Samuel, A.R.

Episcopacy in the Church of South India




Episcopacy in the Church of South India


Ananda Rao Samuel



This paper is a survey of episcopacy in relation to the birth and growth of the Church of South India, hereinafter called CSI. The burden for a united church in India could be traced back to the year 1919. Thirty-three leaders of different churches in India gathered together in Tranquebar and met for four days for prayer and for consideration of the mission and unity of the Church. Two of the leaders were western and the remaining thirty-one were Indians. It is in the context of the mission of the Church that the unity of the Church impinged on the minds of the Christian leaders and it is in the context of the unity of the Church that episcopacy became a vital consideration. This has to be borne in mind. Some people at the time of the union of the CSI said that this search for union is a pragmatic approach, implying thereby that unity is subservient to mission. But it is acutely felt then and now that the division of the Church has impaired the witness of the Church and oftentimes made a mockery of our proclamations of the Gospel. Disunity is a negation of the truth of the Gospel. Mission and unity are inseparable.


I. The Coming Into Being of Episcopacy in the CSI

At the meeting in Tranquebar an appeal was prepared and sent out to all the churches in India. It is indeed a historic document and it is a wonder how in the year 1919 in India some leaders could come to such an understanding of the whole issue and send out one of the most moving appeals to all the protestant church in India. The relevance of that appeal for our considerations here is that one of the four important bases for union cited herein is historic episcopate.

“In seeking union the Anglican members present stand for the one ultimate principle of the historic episcopate. They ask the acceptance of the fact of episcopacy and not any theory as to its character. The South India United Church members believe it is a necessary condition that the episcopate


should reassume a constitutional form on the primitive, simple, apostolic model ... We understand that the acceptance of the fact of the episcopate does not involve the acceptance of any theory of the origin of episcopacy nor any doctrinal interpretation of the fact.” (1)

From the time the call for union was issued from Tranquebar, the one point which swung the churches in so many directions was episcopacy. It would be a long story if I were to recount the vicissitudes of this debate about episcopacy which lasted nearly twenty-eight years, from 1919 to 1944. The Anglicans were insisting that there must be some kind of supplemental ordination or mutual commissioning with laying on of hands so that the ministries of all the churches joining the union would become acceptable to all and would be unified right from the beginning. This was debated in India, in England, in the United States, in Australia and other countries also. Most of the Anglicans were adamant on this point. They said in unmistakeable terms that this is something which cannot be given up inasmuch as “the Anglicans had consented to the recognition of spiritual equality, of the universal priesthood of all believers and of the rights of the laity to their full expression in the Church. This principle of spiritual equality shall be maintained throughout at every step of the negotiations.” There were exchanges between leaders in England and their counterparts in India. There were appeals and counter appeals. Tension mounted up, hopes were abandoned, no side would budge. Then came the breakthrough by the daring lead given by Bishop Hollis of Madras. He asked his brother bishops in South India to sing the following statement with him.

“After the inauguration of union we, as bishops of The CSI, shall be ready ourselves to receive communion at the hands of any bishop or presbyter of the united church. All who have the status of presbyters in the united church are capable of performing all the functions assigned to presbyters in the united church by the constitution of that church in every congregation in the united church; that no presbyter of the united church will exercise his ministry in a congregation where members conscientiously object to his ministrations, and that no member of the united church can ‘conscientiously object’ to the ministrations of any presbyter ordained within the united church. The suitability of a presbyter for a particular congregation is another question and will have to be considered in all cases by the appointing authority.” (2)

(1) B. Sundkler: Church of South India, The Movement Towards Union 1900-1947. London: Lutterworth Press, 1954, p. 102.
(2) Ibid., p. 321.


The effect of this statement was electrifying. It changed the whole situation from one of gloom to one of light. This was the last straw that made union possible. We thank God for the simple and bold step of Bishop Hollis and his brother bishops. Bishop Hollis was a great statesman of the church. For the sake of union he suffered much, but the joy of fulfillment to him and to the whole church is greater than the price which he and the church had had to pay.

Supplemental ordination, mutual commissioning, etc. were all set aside. In the service of inauguration of the CSI, the five Anglican bishops were first commissioned by the ministers of Methodist and SIUC churches to exercise the office of a bishop in all the congregations of the whole church. All the ministers were recognized as such in the united church without any further rite of ordination or commissioning.

This step is one of the most glorious things that happened in the inauguration of the CSI. All ministers were accepted without any judgment or evaluation, rite or ceremony. Of course, because of this step the CSI became a suspect church of a dubious nature. Many Anglican Provinces cut off their connections with the CSI. It was only after about twenty-five years of life as a united church that Anglican Provinces began to develop full communion and intercommunion with the CSI. I may be forgiven for speaking about the Church of North Inda (CNI) at this juncture. CNI was formed in 1970. Through the rite of unification which was through mutual laying on of hands, the ministries were fully united. In the CNI it is said by some that this is a much better way of doing things than the practice followed in the CSI. God alone can judge. History alone can pass the verdict. Maybe in the economy of God’s doings both are acceptable. But the fundamental principle which guided the leaders of the union of the CSI in all their negotiations was that it is God who ordins and God who equips and not what we have or possess which makes ordination or ministry valid. It is a continual dependence on God which is our equipment for our ministry.

Also there was and still is the big debate about episcopacy being the esse or bene esse of the Church. It we have to be true to the history of the Church in India and recognize the acts of God, we cannot but say that episcopacy is of the bene esse and not the esse of the Church. The triune God alone is the esse of the Church.


II. How is Episcopacy Understood?

I shall quote here the portion of the CSI Constitution on the episcopacy which should shed some light on this matter:


“The CSI accepts and will maintain the historic episcopate in a constitutional form. But this acceptance does not commit it to any particular interpretation of episcopacy or to any particular view or belief concerning orders of the ministry and it will not require the acceptance of any such particular interpretation or view as necessary qualification for its ministry.” (1)

The main responsibility of a bishop in the CSI is pastoral oversight. A bishop is a leader in evangelism. He is a teacher. He is the one who has responsibility for worship among the people. He is the one who administers discipline in the diocese. He is a father in God. “He knows he is called, appointed and endowed. He is ever striving to be faithful to the Lord of the Church, knowing that the future of his church is safe in the hands of Him to whom the Church belongs.” (Bishop Sumitra)

There is no idea or hint that episcopacy has any special powers in itself. It is a symbol, a service, a cross to carry. The bishop is the focal point of the fellowship of the Church. Through his life and example people accept him and recognize him as a man of God and follow him with love and respect. But if marks of godliness and concern for the people are not seen in the bishop, the people do not accept and follow him.


III. What is the Experience With Episcopacy in the Last Thirty Years?

In some measure the hopes and expectations about episcopacy have come true. Almost uniformly the bishops of the CSI have been humble men and found their way to the hearts of the people. To give just two examples: Bishop Hollis and Bishop Sumitra, the first of the moderators of the CSI, set for the other bishops in the CSI a striking example of humility and simplicity. This has had a great influence upon episcopacy as it was shaped in the CSI. The overtones of hierarchical pomp and glory have been set aside to a great extent in the CSI. The CSI bishops have been the bishops of the people. They have to live with the people and for the people.

We have also found that episcopacy has been a very effective instrument both of mission and unity. I would refer here only to the formation of the Joint Council of CNI-CSI-Mar Thoma Church of July 1978. This has had a significant impact

(1) The Constitution of the Church of South India, p. 9.


upon mission and unity in India. For us in India in a very obvious manner mission and unity are two sides of the same coin. Another factor which has emerged in the CSI is the bishop-in-council principle. The bishop is not an autocrat and he cannot act as such. He has no veto except in matters of faith and order in which he can only suspend decision until the Synod gives a ruling. The council and the bishop have to interact all the time. Together they move forward to the point where they can say “it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit”. This is unanimous action. There is usually no question of minorities being ignored. Usually the bishop plays a moderating role. In some dioceses on many issues vote is not taken unless it is constitutionally obligatory. It would be either unanimous action or, if there is sharp division, the matter would be laid on the table for further consideration and study and then consensus would be reached. This is in no small measure due to the principle of the bishop-in-council which has become an important principle of deliberation and action in the CSI.

One of the things which is causing anxiety in the CSI about episcopacy is that bishops are loaded with too much administration. In a setting where there is shortage of leadership and paucity of funds, it can be easily understood how this kind of situation comes about. There are also trends of over-centralisation in the CSI. Therefore, CSI is seriously seeking to stem this tide of centralisation. The Synod has passed a resolution that every diocese must appoint an administrator who will take the load off the shoulders of the bishop so that the bishop can give more time and attention to the development of leadership, renewal of the congregations and the tasks of mission and unity.


IV. How Did the Churches Accept Episcopacy?

In the beginning some sections of the church had their own doubts and misgivings. One of the major fears was that the ex-Anglican sections of the CSI would superimpose their own patterns of administration, worship and episcopacy on the whole of CSI. They feared that the CSI would become a replica of the Anglican Church. But gradually these fears were dispelled. The first Moderator, Bishop Hollis, was himself an Anglican, but through his life and example and the leadership he gave to the CSI, the whole church came to realize that the CSI was on a path all its own to be charted by the Holy Spirit. Bishop Hollis was anything but a staunch and haughty Anglican. In fact, he leaned more towards the non ex-Anglican type of polity. This could be said of every ex-Anglican bishop who came into the CSI. The bishops from other traditions had to find their feet as to the role of a bishop. In one way it was a great opportunity that a new brand of episcopacy was here in the making: episcopacy related to the people, drawing its continual sustenance from


the living God in the matrix of mission and unity. The late Bishop Sumitra, whom I have already quoted, in his own life and ministry combined in a remarkable way extreme simplicity with great authority of love and service. For the early CSI bishops it must have been an extremely difficult task. But they did it through the grace of God.


V. What Problems Arose?

Sometimes it so happens that a bishop stays in a diocese for a long number of years. In the CSI there is no way by which a bishop can be transferred. Therefore, we are now proposing certain changes in the constitution. The following questions may be raised for our consideration:
1. What provisions can be made so that a bishop does not stay in the diocese for too long a time? Should we make some provision, or should we not?
2. What steps have to be taken to counteract centralisation?
3. How do we help episcopacy to perform its primary function and not be sidetracked by other concerns?


VI. How Did the Relationship Between Episcopacy and Presbyters Work out?

All ordinations are to be performed by the bishops. Episcopal ordination has become the order of the CSI. But even after the thirty year period, the CSI has decided that ministers from non-episcopal churches with which the CSI is in communion will be received into the CSI without any rite of commissioning or ordination. Though this makes for certain irregularity, still the acceptance and continuance of non-episcopally ordained presbyters underlines the truth that in the final analysis God is the ordainer and he is the validator of our ordination and that the Church is perfected not by what we can infuse into it but by what God grants and empowers, justification by faith through grace.

One of the most important duties of a bishop is to be in constant touch with his presbyters. His relationship to the presbyters is that of a friend, a brother and a father in God. Hitherto before union it was a committee or council which took care of the presbyters. But now there is a person to whom they can turn as a friend, a counsellor and a colleague, a person not absolute in himself, but a person who is in turn guided and supported by a group of persons. Are there other ways in which a better relationship could be evolved between the bishop and the presbyters? What are the dangers that have to be guarded against in the relationship between a bishop and his presbyters? What measures have to be taken for a genuine relationship of understanding and mutual support?


VII. Did Episcopacy Reduce or Enhance Synodical Functioning?

From the beginning the three principles of episcopacy, presbyterianism and congregationalism were worked into the texture of the CSI. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that episcopacy has in no way reduced the synodical functioning; on the contrary, it has enhanced it. The Synod is the supreme governing and legislative body of the CSI. The lay people are more in number in the Synod than the bishops and presbyters put together. This is the way in which it has been provided for in the CSI Constitution. There are no different houses in the Synod. Bishops are like other members. Episcopacy died along with the synodical system and the congregational tradition and all of them rose again enriched. This is the essence of the experience of the CSI and its journey into union and in union. Even on matters of faith and order when the bishops separately deliberate and take a vote, the final decision is subjected to the Synod and will be taken by the Synod.


VIII. The Problems of Union

Episcopacy is still the most difficult issue in the path towards union and this has almost become the rock on which many a scheme has been wrecked. Is there any other way that we can think of at the present time whereby we can work for union? In the CSI historic episcopate maintained in a constitutional way was one of the most potent factors which helped in promoting unity among the different heritages and traditions. Are there ways in which episcopacy can become less of a stumbling block? New impetus and encouragement has to be given to the movement for unity in different parts of the world where negotiations for union have failed or floundered. There is some disenchantment about unity and union talks. Is it that the synodical churches are dispirited by the inflexible stand of the episcopalians about episcopacy? Should there be more give and take, more understanding, respect for one another? Does union lead to centralisation? Does episcopacy contribute to that centralisation? Is centralisation another stumbling block on the road to unity? Is it organic unity or conciliar unity, or is it a new kind of unity which the Lord of the Church is beckoning us to?


IX. Living in a United Church

Living in a united church is a pain and a joy, pain of accepting your neigbour and joy of discovering that he is your brother. It is dying and rising again. It is to take risks in the full knowledge and confidence that the risks are taken in obedience to God’s call. It is obedience to the


call of mission and unity. It is open-ended. More and more I find leaders of many churches subordinating unity to mission. I feel that this kind of subordination is contrary to the insight that we gain from the New Testament. If I might put it simply, mission is liberation and unity is reconciliation. They go together. “When I am lifted up I shall draw all men unto myself.” The whole thing is to be placed also in the setting of the unity of humankind. The unity of the Church is the earnest and the precursor of the unity of humankind. Th unity of the Church is not the end, nor is it the ultimate. The ultimate is the king and the kingdom.