Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has led celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the Church of North India, which was formed by six Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, in 1970.
At the end of a three-hour Oct. 15 thanksgiving service at Nagpur in central India, Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, lit a candle symbolizing the re-dedication of the CNI to its "uniting" mission.
Holding lighted candles in their hands, bishops, clergy and lay people repeated a solemn pledge of rededication in the presence of local and international delegates. The six uniting churches in 1970 represented Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Congregational, Disciples, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions.
As he spoke in a sermon about the search for unity, Williams observed, "As we stop listening to one another, we stop listening to Christ. And whether this happens in the name of nationality or tradition or pride of achievement or purity of teaching, the effect is the same tragedy."
The Anglican leader, on a Oct. 9-24 visit to India, said, "When the church here in India woke up to the fact that divisions in the Christian community were in the eyes of many a major argument against the credibility of the Christian faith itself, it was the voice of Christ that the church heard, a voice that for a moment sounded more clearly than the voices of human tradition in this or that denomination."
The CNI brought together many of the Protestant missions and churches spread across India except in four southern states that had been united in 1947 as the Church of South India.
The churches of North India and South India belong to the Anglican Communion, as well as other global Christian groupings such as the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
The visit by Williams comes as a time of tension in the worldwide Anglican Communion after the 2003 consecration by the U.S.-based Episcopal Church of a homosexual bishop who has a male partner. The Episcopal Church has since consecrated as a bishop an openly lesbian priest, who has lived with a female partner for 22 years.
Speaking on Oct. 14 at the Nagpur headquarters of the National Council of Churches in India, Williams said the actions of the Episcopal Church had "caused enormous division and anguish" in the Anglican family. Many Anglican leaders in the global South have strongly condemned the actions of the Episcopal Church.
"What I said a few weeks ago was that I have no problem with gay priests or bishops because of their orientation," said Williams, referring to a newspaper interview in Britain. "They should not be hated or despised simply because of sexual orientation. But the problem comes when they decide to act."
Before the 40th anniversary service began, Bishop Purely Lyngdoh, the CNI's moderator, rededicated a unity monument erected to commemorate the union.
"While we celebrate our common unity that is expressed in our common worship and in our common mission towards working among the marginalized and dispossessed, we also recognize that being a united and uniting church implies that we continue to name the sin of disunity among us even today," stated CNI General Secretary Alwan Masih reading out a unity declaration.