Diane Kenaston from Churches Together in Cambridgeshire writes…
“Ecumenism and mission are opposite sides of the same coin,” says the Rev Canon Gale Richards, chair of Churches Together in Cambridgeshire (CTC). She is preparing to lead her first ecumenical trip to South India.
For the past 31 years, CTC has been linked with the Vellore Diocese in the Church of South India (CSI). This link signals an ecumenical mission beyond the county borders. In seeking unity with Christians around the world, CTC witnesses ecumenism and mission in action.
The Vellore Diocese centres around the town of Vellore in the north of Tamil Nadu. Vellore is about 3 hours west of Chennai (Madras). The diocese crosses the state boundaries of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, making it a bilingual diocese with Tamil spoken in the south and Telagu in the north.
CTC chose to partner with a CSI diocese because CSI unites four church traditions: Anglican, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian. It was a ground-breaking moment for church unity when CSI became the first uniting church in the Anglican Communion. CSI explains its 1947 union “as a gift of God to the people of India and as a visible sign of the ecclesiastical unity for the universal church.”
Last year, during CSI’s 75th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of the Vellore/Cambridgeshire link, the Rt Rev Sharma Nithiyanandam, Bishop in Vellore, visited Cambridgeshire to meet with Rev Gale and other church leaders. Together they renewed the covenant to:
- Pray regularly for one another
- Work together to strengthen our links of Christian fellowship
- Exchange ideas and learn from each other’s Christian experience
- Give mutual support and encouragement to one another
This covenant is reciprocal, a link between equal partners who together seek the fullness of unity in Jesus Christ. As the Rev Canon Fiona Brampton, Vellore Link Coordinator, explains, “The link has always been primarily about friendship, understanding and prayer.”
This friendship develops through trips like the upcoming one in January 2024. These are not traditional ‘mission trips,’ since this is not a charity link. Instead, church leaders in Cambridgeshire and Vellore listen for shared concerns. They mutually agree on priorities. Then they learn and act side by side.
Climate justice is a longstanding priority, and it has resulted in three joint Eco Conferences, a shared Lenten Carbon Fast, local ecological walks, and school projects in both Vellore and Cambridgeshire. A previous trip leader, the Rev Simon Goddard, testified: “We have heard directly from Indian farmers how they have been severely impacted by floods, droughts and the other effects of climate change – and challenged about our part in the problem, and in the solution.”
Cambridgeshire churches were motivated to act after witnessing the Vellore Diocese’s care both for God’s creation and for the people in poverty who are the greatest sufferers of climate change.
One learning from the Vellore/Cambridgeshire climate initiative is that climate change disproportionately affects women and girls in poverty. Therefore, the upcoming trip will focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. In addition to climate justice and gender justice, this trip will explore lay training, religious freedom, and interfaith relations.
Following the mutual learning on the trip, the action will begin when participants return home. There will be a day of prayer, shared Bible studies, and ongoing communication about how God is calling the covenant partners.
This is why Rev Gale refers to ecumenism and mission as opposite sides of the same coin. Churches come together, learn and pray together, and then act together. After three decades, God continues to call churches in Cambridgeshire (England), and Vellore (India) to unity and mission — two sides of the same coin.