The first Indian bishop of the Anglican Church in India, Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah was born in 1874 in a small village in one of the most economically deprived areas of South India (now in the state of Andrha Pradesh), the son of Thomas Vedanayagam, an Anglican priest, and Ellen, a woman with a deep love and understanding of the holy Scriptures. Samuel became a YMCA evangelist at nineteen and secretary of the organization throughout South India only a few years later. He saw that, for the Church in India to grow and to bring ordinary Indians to Jesus Christ, it had to have indigenous leadership. He helped create the Tinnevelly-based Indian Missionary Society in 1903, and was a co-founder of the National Missionary Society of India, an all-India, Indian-led agency founded in December 1905. At the age of thirty-five he was ordained to the presbyterate, and three years later (December, 1912) he was consecrated as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Dornakal, with eleven bishops of the Anglican Church in India participating in the liturgy at St Paul’s Cathedral in Calcutta. Bishop Azariah was the first Indian to be consecrated a bishop in the Churches of the Anglican Communion.
As bishop, his work moved from primary evangelism to forwarding his desire for more Indian clergy and the need to raise their educational standards. By 1924, the ordained leadership of the Diocese of Dornakal included eight English-born priests and fifty-three Indian clergy. Bishop Azariah was also an avid ecumenist and one of the first to see the importance, indeed the necessity, of a united Church to mission and evangelism (a passion that would be taken up by others in India, like the missionary Lesslie Newbigin). Azariah died on January 1, 1945, two years before the inauguration of the united Church of South India.
In The History of Nandyal Diocese in Andhra Pradesh, Constance Millington writes,
Azariah had two great priorities in his work: evangelism and the desire for Christian unity.
He understood evangelism to be the acid test of Christianity. When asked what he would preach about in a village that had never heard of Christ, Azariah answered without hesitation: ‘The resurrection.’ From a convert he demanded full acceptance of Christianity which would include baptism and which could therefore include separation from family and caste. He claimed that Christianity took its origin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outburst of supernatural power that this society manifested in the world.
Azariah recognised that because four-fifths of Indian people live in villages, for the Church to be an indigenous one it must be a rural Church. He was constantly in the villages, inspiring and guiding the teachers, clergy and congregations. He blamed the missionaries for not training people in evangelism, and thought their teaching had been mission centred instead of Church centred, and he pleaded with missionaries to build up the Indian Church. Much of the Christian outreach in his area was among the outcast people. Gradually as Christianity spread amongst the villages, the social situation began to change, the Christian outcasts gaining a new self-respect as they realised their worth in the eyes of God.
Azariah considered that one of the factors that hampered evangelism, and possibly the deepening of the spiritual life of the convert, was the western appearance of the Church in both its buildings and its services. As early as 1912 he has visions of a cathedral for the diocese to be built in the eastern style, where all Christians could feel spiritually at hom regardless of their religious background and race. Building was delayed because of the Great War in Europe, but finally his dream was realised when the cathedral of The Most Glorious Epiphany was consecrated on January 6, 1936. The building is a beautiful structure embodying ideas from Christian, Hindu and Moslem architecture. Its dignity and spaciousness create a very different effect from that of the nineteenth and twentieth century Gothic churches and furnishings scattered elsewhere in India. (N.B. For a description of the Cathedral Church of the Epiphany in Dornakal, see here. Also scroll up to the preceding page at this site for a description of Bishop Azariah’s indigenization of the liturgy.)
If evangelisation of India was Azariah’s first priority, the second was that of Church unity. He was the two as inter-related. He believed that a united Church was in accordance with the will of God, ‘that we may all be one’, and he also believed that a United Church would be more effective for evangelism. Addressing the Lambeth Conference in 1930 he pleaded:
“In India we wonder if you have sufficiently contemplated the grievous sin of perpetuating your divisions and denominational bitterness in these your daughter churches. We want you to take us seriously when we say that the problem of union is one of life and death. Do not, we plead with you, do not give us your aid to keep us separate, but lead us to union so that you and we may go forward together and fulfil the prayer, ‘That we may all be one.'”
prepared from material in Celebrating the Saints (compiled by Robert Atwell), A History of the Church of England in India (The Right Revd Eyre Chatterton), and others
O God, our heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant Samuel Azariah to be a bishop and pastor in your Church and to feed your flock: Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah, Bishop in South India, is commemorated in the sanctoral calendar of the Church of England on January 2.