Alan Miller, member of the Asia Committee of World Mission Council, Church of Scotland writes during a trip to our partner, The Church of Bangladesh.
Today we came back to Dhaka at the end of our six days in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries. With Sandy Sneddon, WMC Asia Secretary, I came here to take part in a consultation with the Church of Bangladesh as it seeks to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of this predominantly Muslim country. This is my first visit here, and so I have also been learning about the Church, the work of its development agency CBSPD, the country and its people.
First impressions of Dhaka when we arrived were that the city is an overcrowded sprawling concrete jungle in which the transport infrastructure struggles to cope with the huge numbers of vehicles – cars, motorised and pedal rickshaws, lorries, motorcycles and buses, all jostling for space and advantage in the prevailing chaos on the roads. As we drove, it was clear that despite attempts to improve, the city struggles to cope with its rapid development.
Our first call was to the diocesan offices of the Bishop of Dhaka, where we paid our respects to the national Bishop and Moderator of the Church of Bangladesh, Paul Sarker, before being driven to the venue for the Partners’ consultation, out in the suburb of Savar. On the journey I had my first views of the surrounding countryside – water, and lots of it, with the smokestacks of the many brick-making factories rising up above.
The consultations lasted two days, during which I was privileged to meet many of the key church workers and also people from the various churches and agencies abroad which support the Church in Bangladesh. Early on the first morning, we began with a service of Holy Communion, at which I had my first experience of a style of worship which was clearly influenced by Anglo-Catholicism in its liturgy, but which had translated this into the local culture, using the Bengali language and musical style for the liturgy and hymns – it felt a little odd at first to listen to ‘For all the saints…’ In Bengali, accompanied by traditional drums and harmonium. This was a blending of traditions and culture which I encountered in every worship service during my time here, and something which I find spiritually deeply moving.
Thankfully, there is more to Bangladesh than Dhaka, and the three days following the consultation were spent travelling south, first to Jobarpar, and then on to Barisal, a journey that takes about seven hours by road, and includes a thirty-minute ferry crossing of the great Brahmaputra river, called the Padma here in Bangladesh. We were grateful to have a driver and minivan put at our disposal for this three-day trip by Bishop Paul, and so avoided travelling by public bus – not the safest way to travel, it seems, as on each of the three days we saw a bus, usually looking old and battered, that had swerved off the road and ended up nose-down in a ditch.
In comparison to Dhaka, the countryside was lush and green, with trees and bamboo lining the road and rice paddies on either side, where the harvest was being gathered in. Again, it was striking how much water there is everywhere: canals, ponds, lakes, rivers, and water-filled ditches. All this water served as a reminder of how vulnerable Bangladesh is to disastrous flooding, being a country that is very flat and low-lying, where rivers burst their banks and the land is quickly submerged by heavy rain during the monsoon season.
Both Jobarpar, a remote village, and Barisal, a small city thirty miles away, have been important in the history of the Church of Bangladesh. While the Church itself is a union between different Christian traditions – principally Anglican and Presbyterian, it was the Oxford Mission, which first sent Anglican missionaries to Bengal more than a century ago, that established these two places as centres of their mission work. Today the enduring legacy of the Mission is seen in the continuing education, health, agriculture and other programmes that are run out of these two centres. Not only that, but the presence of a religious community of Sisters in Jorbarpar, and of both Sisters and two Brothers in Barisal, along with the liturgical worship style and the fact that the first Bishop of Church of Bangladesh belonged to the Mission, all testify to its influence.
In both places we were able to visit schools run by the Church of Bangladesh, to see the health clinics, and in Jorbarpar, to meet with staff from the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Programme, the Church’s development agency, who are working to improve the lives of many people. It was an inspiration and a blessing to join with the community in worship, at Holy Communion in Jorbarpar on Sunday morning, Evening Prayer in Barisal on Sunday evening in the imposing Church of the Epiphany, and at an early morning Eucharist with the Sisters celebrated by one of the few women priests in the Church of Bangladesh. Sharing in the one bread, it really did feel that we were one body.
The warm welcome and generous hospitality we received from the Sisters and others who looked after us was wonderful. Of all the people we encountered, we were encouraged most by the presence of Father John Webber, recently retired as a priest of the Church in Wales, but who for many years served with the Church of Bangladesh. Fr John, thankfully, was able and willing to answer the many questions we asked and to explain the history and workings of the Church of Bangladesh, so to him we owe a great debt of gratitude.