The Substance of Addresses Given by Two Members of the Oxford Mission Brotherhood of the Epiphany, at the Students Conference of the Syrian Christian Church, Held at Kottayam, May 1st--5th, 1916
You begin to realize that India is not so much a country as a continent when after travelling for three days and three nights--further than from London to Moscow--you find yourself in quite a different India, another yet the same. Holland is not more different from Italy than is Bengal from the little Native States of Travancore and Cochin, packed away in the extreme south-west behind a line of hills. And the comparison with Italy, at least with Venice, is not inapt, for here too you have a long line of islands shutting in a series of broad lagoons; but the "Lido" instead of being covered with gigantic bathing establishments is a mass of enchanting palm-groves, and the lagoons instead of being shallow as at Venice are deep enough for a fleet to ride in, if only the bar at the entrance did not forbid. Perhaps some day a passage will be cleared, and then Cochin may become a serious rival to Bombay. This chain of lagoons, connected sometimes by artificial canals, extends for more than 150 miles, and is the great highway for the country, with steamers, motor-boats and various types of country boats constantly plying up and down it. And this may be the reason that so far the province has been able to do without railways. There are two lines which enter it from the east, but none which traverse it from north to south.
It was at one of these termini that Shore and I were set down one grilling afternoon in May. Immediately we were surrounded by a crowd of the Syrian students--such bright, keen, intelligent faces [vii/viii]--who seemed as though they could never do enough to make us welcome.
And we felt that we were in Christian India.
For, indeed, if any part of India has a right to the name, it is this. The Christians form rather more than a fourth of the whole population, but naturally they are massed together more in some places than in others, and in the parts which we visited they seemed to be in a majority and their churches seem to dominate the country, for everywhere they are conspicuous, while the temples and mosques are hidden away in obscure places. They have a beautiful custom of fixing a large stone cross, some twenty feet high, in front of the church, at the distance of fifty or a hundred yards from the entrance, so that nobody shall mistake what the building means. And then again the Church here--I speak now of the society--is so entirely Indian, so completely indigenous in all its manners and customs, that it takes its place, as it has done for centuries, among the settled institutions of the land.
But why "Syrian"? This question was a puzzle to me until I came here, and then I saw at once that it is Syrian only in an ecclesiastical sense. Every single member of the Church is a native of India, and their language is Malayalam; one of the great Dravidian family to which Tamil and Telugu also belong--a language which sounds like the perpetual beating of kettle-drums, with a roll and rhythm which sometimes in the Church services recalls the "many waters" of the Apocalypse. They are all quite convinced that their Church was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle, and this is a claim which can neither be proved or disproved--volumes have been written on either side. Certain it is that their ecclesiastical connexion from the third or fourth century onwards has been with the Syrian or Persian Church of Mesopotamia, whose emissaries would naturally in the interests [viii/ix] of religion or commerce find their way down the Persian Gulf, and so on to the west coast of India. And the language of all their service books is Syriac--a fact of which they are naturally very proud, since it was the language spoken by our Lord Himself. And their Bible is the famous Peshitto version. At all the services at which the laity are present the prayers are fluently translated into Malayalam, but only the Syriac is printed.
It gave me a thrill of excitement to find myself at last among these wonderful and delightful people, to whom our thoughts in the rest of India so often turn, while we ask ourselves why it is that in the many centuries during which they have existed as a Church they have not converted the whole land. Either that, or to be blotted out themselves, would, one would think, be the inevitable course of history. But neither has happened. And we wonder why? Perhaps the sand is not yet run out; and before it is quite run out there may be a reversal of the hour-glass, and a renewal of life and opportunity. That is the hope which is throbbing in our hearts, as with the kind, soft voices in our ears we are led up from the landing-place of the steamer, which is on one of the islands which shut in the backwater, to the place of the Conference. And as we go to rest that night, with the Southern Cross pointing straight down upon our beds, it seems a sign that our hope is justified.
These annual Conferences are arranged entirely by the students themselves, following the lead of the Conferences or "Camps" which are now so common in connexion with the Student Volunteer Movement. This year's Camp was the seventh they have held. The first four were conducted either by their own clergy or by priests from the neighbouring diocese of Madras; but in 1913 they were kind enough to invite me to come from Calcutta and take part in the Conference of that year. I gladly accepted, but [ix/x] when the time came I found I had to go into hospital instead, and Holmes at short notice undertook to supply my place, which I need not say he did most efficiently. Last year he went again, accompanied by Shore. And this year I was at last able to fulfil my long-standing promise. The number of students who attended was ninety-eight a smaller number than usual because the place chosen was less accessible. At the same time being in Cochin it gave opportunity for those from the northern districts to attend. The Conference lasted three days, and its work was much the same as that to which we are accustomed elsewhere--Bible study circles, doctrinal addresses, lectures on practical subjects, and meetings for prayer. The only difference was that, partly owing to the need for a good deal of translation and partly owing to the spiritual avidity of the people, everything went on much longer than would be tolerated amongst ourselves. The Christians of this village were allowed to come in, and many small boys, who ought to have been in bed, would sit listening to our addresses with an appearance of the greatest interest till a late hour of the night. One little fellow came in his new coat, of which he was evidently very proud, but as the heat increased he decided that dignity must give way to comfort, and the coat came off, leaving his shining brown limbs exposed. I kept looking at him and hoping he would go to sleep; but no, he sat on and on with wide-open intelligent eyes as though he were really taking it all in.
The Anglican Bishop in Travancore is Dr. Gill, whom I remember as a C. M. S. Missionary in Northern India. With the greatest kindness he had sent a motor-boat for us, and in this after the conference we traversed in a few hours the sixty miles to Kottayam, his headquarters.
The C.M.S. has been at work in this province for just a century, and if during this period the reproach [x/xi] of being a "dead Church" has been wiped away from the Syrians, it is largely owing to their efforts. It all started with the visit of that remarkable man, Dr. Claudius Buchanan, in 1806. Not only did he get the Syriac Bible printed and distributed in the country, not only did he project and partly carry out the Malayalam translation, but by the attention which he called in England to this forgotten portion of the Church he stirred up those efforts for its assistance which from that time to this have never ceased. The first C.M.S. missionaries arrived in 1816. They completed and printed the Malayalam translation of the Bible, established a system of primary and higher education, instituted a training school for the clergy, helped the Syrians to build many new churches, and above all gave the lead in those missions to the outcasts which the Syrians have been somewhat slow to attempt. There are now some 50,000 converts from these classes, and they are being added to every year. This is their imperishable glory and even by itself would completely justify their presence in the country.
But there has always been a large section of the Syrian community which, while admitting the need for practical reform, looks with suspicion on any suggestion of doctrinal change. These are known, rightly or wrongly, as Jacobites. They perhaps have the strongest claim of any body of Syrians to represent the ancient Church of the country. They number nearly a quarter of a million adherents, have never been subject to Rome, except during the fifty-four years of Portuguese oppression (A. D. 1599-1653), and yet jealously maintain their Catholic inheritance of faith. It is from this Church that our invitation came. I think it has been a happiness to them to find in the Oxford Mission a body of priests who entirely sympathize with their doctrinal position, and certainly to us it has been an extreme joy to find [xi/xii] in this ancient Church a body between whose tenets and our own we can scarcely discover a hair's-breadth of difference--for their Jacobitism, so far as we can discover, is merely nominal. [I must confess, however, that it gave me a shock when I heard the name of Dioscorus, the hero of the Latrocinium, commemorated in the Liturgy. I was told, however, that this was a recent innovation which need not be regarded as permanent.] Of course, there is no suggestion of inter-communion. That is far too big a question for us to touch, and if we did there would be difficulties on both sides. I suppose the way in which it must come, if it comes at all, would be for them first to be reunited to the Orthodox Eastern Church, to which they rightly belong, and then to await the day--which does not seem now so far distant as it did a few years ago--when the Orthodox Church and our own can settle the terms of inter communion. At present the Syrians are in communion with the Armenians and the Copts, and would hardly be likely to move without their support.
These, however, are fascinating dreams. In the meantime they are content to accept us as what we claim to be--priests of the Catholic Church who only desire to give them such small help as we can in stirring up their own gifts, in educating their laity and training their clergy in their own principles. For this purpose the second stage of our work was to begin at a place called Kaviyur, some eighteen miles from Kottayam, to which the Bishop kindly drove me in his motor.
First, however, let me mention the visits which, in company with Bishop Gill, I was able to pay to four of the Syrian Metropolitans. The first was Mar Dionysius, who with Mar Evannes (John) was living in the Syrian seminary at Kottayam a charmingly secluded place, surrounded with palm trees, and reminding one of some old-world Italian cloister. He is in every sense the leader of the Jacobite [xii/xiii] community--a man of saintly ideals and courage in carrying them out. Among those whom he has inspired and taught is a young priest who is the head and front of all that is progressive in the Church, to whom indeed we owe it that we were able to make this journey at all; for he has been our guide and helper at every point, our friend, our interpreter, and the constant watchful guardian for our comfort and enlightenment. A learned man, he has accepted a post at the Serampur College, near Calcutta, in order that he may provide for the education of several young students whom he hopes ultimately to train for the ministry. He seemed to be three people at least, for while he spent all his time in looking after us and our requirements, he also spent it in church, in prayers and offices, and sometimes in hearing confessions far into the night; he also spent it in the freest possible intercourse with the young men and boys of his church, who all seem to trust him absolutely and bring all their affairs to him for his advice and decision. We saw then the character of Mar Dionysius reflected in this his favourite pupil. Our next visit was to Valia Pally, one of the oldest churches of the community, where there is a very interesting cross which is believed to date back to the seventh or eighth century. Here we found Mar Severius, the head of a community which is separate from the others on social rather than ecclesiastical grounds. The old Bishop received us cordially, reproaching Bishop Gill for not having brought with him "Madama" his wife; but what was my astonishment on looking round his room to see among a collection of paintings of his own predecessors in the see, a little print of "The Rev. R. M. Benson, Founder of the Society of S. John the Evangelist, Cowley." Father Benson on his one visit to India did not penetrate so far as Travancore--how delighted he would have been [xiii/xiv] if he had--and it is curious that his fame should have reached here. Our third visit was to Mar Thoma, head of the community which calls itself the Mar Thoma Church. It numbers some 70,000 adherents, and has gone far in the path of reform. The students of this Church hold their own separate Conference every year, for which this year they invited two Nonconformist missionaries of Southern India. Finally, at Kaviyur, we found Mar Gregorius, whom we almost learned to look upon as our own bishop; but of him I shall have something to say hereafter.
The work at Kaviyur consisted of a Retreat for clergy, and conferences of Sunday School teachers. The Retreat fell to my share, and I was, I must confess, a little disappointed with it; for though a large number attended--about a hundred priests and deacons--there was little opportunity for recollection or quiet, and it resolved itself into a series of sermons. Shore meanwhile was doing valuable work with the Sunday School teachers, of whom there are said to be 600, more than 200 of whom were present. This being his second visit, he knew many of them before, and this time he was able to extend the opportunities of personal intercourse. If our visits are to be made annual, I think it would be a great advantage for him to be a permanent member of the commission. One of the most hopeful things about the Church is this splendid body of eager and enthusiastic young men, who by their work amongst the children must be doing at least as much good to themselves as they do to their pupils. In the evenings we had mass meetings out of doors for all the Christians, and on one occasion our interpreter declared that 3,000 must have been present.
It was at Kaviyur that I had my first opportunity of witnessing the celebration of the Syriac Liturgy--Korbani [xiv/xv] or Sacrifice as they call it--and I must say I was singularly impressed. Substantially it is the Liturgy of St. James, but much of the ritual which has grown up around it is of a purely Indian character and struck me as wonderfully well adapted to the Indian temperament. It began every morning "a great while before day." We used to hear the voices coming up from the church through the dark ness while we were still in bed. By about six o clock the Canon was reached, and then we took our places in the choir. The priest was clad in a splendid vestment, more like a cope than one of our chasubles, and the deacons came round again and again censing all the clergy and kissing our hands. At certain points the priest prostrated himself, but everybody else remained standing, and even communicated in that position. The climax came when, after the consecration, four priests took lighted candles and accompanied the celebrant to the end of the choir while he elevated the Sacred Elements in the sight of the people. Bells rang, cymbals clashed, and the whole congregation burst into such a joyous passion of song as made me realize, more than ever before, the true ecstasy of Eucharistic adoration. Years ago I remember writing in an article in the Church Quarterly Review that the Oriental liturgies provide the type of devotion best suited to the Indian mind. ["Liturgical Development in India," C. Q. R., April 1889.] As I took my part in this glorious service I felt that I had spoken prophetically.
Mar Gregorius, the Bishop, was with us all the time at Kaviyur, joining in the Retreat and taking a leading part in all that went on. He does not speak English, but we had many opportunities of observing the deep respect which he inspires not only by his office but also by his personal holiness. Every one of his flock seemed to be known to him, [xv/xvi] and nothing was ever done without his advice--truly the ideal of an apostolic bishop! When our work was done, he carried us off with him to his residence at Perumalai, a few miles away, where he dwells in great simplicity in one barely-furnished room of the Seminary. When it was proposed that we should take one of our meals with him, he excused himself on the ground that he did not know how to use a knife and fork. The church at Perumalai is a beautiful one, and at one side of it is the tomb of the present Bishop's predecessor, also called Mar Gregorius, who has the reputation of a saint. We were told really marvellous stories of the miracles worked by him, both in life and after his death, and certain it is that the tomb is constantly visited with that expectation not only by Christians, but by Hindus and Mussulmans too. On Sunday morning, after we had heard mass and preached one more sermon, we said farewell to the Bishop and received his blessing, and then started in a country boat on our journey to Quilon, where we were to get the train on Monday morning. We had twenty hours for a journey of some thirty miles, and we caught the train with only five minutes to spare.
The strongest impression I have received from the whole visit is, that here is a Church whose manifest destiny it was to become the nucleus of a national Church for India. Unhappily the serpent of Caste, that master-work of the devil in India, found its way into this Eden, causing the inmates not to be driven out themselves but to close their gates against any one coming in. When this demon has been exorcised, may we not look forward even yet to the realization of this heavenly vision? In replying to the farewell address made to us by the priests at Kaviyur, I said sincerely that had I been a younger man I should have felt strongly tempted to ask their permission to throw in my lot with [xvi/xvii] them; for indeed I can see no better hope for India than that this ancient and venerable Church, so truly Indian in its character, so free from the taint of the invader, so attractive in its worship, so holy in many of its lives, so rich in its poverty and simplicity, so pure in its beautiful family life, so strong in the enthusiasm of its young men, should offer itself as the rallying point for all our small and scattered Christian communities in the rest of India, and at the same time show to Hindus and Mohammedans a Christianity which is as truly at home in the land as their own religions. But if it is to fulfil this great destiny the Syrian community requires to be united, educated, and inspired: united, for at present it is sadly and unnecessarily divided; educated, for there is still a great lee-way of ignorance and obscurantism to be made good; and, above all, fired by that missionary ardour which is both the main purpose for which the Christian Church exists, and the secret of its preservation and continuous life.
E. F. B.