fact that the threshold of education was opened up for people from all social backgrounds by the CMS missionaries in a time when the lower caste people when denied access to education,” he said.

“CMS missionaries extended their care and compassion to people from all walks of life irrespective of caste and creed through their mission in the field of education and health care. The present Church has the responsibility to follow the vision of the CMS missionaries that the development or growth of the Church should be resulting in the development of the society.”

Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, told the crowds that the missionaries had paved the way for what he called a renaissance movement in the state. He pointed to their pioneering work in education, printing, literature and publishing, and said their approach to the inclusion of marginalised people had brought the idea of equality into mainstream thinking.

The Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook – representing the Church of England – delivered a message of greeting from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He described the occasion as a landmark for the diocese and gave thanks to God for his many blessings and for the faithfulness of the church’s ministry over the past 200 years. He encouraged the church to look to the future and continue its calling to serve the wider community of the diocese.

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Among the dignitaries were the moderator of the Church of North India, the Most Revd P K Samantroy; the deputy moderator of Bangladesh, the Rt Revd Samuel Mankhin and Dr Joseph Mar Thoma, Metropolitan and Primate of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. They were joined by Martin and Ginny Knapp, a British couple from Petersfield in Hampshire, who have a direct link to the early church in south India. Martin’s great-uncle, Edward Moore, was the fourth bishop of what was then Travancore, serving from 1925 to 1937.

“By all accounts he was a shy, retiring, rather academic man,” said Martin. “He would have been overwhelmed to see all this, less than 100 years after he was here – to see how the seeds that were planted have grown and developed since those days. I feel very humbled to come here – when I think of what it was like for the early missionaries and the enormous sacrifices they made.”

In the run-up to Saturday’s celebrations, local churches organized a 96-hour prayer chain. Festivities on the day began with a series of processions weaving through the streets of Kottayam to the football stadium. The events were broadcast live on television in India. The evening also saw the launch of an official postage stamp and a commemorative book to mark the bicentenary.

The four years of celebrations have seen a range of projects across the diocese. These have included building houses for the homeless, providing scholarships to poor students and various works in agriculture, education and development.

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Photos: Shemil Matthew / CSI