Friday, 18 October 2019


It is now a couple of weeks since I went to hear Bishop Michael Curry speak – St. Paul’s Cathedral on 3rd October – and I am just getting to writing a few notes. It was certainly an energetic and challenging address. His mantra is that we are part of the Jesus Movement and that is the message we need to communicate. People don’t get church, but they do get Jesus. We need to live out his life of love, opening ourselves to others. ‘The opposite of love isn’t hatred. It’s self-centredness. The way of love runs counter to selfish instincts.’

I was particularly struck by his response to a question around the political chaos in the UK, in which he noted that we are not alone, as it seems to be a common phenomenon at the moment, and not least shared in the USA. Asked what he thought God would say, he responded by saying that he thought that God wants to tell us that ‘we can do better’.

Another very key quote was around Jesus’ inclusivity – ‘If bigotry is your game, don’t call about Jesus.’ That was a timely and telling reminder, and one to remember.

He also reminded us, ‘Jesus ain’t dead. He’s still in business!’ and commented, ‘He makes me a better me.’ The address was a great reminder that the Jesus Movement is alive and well and has lots to offer to a society that too often chooses to ignore it.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Visiting Vellore - Christian Medical Centre and Karigiri Hospital

The Christian Medical Centre in Vellore, the hospital founded by Ida Scudder, has a reputation that goes far and wide. Doctors who have worked at Vellore are found around the world and the name is known widely. 

The story of how it all began is stark and well known. One night a Brahmin gentleman knocked on the door and begged her to come and help his wife who was struggling in childbirth. She did not have the skills, and asked him to get her doctor father to attend, but the response was that a man could not possibly attend his wife. The same night two other men came with the same request and the same result. The following morning she was devastated to learn that all three women and their babies had died. She resolved to do something to address the situation and went to the United States to train as a doctor, returning to India, qualified, in 1900.

She started with a tiny clinic, interestingly in the premises now occupied by the Christian Counselling Centre, and we saw the room in which she began her work when we visited there. It was just one bed through which medicines were dispensed. Things moved on quickly. In 1902 she opened a forty-bed hospital in Vellore and, alongside that, cared for the rural population by going out to the villages in a bullock cart, with nurses and medicines. She knew that the real need was to care for the women, and so she began training women in 1909 and founded a school of nursing in 1918. It was not until 1947 that men were admitted to the course and, even today, it is required that the majority of students be women.

Our tour of the hospital started in the history centre and with the story of Dr. Ida, clearly a remarkable woman who died, in Vellore, aged 89, in 1960.

But how amazing that from such beginnings the large and busy hospital that is today’s Christian Medical Centre grew. It seemed chaotic, but it is clearly organised chaos. We visited the labs, paediatrics, maternity, the wards, outpatients, the private wing, the laundry, the chapel, amongst other things. We saw people queuing to pay, but heard how the private segment subsidises what is offered to those who can’t afford medical care. The fans and air-conditioning and private or semi-private rooms offer a more comfortable environment, but it was emphasised that the standard of medical care is the same, regardless of in which part of the hospital the patient is situation. It was remarkable to see the numbers of patients and staff and the large footprint of an extremely busy hospital. It was an important reminder of a hugely beneficial element in the missionary legacy.

Interestingly, a trio of us had started that day worshipping in the chapel at Karigiri Hospital. We were staying, as our main base, in the guestrooms belonging to the hospital and situated in its grounds. We arrived early, though worried that we were late, as we were not sure exactly when the service began. Around 7.30 am people began to arrive, and at 7.40 a period of worship, singing, began. That continued until 8 when the bus arrived with some of the congregation. The biggest part of the congregation was a group of around a couple of dozen trainee nurses, all female and all in white, who sat on mats on the floor in the central part of the chapel, though there were chairs at the back which others used. In the gap between the pre-service worship and the service, several of these young women came over to greet us, making us feel very welcome. The service was led by the Chaplain and most of the singing was in English, though prayers and other elements were in Tamil. The address was brought by one of our number, Fiona, with a Tamil summary by the Chaplain after she had spoken.

After the service we spoke with the Director and the Chairman of the Board, both of whom were present, the latter for a board meeting. The conversation with the Board Chairman was interesting as he was very keen to express appreciation of the care and identity for the Dalit community that had been brought by the missionaries. He said that he saw that as an important expression of a theology of liberation. I found that a fascinating and important insight. I have, in many ways rightly, worked against a background of seeing the British Empire as a damaging imposition on other cultures and peoples. There is no doubt that our colonial past did a great deal of harm and we, with no right to do so, claimed ‘ownership’ of large parts of the globe as the world map was painted red. However, there is another side, and it was moving to hearing it named so specifically and carefully by one of our Indian hosts. I have no doubt that even the missionaries did things that were not entirely good, but their contribution to health, education and recognised the value of the marginalised, and probably a few other things, does have a lot to commend it – and is a useful reminder that this twinning link is about mutual support and learning.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Visiting Vellore - Christian Counselling Centre

One place that I found to be of great interest was the Christian Counselling Centre. This is not run by the Church of South India, but there are very strong links, particularly with the Diocese of Vellore, where it is situated. When we arrived, we were met by the Director, Dr B J Prashantham, who gave us a tour of the complex and told us of its history and current practice. The main house was originally built by the East India Company as a factory and so is spacious and solid. The Centre hosts a wide variety of students from across India and beyond and Dr Prashantham told us something of the different ways in which those who come to the Centre are enabled to consider the theories of counselling in different contexts and with different needs and to engage in its practice. The importance of the placement and its part in understanding how counselling can make a difference is key. Dr Prashantham also talked of the students having three laboratories, the lab of the classroom, the lab of the practical (placement), and the lab of their engagement with each other. He himself has served the Centre for a long time, having originally been appointed by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, when Bishop of Madras. Trained in counselling in a “western” context, he spoke of the need to be culturally appropriate. The paradigm needed to be shifted from, ‘I think, therefore I am’, to the far more appropriate, ‘I belong, therefore I am’. Founded in 1970, the Centre continues to do important work offering careful leadership in the field of counselling. I was interested that their publicity leaflet quoted my former New Testament teacher from my days in Glasgow, Professor William Barclay – “Even when we are in the mud, we are haunted by the stars.” One interesting room had the walls covered by the evaluations of courses offered by participants – they are encouraged to draw a picture by way of evaluation. There were some fascinating illustrations as participants engaged in the challenge of presenting growth through their course pictorially.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Pay Heed to the People You Meet

This was my brief reflection that was part of the closing worship of the Eastern Synod meeting today (12/10/19). It followed the reading of Mark 6:53-56.

Alastair, I may have remembered the name wrongly, but that doesn’t matter, came into the church in Islington of which I was then minister.  I assumed he had come to “borrow” money, as that was why he usually came, and I hadn’t seen him for a while, and I began to consider whether I would be generous, or whether I ought to be resistant – as he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out, and here I definitely can’t remember, 20, 30 pounds – saying: I have come to repay you, and so he did.  In that inner city location, I often had people coming asking for money or food, but only once was I repaid, one encounter that I didn’t expect to work out as it did.
But move on a few years, and we are in Panama.  We lived in a very interesting street.  We lived next door to the church of which I was minister, a Methodist Church, so that was there.  But it was also one of the main drug dealing streets of Panama City and home to some very interesting characters, quite a few of whom would knock the door from time to time, or, actually, more often, yell from the gate which we usually kept locked.  I remember the day a police shoot out ended up outside our house and damaged our gates.  I have often wished that I had kept the bullet casing that I found in our garden the following day.  Anyhow, these characters would yell to attract my attention, and I got to know a few of them a bit, and would give them, usually, just a bit of coinage.  But, on the day in question, my wife and I were going out in the car and had just got a little way down the street when this rather dishevelled looking character loomed up in front of the car, waving me down.  My wife wondered what on earth was going on.  But I didn’t really, because I knew him.  He was one of my regulars, and I assumed he wanted a little money.  But actually he didn’t.  He just wanted to say hello.  I was somebody who did help him from time to time, and he simply wanted to greet me.   Another encounter that didn’t quite turn out how I initially expected.
I wonder what the people who are mentioned in the last few verses of Mark 6 expected?  What, if anything, were they looking for?  It is interesting that the stress seems to be not on the fact that Jesus healed, though that’s there, but on the large numbers that came looking for him.  His reputation was getting around.  And so, there were those who rushed round the area grabbing those who needed Jesus’ transforming, healing touch. 
And so, I want to just ask three questions: first, are we ready to be surprised by some of the encounters that we have, and especially when we think we have got it clearly worked out what people will do?  Second, what’s our reputation?  What are we known for?  And third, how much effort do we put in – are we willing to put in – to get those whom we know to need Jesus to have the chance of some contact with him?

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Visiting Vellore - Church Partnerships

St John's
St. John's

It was good to be back in Vellore in July/August, though the notion of India as an assault on the senses quickly returned. Vibrant colours, noise, heat, the smells, many pleasant, others not so appealing. It was nearly four and a half years since I had arrived on my first visit to India and, this time, there was a sense of familiarity as our driver negotiated the traffic of Chennai and we started the journey to Vellore and the guest rooms at Karigriri hospital.

It is impossible to adequately describe the variety of experiences, but one thing that was overwhelming was the welcome and the care with which we were taken where we needed to be. The link between Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Council and the Diocese of Vellore is long established and mutually valued. Having the opportunity to visit is a real journey into the enrichment of experiencing the world church.

As a minister, one of the things I most value in such visits is the opportunity to worship in a different context, which always feel different, and yet there is invariably a real sense of our oneness in Christ. Different members of the group went to different churches.

For me, the first Sunday took me to St John’s Church, Fort, Vellore, where the diocesan link person, Revd. Jared Jebareuben, is the minister. St John’s is an English language church – so I understand everything and enjoyed the opportunity to preach without the need for translation. The hymns were traditional, including some I have not sung for a while – ‘More about Jesus would I know,’ ‘Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face’. I was glad to have the opportunity to share in the administration of Communion, though doing so in cassock and bare feet always feels a little strange.

The second Sunday we were away from the city in the hills at the retreat centre at Yelagiri, and attended the church in the village, Millennium Church, so called because it was built in 2000. Prior to that, the members of the congregation had worshipped in homes, It is a small church, about 10 families, 25-30 people, but often attracting visitors. The service was in Tamil, but there was nobody to translate, so the sermon was in English, and I was assured that most people would understand! After the service, as is typical, we had coffee and conversation, and a number of people came and asked for prayer.

On the third Sunday I was preaching at Rottschaefer Memorial Church, Bernicepuram, Katpadi, where the Revd. Isaac Kadhirvelu, Vice President of the Diocese, is the minister. Apparently this was originally a mission compound and so there are a lot of retired clergy in the area. I find it difficult to estimate how many were present, but perhaps 200-300. This was designated the Sunday for us to visit village churches, but I think our connection with that is that they showed a PowerPoint of their outreach into villages during the service. We started promptly at 8.30 with everything on screens and a large digital clock facing the preacher. It was reasonably easy to follow what was going on though – apart from the sermon – pretty well everything was in Tamil. Revd Isaac gave a translation of the gist of the sermon after I had preached it, having requested a script in advance. The service included an adult baptism, people coming forward for prayer and three offerings. As usually happens, the church was less than half full when the service started, but soon filled up, including the overflow seats to the back and side, and lasted about two and a quarter hours. Afterwards we were made to feel very welcome and I had lots of people coming to me asking for prayer and a blessing, a humbling experience.

Aside from Sundays, we had several other visits to churches, and were able to encounter people as we shared worship and conversation.

A Wednesday evening visit to St Luke’s, Chittoor, where Revd Samuel Babu is pastor, enabled us to meet with the Women’s Fellowship (and a few men). There was lively singing and speeches of welcome, and I learned to be ready for anything as, having thought that one of the others had done the visitors’ bit, the pastor then asked me to bring a reflection. As so often, the ‘service’ was followed by the provision of a meal. I must admit to enjoying the food, not least the chicken biryani that is so often the main feature of church meals, though, despite all the practice of this visit, I still struggle to eat rice with my fingers.

On the second Sunday evening, on the way back from Yelagiri to Vellore, we stopped at Ambur to spend time with the folk at one of the churches there. Again, it was predominantly the Women’s Fellowship who welcomed and shared with us. Many of this congregation had broken away from a Pentecostal Church in order to join the Church of South India, and the lively worship reflected that background. There was also a cultural element, with music and dance and, when the women of our group, were invited to join the dance, I was glad of the cultural conventions of India by which it was very clear that it would be inappropriate for a man to also do so!

One more. One Tuesday evening we were taken to a poorer part of Vellore, and the church where Revd Glory is pastor. Revd Glory is one of the relatively few women pastors in the diocese, and one of the most long-serving – and what a great name for a pastor! One of the traditions in India is the giving of garlands and shawls to honour visitors and others. In this poorer community this pastor, who clearly cared a great deal for her people, had made the garlands with which we were presented. The energy and effort that this congregation put into singing and dance as they sought to introduce us to something of their life, worship and culture was extremely moving, and even a power cut failed to really disrupt them.

The motto of the Church of South India is “That they all may be one”. All we shared chimed well with that brilliant sentiment.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Stories of Saints

When Rowan Williams spoke at the United Reformed Church ministers’ gathering in May 2018, I realised how skilled he was at telling the stories of others and using those to say some really significant and helpful things. On that occasion he told the stories of three women - Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day and Madeleine Delbrel - and used an account of their lives and Christian contribution to offer some fascinating insights.

Now, much more briefly, he has put together a collection of stories of Christian lives and uses these to point us to new and familiar Christian insight. The book, entitled “Luminaries” started life in various places and is a compilation, mostly, of addresses and sermons. However, it works, as Williams takes us into the lives of those he described. Starting with St Paul, and it is well worth starting in the Bible in a project like this, and ending in the latter part of the twentieth century with Oscar Romero, he takes us into some great stories of Christians. It is a good reminder that we all have our story, and that stories are worth telling.

There are twenty stories, and each have their insight.

I particularly liked some of what he says about William Tyndale (1494-1536) - “Tyndale was not just a gifted, pithy and entertaining translator; he also had a profound and far-reaching vision of the social order. For Tyndale, God was shown in the world by particular kinds of social relation. The Church is the community of those who live in Godlike relation to one another. The Church is the community of those so overwhelmed by their indebtedness to God’s free grace that they live in a state of glad and grateful indebtedness to one another.”

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Diverse Saints

I recently read “Every Tribe”, edited by Sharon Prentis, appropriately sub-titled ‘stories of diverse saints serving a diverse world’. Recognising that the Christian story has often been told in a way that gives priority to white males, this collection of stories seeks to redress the balance by high-lighting a necessarily small selection of ‘saints’ who have made a good contribution to the Christian story, but whose ethnicity is non-white. I agree that these stories need to be told, and allowed to come to the fore and so consider this a valuable contribution. Starting with St George who, as the patron saint of England, is often wrongly depicted as white - he was actually a Palestinian - the book works its way through a dozen stories across a number of centuries and helpfully reflects on the stories.

For instance, of St George it is said: “St George, so often domesticated for narrow nationalistic gains, should instead be seen as a brave man, bold in speaking about the faith and international in his appeal and acceptance, with communities in England sharing this Palestinian Roman saint with many other communities and nationalities around the world.”

One of the other stories comes from the sixteenth century and is of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin who, in 2001, became canonised as the first saint from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The book says of him: “Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s importance to the people of Mexico, and all those who feel powerless, cannot be under-estimated. He speaks alike in accents that common people going about their business, in the marketplaces and in the tea houses, and those in seats of power in Mexico, can understand. It is the age-old truth: God raises up saints from the most unlikely of places and people.”

These are valuable stories with important lessons - and it is important to remember that behind them there are many others that remain untold.