Rising to the Challenge of a Liberal Faith

By H.H. Mohrmen

The Unitarian Union or ‘Ka Senglang ki Nongmane Wei Blei’ as it is known in Khasi is celebrating its 130th anniversary on the September 18, but the occasion also raises questions whether the liberal church has lived up to its values and principles. The first church in the region was started on this day in the year 1887 and simultaneously a school was started which was aptly named Unitarian free school because it does not teach Catechism nor did it have any Bible class or impart any religious teachings to its students with an objective to convert them to their fold.

In one of the church’s celebration, the chief guest on the occasion the then Deputy Chief Minister of Meghalaya BM Lanong raised a pertinent question as to why in spite of more than hundred years of existence, the growth of the church in terms of numbers is very small. The growth of this church which has ‘respect for other religions’ as one of its principles is numerically small when compared with others because unlike other churches, it does not proselytise. The reason is as G.N. Marshal stated in his book. Here is a church that does not convert but merely receives those who come to its door seeking acceptance.  

Underpinning its stance on the principle of respecting individual faith, the church not only encourages mixed marriages between its members and their spouses who wish to retain their religious affiliation prior to the wedlock, but its ministers also officiate at many such marriages across the Khasi Jaintia hills. The church does not excommunicate any of its members for marrying a partner who does not belong to the same religion and it does force its members to forcefully convert their spouse to their own church. Therefore one will find that there are several inter-denominational or inter-religious marriages within the church.

Some people perceive being liberal and tolerant towards other religions as weakness. They assume that this happens because the church does not have firm principles and hence its members too lack commitment. But the church considers it as its strength and encourages its members to look for wisdom from different religions to helps them have an enriching life and also to use Holy Scriptures of different world religions to enhance their worship experiences and make life more meaningful.

But irrespective of its numbers, the church which has ‘deeds not creeds’ as another of its principles, focuses more on improving a person’s  life and in reaching out to others who need their help and support and see it as their main obligation in life. They also consider speaking out and fighting for what they think is right, against all odds as another of their duty. Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri the founder of the church in the Khasi Jaintia Hills and in Karbi Anglong during his time initiated a move against the selling of illicit liquor when he was appointed the Dewan of Hima Khyriem in the late eighteen hundreds.

Unitarian church is perhaps the first in the history of the churches in Meghalaya to ordain a woman as a pastor who after her training at Meadeville Lombard Theological School, Chicago was appointed as a minister in the Union. Of course, before Rev Darihun Khriam, the Union already had Rev Annie Margaret Barr who was then the official representative of the British Unitarian working in the region, but Kong Barr saw herself as an educationist and a social worker than a missionary. Khriam is therefore the first native woman to break the glass ceiling and become the first ordained minister but if gender equality is what we are looking for, Unitarian church is where women are treated at par with men.  

Not only can women be ministers in the church but they can also be elected as members of the church committees, the highest decision making body in the congregation. The term used for the members of this committee is also gender sensitive and rather than calling them Rangbah Balang, they are often called ‘dkhot ka komiti balang’ which is more gender inclusive. Even at the highest levels of ‘ka Senglang ki nongmane wei Blei’ which is the union of the Unitarian churches in the region, women have the same rights as their male counterparts to be the members of the board and they are called ki dkhot ka board or board members.  

But the Unitarian church in the Khasi – Jaintia Hills and Karbi Anglong is yet to make public its stance with regard to the contemporary LGBT issue. Benjamin Lyngdoh’s article which appeared in The Shillong Times a few weeks back asked a very important question, ‘What will the church do when gay or lesbian couples approach the church to sanctify their bond into wedlock.’ 

It may be mentioned that before Benjamin’s article, this column had in 2009 carried an article on the issue of LGBT rights titled ‘Standing on the side of love’. I have had my fair share of misconception about lesbians and gays when I was introduced to the issue in 1989-90 in England, and like any other person when first introduced to the subject, my initial reaction was, ‘This is a western problem’, and ‘We don’t have such people in the region’. But when my friends suggested that I go back home and look carefully then I realized that it is only natural to have members in the community with different sexual orientation.

It may also be mentioned that the Unitarian churches in both England and USA were and are still in the forefront of fighting for the rights of the LGBT community and the Unitarian churches in England were the first to marry gay and lesbian couples in their churches, when it was legalised recently. But surprisingly, the church here is maintaining a mute silence on the issue. When I asked the President of the Union Rev D P Pariat about the church official’s stance on the issue of LGBT, his response was ‘that we believe that we are children of God.’ 

The other principle of the church is dignity of each and every person, therefore it is duty bound for the church to fight for the rights of individuals and his or her freedom of expression. The question then is, why is the church shying away from its responsibility? Unitarians also believe Jesus to be one of the greatest teachers and also accept as true that if his teaching is summed up in one word it would be ‘Love.’ Love the Lord your God and love your neighbours as you love yourself, said he and Rev David Edward Lapasam (the first native Unitarian to be ordained a minister in the early 1900) in one of his hymn describes Unitarian church as, ‘Ka Niam ieit i’u Blei, ieit i’u briew’ (A religion that loves God and loves man) St. Paul himself illustrated the significance of love when he says ‘now abide in faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love’ (I Corinthians 13:13). ‘Love bears all things, love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never fails’ (I Corinthian 13:7-8).  

The Unitarian church which also proclaims – ‘love is the gospel of this church’ already has a strong foothold to support the LGBT community in the state and after the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on privacy, there is no  legal hurdle for the church to reach out to the community and support them in their fight for their rights. A liberal church which is not bound by dogma(s) or any Holy Scripture is free to listen to the dictate of one’s conscience and support those who are neglected and marginalised.  

Speaking about the role of the church, Theodore Parker a Unitarian in the last century said :‘Let us have a church that dares imitate the heroism of Jesus, seek inspiration as he sought it, judge the past as he; act on the present like him; pray as he prayed; work as he wrought; live as he lived. Let our doctrines and our forms fit the soul, as the limbs fit the body-growing out of it, growing with it. Let us have a church for the whole man: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; and for the soul, that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in God, which, like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.’  

A liberal church is therefore called to rise up to the challenges of the contemporary society and address the issues with a clear conscience as one is given to understand it and with great love. 

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