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A History of the Church of England in India
Since the Early Days of the East India Company

By Eyre Chatterton
Bishop of Nagpur

London: SPCK, 1924.

Chapter XIX. The Diocese of Rangoon, 1877. A Country of Mongols


1. Jonathan Holt Titcomb, consecrated 1877; resigned 1882; died 1887.

2. John Miller Strachan, consecrated 1882; resigned 1902; died 1909.

3. Arthur Mesac Knight, consecrated 1903; resigned 1909.

4. Rollestone Stebbitt Fyffe, consecrated in St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 1910.

Books of Reference.--Christian Missions in Burma, by the Rev. W. C. B. Purser; The Life of Judson (Wayland); The Burman, his Life and Notions (Shway Yeo--Sir George Scott); Burma: A Handbook of Information (Sir George Scott); Burma through the Centuries (Stuart); Legend of Gaudama (Bishop Bigandet); The Soul of a People (Fielding Hall); Forty Years in Burma, by the Rev. Dr. Marks.

TWO of the dioceses which go to make up the ecclesiastical province of India are strangely unlike the remaining eleven. Territorially neither Rangoon nor Colombo is even a part of India, and while the bulk of the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are Hindus by religion, both Burma and Ceylon are essentially Buddhist countries. If, however, there is a racial resemblance between the Sinhalese of Ceylon and the Tamils of South India, both being Dravidians, there is certainly not the faintest kinship between the Burman and any of the distinctively Indian races. For the Burman is a Mongol through and through, and to find his relatives you must go East and North to China, Japan, and Tibet.

Burma is now under the Government of India, and is the largest and most wealthy province of the Indian Empire. Its wealth consists in its unrivalled rice cultivation, its vast forests of teak and other timber, its endless supply of oil, and its other minerals. Its ruby mines are famous throughout the East. Unlike India, the monsoon has never been known to fail in Lower Burma, which means that a certain and generally enormous crop of rice comes as a yearly gift from Providence, much of which can be exported. One of the sights of Burma unquestionably is to be seen on its great river Irrawaddy, where hundreds of huge rafts of timber, with their care-takers on board living in small huts, drift downstream for hundreds of miles from Upper Burma to the sea at Rangoon.

The Burmese are believed to have come down from Tibet, and it is interesting to note that the other indigenous races of Burma, such as Chins, Kachins, Karens, and Shans, are also Mongols, and have the same characteristic features and speak the same monosyllabic and agglutinative language.

They are a bright, laughter-loving people, friendly and cheery, when they are not misled and provoked. Their bright-coloured dresses and flamboyant art reflect their character. Probably there is no more picturesque sight in the world than a Burmese religious festival or holiday crowd. They are, however, excitable and hasty-tempered, tremendous gamblers, and lacking in perseverance. When angered too they are apt to be very cruel. Their standard of literacy is about four times as high as that of India, and so, strange to relate, is their rate of criminality.

No one who visits Burma can fail to be impressed by the picturesque Buddhist monasteries with their pagoda-like spires which are to be seen outside most of the villages in the country. Their yellow-robed monks are amongst the most familiar sight in the country, and may still be seen patrolling the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay, with their begging-bowls in their hands. Few will be found to praise these "hpongyis" as a class, for they lead lazy lives, are seldom learned, and are too often violent political partisans. It must be admitted, however, that theyare largelyresponsible for the comparatively high standard of literacy in Burma, and the sight of the small Burmese boys crowding the monasteries for their daily lessons is one not soon to be forgotten.

While Buddhism is the prevailing religion of Burma, the real ruling motive of a Burman's religious life lies elsewhere. He is a convinced believer in evil spirits, and his dread of these "nats" is not helped by his Buddhism.

Burma has apparently always attracted the dwellers in the cold and less fertile country of Tibet which lies away to the north, and from the earliest days it has been constantly invaded.

There are, we are told, ancient towns and cities dotted over Burma which once were capitals of these invaders, and while the great port of Rangoon and picturesque Mandalay are obviously modern, even the ruined city of Pagan, one of the most interesting sights in the East, can boast only of an eleventh-century origin, which does not give it a claim to belong to the category of the ancient cities of Burma.

Our earliest English connection with Burma, as with other places in the East, goes back to the days of the Old John Company. With Burma we traded, and in Lower Burma we established a few factories. Then came a time in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when the Burmese attacked Assam, and for this act of aggression they were destined to lose Arakan and Tenasserim. A generation passed and, owing to further disputes and serious internal troubles, the country was taken over by the British in 1853 as far north as Toungoo. It was not till 1885 that the Burmese King was deposed and the whole country placed under British Administration.

We have already alluded to the fact that Burma is essentially a Buddhist country, and on Burmese Buddhism it must be admitted that up to the present Christianity has made but slight impression. The greatest of all missionaries who ever worked in Burma is unquestionably Judson, an American Baptist. A contemporary of James Carey, he had intended to devote his life to the evangelisation of India. Prevented from carrying out this idea by the East India Company's regulations at that particular time he started work in Burma more than a century ago. Undaunted by cruel imprisonment and hardships, such as few have been called on to endure, he continued his work and reaped his great reward. Not that the results achieved amongst the Buddhists have been great, for in a population of nearly twelve million Buddhists to-day, it has to be admitted that the total number of Christian converts is not more than fifteen thousand, of whom seven thousand are Baptist, six thousand are Roman Catholics and between one and two thousand are Anglicans. "One very remarkable figure stands out among the Burmese converts. It is that of a Yathe (hermit) who embraced the Christian faith. His Burmese name was Ko Tha Dun. He was baptised by the name of John Baptist in 1911, and died in 1919. At one time he was a Buddhist monk, but was so disgusted with what he saw of Buddhist monastic fife that he threw it up and became an ordinary cultivator. He could not, however, suppress his longing for God or satisfy his religious perplexities, and so he went into solitary retirement in the jungle, and there remained for many years, living in a cave hollowed out in a hillside, and fed by those who were attracted by his holy life. At length he came to hear of the Gospel and of the good work done in the name of Christ. Then he felt he had found the truth for which he had been so long searching. He became a devoted Christian teacher, retaining his strange hermit's dress and his ascetic habits to the end. He brought with him into the Church many of his disciples, one of whom, his constant companion in his journeys, could not get over the death of his beloved teacher, and actually died within a few weeks of his master's death."

If, however, missionary work amongst the Burmese Buddhists has not produced large results, it is very different with work amongst the Karens, one of the large races of Burma. Amongst them to-day there are nearly two hundred thousand Christians, of whom three-fourths are Baptist and the remainder either Anglican or Roman. We shall speak of this work more fully towards the end of the chapter.

Until the end of the Second Burmese War the English Church was represented in Burma merely by Chaplains of the East India Company or the Government of India, and it is worthy of record that the first effort to start missionary work in Burma was made by one of these Chaplains. Then came the year 1860, when Mr. J. E. Marks, a trained schoolmaster, who had done excellent work in the slums of East London, was sent by the S.P.G. to start work in Burma. He began his work at Moulmein, at the south of the Salven, one of the most picturesque places in Lower Burma. Here he continued for two years with considerable success. To give a detailed account of his remarkable missionary career is unnecessary, as Dr. Marks himself has given us all that we want to know in his Forty Years in Burma, edited with an admirable introduction by Mr. Purser, a well-known Burmese missionary.

On All Saints' Day, 1863, he was ordained deacon in St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta, by Bishop Cotton, and on his return to Burma started his famous Collegiate School of St. John's, one of the most remarkable institutions in the East. Two years later St. Mary's School for Girls was also started by this most enthusiastic of educationists. Ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Cotton, Dr. Marks continued his work in Rangoon in spite of illness till 1868, when he left British Burma and went toMandalay at the invitationof KingMindon. Much might be said of this period of Marks' life, and it is clear now from the memoirs of Bishop Mihnan that, in spite of the fact of the Burmese King building a fine timber Church, school, and clergy-house for the mission, the astute monarch was entirely worldly minded and never seriously entertained the idea of becoming a Christian, and that his real motive in acting as he did was not pure philanthropy but to keep on good terms with the rulers of Lower Burma. Still, whatever King Mindon's motives were, there can be no doubt that he was much impressed by this ardent missionary, and the fact that he sent his own sons and other children of the Royal House to Dr. Marks' school was itself an evidence of the trust he placed in this remarkable man. Some of our readers may have heard Dr. Marks speak of his embarrassment when on one occasion the royal sons arrived late for school, and the whole school immediately prostrated itself when the royal youths entered the school buildings. Later on Dr. Marks was duly honoured when the Archbishop of Canterbury presented him with the Lambeth D.D. Forty years in Burma was a magnificent record, and during the remaining years of his life spent in England, the old doctor was constantly reminded, by letters and gifts from old pupils in Burma, how deeply he was honoured and loved.

The spiritual needs of Burma had constantly occupied the thoughts of both Bishops Cotton and Milman. They had realised its immense possibilities and the utter impossibility of any Bishop of Calcutta effectually supervising and promoting its work. Not, however, till the year 1877 did Burma receive its first Anglican Bishop. Like the Bishopric of Lahore, the Bishopric of Rangoon was founded in part as a memorial to Bishop Milman. Half of the endowment of the See was raised in the Winchester Diocese, which has ever since taken a special interest in Burma, the other half being raised by S.P.G., S.P.C.K., and the Colonial Bishoprics Fund. As is the case with the Bishoprics of Lahore, Lucknow, and Nagpur, the Bishop of Rangoon receives from Government the salary of a senior Chaplain and is recognised by the Government as Head of the Ecclesiastical Department in Burma. Under Bishop Titcomb, the first Bishop of Rangoon, Dr. Marks tells us, "the work of the Church in British Burma made excellent progress. He established the Rangoon Additional Clergy Society and made his influence felt all over his huge diocese. He took special interest in the S.P.G. Orphans' Home, which he aided munificently, and at his recommendation it was called the Diocesan Orphanage for Boys." The unfortunate accident which led to his resignation took place five years after his Consecration. The path on the side of a hill on which he was walking when on tour amongst the Karen Christians gave way. A fall of twenty feet injured his spine so badly that all active work had to be abandoned. He never entirely recovered, and died a few years later in England.

He was succeeded by the Rev. J. M. Strachan, M.D., who had been a leading medical missionary in Madras for nineteen years. Like Dr. Marks, Bishop Strachan gave nearly forty years of faithful service to the East, and when he resigned the See in 1902, he had been Bishop for no less than twenty years. During the earlier years of his Episcopate much was accomplished, and among other things the Cathedral of the diocese, a handsome building, was completed.

On his resignation, when increasing years and the trying climate had already begun to sap his energy, the diocese was presided over for six happy years by the Rev. Arthur Mesac Knight, one of the ablest and most devoted of men. Fresh from Cambridge, where he was Dean of Gonville and Caius College, he attracted a number of young and able men, Chaplains and missionaries, to the diocese, and infused new life and enthusiasm into every branch of his work. It was indeed a great misfortune to the diocese as well as a bitter disappointment to Dr. Knight, when the doctors told him that he must never put foot again in a land which he loved and which loved him.

We have already alluded to the success which has crowned missionary effort amongst the Karens. Those who have read the Memoirs of Bishop Milman will recall how he was brought into contact with this work towards the end of his Episcopate. The work amongst these people was originally started by American Baptists at Toungoo, then a frontier town of British Burma. Considerable success had followed their efforts when, as a result of serious division within the Mission, Mrs. Mason, the wife of the founder, offered to hand over her followers, about six thousand in number, to the English Church, with all their schools and other mission property. The offer was made in 1870, but as Mrs. Mason was obviously a person of unbalanced judgment, the offer was refused. About that time, however, a mission was started by S.P.G. at Toungoo for special work amongst the Burmans. Some four or five years later, when it was found that Mrs. Mason's followers were either drifting into Roman Catholicism or relapsing into paganism, and that there was no possible hope of reconciling them with the main Baptist body, Bishop Milman decided that it was the duty of our Church to receive them into our Communion, and so from 1875 we have been partly responsible for work amongst the Karens.

The mission staff has, however, never been strong enough to attempt more than the care of existing Christians, and as nearly all the villages in the neighbourhood of Toungoo are already Christians, mostly Baptist, it would be impossible to expand, without opening work at some distance from the present centre. The Karens are easily led, and more than once have been the victims of schismatic leaders. One of these leaders was an ordained priest of the Church, named Thomas Pellake. He altered the Karen name of Christ (K'ree) to K'lee--a bow, and built up round this a fantastic system of teaching. His licence was taken away, and eventually he was excommunicated. His power has now waned in the hills, though he is still active and has adherents in the plains.

Of one very devoted missionary priest, long since passed away, some mention should be made. James Colbeck began his missionary career in the S.P.G. settlement at Kemmen-dine, near Rangoon. Shortly after Burma was constituted into a separate diocese he was transferred to Mandalay. When King Mindon died he was succeeded by his son Theebaw, who under the influence of his wife proceeded to murder no less than seventy members of the Royal Family. Through the courage and presence of mind of Colbeck it is now known that numbers more of Theebaw's royal relations were saved. Disguising them as servants, he managed to get them over to the British Embassy, which was shortly afterwards withdrawn. For a time Colbeck himself had to leave Mandalay, and during his residence at Moulmein occupied himself in building the Church. Later on when Theebaw was deposed and Upper Burma was annexed by the British, Colbeck returned to Mandalay, where he died in 1885.

On the resignation of Bishop Knight in 1909, the Rev. R. S. Fyffe, Head of the Winchester Brotherhood in Mandalay, was appointed as his successor in the Episcopal office. During his Episcopate the work of the Church has gone on vigorously and steadily. His staff of Clergy now numbers fifty-six, of whom eleven are Government Chaplains, seven A.C.S., fifteen European missionaries, twenty-two Burmese or Indian priests and deacons, and one Principal of the Diocesan Boys' School. There are twenty-four lady missionaries and several professed Sisters. The education of the Anglo-Indian community has been an especial object of his care. Excellent schools in Rangoon, Mandalay and May-myo are now educating at least 1400 of their boys and girls. There is also a flourishing work carried on amongst the large number of Indian habitants in Burma, chief amongst whom are Tamils from South India. Burma has problems of its own, and not the least difficult is that amongst its large Chinese population who come to Burma and who frequently marry Burmese wives. Church work is being attempted amongst the Chinese only in Moulmein. The task of the Church amongst Burmese Buddhists, it must be admitted, is one of peculiar difficulty. They have an ancient, organised, and attractive religion, and for the present they seem thoroughly satisfied with it. Of late too they have been encouraged to remain so for political and nationalist reasons. Europeans are no longer free to enter their pagodas, and new difficulty is being experienced in the circulation of the Bible and other Christian literature. No diocese has been served by a more devoted body of missionary priests and lady workers.

It may be unwise to mention the names of individuals now living, but one remarkable figure compels notice. This is the blind priest, the Rev. W. H. Jackson of Wadham College, Oxford, who has given himself to the work for the many blind people of Burma, started by the Rev. W. C. B. Purser of Kemmendine. In the five years he has been in Burma he has mastered the language to such an extent that he has produced a system of Burmese Braille which works admirably, and to see him in Burmese dress with bare feet among his pupils is to realise anew what devoted missionary work means, "It is such devotion to the afflicted and the poor that contains the promise of the final triumph of the Gospel."

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