Colonial times and the gospel of Christ.

Gilchrist (Gilli) McLaren,
All Saints Anglican Church,
Mission, B.C. V2V 1J7. Canada

Acknowledgement: This writing is based on memories of many conversations with fellow worshippers, records and journals of both St. John's Church , Kolkata, and St. Paul 's Cathedral, Kolkata. I also benefited from a small book, titled Bishop Sahib: A life of Reginald Heber by Derrick Hughes. (ISBN 1 85093 043 0 – 1986) I picked up this book from a road side stall on a visit to Hay-on-Wye, Wales the world capital of used books.

* * * * *

Colonial times were a fascinating era in the history of our world, when a people with no particular merit, set out to explore other lands and exploit the wealth of other people for their personal gain and profit, taking advantage of superior technology and deadly weapons. But then there were others, magnificent souls, not ‘takers' but, but willing to give their all, in their zeal to take the gospel of Christ to the ends of the world, even to the end of their lives. And they lie buried in foreign lands, often forgotten, some with not even a cross to mark their graves. They committed their lives in full measure, without counting the cost. The pages of history are filled with the stories of these remarkable men and women, who heard His call, and obeyed, saying nothing except “Here I am.” I would like to tell you the story of one such man, and in the process also give you a glimpse of colonial India , the land of my birth.

St. John's Church

St. John's Church, Calcutta – The Old Cathedral.

We worshipped at St. John's Church , Kolkata in the 1970s; a church rich in character and history. Warren Hastings the first Governor General of East India Company (1774 -1785) wished to build a proper Church, where British expatriates could worship in the tradition of the Church of England. He headed the building committee, and the Church, patterned after St Martin's in the Field was among the first public buildings erected by the East India Company after Calcutta ( now called Kolkata) became the effective capital of British India. The church was financed by British subjects, ‘soliciting' funds from local businesses and lotteries. The land was given by Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur, and Warren Hastings laid the foundation with grand Masonic ritual and ceremony on April 06, 1784.

St. John's Church was consecrated as the cathedral church of Calcutta on the 24 th of June, 1787 by a special commission of John Moore, Archbishop of Canterbury (1783 -1805). Archbishop Runcie (1980 -1991) acknowledged his predecessor of 200 years ago, when he sent his blessings on the 200 th anniversary celebrations of the Church in 1987. Incidentally Archbishop Runcie during his visit to India in 1986 worshiped at this Church, when the writer also had the privilege of meeting him.


The Altar Must Be In The East

Liturgy is structured to enable a people to worship God in Jesus Christ, and through the ages has always been reformed and reformatted in response to evolving theological perspectives. St John's Church was laid out east to west, with the altar in the west directly under the spire. This was cause for great consternation amongst the ‘wise men' of the Vestry Committee—in those days women could not be part of the Vestry—because the altar, they felt should be in the east from whence comes light and wisdom—remember ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are…' The ‘wise men' of the vestry came up with an expedient solution: change the lay out, brick up the entrance in the east, move the altar from the west to east, and make a new entrance in the west. They could not do anything about the Church spire, so we have the grotesque architectural anomaly, perhaps the only one in the world, of the entrance to the Church now located directly under the spire. Bishop Reginald Heber (1783 -1826) was the second bishop of Kolkata. His first impressions of St. John's church were: ‘the cathedral was a very pretty building, all but the spire, which is short and clumsy. The whole composition indeed is full of architectural blunders, but still it is in other respects, handsome.'

Bishop Heber –A Memorial

Bishops Heber died in India just 43 years old. The news of his death reached England overland four months later, and shocked and grieved his many admirers. His friends at Oxford, described him as ‘ a man distinguished in this university by his genius and learning, virtuous and amiable in private life, thoroughly devoted to the great cause in which his life was lost.' They at once opened a fund, and commissioned Sir Francis Chantery, a leading artist and sculptor, to carve a statue in marble of the late Bishop to perpetuate his memory. He produced a marvellous work of art, a colossal figure of Bishop Heber on a high pedestal, kneeling with his right hand on his heart and his left holding the Bible – in absolute obedience to the Lord's command to preach the gospel. His friends designated that this statue may be placed inside the cathedral Church of St. John .

Unfortunately when the marble statue arrived, the ‘wise men' of the Vestry discovered much to their embarrassment that the new entrance to the Church was too small to allow ingress to the statute.

St Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta

In the meanwhile, with the growing population in the city, it was decided to construct a new larger Cathedral in Gothic architectural style. The corner stone of the new cathedral, named St Paul 's (now a major tourist landmark in Kolkata) was laid in 1839, and the building was completed in 1847. It is the seat of the Diocese of Kolkata.

It was agreed that Bishop Heber's statue will be placed inside the new cathedral although that was not the intent of his friends who had arranged it. Exile is a state when one is in a place that is not your home; and that is where the statue has found a home; in exile in the new cathedral.

Continued...next page