OUR Lord prayed for His followers that they all might be one. He sent forth His disciples to evangelize the world--"Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel"--and here in Persia, a Moslem land, we have Roman Catholics, Gregorians, [National Church of Armenia.] Anglicans, American Presbyterians, Plymouth Brethren, Lutherans, and even Seventh Day Adventists, all claiming to be preachers of the Gospel, yet all holding some particular tenets of their own. These divisions are bad enough, but when we find further sub-divisions among them do we not almost despair of the Church? Would that all Christian people would remember that Christ is greater than any sect. The world is waiting to be evangelized, and the disciples of Christ are in many cases too absorbed in collecting money for sectarian purposes to remember the great commission of the Church.
Once there were twelve men following the Master, all of them keen enough to leave all for His sake, not one of them big enough to understand Him. Usually they were full of their own ideas, each one thinking of the glory that should be his, and they could not cast out devils. One day they saw a man who could do this; he did what they had failed to do, but he was not of their number; so they forbade him to continue his work. They told the Master, but, to their surprise, He seemed pleased to hear of that man's work, and He gave them a gentle rebuke. The spirit of those disciples is alive today, but is it the spirit of the Master?
In Tehran is a Persian Church which is Presbyterian in character, but one of the elders of that Church is, curiously enough, a full member of the Anglican Church. To that man there is nothing inconsistent in this, for to him the Church is the Church, whatever outward form it may assume. He.is well educated, and a man of real spiritual character. A Jew by race, he is doing splendid work among the Jews of Tehran. The respect in which his character and ability are held by those who know him was made perfectly clear when he was elected chairman of the Inter-Church Conference held in Tehran in the summer of 1931. To him experience counts more than arguments. He has accepted Christ, and refuses to regard Him as a sectarian Christ. He is proud of his membership of the Anglican Church, but he sees that the Presbyterian Church is also casting out devils, so he does not need further evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in that Church.
This is the spirit in which most Persian Christians approach the question of a united Church. An Inter-Church Conference at Isfahan in 1927 drew attention to the sense of spiritual unity already existing in Persia, and went on to state its conviction in these words: "We feel that if the Church in Persia is to be one in body as well as in spirit, is to possess a unity that is evident to those outside, the time has come when we must begin to lay the foundations of the united Church of Christ in Persia." A second Inter-Church Conference met at Tehran in 1931 after the Lambeth Conference of 1930 had given general approval to the proposals from Persia. At the latter conference I met a few Persian Christians who had come "primed with arguments," but so real was the spirit of unity in that conference that those arguments were soon forgotten. Persian Christians from the Presbyterian Church of the north sometimes move southwards and take up residence in a town in which the C.M.S. is working. They come to the Episcopal Church and are warmly received by their fellow-Christians. In the same way Christians from the south going to northern towns take with them letters of introduction, and are assured of a welcome from whatever church they visit. They are not worried by the fact that the organization of the two Churches differs; sufficient for them that in a Moslem town they can find fellowship with men of the same Faith. Nowhere in the whole world, perhaps, is there such a sense of unity among Christians who are outwardly divided into different sects. In many places this sense of unity extends to the Armenian Church as well.
National pride and deep-seated prejudice have kept Persian and Armenian apart to a great extent. As a result the Armenian Church has held itself aloof and has made little effort to preach Christ to the surrounding Moslems. But Christ triumphs over all such divisions, and in Shiraz it has been a pleasure to see Persian Christian men hurrying to greet a newly-arrived Armenian priest. A still greater joy has it been to see an Armenian priest rapidly becoming friendly with Persian Christian men and associating himself with them in all their attempts to win others for Christ.
It ought not to be hard to build up a united Persian Church. The question of the possibility of reunion with the Armenian Church is outside the scope of this chapter, but it is worthy of notice that members of the Armenian Church very frequently attend the services of the Anglican Church, and are admitted to the Holy Communion.
As was stated above, an Inter-Church Conference was held in Tehran in the summer of 1931. Nineteen churches sent delegates to this conference, only two being unable to do so. From places outside Tehran ninety-five delegates attended, sixty-six of whom were Persians, and twenty-nine were missionaries. When the number of delegates from the two Tehran churches is included the average attendance at the conference sessions was somewhere between 140 and 150.
At the executive committee of that conference the report of the Lambeth Conference regarding the united Church of Persia was read, and it was decided that, since the differences in organization in the Churches in the north and in the south depend upon differences in organization in the Churches in America and England, the matter should be referred to the American and British missionaries, so that they might confer together and come to some conclusion. Persians themselves are desirous of seeing a united Persian Church take form, but they do not understand the nature of the obstacles in the way of forming such a Church. That Church, when it comes, must be a truly Persian Church, and that alone makes formal union impossible at present. At the present time the Persian Christians are few in number. If the Church is to be truly Persian in character, and that is essential if Persia is to make her particular contribution to the Kingdom of God, she must first of all win to herself some of the best minds of Persia.
At a meeting of the clergy of the two Churches present at the Tehran Conference, the question of a common ministry was discussed; a scheme of dual ordination was proposed, and received considerable, though not unanimous approval. Were such a scheme adopted, it would go far to eliminate future difficulties.
In the official statement issued by the Inter-Church Conference of 1927, we find the following declaration: "We feel that in the united Church of Persia the offices of bishop and presbyter should be preserved in some form, and that at the same time the rights of local congregations, in accordance with New Testament teaching, should be fully guarded so as to preserve the harmonious working of the whole body of the Church and to prevent undue concentration of power in the hands of a single person or group of persons."
Did the Persian Church possess a ministry the members of which could serve in both the present Churches the problem of a united Church would be much simplified. The creation of such a ministry must be the first step taken by the two Churches concerned. The Church is growing in numbers daily, but as yet very little has been done to provide the local churches with native pastors. In the whole of South Persia there is only one ordained Persian man. Were the missionaries to leave Persia in the near future the Persian Church would find itself in a very unenviable position, with no real organization and with no trained leaders.
The question is important for other reasons too. In Isfahan we have the Stuart Memorial College attracting youths of the best type; in Tehran is the American College drawing its students from all parts of Persia; these are the two leading mission schools in Persia. Many boys are attracted to Christ while attending these schools, and a considerable number have been baptized. These are the type who could well become leaders in the Church, but they drift into other spheres, and in many cases are lost to the Church. A large number of these boys find their way to the oilfields, others enter banks and such-like institutions; but the Church is not often considered by any of them. Little real attempt has been made to get such boys to consider the Christian ministry as a sphere of work. The opening of a theological department in connexion with each college, to which boys of suitable character and of the necessary standard of ability could return after the completion of their military service might be of great value. Arrangements have now been made for the opening of such a department in connexion with the American College at Tehran, and the intention is that this should serve the whole of the Persian Church. This department is a direct result of the movement towards a united Church of Persia, for it arose from an agreement made whereby the candidates for the ministry are to be trained in Tehran, while a school for evangelists is to be opened in Isfahan. The advisability of opening a similar department in connexion with the Stuart Memorial College was considered recently, but the matter was postponed in view of the agreement mentioned above. The value of the theological department to be opened in Tehran naturally depends on whether the two Churches concerned can come to an agreement whereby a common ministry is made possible. The question of the training of ordinands cannot be postponed indefinitely; so unless some agreement is reached soon the Church in the south may feel it wise to make its own arrangements and open a theological department in connexion with the Stuart Memorial College. Need it come to that? It is obvious that the Church in Persia has reached a critical stage in its development, and needs our prayers.
In spite of these difficulties there is real co-operation between the two Churches. The Inter-Mission Literature Committee is doing excellent work, and its publications have met with remarkable success. There is also an Inter-Church Evangelistic Committee. Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church are frequent and welcome visitors to the Episcopal Church, and are always prepared to help by conducting special services and missions. In the same way clergy of the Episcopal Church find a hearty welcome awaiting them when they visit the Presbyterian Church of the north.
The Tehran Conference in 1931 did not achieve as much as many expected, but it was far from being a disappointment. On the last morning of that conference there was a joint baptism service conducted by missionaries representing the two Churches, and this did much to help all who were present to realize more fully the essential unity of the Church in Persia. This service was followed by a joint Communion Service--a fitting climax to the conference. The executive committee of the conference appointed a sub-committee to exchange views with regard to the possibility of issuing a book of prayers which might be introduced into all the churches in Persia. The main purpose of the suggested book is to provide a form of baptism service which can be used in both Churches, and which will enable the convert to realize that, whatever outward differences there may be, the Church is one.
The road to formal unity is long, the going is hard and slow; but there are many encouragements, and distant though the goal may be, the road beckons us on.