India’s Anglicans ready to vote, don’t know if they can
The elections are significant because they will be the first to be held in decadesmumbai Updated: Oct 02, 2017 10:51 IST
Later this month, members of the Church of India (CNI) will hold elections to select members of their apex trust. Though the elections are just a few weeks away, it is not yet clear who will be allowed to vote.
The CNI is one of the two Indian counterparts of the Anglican Church – the other is the Church of South India. The denomination has around 160 churches in western India and though it is smaller and not as old as India’s Roman Catholic Church – the Protestant church was established by British colonialists while the Catholic church was brought earlier by the Portuguese – the CNI includes Mumbai landmarks like the St Thomas cathedral, Afghan Church (official name: St John the Evangelist Church) and Christ Church.
The church has a diverse membership, with Anglo-Indians, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Kannadigas and others. The group runs some prominent Anglo-Indian schools in Mumbai and north India. Most churches in India’s cantonments, hill stations and railway towns are managed by the congregation. These properties are now prime land. As land prices went up church land was been sold – sometimes illegally – by trusts. According to one estimate from the Christian Reform United People Association, 70% of the churches have lost land in unscrupulous deals. In Mumbai, there have been attempts to sell land around Afghan Church. The plans were foiled after it was found that the land was defence land leased to the church. The defence department refused to give permissions to sell the land.
The elections are significant because they will be the first to be held in decades. Rival groups had set up trusts – there were four at one time, including one led by a defrocked priest. The Charity Commissioner, which is the governing agency for public trusts, has dissolved the old trust and had laid down rules for fresh elections. The trust, called the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association (BDTA, will have between 10 and 20 trustees. Voters will have to register their names and after a scrutiny to weed out those not eligible to vote, candidates will be finalised.
But one question is yet to be settled: who can vote? Inarguably, all the members of the constituent churches should be able to vote. Considering that each church has a few hundred members the voters should be over 100,000, but some are sceptical whether this will happen. “We are worried that it will not be a democratically conducted election and people will not be allowed to participate,” said Cyril Dara of the Christian Reform United People Association, a group formed to prevent illegal sale of church properties. “That is the reason we have asked every member to register their names in the voters list.”
The elections are not expected to be smooth as there are disagreements on who should be allowed to vote. Church members have pointed out that the voters’ list has names of people who are dead.
Prakash Patole, the CNI’s Mumbai bishop, was not available for a comment, but P B Amolik, a former priest who led the trust that was recently dissolved, said that the voters list is limited to a few names. “The elections are not for all,” said Amolik. “Let other people register their names.”
Others are hoping that this election will bring change. Daniel Paul, who is associated with an education trust, said that there should be clear separation of religious and administrative work. “The clergy gets involved in administrative affairs (the bishop heads the BDTA) and is not concentrating on religious administration,” said Paul.
Some members want the laity – the ordinary worshippers – to play a bigger role in the management of church properties. “The laity should come forward to form trusteeship,” said Paul. “They should be having a wider knowledge of taking our age-old institutions forward,” said Paul. Church members are worried that people, disgusted with the state of affairs, are joining other denominations. “Our churches are falling empty. At one time, for instance, if we had 100 people at a service the numbers are now 30 or 40. People are moving to evangelist groups where there is focus on spirituality,” said Dara.