Monday, August 19, 2013

In no particular order 2) Being Church

7 years ago when I visited India, it was very much as part of my ministerial development. My brief was to learn from the life and experiences of clergy in the Church of South India - and I hope I did so.
Mostly, though, I was completely blown away by the experience of being in India - the sights, sounds, smells...the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality I received wherever I went. There were also some important lessons about letting go of my own children for a while and learning to spread my wings just as they were spreading theirs...

This trip, my official brief was to support and co-lead the group of teenagers in our care - but ironically, I was far more conscious of the reality of the world-wide Church as the Body of Christ and of all that we have in common, and the fact that I wasn't tied to a particular church, even for a short time, enabled a wider experience of church life in different contexts.

There were many special conversations and times when the sense of unity in Christ was so strong it was the biggest single reality - but I'd like to share four particular highlights, that enlarged my vision and helped me to visualise the worshipping Church as Good News.

The 1st was on our first Sunday in Karnataka, when we were prised away from the home comforts of the CSI Guest House in Bangalore to be given a glimpse of the reality of life in rural India, as we visited Chickballapur, Gangasandra (where our hosts in the CSI hostel for boys even gave up their beds for us) and, the next morning, Tumkur.
This was exciting for many reasons - not simply the presence of a random Temple elephant whom we passed by the roadside as we hurried to church.
The REALLY exciting thing, for me at any rate, was that one of the four churches our group visited that day was presided over by my friend Revd Rachel Priyarani....A reunion with Rachel was one of my greatest hopes for this trip to India - and to find myself directed to the bathroom "in the pastor's house over there" and discover that SHE was the pastor in question was a complete delight! A happy hour catching up and sharing memories in her kitchen while she made a huge pile of chapattis to feed our group reassured me that this was a real friendship - not simply the product of my own longing to feel connected with the ministry of the church here. Later that evening, after I had preached to her evening congregation - who had warmly welcomed the whole group and produced the inevitable flowers for all of us - she gave me one of the best gifts of all. After the prayer of consecration, she handed me the ciborium and dropped to her knees beside me - enabling me to give her the Sacrament, and then to share it with each one of her congregation. That evening, of course, the congregation included our own band of pilgrims - and it was hugely important for me to give them Communion by name at this early point in our journey together. The evening service at Bishop Gill Church is held in English, which made it easy for us to feel at home - but for me it was the warmth of Rachel's smile and her grace in welcoming me to share her ministry that made the difference. I've been privileged to spend time with her now on 3 different occasions, twice in India and once here in England. My hope and prayer is that our friendship is now so confirmed that it is unthinkable that we'll not meet again - though sometimes I could do with a rather smaller world.

In contrast, my other highlights in worship were in churches where we couldn't understand a word of what was going on. The first was in the Tamil church of the Good Shepherd in the Kolar Gold Fields, where we were warned that the congregation on a Thursday evening would be small - and highly traditional. Not a word of English was spoken during the course of the service, during which we mostly sat on floor mats (men on the right, women on the left) and listened as the congregation sang the traditional hymns and lyrics, with their tabla, harmonium and Indian bells - but I think each one of us was caught up in the atmosphere of focussed prayer that surrounded us. There was never a moment of doubt that deep and faithful worship was going on - which it was a privilege to be involved in. Incidentally, that "small" congregation numbered around 60 - with an age-range from twenties to eighties..The young Indian woman praying beside me somehow carried me in her prayers without our exchanging a word throughout - and I'll not easily forget the lovely stillness of her presence.

Finally, 2 Sundays ago, I found myself preaching once again - this time at Christ Church Hosur. Again the service was in Tamil, so I had the slightly disconcerting experience of pausing at the end of every sentence to allow a translation - while having absolutely NO idea whether the translator was actually sticking to my script at all. Apparently he mostly did - but couldn't resist expanding on some points. As Tamil seems to be a more involved language than English, even a direct translation took quite a while - which meant that my "about God, about 10 minutes" sermon was miraculously expanded to fit the longer slot that Indian congregations expect. Earlier in the trip, one pastor told me that if HE had dared to preach for just 10 minutes his congregation would instantly assume that he knew nothing whatever about Scripture - and be phoning complaints to the bishop without delay. 
This, however, was not what made it a memorable Sunday.
This church has a history of resisting women's ministry and it will be many a year before an ordained woman can pastor there. Though I had no idea at the time, I was making history in preaching - and later I found that I was pushing a few more boundaries, in blissful ignorance.

You see, once again the pastor of the church generously invited me to give Communion to his entire congregation.

All 1000 of them.

It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer number of hands was overwhelming in itself. Though I have been part of congregations of that size before, at ordinations or at Greenbelt for example, the norm in those situations is to have several stations for Communion. Here, every single man, woman and child came and knelt at the altar rail, and opened their hands so that God could fill them.
And SUCH hands
The soft white hands of my fellow travellers
Brown hands
The work hardened hands of some elderly men 
A few hands with deformities - missing fingers, at least one fearful scar gouged right across the palm
Hands knarled by arthritis
The chubby hands of children
All of them stretched out, - and me, ME given the joyous task of offering what they were asking for.

At the door afterwards there were many requests for blessings, many babies placed in my arms so that I could pray for them, many many moments when the language barrier faded to nothing as I was asked to do what I'm ordained to do - to pray, to reconcile, to bless.

For me India is, supremely, a place of hospitality - and in that church on that morning I glimpsed for a moment the faintest echo of the endless hospitality of God - who places himself, literally, in the hands of whoever asks.

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