24 June, 2004
Today, 24 June, we keep as the birth of John the Baptist to whom many churches in this country are dedicated. Some of you will know of the Clewer Sisters, based just outside Windsor, whose patron he is. They worked in Calcutta for many years: Mother Susila attended a school they ran and was greatly influenced by them. She even considered joining them, but we can be thankful God directed her elsewhere. There is a wonderful story, which I think I got from Sister Constance, of two Sisters marooned on a railway station in the middle of nowhere. The Station Master demanded to know who they were, to which they replied with great dignity, "We are Sisters of St. John the Baptist". He retorted, "That's a lie for a start!" Alas, the story ends there.
Bishop Bill is wearing white, which is the correct liturgical colour for the day, and I am wearing a red stole because I became a presbyter of the Church of North India in 1970: but it also reminds us that the Baptist was martyred, the commemoration of which is 29 August. It is as well to remember that three Brothers of the Epiphany were murdered. Two of them, Alan Macbeth and Lionel Rigby, were close friends of mine. Lionel was a schoolboy from Calcutta staying at Barisal when the first tragedy took place. After training and ordination in England, when he returned to join the Brotherhood many years later he knew it was not going to be a Sunday School picnic.
We are meeting in Winchester for the first time, and there is a little local history. From the l830s there was a religious revival centred on Oxford, and three great figures were John Newman, Edward Pusey and John Keble. The latter was Vicar of Hursley, just five miles along the Romsey road from here. Keble College, Oxford was founded in his memory, and Fathers Blair, Carleton and Macbeth studied there.
Every time we meet to break the bread and share the cup we celebrate the great acts of God in creating the world, sending his Son to be born as one of us, to live, die, rise again and send forth the Holy Spirit. Our festivals are times when, rejoicing in all that God does, we look backwards as well as forwards to celebrate in particular all that has been accomplished through the Oxford Mission, and to pray that blessings may continue on all that is undertaken. We used to have two festivals a year, one at Epiphany and the other in the summer, when always there would be somebody back on leave to talk about the work. The Epiphany festivals stopped ten years ago, and latterly in the summer we have had people to speak who have served for a short time at one of the places of work, or paid a visit there.
This year we can look back 125 years to that historic meeting in Professor (later Bishop) King's rooms at Christ Church, Oxford as a result of which four men set sail in 1880. So much has been accomplished. On the material side there is a vast number of buildings: churches, schools and hospitals. There is the tremendous influence that the lives of the Brothers and Sisters have had on so many, reaching out beyond the Christian community. When I was in Kolkata I used to visit the Medical College Hospital, and each week I talked to a well-educated man with very good English in the Eye Ward: he could not see me. One week he elected to speak in Bengali, and asked from where I came. I replied, "The Oxford Mission". He then said, "Apnake abar namashkar korbo" (Again I will pay you my respects). On another occasion I remember talking about Father Brown, the Superior at the Mission for many years in the early part of the last century. When he died in the early 1930s, the Calcutta City Council, a rather anti- British body, suspended its session as a mark of respect.
In 2002 we had a Festival to commemorate the centenary of the Sisterhood: it was rather poorly attended, and the fact that I was billed to preach may have had something to do with it! We thought then of the Festival in 1980 for the centenary of the Brotherhood, which was a very grand affair. At that time it seemed that the Brotherhood would carry on in both Kolkata and Bangladesh, with men of the country. We all know the sad story of how the Brotherhood in Kolkata came to an end, and two years ago in Bangladesh there was only one professed Father and a lay Novice. The relationship with the Diocese was not good, and the future uncertain.
In 1980 perhaps the old men were rather busy celebrating their 100 years, for I remember no mention of the fact that since 1970 the Christa Sevika Sangha (literally Christ's Servants' Society) had been living out their life of witness and worship in Bangladesh under the leadership of Mother Susila. Through their visits to this country they have made a great impression. Over the years I have paid three visits to Jobarpar, that remote centre of their main work, and have been privileged to celebrate the Eucharist in Bengali. However you do not need to know the language to appreciate the quality of their worship, as those who have made the effort to get there can testify.
Since our 2002 Festival there have been several happenings in which we can rejoice. First, the death of Sister Rosamund on the Epiphany last year. The call to rest of someone well past fourscore years after a life faithfully following her vocation is a cause for great thanksgiving, although of course tinged with sadness. Then a year ago almost to the day we had Sister Florence's hundredth birthday, and despite the heat I was so very glad to be there. It was a most wonderful occasion, and there was a great deal of very good publicity, starting from the Secretary of the local Communist Party upwards. This was due in no small measure to Arijeet Roy's infinite energy and boundless enthusiasm. It is very good that he is here, and he is speaking this afternoon. You might fall asleep if I did, but you will not do so while he speaks! Then just after Easter we had the death of Sister Florence, which brought to a triumphant conclusion the work, lasting just over 100 years, of the Sisters overseas.
In 2002 we were apprehensive about the future of the Brotherhood, but within a year there has been a great change. It has been reconstituted as St. Paul's Brotherhood: in Bengali, Sadhu Pauler Bhratri-Somaj. Brother Martin has made his first Profession, and had been ordained Deacon by the time I visited them a year ago. We had talks about their new Constitution, and it was clear that they had incorporated the very best traditions of the Brotherhood of the Epiphany. After Sext on that Sunday the faithful departed were commemorated, and the names of the Brothers were read out with Christian names and surnames, then the Sisters with just the Community name. I knew very many of them. The list ended "ebong Rosamund" (and Rosamund). Now we rejoice that it is ending with "ebong Florence".
The Christa Sevika Sangha was founded on the Conversion of St. Paul in 1970, and 25 January is their special day. We keep the Martyrdom of St. Paul with that of St. Perer on 29 June. The Church of Bangladesh remembers the Martyrdom of St. Paul on 30 June, which is the special day for St. Paul's Brotherhood, so let us try to remember them next Wednesday.
We have much for which to give thanks and to celebrate and to continue our prayers for whatever the future may hold. So let us end with the Collect of the Epiphany: "0 God, Who by the leading of a star wonderfully manifested your only begotten Son to the Gentiles: mercifully grant that we who know you now by faith, may after this life have the vision of your glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen".