The Master of Serampore Council, the President, the Registrar, the Office bearers and members of the Senate and the Board of Theological Education, dear graduating students, sisters and brothers.
It is with deep joy and gratitude to God that I welcome you all to the “Old Seminary” founded in 1815, three years before the foundation of Serampore College. This venerable institution of the Malankara Orthodox Church was formerly called the “Cottayam College” or “Syrian College” and is now known as The Orthodox Theological Seminary. The Malankara Church had already made a synodal decision in 1809 to start two ‘Houses of Study’ for the training of priests in the north and south of Kerala. The British CMS mission of Help offered assistance. Colonel Munroe, the then British Resident, persuaded the Royal House of Travancore to provide material help.
From the very beginning, the College was the meeting place of three cultures -the Gurukula system of Indian classical education as appropriated by the Malankara Church of St Thomas tradition, the residential system of western education as practised in Ox-bridge colleges in England and the liturgical – monastic style of living and learning as practiced in the Oriental Orthodox – Syriac heritage of the Malankara Church.
This was a unique combination and a daring initiative because it brought together the Western and the Eastern traditions in one single institution. Already in the 20 centuries of history of the St Thomas tradition, a certain mode of mutual appreciation and trust had developed between the Indian ascetical – sanyasa – Vedic style of learning and the Orthodox ascetic-monastic- scriptural learning within the Gurukula system.
The young students used to live with ascetical Bishops or with Malpans (from Syriac Malphono -teacher) or recognized teachers of Scripture, Theology and Liturgy, in their households practicing the Gurukula form of education as in the Hindu tradition. The whole idea of the Seminary was rather new.
The three partners in the Seminary were probably driven by three different motivations. When the missionaries offered assistance, the Malankara Church took it with the hope that its clergy would fruitfully be exposed to modern knowledge coming from the West, while it jealously kept its Indian – Oriental patristic roots in theology and Scriptural interpretation . The Western missionaries, some of whom made enormous sacrifice for spreading modern western education in Kerala, thought that at some point they would be able to bring this whole ancient Church into their mission-fold. The Royal House of Travancore persuaded by Colonel Munro was motivated partly by its desire to show magnanimity towards its faithful, age old Nazrani population and partly by the hope that the state would get well educated civil servants from the new college with a good education and training in English language etc.
As some of you are aware, the experiment did not succeed all the way through. In some fifteen years of collaboration, conflict arose between the leaders of the ancient Indian Malankara Church and the Western missionaries. Although the early missionaries like Benjamin Bailey and some others did a commendable and selfless work for the Seminary and the Malayalam language, the new generation of younger missionaries came with the haughty colonial spirit, and looked down upon the Indian Christian tradition of the Malankara Church as superstitious, and began imposing their theology and Western world view. Naturally the Indian Church resisted as it had already the very bitter experience of the brutality of Portuguese missionaries who came here soon after the landing of Vasco da Gama in Kerala in 1498.
I trace this story not to give you any lessons in history but to point to the mode of theological education and pastoral ministry that we need to shape today in our country.
It is with great hope and joy that I look at the faces of this year’s graduating students. You are going to be ministers and leaders in various Christian Churches in India at a very critical juncture in the post- Independence history of our nation.
So I wish to share with you some reflections gathered from the experience of the Church in this part of India for many centuries and from my own limited experience as a student of theology here at this Seminary and as a pastor for the last forty five years.
First, I want to underline the essential connection between our theological studies and our pastoral ministry. As all of us know that our long studies in various aspects of scripture, theology, history and other subjects are mostly theoretical although we have some field work and practical experience during our studies. Naturally the emphasis falls on passing the exams and obtaining a degree. Some students go for higher studies beyond the B.D level partly because they are genuinely interested and partly for material motivation of higher position, salary, prestige and so on. The original vision of Serampore – by the founding fathers Carey, Marshman and Ward – combined theory and practice in an admirable way. For them, knowledge was to be at the service of the people. They did not limit it to a small circle of believers but addressed the whole society in the dissemination of knowledge. The people they served were from a culture totally different from theirs; the religious-spiritual context in which they worked was very different from their European Christian background. The languages they had to study in India were also far removed from theirs and required intensely dedicated efforts to master them. Yet they gladly took on them this entire difficult mission, and they did it for the love of Christ. Whatever later critics would say about the work of the missionaries, their colonial mindset and their condescending attitude to the Indians, no one can find fault with the Serampore trio on these counts. Their dedication was complete and the sacrifices they made were for the sake of the Gospel of Life.
The connection they established between knowledge and experience belongs to the genuine tradition of the Church. It follows that whatever theological study and research we do should ultimately be in the service of the pastoral care of our people. We have the best model in the ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord, whose teachings and acts of healing; His prayer and meditation, and finally His suffering, death and resurrection are all for the sake of this world “that God so loved”.
I know I am repeating something that is obvious to all. However, there are occasional complaints from the people in all our Churches that theological education in the Seminaries does not cater to the actual pastoral needs of the people. One remark is that certain forms of theological education simply add to the elitism of the clergy who set themselves apart from the people as a superior class. Some ordinary people plainly observe that some of the new pastors are unwilling to step down to the painful reality of the life of poor people and they do not want to soil their bright and neatly ironed cassocks. Naturally people would find fault with the institutions where these young ministers were trained and with the teachers who taught them. It is therefore important that the pastoral dimension of identifying with the people particularly the poor, the excluded and the exploited should underline the teaching faculties, the administrative structures, the spiritual formation and the curriculum of studies.
We know that Jesus called himself a shepherd, the shepherd who leaves his ninety nine sheep and goes desperately in search for the lost sheep. He was not making a quantitative estimate of his ninety nine percent assets as we sometimes do in our parish work. Some of us don’t mind the one percent which is negligible according to our financial estimates. Jesus defied that statistics; he didn’t count the number but went after the negligible and the forgotten one.
Secondly, our mother land India is probably experiencing a major change in the socio-political understanding of our nation. The secular character of our country which recognized the value of all religions and diverse spiritualities and the constitutional freedom of religion, conscience and so on, seem to be challenged by communal forces. In Kerala Christianity has never been perceived as a threat to the society by other communities down the long centuries of the Church’s existence here. The native Christians of Kerala had never experienced any persecution from other religious communities. Instead there were rather cordial relations at the social level. The first time Indian Christians began to be persecuted was in the sixteenth century when the Portuguese missionaries arrived here along with the army, armaments and arrogance. They simply wanted to convert this ancient Church to the Roman fold. For more than a hundred and fifty years they used all colonial powers of both persuasion and persecution to convert us to their faith.They succeeded in dividing the one Church and took one part of this ancient community to their camp. Since then all successive foreign occupations, both political and ecclesiastical had similar results of dividing us further and further in the name of Popes and Patriarchs. Nobody cared for the authenticity, freedom and indigenous character of the church here. When one compares this bitter experience that we received from our Christian brothers from outside of India with the generous attitude of Hindu Kings and neighboring communities here one can see the qualitative difference. The Christian community here had its many drawbacks, one should admit. It was not always conscious enough of its gospel imperatives. Yet they have developed a mode of living with our Hindu and Muslim neighbors. I hope the wise people in all these religions will continue to maintain the mutual respect, mutual sharing, genuine friendship and collaboration in our social-political life.
I think the tiny population of Christians in India of less than 2.5% is not a threat to anybody. On the contrary, Christians are supposed to be at the service of the nation out of genuine love and compassion for the people, not for quantitative growth or power -building of their churches. We are together in the Household of God and nobody can threaten to send us out from our own house.
Thirdly and finally, I wish to see a high degree of genuine friendship and collaboration develops among the Seminaries in the Serampore family in view of a Christian witness in our present context. Unhealthy competitions and institutional power-building between various Churches are against true Christian witness. Already several churches carry the stigma of association with Western capitalist churches and with political powers. We know that this stigma is not always legitimately imposed though there is an element of truth. One way for us is to return to the original Indian identity of our Christian faith. It is imperative for us to return to the authenticity of our faith in Christ Jesus and to the justice and compassion of the kingdom of God. There so much inequality and injustice in our society, particularly the centuries old suffering of Dalits, Adivasis and women and all those who socially and economically are marginalized in a globalized economy. Empowering these people is a major task on our hand. But we need to enlist the genuine collaboration of our neighbors of other faiths in carrying out this task of building a new humanity and new nation.
You, dear friends, who graduate at various academic levels, I wish you all blessings from the Triune God and pray that the Holy Spirit inspire you to discover “the length and breadth, the height and depth” of God’s love in Christ for all humanity.