Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Appendix. The Diocese of Assam

[The diocese of Assam does not come strictly within the sphere of the Oxford Mission, and is not financed by its funds, but as the Bishop has been for nearly 35 years, and remains, a member of the Brotherhood of the Epiphany a sketch of the work in Assam is added as an appendix.]

The first association of the Oxford Mission with Assam was due to the generosity of a friend in the Indian Civil Service who gave a gift of money for the purchase of holiday houses in the hills. It was on Shillong, the capital of Assam, that the choice eventually fell, and many happy holidays have been spent there by the Fathers and Sisters in their respective houses among the pines. But later on the connection became very close, for in 1923 the Chapter of the Brotherhood gave permission to one of its members to accept the bishopric without, however, ceasing to be a full member of the community. Assam thus became, at any rate for a time, in some sense, part of the sphere of the Oxford Mission.

The diocese comprises the Province of Assam and the Chittagong Division of Bengal and forms the north-eastern boundary of India. It is therefore somewhat remote from the ordinary movements of Indian life. Its area is about 73,500 square miles--roughly speaking, about the size of England without Wales--and it has a population of some eleven millions. Until the year 1915 it was part of the Diocese of Calcutta, and therefore received very little episcopal help.

There have been Europeans in Assam, even in the northern parts, for close on a hundred years, as the church in Dibrugarh was built in the forties and that at Tezpore about the same time. There seems little record of any missionary activity on the part of our Church except in the north-west corner of the diocese, where a priest, faithful and beloved, Sydney Endle, did an apostolic work from 1866 to 1907, and then died at his post. His chief work lay among the Kacharis, an aboriginal tribe; but, alas! when he died no one was sent out to replace him, and the work languished for a considerable period. The growth of the tea industry and the need of labour for the gardens caused a considerable influx of Christian coolies from Chota Nagpore, and it is their descendants who form the bulk of our Indian Christian congregations.

The diocese was created in 1915 with the appointment of Dr. Pakenham-Walsh as the first Bishop. He resigned in 1923, and was succeeded by the present Bishop, the first member of a Religious Order to act as Bishop in the province. The work in the diocese is pretty evenly divided among Europeans and Indians. The former is really the more difficult of the two, owing to the fact that the people are scattered all over the diocese on the various tea concerns, and also in the service of the Government, the railways and other commercial undertakings. The area is divided into seven districts--viz., Chittagong, Sylhet, Cachar, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, Darrang and Shillong. To serve all these we have five chaplains, who are posted at Chittagong, Silchar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Shillong. With the exception of the Shillong chaplain, who is wholly supported by the Government, the chaplains are maintained by subscriptions from the people and the commercial concerns, aided by a grant from Government. This last is in process of reduction and is bound to disappear within the next few years.

The area in which Sydney Endle did his work is without any resident Anglican chaplain. The planters' chaplain in that district is a Presbyterian, and it can only be arranged to give services to our people about three times a year. The communications are so bad that it is hopeless to tour there except in the decent weather. Normally a chaplain is at his headquarters for the first Sunday in the month, and spends the remainder of his time in touring the district and ministering to his scattered flock. There are very few churches, so the bulk of the services are held in clubs or bungalows. It cannot possibly be said that anything like the work that should be done is being done among our own people, but it is quite impossible for one priest to cover the ground which is under his charge. It is clear that the only way in which the Church could adequately deal with this problem would be by the aid of a Brotherhood of Priests who would live at least two together, so that they would be a help to each other spiritually, and also have a better chance of getting to know their people more thoroughly than a single priest can hope to do.

Year by year numbers of young men come out to work in the diocese, and it is immensely important that they should have the opportunity of keeping in touch with the ministrations of the Church. Only those of us who have lived in a non-Christian country know how desperately difficult it is to maintain one's spiritual life. At present men are fortunate if they get the chance of the Sacraments once a month; the majority get such a chance much less frequently, and some only about twice or thrice a year.

It is exceedingly difficult to get clergy to work in the diocese, and there have been frequent changes for many years. The work and life is such that a man is thrown back very forcibly on essentials; there are few external aids to religion, and yet those of us who live in the diocese are clear that there is no lack of splendid material to work with, and that given a really adequate staff there might be a very live community up here. It must always be remembered that the lives of the European Christians react considerably on the lives of the indigenous population; a really live European congregation is a very powerful missionary influence. There is a tendency among the Europeans to think that we think more of our missionary work than of shepherding our fellow-countrymen. This feeling will only be swept away as our work among the Europeans becomes so well done that they themselves become the finest missionary influence.

The Indian work in the diocese may be considered as divided into three language groups--viz., the Chota Nagpuri immigrants, whose service books are in Hindi, but who speak amongst themselves at least three other languages; the Kacharis, whose service books are in Assamese, but who speak Kachari among themselves; the Khasis, whose language, written and spoken, is Khasi. There are also a small number of Bengali Christians who speak their own language and have their own service books. Except in Dibrugarh itself, there is no considerable congregation of these people.

It will easily be realized that it is exceedingly difficult for the Bishop to do what he would like among all these, in view of the fact that he is the only ordained Anglican missionary in the diocese sent out from England. The other English clergy do pastoral work among the Europeans.

It will be best to describe the work among them according to their several groups.

The Chota Nagpuri Group.--These people were originally employed as coolies on the tea gardens. There are still a certain number so employed, and a few come to the province year by year, but the majority have left the service of the tea companies and have taken up land from Government and formed themselves into village communities. The largest number are resident in the Dibrugarh district, and are ministered to by five clergy of their own race, who are assisted by a number of catechists. Of these five clergy, three were ordained before the present Bishop took over the diocese and were trained in Chota Nagpur. The others have been prepared for Ordination by the present Bishop. The congregations have made great strides lately in the matter of the support of their clergy and catechists. At present, taken as a whole, they provide about three-fifths of the total cost of maintaining the work; but this standard is an average, some parishes giving more, some less. In regard to the erection of churches, the rule is that at least half of the cost is to be supplied by the people. The great weakness of the work is that the Chota Nagpuris have kept entirely to themselves and have formed almost a Christian caste. They have not done anything towards the evangelizing of the masses of non-Christians who are all around them. It is difficult to blame them for this in view of the fact that the European Christian community is entirely uninterested in missionary work. It is here that the European work impinges so vitally on the Indian.

It is a matter of entire thankfulness that, on the whole, their standard of life is distinctly higher than that of their non-Christian neighbours, and there is to be seen a distinct advance in the reverence and devotion of their worship. For education they seem to care little, and it is a matter of the greatest difficulty to get hold of lads who might develop into teachers and possibly go on to Ordination.

The present Bishop has a hostel for such boys in his compound at Dibrugarh, where some sixteen boys are living and attending the local high school. They are shaping very well indeed, and he has hopes that the future may see some of these boys as devoted workers in the villages.

The Kachari Group.--As has been said above, work among these people was carried on by Mr. Endle for about forty years, but during that time no priest was ordained from among them. They are a very primitive folk who retain their own language while using Assamese for liturgical purposes. For years they were ministered to by a Chota Nagpuri priest, but the arrangement was never satisfactory. In 1928 the Bishop was able to make two of the best catechists deacons, and two years later raised them to the priesthood. Since then the work has improved enormously. They are now entirely self-supporting, and only take help from the diocese towards the erection of churches. They have a small but flourishing school in the principal centre, and one lad is in the Bishop's hostel in Dibrugarh, where he is doing very well. One of their number has been trained as a doctor and is working among his own people. The Government pay his salary and supply the drugs needed for treating a bad type of fever known as kala-azar. For some years Government would not allow him to do any other work than kala-azar treatment, but this year have granted permission for him to treat dysentery, malaria and leprosy, provided that the diocese supply the necessary drugs. This is being done at present, but it is a considerable drain on scanty resources. The people are very hardly hit by the present drop in the selling price of rice, but in spite of their extreme poverty they insist on paying the entire cost of two priests and eight lay-workers. This branch of the work is full of hope and most encouraging.

The Khasi Group.--This group came into existence some thirty years ago by the secession of a number of people from the Welsh Calvinistic Mission which works in the Khasi hills. It cannot be said that the work is progressing. There is really no justification for a Church Mission in a strong Protestant area unless that Mission has a distinct Catholic tone. It seems impossible to get this tone among our Khasi people. The two priests who were ordained by the late Bishop are working well, but the support from the congregation is lamentable, and the language question makes it very difficult for the Bishop to attempt to train other clergy who might possibly be more drawn to the Catholic conception of the Church. The villages are so remote that it is impossible for the Bishop to spend more than a few days in each of them. Altogether this part of the work is a very considerable anxiety.

The Future of the Indian Work

The aim which is being set before the people is that they should endeavour to become entirely self-supporting, and also that they should realize their immense responsibility to become a real missionary body. As a Church we are doing no aggressive missionary work, and unless we improve in this direction we are likely to be pressed out by the activities of the Roman and Protestant Missions. The former have increased their missionary staff in the upper valley from one to eight priests in the last few years, while the Protestant Missions are well equipped with men and money. The north and east boundaries of the diocese are populated by hill tribes. Among them the whole missionary work is being done by the American Baptist and Welsh Calvinistic Missions. There is still one tribe among which no work is being done. A few years ago the Bishop had the opportunity to enter that area. It is a work that should be done by a community. He applied to a community in England to take up the work, but without success. Unless this opportunity is grasped soon it will pass out of our hands.

Medical Work.--In 1923 the late Bishop obtained the services of a fully trained nurse, who started a dispensary at a place called Chabua in the Dibrugarh district. Her work was most successful, and in 1926 she was joined by a fully qualified woman doctor. Since then the buildings have been extended, a fully trained English midwife has joined the staff, and the work is increasing rapidly. Last year they ministered to nearly 4,000 out-patients and about 350 in-patients, while 50 major operations were performed. The work is full of hope and is a very strong missionary power. It is impossible to speak too highly of the devotion of the hospital staff.

Help from Home.--Since 1925 the diocese has been helped in a magnificent way by a group of friends called the Assam Association. Until 1930 they helped in the general work of the diocese, but since then they have given most generously to support two laymen who have come out to Dibrugarh to help the Bishop. In time it is hoped that these two will proceed to Ordination, and it is due solely to the help so generously provided by the Association that the Bishop was able to accept their offer of service. In the meantime they are helping the Bishop in many ways and setting him free for work that he alone can do. The indefatigable Secretary of the Association is Miss Ellis, 6, Northumberland Mansions, W.1.

The General Outlook.--The Bishop is convinced that the European work, the aggressive missionary work in the hills, and the training of Indian workers and clergy, should be in the hands of a community which would dedicate itself to the work of building up the Church in this diocese. Whether such a community will ever materialize is problematical, but until it does so it cannot be said that the Church of India is doing more than barely hold the ground. There are immense possibilities in the diocese, but the staff at present is hopelessly inadequate. At present a block grant from the S.P.G. of £1,100 a year is made, but it has been undertaken to reduce this by £100 a year. The Medical Mission Department gives £400 a year for the support of the doctor and one nurse. Beyond this grant there are a few endowments amounting to some £750 a year. All other sums needed for the maintenance and extension of the work have to be raised personally by the Bishop.

Life in the diocese is full of interest and happiness. It would be equally full of hope if only a few more devoted workers could be provided, and, be it said, the means to support them.

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