Shemil Mathew reports and reflects on the celebration of 200 years since CMS missionaries first arrived in Kerala
I was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Kerala boasts a long Christian heritage as it is believed that St Thomas brought the gospel there in the first century CE. My family traces its origins to one of the people converted through the work of St Thomas.
In its early years, the church in what is now Kerala developed its own liturgy and had some connections to the Eastern Orthodox churches in the Near East. In the early colonial age, as requested by the governor general of the British East India Company, the Rev Thomas Norton became the first CMS missionary to south India in 1816. His aim was to help the Indian church in its mission and training of clergy.
In later years, the wide theological and ideological gap between the Anglican and Eastern churches made them arrive at a decision to part ways. My greatgrandfather decided to join the missionary/Anglican church.
Thomas Norton and the CMS missionaries who came after him inaugurated both an evangelistic and social revival in Kerala. They worked to eradicate the slave trade, worked against the oppressive caste system and started schools, colleges and hospitals. The current diocese of Madhya Kerala is a direct descendant of CMS activity and still continues its work through more than 400 schools, many institutions of higher education and hospitals, most of them still known as CMS institutions. This social transformation through the work of western missionaries was so radical that the 1998 economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen called it the “Kerala model”. When the bicentenary of the CMS missionaries' arrival was celebrated last year, the current chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, said their approach to the inclusion of marginalised people had brought the idea of equality into mainstream thinking.
Those first missionaries included Joseph Fenn, Henry Baker and the now legendary Rev Benjamin Bailey, who set up the state’s first printing press in 1821. He not only created the first typescript for the Malayalam language but translated the Bible into Malayalam.
Bailey also created the first English–Malayalam dictionary and was the first principal of the CMS College of higher education at Kottayam, where my father also taught. He became a senior professor there, having had the joy and privilege to be educated in CMS institutions from kindergarten to university level.
A family calling
My parents are members of the Madhya Kerala diocese and in my childhood they encouraged me to consider a calling to be a priest and possibly work as a missionary. In my teenage years I took it as my own vocation and thought that I would be a missionary from Kerala to possibly the northern part of India. But then I was introduced to the idea of doing a gap year in the UK by one my tutors at CMS College in Kottayam. At first I was not sure about this as I thought that I was going to be a missionary in India, not in a Christian country like the UK. In the same week Barry Morgan, until recently the archbishop of Wales, came to visit CMS College and spoke about the decline of Christianity in the UK. He concluded his speech by saying, “We need missionaries to the UK.”
Mission comes full circle
I came over in 2001 and worked as a youth and children’s worker in a suburban church in Manchester. After completing my theology degree from Redcliffe Bible College I worked in the CMS office, where I met Becky, who was at the time a CMS mission partner in Sri Lanka. Once we were married we moved to Sri Lanka as CMS mission partners. During a year of maternity and study leave in the UK, we were convinced that although we would like to go back to work in Asia, at least for now God is calling us to be missionaries in the UK.
Now Becky is working as a priest in Oxford diocese and I have been recently appointed as the Anglican chaplain to Oxford Brookes University. I am still very much part of the CMS community by being a selector of new mission partners and part of the Asia forum.
It was as a member of that forum and as a missionary from Kerala to the UK, that I was invited to an extraordinary event to mark the bicentenary of Thomas Norton’s arrival in Kerala.
Tens of thousands gather
The diocese of Madhya Kerala had organised a four-year long programme of celebrations. All members of the diocese were invited to contribute a month’s income to various projects which included 120 homes for homeless people, a palliative care hospital for the poor, a microfinancing project and many small projects focusing on creation care.
The culmination was a public meeting and rally through the town of Kottayam on 12 November 2016. Also representing CMS were Raj Patel, regional manager for Asia and Stephen Edison of Asia-CMS.
The conference was on a giant scale – over 50,000 people (some estimate 100,000) rallied around the city and gathered together at a sports ground. The Rt Rev Thomas K Oommen, bishop of Madhya Kerala diocese and moderator of the Church of South India, welcomed and chaired the conference.
John Holbrook (Bishop of Brixworth) represented the Church of England and read a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury. All 24 bishops of the Church of South India, the moderator and representatives of the Church of North India, Church of Bangladesh and bishops from other denominations were present. The meeting was inaugurated by the chief minister of Kerala.
Bishop John congratulated the church in South India for not only keeping the missionary zeal but also continuing to be a transformative force and a source of God’s love in the community.
New wave of mission
Bishop Thomas promised, in the spirit of the early missionaries, that “Our mission now is to initiate a ‘New Exodus’ – to liberate our land from the clutches of slavery which is expressed in new forms.”
On the following Sunday, at the morning service in the cathedral, Bishop John and Bishop Thomas together dedicated more than 200 lay missionaries to work in the diocese.
The conference was a powerful reminder for me that although my work in the UK may seem small and insignificant, I am part of something big. It is encouraging to see how the seeds that were sown by early missionaries have produced a harvest so plentiful that the Indian church, for some decades now, has been playing its part in world mission and is drawing on its own heritage and momentum in sharing the love of Christ with the wider world.
The Call in Action: PRAY
- Pray for Shemil and Becky as they put their calls into action in Oxford
- Pray for the 200 new lay missionaries commissioned during the Kerala celebrations