Lesslie Newbigin - Bishop of Madras
Newbigin was born in England and ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1936. He served as a missionary in India for years. In 1947, he was ordained a bishop of the Church of South India. He went on to become a widely popular missiologist and public theologian; he was elected general secretary of the International Missionary Council and associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
In 1974, Newbigin returned to Britain, where he took up a lecturing post at Selly Oak College. His speaking engagements and publications reveal that his interest turned more fully to public theology. In particular, he challenged Western Christians to recover the gospel as public truth and to articulate a framework for Christian mission in the increasingly pluralist late-20th-century context. Newbigin wanted Western Christians to foster a genuine missionary encounter between the Lord Christ and the secular West.
From his teenage rebellion against his Northumbrian Presbyterian background, to his last words - "For all that has been, thanks" - murmured to a friend before he died, aged 88, on 30 January, hope, humility and hard work characterised the life of Bishop Newbigin.
Professor Rudra, of Allahabad, India recalls that as a small girl in 1960 she stood in front of Lesslie Newbigin when he preached in Boston, Massachusetts. When he finished preaching, she asked: "What is a bishop?" He replied: "A bishop, my dear, is a wastepaper basket." He was then general secretary of the International Missionary Council, seconded from the Church of South India, and must have been feeling he was a worthless vessel, with everything dumped on him.
Lesslie Newbigin's association with India began in 1936 when, newly ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he set out as a missionary to work in the Church of Scotland district mission in Kanchipuram. He became fluent in Tamil and played a significant role in the discussions leading to the formation, in 1947, of the Church of South India (CSI), which brought together Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. Lesslie Newbigin was one of the CSI's first bishops, serving from 1947 to 1959 in Madurai.
In 1948, the year after the formation of the CSI, he represented the church at the founding assembly in Amsterdam of the World Council of Churches, beginning a life-long association with the WCC. He played a key role in drafting the Message of the Amsterdam assembly and in organising the theological input for the WCC's second assembly at Evanston, USA, in 1954. As chairman of the International Missionary Society from 1958, and its general secretary from 1959, he used his intellectual abilities and diplomatic skills honed in India to achieve the successful integration of the WCC and the IMC at their assemblies in New Delhi in 1961. The fact that the WCC today, with church members on every inhabited continent, so strongly represents churches outside Europe and North America is in no small measure due to his pioneering efforts.
After the integration of the IMC and the WCC, Lesslie Newbigin became WCC associate general secretary and the first director of the WCC's Division of World Mission and Evangelism. In 1965, he was recalled to South India as Bishop of Madras, but remained involved in the life of the WCC, particularly its work on Faith and Order. In 1974, Lesslie Newbigin retired from South India and returned to Britain. Since his Episcopal consecration in the CSI was recognised by Anglicans, he was invited to be an assistant bishop in the Church of England. But he returned to the tradition from which he had come, and joined the United Reformed Church, the product of a union in 1972 of Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
It was an unlikely adventure to launch a global ministry—a tediously long bus journey from Madras, India, to Birmingham, England. It was an unlikely background for a champion of the gospel to emerge from—the theologically liberal Student Christian Movement. It was an unlikely age at which to unintentionally initiate the emergent and missional church movements—age 66 after 35 years of cross-cultural missionary service. But Bishop Lesslie Newbigin made his most important contribution and did his most profound thinking in his 70's and 80's.
Newbigin was one of the most influential British theologians of his generation. Yet to label him "British" may miss the point; his theology was also very much a product of his years in India. Although he went to India at a time when many missionaries retained attitudes of colonial superiority, despite India's independence, from the outset Newbigin nurtured local leadership. He remained in India because he believed that for some people to gain deep experience in another culture is ultimately enriching for others, when this experience is shared. This was why he returned to Britain while still able to share what he had learned and experienced as a missionary.