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Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme


CIP Director Dr Ankur Barua reflects on the life of missionary, educator, and social reformer Charles Freer Andrews.

CIP Director Dr Ankur BaruaWhen I first heard about the Cambridge Interfaith Programme, my first response was ‘Ah, Charlie is alive at Cambridge!’.

While I had already encountered the name ‘Charles Freer Andrews’ as an undergraduate student at the University of Delhi (Andrews taught there sometime around 1905), it was only much later at Cambridge that his pivotal role in south Asian anti-colonial movements, and his deep friendships with several key Hindu and Muslim figures in British India, gradually became clear to me.

While Mahatma Gandhi often referred to Andrews simply as CFA (‘Christ’s Faithful Apostle’), others called him Deena-bandhu (‘Friend of the Poor’) and an American missionary commented on the ‘Franciscan simplicity’ of his life and work in the subcontinent. 

For Andrews, this was the simplicity that Christ calls humankind to adopt in the Sermon on the Mount, a purity of heart that he claimed was being enacted not by his fellow-English Christians but by a Muslim maulvi in Old Delhi, Zaka Ullah and by two Hindus, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. As he once wrote, ‘It became clear to me that I must take up a firm stand, even against my own fellow-countrymen and fellow-Christian, since as a Christian it was necessary to bear witness for Christ’s sake’.


Charles Freer Andrews (at work)


Andrews’ life is then the narrative of an Edwardian Anglican who journeys out to the far country, and finds his Christ waiting for him on unexpected roads, beside unknown rivers, and in unfamiliar mountains.


Cambridge and Delhi


Andrews came up to Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1890, where he was influenced by the Johannine Christology of B.F. Westcott, the first President of the Christian Social Union.

The strong ‘incarnationist’ emphasis of Westcott’s theological outlook would structure Andrews’ interreligious friendships in British India, where he repeatedly emphasised that in the body of Christ there could be no divisions, whether imperial or racial or caste-based. Thus, he was instrumental in the appointment of S.K. Rudra in 1907 as the first Indian principal of St Stephen’s College, and quoting Galatians 3:28, he was already in 1940 calling for the ordination of women into the Anglican clergy.

Andrews found the Sermon’s call for a radical lived simplicity echoed in his two closest Hindu friends, Gandhi and Tagore, who from their distinctive Vedantic Hindu standpoints were trying to configure patterns of spiritual egalitarianism based on the belief in the imperishable Self (Atman). Andrews often pointed out certain parallels in the logic of racial superiority and caste-based discrimination, and he discerned the Christian commitment to equality reflected in the attempts of Gandhi and Tagore to dismantle the caste-structures of traditional Hindu universes.

Andrews noted that Gandhi and Tagore had helped him to go back to the Christ of the gospels, and that he would take up Christ’s cross so that anything that stood between his Englishness and complete oneness with Indians would be removed. He would be truly acting in the spirit of Christ, he believed, only by serving India in the manner of a Hindu monastic (sannyasi) – by giving up all worldly securities and trusting in nothing but Christ alone.


'Finding Christ on an Indian Road'


The theme of finding Christ on an Indian road reverberates throughout Andrews’ numerous writings on and letters to Gandhi and Tagore. Andrews believed that he had seen in Gandhi ‘the fulfilment in action of those ideals which as a Christian I longed to realise’. He understood Gandhi’s satyagraha as the enactment of Christ’s statement that the kingdom of God was not a dominion of this world based on force, domination, and aggression, and claimed that he had found, in the midst of Indian nationalists released from prison, Christ himself.

Andrews’ friendship was richly reciprocated by Gandhi who told a gathering in Lahore (present day Pakistan) at a highly volatile juncture of the anti-colonial struggle, ‘As long there is even one Andrews among the British people, we must, for the sake of such a one, bear no hatred to them’ (15 November 1919). And at Andrews’ death in 1940, he wrote: ‘When we met in South Africa [in 1914] we simply met as brothers and remained as such to the end’.

The depth of these affective bonds was replicated in Andrews’ friendship with Tagore who was in certain respects a very different person from Gandhi. Andrews met Tagore in London one evening in 1912 at the home of the painter William Rothenstein. Tagore, who had already heard about Andrews, clasped his hand and said, ‘Oh! Mr Andrews, I have so longed to see you’. Andrews believed that his friendship with Tagore had deep spiritual foundations, for he found his Christian emphasis on serving the ‘poorest of the poor’ reflected in the Hindu Vaishnava heritage of Tagore. He noted that Tagore’s poetry, which was infused with the love of natural beauty, had sent him back to the gospels, and that he had re-discovered, through Tagore, Christ’s own delight in little children, human friendships, and the innocence of birds of the air and lilies in the field.

When Andrews gave up his post at St Stephen’s College and followed Tagore to join his school in Shantiniketan (‘Abode of Peace’), he claimed that he was responding to a call to follow Christ and to express his teachings in a new way in an eastern land. Tagore welcomed Andrews to Shantiniketan as ‘a gift of the Lord’. Something of the intensity of their mutual affection is captured in these lines from a letter that Tagore, during his European journeys, wrote to Andrews:


"Before I finish this last letter to you, my friend, let me thank you with all my heart for your unfailing generosity in sending me letters all through my absence from India. They have been to me like a constant supply of food and water to a caravan travelling through a desert" (July 16, 1921).


Encounters with Islam 


Somewhat unusually for Anglican missionaries at this time (whose ‘mission’ was directed primarily to Hindus), Andrews also cultivated deep friendships with some Muslim intellectuals of the ‘Delhi renaissance’, especially Zaka Ullah who devoted several decades of his life to preparing textbooks in science in Urdu, and was opposed to ‘Muhammadan isolation’ from Hindu environments.

Andrews wrote that Zaka Ullah, who demonstrated a complete freedom of anxiety for the future and a deep love of children, reminded him of the Sermon’s ‘peacemakers’, perhaps even more so because Zaka Ullah himself believed that the Sermon on the Mount was ‘‘Indian’ through and through’. Andrews was present at Zaka Ullah’s bedside when he died, and as he slowly slipped into the silence of death, his last words were prayers to Allah and words of affection, ‘betabeta’ (‘my son, my son’!).


A 'heretic of the most dangerous kind'


Given the intensities of these interreligious friendships, it is perhaps not surprising that Andrews’ orthodoxy was often a matter of deep suspicion, not only for his Anglican superiors but also sometimes Indian Christians. He was aware that because of his association with Gandhi, he might be regarded as a ‘heretic of the most dangerous kind’, and he often encountered demands from Christian clerics that he clearly state his Christian convictions.

At a sermon preached in the Cathedral at Lahore in 1914, Andrews said:


"This, then, is what it means to be a Christian, to follow Christ; not the expression of an outward creed, but the learning of an inner life … I have found Christ in strange, unlooked-for-places, far beyond the boundary of sect or dogma, of church or chapel, far beyond the formal definition of man’s devising, or of man’s exclusive pride …"


He repeated this view around a quarter of a century later at the Conference of the International Missionary Council at Tambaram, south India:


"I have learned one lesson in all these nearly forty years I have been out here in the East, and that is, that one has to go beyond the bitterness … beyond the rising hatred in one’s heart on both sides, beyond the burning indignation in one’s hearts on both sides. One has to go farther – to the cross itself …"


Andrews’ conviction that the test of Christian living is the imitation of Christ was noted by many of his friends, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Thus Tagore wrote in his Foreword to Andrews’ Sermon on the Mount: "His love for Indians was a part of that love of all humanity which he accepted as the Law of Christ".


Difference versus otherness


Charles Free Andrews commemorative stamp (The Gandhi Foundation)

At least five decades before these terms became fashionable in the circles of postmodernism, Andrews was already actively ‘deconstructing’ the ‘binary oppositions’ between West versus East. Indeed, one reason why Andrews receives so little attention in academic scholarship is perhaps because it does not know what to do with a man who destabilises its pet theories of ‘Europe’ colonizing ‘Hindu minds’. Here is an Anglican priest who abandoned missionary work partly to protest against the ‘missionary imperialism’ that he saw being inflicted on his friend, S.K. Rudra, and who, according to K.T. Paul, himself an Indian Christian nationalist, knew India more intimately than any other Englishman.

The numerous interreligious friendships that structured, shaped, and sustained Andrews’ life continue to caution us, a century later, not to confuse difference with otherness.

Often, we allow ourselves to be satisfied with a passive respect based on mere indifference towards others, and thus do not work towards a more dynamic respect generated through active engagement with them. While we might know how to tick the right boxes under ‘how not to offend Jews’ and ‘what not to say to Muslims’, we often lapse into viewing other religious traditions in the manner of distant spectators inspecting exotic curiosities.

Andrews remained committed to his Christ to the very end, but his was a theology-in-action forged in the crucible of the heat and the dust of Hindustan that went beyond some of our current ‘not stepping on others’ toes’ passive modes of engagement with Hindus and Muslims.

For Christians, what might be a scriptural foundation for cultivating more interactive, more informed, and more humane encounters with the neighbour? Andrews would probably have answered: the Sermon’s call to radical discipleship, the call that he was enabled to hear by his Hindu friends Gandhi and Tagore during his long journeys through south Asia. The longest way, always, is the way back home.

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