A mass procession and gathering of bishops, a public meeting filling out a sports stadium, and a presentation featuring the surviving grandchildren of the original pioneering missionaries, will form the centrepiece of bicentenary celebrations taking place to mark the arrival of the first Church Mission Society missionaries in Kerala State, southern India. Organised by the Church of South India [CSI] the anniversary celebrations will culminate in a mass event on 12 November at the Nehru stadium in Kottayam, which organisers expect over 50,000 people to attend.
The seeds of CMS’s presence in India were sown in the 19th century when Thomas Norton became the first CMS missionary to come to Alleppey (now officially called Alappuzha) in Kerala some 200 years ago, and began to share the message of Christ. Following Norton, many other CMS people came as missionaries to Kerala such as Bishop Speechly, Henry Baker and Benjamin Bailey. They identified the need for a formal education for all, including women, and this realisation resulted in the foundation of institutions such as CMS College, CMS Press and Industrial School and CMS LP Schools.
Throughout the celebrations organisers have sought to continue the vision of the original missionaries who recognised the importance of education and economic development to secure the future of the region. Therefore, the bicentenary celebrations have incorporated a number of community development and educational programmes, including one project to build new homes to house the homeless, another to provide scholarships to poor students, and others aimed at agriculture, rural areas and church planting. A memorial for the Rev Thomas Norton, bicentenary stamp and a book that elaborates the work of missionaries will also be released as part of the celebrations.
Earlier in the year, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, visited CMS College in Kerala, the oldest college in India, and laid the foundation stone of the bicentenary block. He said, “CMS college is a pioneer of modern education in Kerala. It has been the source of strong currents of knowledge and critical inquiry that have moulded the scholastic and socio-cultural landscape of Kerala and propelled the State to the forefront of social development.”
The events in Kerala will draw representatives of the Church from all over the world including John Holbrook, the Bishop of Brixworth, Raj Patel, Church Mission Society’s regional manager for Asia and Shemil Mathew, a member of CMS's Asia Forum.
Raj visited Christ Church in Allepey on Sunday just prior to the celebrations; it is where CMS's work began two centuries ago. “As I prayed and reflected with the current priest, Rev Sumod Cherian, we acknowledged God's hand in a new and needed way; that of mission partnership from India to UK. This is illustrated by the CMS representatives at the celebrations: myself, a British Indian, and Rev Shemil, who is a person in mission in the UK from the Church of South India.”
Speaking ahead of the event Philip Mounstephen, executive leader of Church Mission Society, said: “Countless men and women of God have watered and cared for the seed that CMS missionary, Thomas Norton, planted 200 years ago. Today, the continuing presence of the Church in Kerala, and the socio-economic programmes in place, are testament to their vision, faith and tenacity.”