The following article by Dr Martin Heath was published in Pilgrim, August 2012,
Martin Heath: A Wider Friendship?
The Management Committee has been looking into the future of the FCI – not crystal gazing, nor only because our membership is declining, but to see how our horizons might be broadened in the cause of the Unity to which we are committed. In this we have taken our cue from the CNI, which describes itself as ‘a United and a Uniting Church’. We believe that seeking new friendships rooted in the experience and cause of Unity is unfinished business and should be similarly on-going. No friendships – no unity!
Several of us contributed papers ahead of the May meeting of the Committee, all of which pointed up a strong consensus that we should be moving in that direction. Examples of the kinds of friendships we have in mind, include the Mar Thoma Church (a partner with the CSI and the CNI in Unity talks) the Churches of Pakistan and Bangladesh, Christian congregations among the South Asia diaspora in Britain and Ireland, and Diocesan/Regional Partnership Links such as Leicester-Tiruchirappalli and CNI-Derbyshire.
My particular contribution to the discussion was to encourage the FCI to extend the hand of friendship to the (United) Churches of Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of whose formation derives from the same shared historical and ecclesial impulses as those that led to the formation of the CSI and the CNI.
Within the FCI membership are still many who were involved in the processes that led to the formation in 1970 of the CNI, (and a few also of the CSI in 1947). Also in 1970, the Church of Pakistan came into being, followed by the Church of Bangladesh, after the war of Independence. Many in the FCI, including those of us who have served in the mission agencies of Britain and Ireland, have equally strong attachments to these newer United Churches, recognising in their life many historical and cultural affinities with India. Although these newer Churches have their life within Islamic Republics, the caste psyche is everywhere, compounded by the minority status of Christians and the militancy of Islam. Poverty and exclusion from the mainstream of life are universal.
These and other factors also make it difficult for members of the Churches of South Asia to meet one another regionally. Visas are obtained with difficulty, and applications sometimes refused so that it is usually only outside South Asia that such encounters can happen. An extended FCI, - perhaps to be known as Friends of the Church in South Asia - could play a modest but significant role in brokering meetings between Church leaders and members in Britain and Ireland.
Apart from the significant numbers of Christians of Pakistan and Bangladesh origin living in Britain there are a number of former missionaries and others with service to, and experience of, those countries but who lack the fellowship and networking that an extended FCI could offer.
We on the Management Committee are very mindful of the difficulties inherent in well-established organisations moving in new directions. At the same time we do want to commend, in principle, our view that the time has come for us to look ahead to a wider friendship, in which the focus is more overtly on issues common to the life and mission of all the United Churches of South Asia and as an affirmation of our continuing commitment to Unity. There will be an opportunity at the Annual General Meeting in October for members to comment on these issues and, specifically, to vote on a proposal that the Committee should begin to explore ways of taking these matters forward and assessing their viability.