Welcome aboard!

Part of our diversity as a church is that we welcome significant numbers of clergy from outwith Scotland. Indeed, if we didn’t have them, we would be in difficulty sustaining our ministry. So now and again we have a ‘New Clergy Day’ in Edinburgh which is a sort of induction and welcome to the SEC.

I may have been deluding myself – but I did not find the move from the Church of Ireland particularly difficult. As a ‘formerly-established’ [until 1869] church, the Church of Ireland has a sort of residual solidity which the ‘definitely not established’ SEC doesn’t have and wouldn’t want. As a small church, the SEC has a disarming ability to be whatever the last person you spoke to thought it was. And there is no doubt that some clergy coming from the C of E find our combination of light government, open internal dialogue and apparent minority status quite a culture shock.

In my now six years here, I’ve gone throught a continous process of exploring, testing, defining, rejecting … And I invited – through my croaking larynx – people to join that with me. I see it as a series of doors which have inviting labels – but you need to open each door in turn and learn that, behind it, things are not all that they seem and certainly not as simple and clear-cut as others would want you to believe.

Some of my ‘doors of the moment’ are catholic, small, liberal, identity,secular, Scottish, anglican, edgy …

Back to Blighty

Mute I have been since I got back. Maybe a plane-borne bug or just tired. I think voice is maybe starting to return now. Body telling me something, no doubt.

Anyway .. all sorts of new things to think about. Particularly the contrast between the absolute chaos of the average Calcutta street with bicycles, random cows, cars, honking horns … and the grace, order and fundamental decency of the people we met. I’ve come back content that we have in our hands a relationship which can challenge and enrich us .. and hope that we can offer something similar. There’s much more to explore. We hardly got to the edges of how a church like the Church of North India, ecumenical in its foundation, actually works. The interfaith dimensions are fascinating. The Christian schools are highly sought-after by all religious, cultural and ethnic groups. They are overtly Christian – in one, the school song was ‘Make me a Channel of your Peace’ – and that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Yet there is huge sensitivity about any suggestion that the Christian community might proselytize.

So I had a bit of enforced ‘time out’ – missed the meeting of Church Leaders with the First Minister … and a meeting about the Anglican Covenant with one of our Area Councils.

And finally ….

We ended our visit with Sunday worship – I was in St Paul’s Cathedral while Bob and Andrew went to St Andrew’s Church. Within the CNI, St Andrews is a little piece of Scotland [some corner of a foreign field that is for ever, etc., etc] with a strong Presbyterian tradition and a tendency to hoist the Saltire on special occasions.

I thought the Cathedral was splendid – all the fans over our heads were so evocative of the Raj. So I allowed myself to think about that for a bit

This is roughly what I said ….

Indian TISEC


We began today at Serampore College, which is for us the equivalent of our relationship with York St John University. Serampore It awards degrees and accredits the courses of many theological colleges and seminaries all over India – including Bishop’s College in Calcutta which we visited this evening. We had a fascinating meeting with members of the theological faculty – I was delighted to find that one of them had been involved in writing material for the Continuing Indaba Project in the Anglican Communion. We discussed the issues involved in providing theological education in a situation of such cultural diversity – and learned about how they manage their own diversity, given the range of denominational background from which they come. We shared a meal with them – people have been incredibly generous with their time and their hospitality.

The founder was William Carey – another of the heroic missionary figures of the past. He built the College. The cross by the bank of Ganges marks the place of the baptism of his first convert – seven years after he arrived. The painters who are defying both gravity and all Health and Safety rules were on bamboo scaffolding in the village church. William Carey’s grave carries the words, ‘A wretched poor and helpless worm – On thy kind arms I fall’

Then we returned to Calcutta for a meeting with Bishop Askoke and the clergy and we explored a little about how we might develop our link.

And finally to Bishop’s College – the Theological College for many churches of the CSI and beyond. We met some students and shared a meal with the staff. Students mostly do a four year residential course. We learned about how challenging it is for many of them to study theology in English when it is not their first language. The beautiful chapel was hosting an exhibition by the Indian artist, Madhvi Parekh. The painting is of the Last Supper. In India people seem just to wander up and talk to you – questions included, ‘Is this a Catholic Church?’ and ‘Why are the Zoroastrians dying out?’ The former took me straight back to Portadown. The latter – to be cricketing again – stumped me.

The Prize-Giving

Of course it wasn’t over yet. Because we moved on to the Annual Prize Day of St John’s Diocesan School – over 3500 children and the school motto: ‘The good retain The better follow’ Yes it took me a little while to work out too – The good – retain.
The better – follow’

We were greeted as honoured guests. We listened to the school choir, heard the MInister for Minorities speaking and we all had a turn at distributing the prizes. The picture is of Andrew doing his bit.

These schools are very impressive – ordered, disciplined and with a single-minded reverence for the idea that education is the way to advancement and, as the Headmistress told us, to a healthy democracy.

And then there was more food. Bengali’s, they say, like to eat. They offer you food. They offer you more food. They stand over you to make sure that you eat it. Truly Mrs Doyle must have passed through here.

A day of Heroes

One of the things about life in the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we learn to do a lot with a little – I sometimes refer to it as a ‘loaves and fishes’ operation. But that is nothing to what we saw today. India – in one of its modes – is a bit like Ireland fifty years ago. It seems to be possible for one passionately-committed individual to do anything to which they put their mind – as in ‘I think I’ll start a hospital’. That kind of determined and creative individualism has simply been squeezed out of western society. So it was very refreshing to meet it today – and, as we did so, to find ourselves following in the footsteps of the Archbishop of Canterbury last August.

First stop was the Arunima Hospice – a children’s HIV/Aids Hospice founded and run by Suborata Das. The children sang and danced – more Banks and Braes – and then we met the children and the staff. What is so impressive about people like Suborata is that they are always building towards a vision – always pointing to a scrubby piece of land and telling you what they are going to build there. Not my first visit to a place like this – but I found this one incredibly moving. It’s partly the people – partly the utter simplicity of the surroundings – partly the sophistication of what they are actually doing.

Next door was the Sister Florence College of Nursing. Sister Florence herself was obviously a formidable person as the Times Obituary suggests. Her equally formidable successor was building up a fully-accredited School of Nursing in the most astonishingly limited surroundings.

Then across the road to the Oxford Mission – the Chapel is in the picture – which was set up as a mission of the University of Oxford by ten men who formed a Brotherhood of the Epiphany and sailed to Calcutta in response to a call from the Bishop of Calcutta. Today, the Brothers have gone to their reward – but the work continues in the care of over 100 children, many of them orphans.

And on through the chaos of Kolkata traffic to Mother Theresa’s House. I met her once when she sat down beside me on a flight from Belfast to London – the Sisters of Charity for a short time had a house in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles. It was a fascinating encounter which I shall always remember – particularly seeing her padding off at the end with her simple cloth bag. I’m not sure that she would be very keen on the big, shiny marble tomb where she is remembered. And then we visited the orphanage. I’ve seen other orphanages in other places – the children here were bright, active, noisy and engaged. Some things are simply remarkable.

It’s back to these extraordinary, passionate, faith-ful individuals who simply acknowledge no boundary or limitation on what they can do.

Under the eye of Alexander Duff

We’ve been at Scottish Church College this evening. It was founded in 1830 by Rev Alexander Duff, the first missionary in India of the Church of Scotland. It was established as an institution of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Beautiful flowers at the entrance introduced us to a College which ‘linked western education with Christian mission and the eventual progress of the people’ So we enjoyed an animated meeting with the Principal, Dr John Abraham, and members of the staff – under the watchful eye of Rev Alexander Duff. We discussed the way in which people in India still see education as an engine of social progress – when young people back home are beginning to wonder whether that link is as powerful as it once was. It is also fascinating to explore the way in which a college such as this is attractive to young people right across Indian society – its places are hugely over-subscribed.

And in case you are wondering where Bishop Ashoke Biswas has gone to, here is a picture of our meeting yesterday

Banks and Braes

They keep telling us that cricket is a national obsession here in India. So I’ll say that we were clean bowled by the warmth of our welcome when we visited Christ Church Girls High School this morning. It’s not that one isn’t treated with respect at home – it’s just that the secular society is so different. So instead of having to do a bit of waving to get noticed, we were feted as if we really mattered – greeting with flowers, conch shells and choir.

The photo shows some of the dance from the performance which the girls gave – representing creation spoilt and redeemed and ending with a section danced to ‘Ye banks and braes ….. ‘ Scotland is everywhere here. My pithy words of thanks were translated into Bengali – because this is a Bengali-medium school.

We got the chance to do a bit of talking with the staff – and to ask how things are and how they are changing. And the conversation turned to how their children are – how shall we say it – beginning to become like our children. Discipline problems are beginning to appear … they are about to employ a school counsellor. The reasons which they suggested for this sounded close to home – even if a little non-PC in our terms – the loss of extended family networks … families with both parents working. No doubt cultural infections from the global village have something to do with it as well.

It was a fascinating visit – with much to think about in terms of what school chaplaincy means in this situation and at home

View from the Window

View from my window over Kolkata [Calcutta] stretching out for ever into the haze. It’s enormous, crowded and noisy. The only thing that makes car travel reasonably safe is the fact that nothing moves quickly – and horns are pumped constantly.

I’m here with Canon Bob Harley and Andrew Pont. We’ve been in Salt Lake City today visiting projects run by the Cathedral’s relief agency. For a diocese which is part of a small church, it’s very impressive.

We visited three projects during the day and saw beautifully turned-out small children being given a basic pre-school education and this group of women being given skills to increase their earning power. It’s hard to realise that these people are living in squatters’ huts by the river embankment.

There are many things which are impressive about what we saw. I know that I obsess a bit about minority church issues and it’s often not helpful. But this is a tiny minority church deeply engaged with the issues of the whole society in which it is set. They aren’t looking after themselves ‘over there’ – nor are they allowing their clergy to become simply chaplains. They are well beyond that and we can learn from them.

They also are attempting to deal with the roots of the issues with which they are engaged. When they talk about empowerment for women …. they are teaching skills but also teaching women how to make use of those skills to build a better life for themselves and their families. So they are into micro-finance .. and dealing with the problems of connecting people who don’t have addresses, National Insurance numbers or any of the everyday stuff of life with the possibility of a new future.

Mission Planning at Kinross

I was given a picture copy of this very attractive representation of the life of our congregation at St Paul’s, Kinross, when I was there on Sunday. It is fixed to the wall of the new Meeting Room – a wonderful resource for both congregation and diocese.

I was there for the end of the first phase of their Mission Action Planning – part of Casting the Net. Some find all this stuff both fussy and self-conscious. I see it as an attempt to engender a helpful change of mood in the congregation. We try to involve as many people in the congregation as are prepared to be involved. We try to find ways in which – measured against the Nine Marks of Mission – we can move on from the point where the church is the agenda of the church.

Meanwhile I’m on passage to India and hope to surface/land in Calcutta in the morning

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