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Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah (1874-1945) was the Anglican Church’s first Indian bishop. Zealous to promote church growth, he was also a strong advocate of ecumenism and church unity among India’s numerous Protestant denominations.
His father was a village vicar and his mother spent long hours on her son’s religious instruction. After more than a decade working with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), he was ordained a priest in 1909, and in 1912 was ordained bishop of the new Diocese of Dornakal, a populous diocese located in two parts of Madras.
Azariah was a mainstream broad church Anglican with a high priority for evangelism and much of his preaching centered on the resurrection. His ministry cut across class lines and focused heavily on rural “untouchables” caste members. The bishop’s traditional Anglicanism frustrated many Indian political leaders, who hoped he would be a
leading voice for Indian nationalism. Azariah also took sharp issue with Mahatma Gandhi, who was unalterably opposed to Christians trying to convert Indians. Azariah saw conversion as foundational to Christian mission. Gandhi acknowledged the dominant Hindu religion needed reform, but Azariah went further and said it was repressive and grounded in a destructive caste system. He said, “It is by proclamation of the truth that the early Church turned the world upside down … It is this that will today redeem Indian society and emancipate it from the thralldom of centuries.”
By 1935 the Dornakal diocese had 250 ordained Indian clergy and over 2,000 village teachers, plus a growing number of medical clinics, cooperative societies, and printing presses. Traveling over the vast diocese by bullock cart or bicycle, and accompanied by his wife and coworker, Anbu, Azariah often built his village sermons around “the four demons – Dirt, Disease, Debt, and Drink.” He believed in adapting liturgy to local cultures. Epiphany Cathedral, Dornakal, which took a quarter century to build, was an architectural statement of the bishop’s vision, mixing Muslim, Hindu, and Christian designs. He saw it as a visual statement of the gifts and beauty of other faith
traditions finding their fulfillment in Christianity.
I Emmanuel, God with us, who dost make thy home in every culture and community on earth: We offer thanks
for the raising up of thy servant Samuel Azariah as the first indigenous bishop in India. Grant that we may be
strengthened by his witness to thy love without concern for class or caste, and by his labors for the unity of the
Church in India, that people of many languages and cultures might with one voice give thee glory, Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
II Emmanuel, God with us, making your home in every culture and community on earth: We thank you for raising
up your servant Samuel Azariah as the first indigenous bishop in India. Grant that we may be strengthened by his
witness to your love without concern for class or caste, and by his labors for the unity of the Church in India, that
people of many languages and cultures might with one voice give you glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and
for ever. Amen.
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 4:1–12
Preface of God the Father
Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.
We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?
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