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Indians boost church attendance in UK

In a role reversal of sorts, Indian priests are pitching in to meet a shortage of priests in the West and also helping to boost church attendance.

india Updated: Dec 13, 2006 11:37 IST

In a role reversal of history, Indian priests are not only meeting the shortage of priests in churches in Britain, but Christian migrants from India, particularly from Kerala, are helping boost dwindling church congregations.

Western missionaries in the 19th century trekked to remote tribal areas of India and converted tribes, who are now returning the favour by moving to places such as Wales to meet a shortage of priests there.

One of the first Indian priests to arrive in Wales to preach Christianity was Rev Hmar Sangkhuma, from the Diocese of Mizoram in northeastern India. Mizoram has a majority Christian population that was initially converted by missionaries from Wales between 1840 and 1960.

Sangkhuma has been offering spiritual guidance to the local Welsh population in Maesteg, near Bridgend. Some time ago, a Methodist church in Swindon had its first Indian minister, Rev Ajay Singh.

On taking over, Singh remarked that he was surprised that the congregation was not larger. "One of my aims while here will be to increase the size of the congregation; not to just fill the church, but for them to accept god," he had said.

During the colonial era, Christian missionaries were encouraged to spread the gospel in India's tribal areas, including the northeast. Much of the work was undertaken by missionaries from Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The Mizos consider the Welsh Presbyterian Church the "mother church'.

Wrote former Home Secretary B.P. Singh in his book, "The Problem of Change: A Study of North-East India": "(The) impact of Christian missionaries on the tribal population was spectacular.

"The Nagas, Mizos and Khasis in particular have undergone profound changes as a result of the spread of Christian ideals among them. Christianity taught these tribes the value of peace, tolerance and co-existence.

"The familiarisation of these tribes with new ideals, coupled with the subsequent independence and democratisation of the polity, have taken them into the modern world, with all its strengths and dangers.

Church sources say that attendance in churches has been progressively dwindling in various parts of Britain. The 2001 census showed that fewer than one in 10 people in Wales regularly attended church or chapel that also faces a shortage of priests.

The latest to report this is the county of Staffordshire, where recent migrants from various countries, including India, are helping boost congregations.

According to reports from Stoke, Staffordshire, the Holy Trinity Church in Hartshill hosts two groups of worshippers from North Staffordshire's Malayali community, who hail from Kerala.

They meet on Sunday afternoons and evenings in the church hall. Their meetings boost church attendance. About 100 people in total attend the normal Sunday services, whereas around 80 Malayalis attend the two group sessions.

Roy Wilshaw, a churchwarden at Holy Trinity, said the new members were really making a difference to the church. He said: "It is lovely. We are in conversation with one another and we invite each other to special functions. It is good for us and good for them. It makes for a better relationship between the two communities."

Mammen Philip, 34, said the Malayali community had used the Holy Trinity church hall free of charge for the last two years. Once a month the mass is held in the Malayalam language. A priest travels from Birmingham to take the service at Holy Trinity.

Philip said: "I think most British people are not very religious. There are 150 to 200 families from Kerala in North Staffordshire and most of them here are Christians, with 90 percent being Catholic. We are all religious.

"Every week, we go to church. When we came here we wanted to follow our customs and religion and teach our children how to grow in faith."

Others boosting the church congregations in Staffordshire hail from Fiji and Poland.