• Jules Gomes

Church of India files legal challenge against Archbishop Justin Welby


The Church of India has served the Archbishop of Canterbury with a legal notice accusing him of “misquoting facts and making fictitious statements.”

It further asks Archbishop Justin Welby to “refrain from making any illegal comments” or promoting “felonious causes during his present visit” to six cities “in India and thereafter.”

The notice issued on behalf of the Most Reverend John Augustine, Bishop of Lucknow and Metropolitan of the Church of India (CIPBC) issued on Sunday, charges Welby with making a “factually incorrect declaration” at the Primates’ meeting in 2018 by declaring the Church of South India (CSI) and Church of North India (CNI) to be the “only legitimate successors of the Church of England in India.”

The archbishop “failed to consider the fact that the communion between the Church of England and the Church of England in India ceased to exist back in 1927 itself, and therefore, there can be no successors to the same,” the notice asserts.

Welby has become embroiled in colonial and post-colonial church politics in India.

The notice cites the Indian Church Measure 1927 and the Indian Church Act 1927 which brought about the legal dissolution of the union between the Church of England and the Church of England in India and notes that the latter was succeeded by the “Indian Church commonly known as Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon” (CIPBC).

In 1970, six churches including Brethren, Baptists, Methodists and “deflected members belonging to the CIPBC” united into the Church of North India (CNI) and “fraudulently took over the control of the churches belonging to CIPBC from 1970-1971, by manipulating the documents concerned,” the notice alleges.

“Resorting to conspiracy and forged documents,” the CNI replaced the Metropolitan of the Church of India with the Bishop of Calcutta of the Church of North India, the notice maintains. Welby regards the CNI and CSI as the legitimate successors of the Church of England.

In 2018, flanked by the Moderators of the Churches of South and North India, Welby emphatically stated that there were “no other successors to the Church of England in India.”

In a video recording, Welby announced: “I want to say something very important about the status of these two provinces. Both provinces were formed in the 20th century as the successors to the Church of England in India.”

“These two churches took on the rights, the properties, and the obligations of the Church of England in India and no one else can make any claim to them. They are the legitimate successors,” he categorically declared.

The statement has resulted in Welby getting himself embroiled in colonial and post-colonial politics in India, involving matters of church property, legacy, power politics, financial corruption and court cases over legitimate succession, that have bedevilled the legacy of the Church of England for over half a century.

The Rev’d Dr Israel Selvanayagam, former Principal of the United College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham, slammed Welby’s statements as laying himself open to the charge of being “lost in a latter-day neo-colonial embrace.”

Dr Muthuraj called the archbishop’s statements “an exaggeration and not true to reality.”

Writing in the Church Times, Selvanayagam said that the archbishop’s trip to India raised “sharp and uncomfortable questions” as too many would see it as “a visit by their ‘chief shepherd’ to two Provinces within the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

“But that cannot be so,” he added, observing that the archbishop “did not respond at all” when confronted with questions about the relationship between the CSI and the Anglican Communion in 2017.

Selvanayagam has called for the Indian bishops to withdraw from the Lambeth Conference or come with representatives from other churches until the matter is resolved.

The Rev’d Prof Joseph Muthuraj, eminent Indian New Testament scholar, had earlier blasted Welby’s video statement claiming that both churches (CSI & CNI) were “central to the life of the Anglican Communion.”

Dr Muthuraj called the archbishop’s statements “an exaggeration and not true to reality” as the Indian churches were “on the periphery” of the Anglican Communion, as not all Anglican churches accepted them.

When Welby visited India in 2014, he commented on the achievements of the Indian nation with “exaggerated words and condescending remarks” but “nothing was said about the Church’s corruption and fraud,” Muthuraj remarked.

Meanwhile, in an opinion piece for The Times on Saturday, Welby backtracked on his earlier official statement. “I will be primarily visiting the two great united churches established on the sub-continent — the Church of South India and the Church of North India,” Welby wrote.

Climbing down from his earlier remarks, Welby added: “Each is indigenous and autonomous, but each has a vibrant relationship with Canterbury that adds much to the Anglican Communion, while maintaining their other historical links with Methodist and Reformed churches worldwide.”

The legal notice cautions the archbishop not to make statements against the Church of India or any of its affiliates “in any of your public addresses or meetings in India, which may defame or spread false information about our organization in public.”