Saturday, May 30, 2015
English service for a more inclusive church
Church has to be inclusive in every respect. Theological differences with regard to communion and beliefs always were a part of the church. But bringing people to church and making them feel the fellowship of acceptance, love and caring is what the church stood for and has to stand for. It is not in judging and keeping away but in accepting and including that the church stands apart from an organization or group. In Acts 8:26-38 Philip talks to the Ethiopian eunuch and they get into the water as a sign of their acceptance of Jesus.
The Jacobite church like many other churches has been stuck in the non-availability of a neutral space where any Jacobite Christian can come and pray. The net neutrality debate which was going on a month ago was about how the internet cannot be controlled and made into a place for a few but must be left free for people to come to and get what they want. Making churches language specific limit the coming in of our very own community members as they don’t understand what is going on but have no choice on offer before them. The liturgy as such used is very meaningful but unfortunately no one can understand very liturgical Malayalam. This questions whether the church can offer a platform of neutrality which the church should stand for and which will offer meaning to the church members. We are after all called to take care of everyone. Acts 20:28 says “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
It is an uncontested yet usually undisclosed secret that many members, young and old are keeping away from church because they do not understand the prayers. It should also be noted that there are people who flock to church to keep in touch with a culture that is highly being diluted both inside and outside Kerala. In this context it should be noted that making the liturgy used understandable and comprehensible is of utmost importance as otherwise the prayers will not make any effect on the congregation in a particular place. 1 Corinthians 12:14 speaks “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” Thus languages that are used and understood by people should replace one language whenever the need is felt. This is not to undermine a language but to say that the belief, faith and theology of the church are beyond any one language.
English could be one such language which can be used. At the same time other South Indian and North Indian languages should also be tried whenever it is needed and meaningful for the congregation. This will in essence be location specific and cannot be dictated by anyone. In South India, English becomes one language which can be used for a congregation which is multi lingual. English by default is a unifying language in India because as of yet we do not have a language accepted by people as national. Hence English services should be encouraged and started in cities and towns and this should be made a space where people can come to be part of a Syrian Orthodox service. Such spaces are simply not available at the moment. It is very interesting to note what Dalit ideologue Kancha Ilaiah says while discussing Dalit empowerment in India “My way of equality is English education. Even if 10% of our children got English education, the intellectual field would have changed. This country would have changed.” Upward mobility of people coming to church should be taken into consideration while doing worship services.
In those lines the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church under the leadership of its bishop H.G. Osthatheos Mor Pathros is starting an English congregation named the St. John’s English Chapel. Unlike how it was seen many decades ago, this is not anymore an experiment but a need of the hour. It is to bring people who are not going to church due to various reasons, back to church. It is also to offer other people who are already going to a church, the option of going to a church where they can understand completely what is going on. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church definitely affirms mystery as an integral part of its worship. But that does not mean that the worship in its entirety should not be understood by those attending it! It means that there are parts of the communion which go beyond human understanding.
The call for all to assemble and come to church is beautifully put in the song after the Nicene creed in the worship service.
Mercy here is full and free,
Come, beloved, come and see,
Give the kiss of peace divine,
Hearts sincere in love combine.
The success of such a worship service depends on several factors; the actual interest of the people being the last of the lot. It depends rather on how the service is done. Knowing every language is a skill and it should be studied to an extend where it can be used so that people who listen to it understand what it is. “It sounds like Greek to me” is a usage that one has not understood a word which was used because it was either not communicated properly or it did not make any meaning to the person who heard it. Similarly using a language is a skill which has to be developed in all seriousness and with great effort. Secondly, the success of such a service also depends on whether people know about it and whether those conducting it have made an honest effort to inform people of its existence. Clubbed along with this are the timings of such a service, continuity, team work and location.
Considering all such things one also faces the question “Are we ready?” When will we be ready? Another decade or two, five years? Maybe then it will be of no consequence anymore. A 40 odd year old man I talked to told me that he goes to one of the new churches offering a host of services. I asked him whether he was happy? He said that he actually was not. He did not agree with what was being preached but the only reason he continued to go there was that he understood to a great extend what the preacher was saying even though he did not agree with it. Will such people flock back to a congregation like this? Only time will tell. The only thing we can gauge now is the feelings of children, teenagers, youth and even those hovering around their half century of life. This then is not an effort to count numbers and then say this is a success but an effort in the right direction understanding the needs of people.
The church has always stood for the outcasts and the discriminated. The church is by itself struggling still with the issue of casteism but one should also realize that there has been a more internal problem of seeing as outcasts people from within as well. There are several inter caste marriages happening in the church. The couple starts living as one but then realize that there is nothing on offer for them from the church because one of them and sometimes both of them cannot understand the language used for service. A service such as this is meant also for such couples who have found themselves at the cross roads, having to figure out for themselves how they have to continue as Christians and as a Christian family.
Only time will tell whether a decision is right or wrong. But some decisions can never go wrong. They will only be perceived as wrong. I have a strong feeling that this decision by the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church, which has received consent from the Holy Episcopal Synod in India, will fall in the latter category.
Poster design courtesy: Dn. Vineeth John Abraham