by Margaret Allen
When in India in February/March 2019 I was able to do some research in the library of the United Theological College in Bangalore. This college is said to be the first ecumenical theological college in the world, being founded in 1910, in the spirit of the World Missionary conference held in Edinburgh in the same year.
The conference took stock of Protestant missionary activity and recommended co-operation between and even joint ventures to be supported by the various Protestant churches and missions. The conference was supportive of the growth of indigenous churches in the place of western directed missions, which had developed in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and encouraged the development of indigenous leadership. The foundation stone of the central administration building was laid by the American, John Mott, who had ‘initiated and chaired the [Edinburgh] conference.’[i]
The gracious buildings in a lovely garden setting are reminiscent of an American liberal arts college, perhaps a sign of the source of its finance in those days. One building is named the Azariah wing, for V.S. Azariah (1874-1945) the first Indian Anglican Bishop and an important figure in the development of the Indigenous Indian National Missionary Society. In his speech at the Edinburgh Conference he confronted the racism and paternalism of much of the missionary movement famously pointing out that :
‘The problem of race relationships is one of the most serious problems confronting the Church today’. He asked the missionaries to change their attitudes towards Indians, to be ‘not a lord and master but a brother and a friend…..We ask for love. Give us friends.’
The naming of another building after the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, echoes the post-1910 approach of more progressive Christians to build communication with Hinduism and other Indian faiths.
In our project Beyond Empire: Transnational Religious Networks and Liberal Cosmopolitanisms we are exploring the affective relationships, which developed in particularly between Indian Christians and non-Christians and Western Christians and missionaries in the period c 1890-1940s, as they worked together to advance common projects.
Around 11am each morning the arrival of the chai man on his motor-bike, draws readers and researchers to gather on the library steps to talk over chai or coffee. Along with degrees in Theology and Divinity and college offers a diploma in Women’s Studies and a Diploma in Young Men’s Christian Association Professional Secretaryship. Students come from across India with a significant proportion drawn from the North East, including from Nagaland. It seemed to me that these friendly and collegial discussions on the library steps echoed the directions, which saw the establishment of this college.
[i] Renate HOWE, A Century of Influence: The Australasian Student Christian Movement,1896-1996, p. 98.(UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009)