Ecumenical Experience – India

Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday – Jan. 24, 1999
Reporting on Ecumenical in India – 8th St. Mennonite Church, Goshen

How do Mennonites practice openness toward other Christians? The term ecumenical means “to make visible the unity we have in Christ.” Unity does not mean absence of conflict. Speaking and acting together, churches worldwide confront evil and bring healing.

While North American Mennonites have had limited engagement or close ties with other Christians, our own number of schisms reflect distrust of each other. But recall that General Conference Mennonite historian C. J. Dyck observed the last session of Vatican II, in Rome, in 1965 and that John Howard Yoder, Mennonite Church theologian, represented us at several World Council of Churches Assemblies. A recent Mennonite Quarterly Review states: “Compared to the Gospel Herald (MC), The Mennonite (GC) carried more news articles from the larger church world.” Thirty-five years ago, editor Maynard Shelly wrote: “at the core, Mennonites pray the same prayers as Catholics.”

For seven months of last year, John and I worked at a Lutheran seminary in India. I clearly recall Reformation Day worship when a Roman Catholic priest was the key speaker. Although Protestants originally broke from Catholics, this priest moved us together toward the One God. Half the students present were Lutheran, offspring from mission groups based in seven nations. While one student named Peter was a Mennonite Brethren, others were Baptists, Mar Thoma, Presbyterian, Pentecostals, and from groups called Church of South India and Church of North India. Fifty years earlier, the CSI formed when Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches merged in India. Later, groups like Church of the Brethren, Baptists, and Anglicans united to form CNI. Mennonites never joined those ecumenical efforts; nor have we formally joined the World Council of Churches (organization that John and I have visited twice in Geneva, Switzerland).

Worship with four different churches of the CSI union taught me about diversity within unity. Members did not need to agree in thought or act the same, in order to be one denomination. All claim Jesus the Christ, while patterns for worship vary. We most often worshiped at St. Andrews which has Scottish Presbyterian roots. Worshipers stood while the Bible was carried in, to begin and then end each service. Communion was distributed through the pews, once a month, by a dozen lay leaders. CSI churches formerly Anglican retain communion at the altar as part of each week’s worship; ordained leaders bless and serve the elements.

We attended several Sundays at St. Mary’s, a church built in 1680 by the British, East India Company. I was invited to preach on the then-current World Council of Churches theme: “Turn to God; Rejoice in Hope.” John preached there on the theme of peace on Armistice Day Sunday. He processed in with representatives of India’s military and police units who laid wreaths at the altar, in memory of all who have suffered and died through wars. Being Mennonite, we freely claim and shared the Radical Reformers’ unique flavor, blending it into the ‘curry’ of Christian unity.

We also joined Mar Thoma people for worship when they dedicated a new center. Mar Thomites claim descent from Jesus’ disciple Thomas who presumably arrived in India in the year 52. Members recited extensive liturgy while standing; incense sometimes filled the space; speakers touched the feet of the robed, head priest as he blessed each on the forehead. In all Indian churches the name of Jesus is extolled. Ecumenical ties and experience of worship remain significant for me.

World Communion Sunday – Oct. 3, 1999
One of several reports inserted during the pastor’s sermon.

Last year in India, I worshipped with the All-India Mennonite Women’s Retreat, when I led the group in multiple sessions to think about Peace themes. Singing and drama were spirited with the 160 women, from five language groups. Rachel Bagh had the task of translating my talks into Hindu. We shared communion—chapati pieces and juice—special because it was blessed and served by women! Without enough communion cups for everyone, women washed the used ones in metal buckets just outside the tent, until all were served.

John and I worked at a Lutheran seminary in south India. On entering chapel, whether for daily, morning chapel or Sunday evening worship, we removed our shoes. Students sat on the tile floor, on braided mats; staff sat on benches around the room’s edges. Instruments used to guide hymns included harmonium, guitar, drums, and a piano sorely out-of-tune (especially during the monsoon). On the chapel altar stood the lighted, oil lamp, symbol of God’s presence. An Indian bhajan often sung would plead for closeness with the Trinity: saranam, saranam, saranam. For monthly communion, about ten people at a time stood at the front near the pulpit to receive the wafer in our opened hands, to sip the juice poured by the priest of the event.

Ecumenical opportunities multiplied. My memories of worship with Mar Thoma members, who descend from Jesus’ disciple Thomas, include lots of liturgy recited by all while standing, with incense filling the space. With Baptist, Methodist, and Church of South India worship groups I recall these details:

We worshiped and then left these sacred settings, to witness to God’s grace. Indian Christians in some locations have recently been less secure because of acts of violence done to them. The least we can do is to wish them God’s Wisdom, in response.