Thursday, December 07, 2006

Still thinking

OK...I've been home a week , and am very aware that more processing needs to happen fairly swiftly, before I lose touch completely with the India experience amid the Advent avalanche. At the moment, if I'm honest, its impact seems to be mostly that of a large road-block that's hindering me from re-engaging with the people I'm called to serve here and now in CK. I know that I've left part of my heart in a parish in Bangalore (CSI Zion Church, if you're interested) - but I simply mustn't allow this to impede my ministry here.
After all, that would be to negate the whole point of my visit.

Before I left, many people asked what I was going for,- and a similar question was put by the diocesan bishop of Karnataka Central when we arrived. "What is your agenda for the month?"
Our official brief was "to learn from the pastoral ministry of the CSI,- with the implicit hope that this would impact (positively) on the whole way we do ministry when we return home" but at the moment I'm finding the differences in context and delivery so huge that making sense of the lessons is almost beyond me.

It's not simply that the church in India is completely committed to vigourous social engagement, though it's very inspiring to see the many wonderful projects, schools, hospitals and rescue schemes that the diocese runs. (More of these later, I expect)
I both loved and hated the response of Nirmala Vasanthakumar, "Bishop Amma" (as the wives of CSI bishops are known) "If the church doesn't do these things, then the church is irrelevant" - because it's not easy to hear such a stark truth about oneself,- but I believe she's right.
Quite what I do with this reminder now I'm back in the affluence of CK is another matter. I'm haunted by the knowledge that, when we attended the launch of a new project for street children, I was thanked for our parish's contribution to the funding...and hadn't actually remembered we were supporting it, because the annual donation of £100 was so insignificant in our budget that the PCC simply wrote a cheque, with no need to fundraise, and thus without any sense of ownership or involvement at all. That didn't and still doesn't feel particularly admirable to me, so to be garlanded and celebrated for our generosity was distinctly uncomfortable.

But that's not the main difference between our churches.

It's nothing to do with the differences between a church that operates on the "gathered" model, and represents a minority faith, as opposed to the C of E, which continues to operate on the assumption that everyone living within the parish is our responsibility, if they've not explicitly opted to belong elsewhere.
Certainly, it was both helpful and challenging to realise that the majority of the people I met outside the Indian churches had less than no knowledge of or interest in Christianity...Now where have I heard that before?

Of course India is a famously spiritual place. One of my most significant meetings during the past month was with a dozen elderly ladies who had all converted from Hinduism, and clearly saw their faith in Christ as the logical conclusion of many years of devoted Hindu observance. They had all been "continually in the Temple" and this laid the foundation for what came next...which also makes sense in the current climate of spirituality shopping that we're assured is part of contemporary western culture. I wish there had been opportunity to talk directly with practising Hindus. As I visited Christian homes, the many holy pictures and statues displayed with pride had a distinctly similar aura to the Hindu shrines we passed on street corners, and sometimes in worship it felt as if at any minute something older than the Christian church might emerge from somewhere beneath the surface of the liturgy. This was specially true when the Tamil congregations used traditional lyric music alongside their hymns. Their singing communicated with parts of me that I didn't even know existed,- perhaps because I was totally ignorant of both the meaning of the words and the musical form. For whatever reason, being part of a congregation worshipping in this way was a hugely liberating experience.

I suspect, though, that I'm not explaining myself well at all, as I'm not in any way suggesting that Indian Christianity is only a veneer, but rather that I was made specially conscious of the common nature of the search for God, whatever its context.
Far from being superficial, the faith that I encountered was quite simply and non-negotiably real, the foundation of everything that happened, every day, from the death of a child to the purchase of a new car.
So, I guess the most overwhelming difference between the church here and there is that, quite simply, all the congregations I encountered in India obviously believe in God and expect prayer to change things.

To spend a couple of hours in worship on Sunday, and then another 45 minutes praying with all sorts of people, in all sorts of different situations (some of which I couldn't begin to understand, as my Tamil is conspicuous by its absence - but that mattered not a jot) was a completely new and wonderful experience for me. To have elderly ladies automatically dropping to their knees at my feet having asked me to pray was perhaps the most humbling thing that has ever happened to me.
To come home without knowing the "end" of so many stories is terribly painful.
I did say that I'd left part of myself behind.


Anonymous said...

Sounds similar to my experience with the CSI. One of the things that still comes back to me is the architecture of some of their churches. Most, at least where I was, were very Western - walls, windows, doors, altar rail etc. OK, the windows were larger and open, and the worshippers were barefoot, but basically it was very familiar.

But, some chapels followed a different pattern. No walls, just corner pillars. A sunken central area with seating around. Lotus flowers all around in the decoration. A sacred room at the front, opened to the congregation. Basically, very like a Hindu temple. Just as Western Christianity baptised many of the customs around it (such as the Jewish temple - upon which many churches are based), so these Indian Christians were baptising their own culture, subverting the symbols of Hinduism as symbols of Christ. The lotus as symbol of life and rebirth, the open room at the front speaking clearly of the tearing of the curtain that granted access for everyone to the holy places (not just to the high-caste priests). I found it tremendously moving, and it opened my eyes to many of the ways in which our own church and ways of "doing" Christianity are cultural trappings.

pax et bonum

Anonymous said...

The impact of India is clearly immense, and wonderful to read about. Oh that all true Christinas everywhere - of whatever part of the spectrum - REALLY lived and acted in faith as those you have spoken of. If they can "obviously believe in God and expect prayer to change things", and love and worship accordingly (as well as no doubt seeing answers to their prayers, in terms of a growing faith, an increasing love for the Lord, sinners being saved by grace, and lives and homes being tranformed by the power of the Risen Saviour) - then why can't we in this country? Imagine the impact on CK alone ....or Cheltenham...

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts
May be you are not being asked to use this experience in the current setting? I read somewhere about Roman Catholic priests who went on sabbatical (can't find the source sorry) and that over 60% moved within 2 years of returning - and that they found that they were more able to use their sabbatical experience in their new parish. Part of the problem is that to the people to you have returned to you are the same - but actually you are not. So maybe the next stage will see the real value - and with a curacy end in sight that will not be too long.
I think it unhelpful as DP23 suggests to think of people being real Christians only existing in India - its just that Brits tend to express it more reservedly. Just yesterday I had a telephone conversation with someone who had been moved by a sermon I preached three years ago - it had changed her life but she had only just thought at Morning Prayer yesterday that she should let me know! I am sure that you are having a similar impact in CK - they just do not demonstrate it as Indian Christians might.