My church adventures continue. Today I visited the Mar Thoma Church of San Francisco, in Livermore. I think I would describe the worship as evangelical in substance and Oriental in lineage: think Syriac Orthodox liturgy purged of invocation of saints and superstitions about the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, plus ‘Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross’. As the only non-Malayali present, I was conspicuously different, but it was encouraging to see how God worked in places I had never seen.
The struggle for a church like this is to keep and disciple the kuttikal (‘children’) once they have come of age and often gone off to university. Of course, almost all American churches find this difficult too, but the children of immigrants also may have trouble understanding or connecting to the liturgy in Malayalam – just as the Mar Thoma church once had trouble understanding the liturgy in Syriac. As always, language ability varies, even between siblings (usually the younger ones are less able to use their heritage languages), but the challenge is especially great for a community spread out through the whole San Francisco Bay Area, which thus is far less able than the Chinese community to offer weekend language classes.
What I was glad to see, however, was that the young adults who had grown up in this country did seem, through prior instruction, to understand the liturgy – which is more than I can say for J. I. Packer before he finally came to understand the gospel, for at first he was very cross with the Church of England for having failed to teach him substance of the faith. Not having understanding myself of the particular features of the Marthomite liturgy, neither would I have any comments on how to make it intelligible to an outsider, except through careful instruction.
One way in which this church could grow, I think, would be to make it more permanently inviting for those who are uninitiated, including pagans who want to learn about the faith. I have no doubt that the Mar Thoma church would find this a desirable outcome, but it must seem hard enough to keep together a community that is itself a community of outsiders, different from mainstream American culture and different from mainstream Indian culture. Nevertheless, it seems to me that finding ways to present the faith to non-Indians while holding the elders in high honour would in the process also make the church feel like a more fruitful home for robust growth for its younger members coming of age. This church already gives money and prays for evangelism in India, and it is only natural that it also equip its members – foreign as they may feel – to touch the lives of Americans with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is no less my hope that, to this end, the Mar Thoma Church and the still-orthodox Anglican jurisdictions (e.g. UECNA and REC) may take part in each other’s consecrations of bishops and share buildings and co-found schools to teach the people about the world and the everlasting Son of Man who rules it. It is my greater hope that, in this country, India will one day be as well known for its Christianity as it is for its Hinduism and Islam, and better known for its bold Christian witness than for its caste system, through the missionary zeal of its members for the souls of Americans and the salvation of the world. Strengthen, Lord, thy holy martyr Church, that in all its doings it may bear witness to the true light of thy holy gospel, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.