Indigenous leadership

Daily Reading for January 2 • Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah, First Indian Anglican Bishop, Dornakal, 1945

As Azariah’s friend, Sherwood Eddy, watched Azariah process down the aisle at his consecration next to the aging English Metropolitan, it suggested to him “the passing of one regime and the beginning of a new and indigenous development in Indian missions.” Sadly, however, “regimes” rarely give up leadership easily, even within the church.

Henry Whitehead described Azariah’s consecration to a CMS missionary as “a great step forward”; but many missionaries did not agree, and they fought Azariah’s efforts to obtain and exert his authority over their missions in Dornakal. . . .While most missionary societies were committed in theory to the early establishment of self-sufficient churches, they were often unable or unwilling to act upon this commitment, as Azariah noted in 1910: “The aim of the Missionary Societies, we know, is to develop self-governing Churches and to give freedom and scope to indigenous leadership, and to strive to make themselves unnecessary in the field. But the Societies have not convinced the natives that this is their aim.” The battles that Azariah was obliged to fight with the CMS and the SPG, the two major Anglican societies sponsoring work in his diocese, illustrate how underlying fears and prejudices weakened the cross-cultural and interracial unity of the church. . . .

Azariah resolved his controversies with western missionaries and their societies by avoiding the extremes of continued dependency or permanent separation. He chose to transcend the hurt, suspicion, and distrust engendered by these conflicts and, instead, to use the conflicts to build a new type of partnership with his western benefactors. Throughout his bishopric he maintained a remarkably cordial overall relationship with western missionary societies—who could not afford to lose his favor, just as he could not afford to lose theirs. This relationship resembled an aging marriage—with its complex mix of affection, disappointment, and frustration—more than a war between enemies. The bishop insisted on change despite personal fondness for western colleagues, and he sometimes recommended limited and short-term separations (not divorce) between mission and church so that the relationship could be rebuilt.

From In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India by Susan Billington Harper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000).

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