Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Eleven Lutheran Church Bodies?

Here at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in India we have just come through the remembrance of Reformation, the splitting and healing that the Christian Church experienced with the leadership of Martin Luther and others in the 1500's in Europe. (We have also just come through a Hindu festival, Diwali, on November 1. Diwali is called the "Festival of Lights" but should be called, we think, the "Festival of Sound," or simply "Firecracker Day," because it is marked by hours---days---of firecrackers. From about six to midnight on the first we could not hear the TV in our living room because of the firecrackers outside.) Let me use the day to describe something of churches in India.

1) On Gurukul's compound are the offices of the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches of India. UELCI is an association of perhaps eleven Luthern church bodies from around the country. Both our state (Tamil Nadu) and the neighboring one (Andhra Pradesh) have "state" churches. (No Christian Church is under government control; I mean simply that in our area there is a "Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church" and north of us is "Andhra Ev. Lutheran Church.") In our state, and around the country, there is also the India Ev. Lutheran Church, a partner church to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the US. (The Tamil and Andhra churches have, I think, partner synods in the US in the ELCA.) But then---and here I am reading from the list of students in the Gurukul catalog---there are also at least JELC, ELCC, ALC, SAELC, NELC and NWGELC; this last is the North West version of the GELC, from which it has divided over language and culture issues.

The distinctions represent differences of language and culture and mission origins. (We are about 100 km from the site of the first Protestant missionary work in India, launched by Zigenbalg in July 1706; many came after him, all over India.) It may be that there is less division between the churches than within them. We hear some number of stories of court cases among leadership, of family, power or financial concerns assumed to be driving some to positions of power. (LCMS history has prepared us for some of this.)

2) But then, when you read the catalog, you learn that also at Gurukul, among students and faculty, we have Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians. From Kerala state, next door, are several Marthoma students. (This body is either or both: founded by the apostle Thomas after he arrived in India, c. AD 52; reformed about 130 years ago by someone under the influence of reading Luther.) Church of South India, a union in 1947 of Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists, is well represented. The photo I will try to attach shows the Gurukul commemoration of the anniversary of that founding. A number of students come from states in the north east of India, where some tribal(i.e., aboriginal) populations might be more than 80% Christian.

In this mixture of people from various church bodies Gurukul becomes an intriguing experiment in ecumenical life, in how the whole Christian Church might live together. There is control on campus in terms of curriculum, catalog, hostel regulations, etc. In terms of chapel services and viewpoints in the classroom there is much less control. The challenge sits before us: given a unity in Jesus Christ, how will we live?


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