In memoriam: M.M. Thomas; Paulos Mar Gregorios - Obituary
The deaths -- in India in late November and early December 1996 -- of Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios and M.M. Thomas have brought to a close the ecumenical careers of two of the most creative leaders of the World Council of Churches in the period of its early development and rapid growth 1948-68.
During more than four decades, from the formative period of the WCC until its seventh assembly (Canberra 1991), these two Indian Christians made, often in strikingly different ways, large and lasting contributions to the Council's theological and ethical thought on social issues, especially as developed in its programmes on church and society, international affairs and work with the laity. Those involved in the WCC in these years will recall with deep appreciation the stimulating witness of these two churchmen, both products of the Christian community of Kerala, India's most populous Christian state.
M.M. Thomas began his ecumenical career by the usual route in the years preceding the creation of the WCC: through his leadership in the Indian Student Christian Movement and in the World Student Christian Federation, on whose staff he served from 1946 to 195 1. He gained international recognition for his contribution to the first World Christian Youth Conference in Oslo in 1947. That same year he was invited to take part in the preparations for the consideration of social and political questions at the first WCC assembly in Amsterdam -- the only person from the third world in these preparatory discussions on "the church and the disorder of society". In December 1949 he was the drafter of a statement on "The Church in Social and Political Life" at the first meeting of the newly created East Asia Christian Conference. The study on "The Christian in the World Struggle" which he and Davis McCaughey completed for the WSCF in 1951 was the first ecumenical response to the "revolutionary changes" resulting from the worldwide political upheaval following the second world war, including the national independence movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In early December 1952 M.M. chaired a World Christian Youth Conference in Kottayam, South India, the first to be convened outside the West, a dramatic meeting in a memorable setting for the 800 Christian student and youth who participated. A few weeks later he was in Lucknow, North India, one of the leaders of a WCC-convened study conference on the church and social issues in Asia and principal drafter of its pioneering report on "The Responsible Society in East Asia in Light of the World Situation". In 1953 he joined the preparatory group on social questions for the WCC's second assembly (Evanston 1954).
Largely on the basis of the Lucknow report, Evanston recommended that the WCC should focus for the next seven years on the social and political questions facing the churches in the "developing" countries. When the newly created WCC department on church and society launched a six-year programme on "The Common Christian Responsibility towards Areas of Rapid Social Change" in 1955, M.M. was named a member of the working committee and the staff representative in Asia for this project. This was the beginning of his career as a full-time ecumenical scholar, especially on social questions in Asia, working out of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, which he and his mentor and friend Paul Devanandan had founded in Bangalore in 1953. In cooperation with the East Asia Christian Conference M.M. soon became the strategist of a vital Asian study programme on social issues. A quick and clear drafter, he produced in these years a stream of literature on Christian social witness, challenging clergy and laity in the churches of Asia to reflection and action on economic and political goals of nation-building. At the international Christian conference on "Rapid Social Change" in Greece in 1959, he and John Bennett of the USA co-chaired the section on "Christian Responsibility in Political Action", producing a report which became a guide for worldwide Christian reflection and action.
Such creative work increased M.M.'s role in the World Council of Churches: 1) in 1961 he and Egbert de Vries of the Netherlands addressed the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi on the findings of the Rapid Social Change study; 2) in 1962, as chairman of the WCC working committee on Church and Society, he guided the preparations for -- and chaired -- the world conference on "Christians in the Technical and Social Revolutions of Our Time", convened in Geneva in July 1966; 3) in 1968 he was named delegate from the Mar Thoma Church to the WCC's fourth assembly in Uppsala. There, on the recommendation of Eugene Carson Blake, the WCC's general secretary, he was chosen to chair the WCC central committee -- the first lay person and non-westerner elected to this leading position; 4) in 1975, at the end of his term as central committee moderator, he chaired the
WCC's fifth assembly in Nairobi. Swedish Church historian Alf Tergel succinctly sums up M.M. Thomas's remarkable ecumenical career: "Along with Visser 't Hooft, M.M. Thomas has had the greatest influence on the modern ecumenical movement."
After his retirement from the World Council M.M. concentrated on producing a series of twenty Bible studies in his native Malayalam, highlighting those passages which had been decisive for him in his reflection on the life and witness of the Christian in the modern world.
In May 1990 the Indian government appointed him governor of Nagaland, home of the Naga, a largely Christianized tribal people in northeast India. He had served in this capacity for just under two years when the Indian government asked for his resignation because he was encouraging the people in the development of their own views on their social and cultural future rather than acting as the pliant tool of the central government in New Delhi.
M.M. Thomas was a layman who engaged throughout his career in a search for the theological and ethical basis of a Christian understanding of and witness to the tumultuous social and political developments that followed the second world war; Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios (earlier Paul Verghese) was an ecclesiastic of one of the ancient churches of Christendom who sought to relate his own oriental Orthodox theological heritage to the demands of the ecumenical movement and to the challenge of rapid political and social change. That difference helps to explain the disagreements on social ethical issues which often divided these two Indian Christians in their respective roles within the WCC and the broader ecumenical movement.
Father Paul began his international ecumenical career in 1962 when he was appointed associate general secretary of the WCC and director of the division on ecumenical action, which grouped together all ecumenical work with the laity. After training for the priesthood, he had studied theology and philosophy in North America and Europe and was a gifted linguist and biblical scholar. He was also deeply interested in the situation of the church in Eastern Europe and in Africa, where he had served for three years as a private secretary to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. As the first Orthodox theologian on the WCC staff, he was much sought after as a leader of Bible study, especially with lay persons. His biblical studies for the section on international issues of peace and war at the 1966 Geneva conference on church and society left a deep and lasting impression on the 100 or so Christian political and economic leaders in the group.
Paul Verghese left the WCC staff in 1967 to become principal of his church's theological seminary in Kottayam. In this capacity he represented the Syrian Orthodox Church of Malabar as a delegate to the WCC's fourth assembly (Uppsala 1968) and subsequent assemblies up to Canberra 1991. Named metropolitan of New Delhi in 1974, he became a member of the WCC central and executive committees from 1975 to 1983 then was elected a WCC president from 1983 to 1991.
A forceful and often acerbic speaker, he sometimes stimulated and annoyed his audiences in about equal proportions. He was not neutral between East and West -- he was anti-West: for its racism and for its conservative political-economic influence on world social and economic development. Some mistook his concern for the church in the Soviet Union and his participation in the Prague-based (and Soviet-influenced) Christian Peace Conference as a sign of a pro-communist stance. But he joined the majority of the executive committee in voting for a statement that was sharply critical of the USSR when it invaded Afghanistan in 1980.
In these ideological and political matters Metropolitan Gregorios often differed fundamentally from M.M. Thomas, who was also an Indian nationalist critical of the West and an advocate of radical social change, but was deeply committed to the essential values of Western democracy and freedom and an opponent of all forms of totalitarianism in both East and West. The differences between these two Indian ecumenists emerged publicly in 1975-76, in their opposing responses to the "amended maintenance of internal security act" which empowered Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi to detain without trial and deny other judicial remedies to people arrested on political grounds. M.M. was one of the leaders of a strong Christian protest in this period of "national emergency", while Gregorios became a leader of a group which approved the emergency measures. He took this position not only as evidence of the loyalty of the Christian minority community to the Congress Party and to Indira Gandhi, but also because of his conviction that excessive freedom had become a hindrance to economic development and social justice in India. The WCC through both general secretary Philip Potter and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, fully supported the position of those opposing Mrs Gandhi's action, despite the fact that Gregorios was then a member of both the central and executive committees.
Despite these differences, in 1976, by action of the central committee, Gregorios was made moderator of the working committee on Church and Society and thus leader of the preparations for the world conference on "Faith, Science and the Future", convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979. With more than 400 official participants and an additional 500 press and invited guests, this was undoubtedly one of the most significant WCC-sponsored encounters of the 1970s, and the metropolitan responded to the challenge brilliantly: as chairman of the conference he captivated the assembled scientists and technologists and the MIT community by his understanding of the social ethical problems in their disciplines. Undoubtedly it was one of his greatest contributions to the life and work of the WCC and to the witness of the ecumenical movement in the contemporary world.
These two ecumenical pioneers from India were instrumental, in their varied ways, in formulating the spiritual, social and ethical perspectives of the whole twentieth-century ecumenical movement. The church in all the world is deeply in their debt.
Paul Abrecht was director of church and society for the WCC from 1949 to
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