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Hundreds sent out from Kerala

Tens of thousands joined in the celebrations marking 200 years since the arrival of Thomas Norton, the first CMS missionary. Photos: Shemil Mathew/CSI

The bicentenary of the arrival of the first CMS missionaries in Kerala, South India, was marked in the most appropriate way – by the commissioning of 210 new missionaries by the Church of South India.

“Hoards, tens of thousands, of people marched to the venue on Saturday in earnest and vibrant celebrations of CMS missionaries 200 years ago,” said Raj Patel, CMS regional manager.

“The missionaries of old opened up a path for freedom, faith and faithfulness which was demonstrated by the commissioning of 210 Church of South India missionaries on Sunday. 

“This vitality not only provides hope for Kerala, India and Africa but also for where the missionaries of old started their journeys. We must ready our minds and hearts in order to confidently and humbly accept what God is stirring. It is apt that this new wave of mission was honoured in such a joyous and momentous manner.”

Raj represented CMS at the celebrations, along with the Rev Shemil Mathew, a member of the CMS Asia Forum and the Church of South India. 

Raj Patel speaking at the celebrations
"God is stirring a new wave of mission": Raj Patel, CMS regional manager for Asia, addresses the bicentenary gathering.

Adrian Butcher of the Anglican Communion News Service also attended and sent this report:

Tens of thousands of Christians from across southern India joined moderators, bishops and other dignitaries from around the world at a huge celebration on Saturday (12 November) to mark the bicentenary of Madhya Kerala diocese on Saturday. The gathering, at the Nehru Stadium in Kottayam, was the culmination of four years of events and projects to commemorate the arrival in the southern state of Kerala of the first CMS missionary, Thomas Norton, in 1816.

“It is a great day of blessing as we gather here, an ocean of faithful witnesses thanking God for the mercies he has showered on us in Kerala through these past 200 years,” the Bishop of Madhya Kerala, the Rt Revd Thomas Oommen, said as he paid tribute to the work of the first missionaries.

“Ever since the arrival of the CMS missionaries, our land has been witnessing a great transformation. During the past four years of our bicentenary celebration, we have been thanking and praising God, and also honouring those missionaries who were agents of that transformation.

Bishop Holbrook and Dr Mar Thoma
The Rt Rev John Holbrook, Bishop of Brixworth, represented the Church of England, seen here with Dr Jospeh Mar Thoma of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church.

“We are now recommitting ourselves to the cause of mission,” he said. “Our mission now is to initiate a ‘New Exodus’ – to liberate our land from the clutches of slavery which is expressed in new forms.

“This is not an easy task but it is not an impossible one, provided that God is with us. Therefore, let us humble ourselves and recommit ourselves to engage in this New Exodus.”

Bishop and dignitaries on stage
“We are now recommitting ourselves to the cause of mission,” said the Rt Rev Thomas Oommen, Bishop of Madhya Kerala, seen on the screen. “Our mission now is to initiate a ‘New Exodus’ – to liberate our land from the clutches of slavery which is expressed in new forms.”

The diocese of Madhya Kerala is part of the united Church of South India (CSI). The CSI moderator, the Most Revd G Dyvasirvadam, praised the way the church in the diocese has followed the example of the first missionaries who provided educational opportunities to the local community.

“Madhya Kerala diocese of the Church of South India can be proud of the fact that the threshold of education was opened up for people from all social backgrounds by the CMS missionaries in a time when the lower caste people when denied access to education,” he said.

“CMS missionaries extended their care and compassion to people from all walks of life irrespective of caste and creed through their mission in the field of education and health care. The present Church has the responsibility to follow the vision of the CMS missionaries that the development or growth of the Church should be resulting in the development of the society.”

Vast marquee holds thousands
Vast crowds: the bicentenary celebrations were on a huge scale

Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, told the crowds that the missionaries had paved the way for what he called a renaissance movement in the state. He pointed to their pioneering work in education, printing, literature and publishing, and said their approach to the inclusion of marginalised people had brought the idea of equality into mainstream thinking.

The Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook – representing the Church of England – delivered a message of greeting from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He described the occasion as a landmark for the diocese and gave thanks to God for his many blessings and for the faithfulness of the church’s ministry over the past 200 years. He encouraged the church to look to the future and continue its calling to serve the wider community of the diocese.

Among the dignitaries were the moderator of the Church of North India, the Most Revd P K Samantroy; the deputy moderator of Bangladesh, the Rt Revd Samuel Mankhin and Dr Joseph Mar Thoma, Metropolitan and Primate of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. They were joined by Martin and Ginny Knapp, a British couple from Petersfield in Hampshire, who have a direct link to the early church in south India. Martin’s great-uncle, Edward Moore, was the fourth bishop of what was then Travancore, serving from 1925 to 1937.

Glimpsed through a car window: a small section of the bicentenary parade

“By all accounts he was a shy, retiring, rather academic man,” said Martin. “He would have been overwhelmed to see all this, less than 100 years after he was here – to see how the seeds that were planted have grown and developed since those days. I feel very humbled to come here – when I think of what it was like for the early missionaries and the enormous sacrifices they made.”

In the run-up to Saturday’s celebrations, local churches organized a 96-hour prayer chain. Festivities on the day began with a series of processions weaving through the streets of Kottayam to the football stadium. The events were broadcast live on television in India. The evening also saw the launch of an official postage stamp and a commemorative book to mark the bicentenary.

The four years of celebrations have seen a range of projects across the diocese.  These have included building houses for the homeless, providing scholarships to poor students and various works in agriculture, education and development.