The Church in Bangladesh
The Oxford Mission is proud of its role in the formation of the Church of Bangladesh, which is such a tremendous force for good in its work for the spread of Christianity, and in helping its poorest countrymen through education, medical care and social welfare. The Revd. Alwyn Jones has written a brief account: somewhat compressed, he says, as I have no reference books and rely on my ageing memory.
The CMS (Church Mission Society) started work in Kushtia District with German Lutherans in the early 19th century. Work specifically for women started mid-century. In 1947 Partition cut the work in half.
In about 1897 the Bishop of Kolkata asked the Oxford Mission to take over the work of the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) in Barisal District.
In the early years of the 20th century Father Chakravarti, a Brahmin convert, started work among the Garo people at Haluaghat. (I am not sure if it was pioneering work or if he was the first Anglican.) He was supported by the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and founded the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, which died out about twenty years ago. The Sisterhood of St. Mary is still going strong (see Father Martins Letter from Haluaghat -Ed.). This work is among Garos, who have their own language, and were animists and so more receptive to the Gospel.
There was no Anglican work in the two main centres of population: Dacca (now Dhaka), the provincial capital, and Chittagong, the main port. There were churches there to serve the British.
These were all part of the Kolkata Diocese until, in 1951, two bishops were consecrated: James Blair (a member of the OM Brotherhood of the Epiphany) and Ronald Bryan, who had the brief to form two new dioceses. These were to become Dhaka, for all of East Pakistan, and Barrackpore, covering the rural part of the Kolkata diocese.
Partition was still not having at that time much of an effect on communications. Amazing though it seems, the question of Kushtia going into the Barrackpore Diocese was discussed. It was so much easier to get there than to Dhaka.
Eventually, in 1956, Bishop Blair was able to raise enough money to endow the diocese first known as East Bengal, then later as Dhaka. The thinking that had always centred on Kolkata now turned to Dhaka.
Most of the Anglicans came from uneducated people. Early in the last century the Oxford Mission established highly-subsidised boarding-schools in Barisal, which enabled those with very modest incomes to have their children educated. This resulted in what might be called the middle classes moving to Dhaka and Chittagong, and the influence of the Oxford Mission extended throughout the diocese.
In 1970, after deliberations that had started in 1929, the Church of Pakistan was formed from the joining together of various churches. There were not many from East Pakistan, but a considerable number from the United Church of North India, a union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in Rajshahi, very near the frontier. Sylhet is where the majority of Bangladeshis come from. It was not in Bengal but Assam, and had a small number of congregations established by Welsh Presbyterians in Shillong, the capital of Assam. Chittagong, though not in Assam, was in that diocese as there was a railway line running all the way there through which a lot of Assam tea was exported.
All these churches came into what after 1971 became the Church of Bangladesh, and began to send their children to the OM schools in Barisal. It is from former students that most of the church leaders and prominent laity come. Hence it has been a unifying force in building up the diocese, and its influence has not diminished.