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Church of South India

The result of a union of three churches effected 27 September 1947; noteworthy for being the first-ever union of episcopal and nonepiscopal bodies. The uniting churches were: the Anglican dioceses of Madras, Tinnevelly, Travancore and Cochin, and Dornakal (dioceses of the Church of India, Burma, and Ceylon); the South India province of the Methodist Church; and the South India United Church, which was originally formed by a union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1908. The Church of South India had at its inauguration fourteen dioceses, of which one (Jaffna) was in Ceylon.

Negotiations toward union are generally reckoned to have begun at the 1919 Tranquebar Conference of Indian ministers from the Anglican and the South India United churches. Their published manifesto stressed that the existence of episcopacy in a united church need not call into question the “spiritual equality” of all members, nor imply any particular theory or doctrine about episcopacy. It was also proposed that a special service of “commissioning” by the laying on of hands by the bishops of the united church should give to each minister authority to officiate throughout the united church. An official joint committee of the two churches was appointed. Approaches were made to the Methodists, and they joined the committee in 1925. Then at Trichinopoly in 1926 the Anglicans suggested dropping “mutual commissioning,” and the adopting of an “interim period” of the ministries growing together in a common episcopal frame. On this basis the first draft of a Scheme of Union was published in 1929.

From then until the seventh and final edition of the scheme in 1941, most interest and controversy centered upon the nature of the “interim period.” Lambeth 1930 (see Lambeth Conferences) had given a cautious encouragement to the proposal, but in the latter stages the scheme provided that the thirty years' interim period would be terminated not by an exclusive rule requiring all ministers to be episcopally ordained, but by a review of the regulations which would not bind the united church to any particular course of action. This led to growing Anglo-Catholic opposition in England in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and in South India to a reconsideration of the old idea of “mutual commissioning.” However, the four Anglican bishops in the area rescued the concept which had been in every draft of the scheme by announcing in 1946 that after union they would each without hesitation receive Communion from ministers not episcopally ordained. This was the breakthrough; the new church was inaugurated in 1947.

Anglo-Catholic hostility to the union continued; one Anglican society cut off all official grants to South India. In the Nandyal area, moreover, twenty Anglican clergy, with some 25,000 laity, refused to join the union and remained part of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon (ultimately joining the North India union in 1970). Lambeth 1948 reflected some of the suspicion from Catholic sources, and withheld approval. It and the succeeding Lambeth both recommended other areas to unite on the basis of “mutual commissioning” rather than by the South India procedure. Provinces of the Anglican Communion would not enter full communion with South India, as this would have involved accepting nonepiscopal ministers in principle in their own ministerial ranks.

In 1968, however, the Lambeth Conference and the Church of England Commission on Intercommunion (in its report Intercommunion To-Day) both recommended by majority votes that churches of the Anglican Communion should reexamine their relationship with the Church of South India with a view to entering full communion with it. Various churches and provinces have indicated their desire to do so, but none at the time of writing has altered its rule as to episcopal ordination.

The Church of South India now comprises roughly a million members with nearly a thousand presbyters. It has developed its own liturgical forms, and the South India Eucharistic Liturgy (1950) pioneered trends which have had an effect throughout the world. The church has striven to be free of dependence upon money from abroad, and has worked at being a genuinely Indian church. It has a small missionary work of its own in Thailand. It has also been engaged in far-reaching, further conversations with the Lutheran churches in South India and has always viewed its own unity as only partial, a challenge to continue a movement started as far back as 1908. It has made an international impact far greater than its size might be thought to warrant, both because its scheme of union has become a departure point in drafting elsewhere (e.g., the abortive Nigeria scheme wherein three drafts from 1957 to 1963 repeated the South India scheme verbatim for a very large part of its contents), and also because it has nurtured ecclesiastical statesmen like Bishop Lesslie Newbigin and, indirectly, Bishop Stephen Neill.

J.E.L. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church: A Defence of the South India Scheme (1948); B. Sundkler, Church of South India: The Movement towards Union, 1900-47 (1954); R.D. Paul, The First Decade (1958); The Book of Common Worship (1963).