Ministerial formation is the backbone of church life
Interview with Indian church leader Michael Benhur
(LWI) - In the following interview with Lutheran World Information, Rt Rev. O. Michael Benhur, Bishop of the South Andhra Lutheran Church*, shares how the Indian church is commemorating the Reformation anniversary, and what he garnered from a recent round table on ministerial formation** organized by The Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
What makes it special, and sometimes challenging to be Lutheran in your context?
Firstly, I bring greetings from the South Andhra Lutheran Church in Tirupati, in the south east, where Hinduism and cultism are predominant. Some 150 years ago, missionaries [from Hermannsburg, Germany] came and established a mission in our area. We Lutherans are one of the oldest churches in India, and we still have an established pattern of worshipping.
But our challenge today is that we have new evangelical denominations coming up, and they have visibly attractive innovations in terms of prayers and worship and pattern of liturgy. Everything is modernized, and we are still orthodox, traditional people, following the same old Lutheran liturgy, and pattern of worship. Young people therefore are being attracted to these new ways of worshipping in other churches. That is a challenge we are facing, and we need to incorporate new patterns of prayers and worship in other ways.
From your participation in the roundtable on Ministerial Formation, what did you find inspiring, surprising, and why?
It was inspiring for me, because ministerial formation is the backbone of the life of the church. It is taught everywhere throughout the entire global communion, so we cannot neglect this.
What I found surprising is that the problems and the shortcomings are the same everywhere in the global communion. So, they’re not different from region to region, or country to country, or continent to continent. But we also have specific logistical and other important shortcomings. For our church, we train most of our pastors at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute in Chennai and some at the Andhra Christian Theological College in Hyderabad.
Ministerial formation is the backbone of the life of the church. It is taught everywhere throughout the entire global communion, so we cannot neglect this.
The 60,000 members of the South Andhra Lutheran Church are spread out in several congregations served by 58 ordained pastors, four of whom are women.
How has marking the Reformation anniversary in India increased awareness about belonging to the global Lutheran communion?
The 500th anniversary the Reformation is also a very important event in the life of our church, and we are celebrating it. This included a celebration by the children of the church and by the women.
On 30 September, we hosted over 400 Sunday School children at our church headquarters in Tirupati for a fun day of information sharing about Martin Luther and his life. They drew sketches, enacted scripts about some of his famous speeches and teachings, took part in a Bible quiz and a singing competition of “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” and several amusement games. We also gave them a virtual tour of the City of Wittenberg, Germany, and the Luther Garden, where our church has planted a tree to mark 500 years of the Reformation.
On 2 October over 500 women gathered at the Renigunta Town Parish and celebrated the anniversary by focusing on women’s contribution to the Reformation, with a special focus on the life of Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife. Rev. Veronica Angela from Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church was the main preacher. We are celebrating the legacy that has been left by our reformers. So, we are proud to be part of the global Lutheran community, as we celebrate also the theme, “Liberated by God’s Grace.”
What are other specific plans in the coming months?
Our youth will organize their own event for 7 October, and the all-church Reformation celebration will take place in Tirupati on 14 October. We will have a big worship event, like many of the other churches in our global Lutheran communion.
At the headquarters of our church in Tirupati, we will erect a statue of Martin Luther inscribed with some of his theological insights.
*The South Andhra Lutheran Church is one of the 11 LWF member churches in India, which under the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI), bring altogether some 4 million Lutherans.
** Bishop Michael O. Benhur was among the 15 educators and leaders of member churches, academic institutions and mission organizations from all the seven LWF regions taking part in the 25-26 September roundtable in Geneva. The gathering was the first step toward implementing the Twelfth Assembly resolution calling on the LWF and its member churches to “take steps to ensure theological education also takes account of different contexts and is open to all.” The Communion Office will develop and publish a strategy for collaboration and greater access to theological education by 2020.
Interview conducted by correspondent John Zarocostas and LWF Communications.