Christ Church Shimla

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Christ Church stands in the center of Shimla, its yellow tower stretching up from the ridge like a pale beam of sunlight reaching back for the heavens. The city revolves around the church; its streets an unconscious echo of the footsteps of the British rulers who constructed them.

Today, Shimla is no longer a British retreat: it is the Indian capital of an Indian state, and along with that, an Indian vacation destination. A clean, temperate hill town, it attracts scores of domestic tourists, and a few international folks eager to adventure in the Himalayas. In such a context, the church has obviously lost some of its dominating grandeur, and has the awkward distinction of being a prominent reminder of British occupation.

Nevertheless, the roots of the building still stretch deep beneath the ground, providing the community with a strong center of gravity. It is a curiosity for foreign visitors, and an obligatory photo pose for domestics. (Sarah and I are always dodging out of the way of Indian cameras as we make our way back to our hotel.) Like the Kingdom of God, flowering from a tiny seed, Christ Church in Shimla has broad and welcoming branches inviting to all manner of creatures, a silent, ongoing ministry of presence in this thriving hill town.

For me, Christ Church is more than a landmark of religious and historical interest. For me, it has been like finding a lost relative in a foreign land. It is not unlike Shove Chapel at the little secular liberal arts school where I did my undergraduate studies: a beautiful, soaring, inspiring cathedral with deep and intentional historic roots, dropped, by the will of God and the accident of history in an environment that has become passively hostile to the Christian faith that spawned it.

Regrettably, it seems the building keeps rather arbitrary hours, particularly during the lulls of midwinter. I was in Shimla for several days before I managed to catch it while it was open. Still, it was a great comfort to me, even when it was closed. So much of my experience in India has been utterly chaotic, but here in Shimla, I know where I can find rest and refreshment, because the church is never too far from my sight.

But perhaps the relief I felt gazing upon its architectural familiarity caused me to expect too much of the building. I was a little disappointed the first few times I prayed there. At first glance, the building is as much a mausoleum as a holy place. Plaques commemorating the dead (mostly Britishers, in fact) clutter the walls, while the only signs of living worship are plastic flowers and electric candles on the altar. Of the eight or ten nave windows, only three have been fitted with stained glass, giving it the feel of a masterpiece both unfinished and under-appreciated.

Indeed, this feeling is amplified by the fact that, on closer inspection, much of the building is in a poor state of repair. There are gaping holes in several of the windows, and much of the wood looks quite aged. Much of the furniture and many of the fixtures are ancient, the pews are dreadfully uncomfortable and shabbily adorned, and the kneelers faded from regal red to dismal grayish pink.

As I sat and prayed in the building for the first time, I was overcome by a deep sadness. The cold that tore through the broken glass and seeped up through the marble floor and radiated through the furniture created in me a gnawing sense of loneliness, of emptiness, of gnawing absence. I huddled against the cold and prayed that God would show me his living presence poking through the frigid impressions of death and neglect that formed my initial perceptions.

As I continued to pray in Christ Church (which I did as often as the building was open and I had the time), my opinion of the building gradually began to thaw. I was touched to see how respectfully most of the Indian travelers treated the space. Only a few of those who venture inside use it as an opportunity to gawk and take photographs; most sit quietly in the pews, or kneel and prostrate before the altar.

On Sunday, we arrived promptly at 8.50 for an English worship service the sign in front of the church promised would begin at 9. Unfortunately, we discovered, this service is suspended in the winter due to low tourist traffic during this time of year and the fact that the local Christian population that speaks only English has died out all together. However, a group of about two dozen young South Africans on a missions trip had also been hoping to catch the service, and, in the absence of official goings-on, had elected to conduct their own informal time of prayer and praise. We were very kindly invited to join them.

Informal prayer and song with a bunch of South Africans in an English church in a foreign land may seem unlikely and unusual, but for us, it felt very familiar and very much like home. And as our prayers echoed through the empty building, I could feel them resonate with both the immediate church and the larger invisible Church. A deep assurance settled on me that God indeed was present and active in this place.

On Christmas Eve, the church was abruptly and elaborately decorated for the holiday, and vendors of a variety of Christian goods appeared around the building’s entrance. Golden streamers shimmered like stars above the church’s yard, and a large star positioned over its gate. Inside the building, Christmas trees sprouted in the front and back of the nave, signs wished witnesses and worshippers a merry Christmas, and a sizable nativity that had materialized in the back featured a Holy Family comically oversized compared to the shepherds, kings, and animals in attendance.

The Christmas service (which started an hour and a half later than we were told) was absolutely packed. Several hundred people filled the building. Every single seat was taken, and a large, chattery mob stood in the back. Four priests officiated the service, four musicians played guitar, keyboard and organ, and a choir of at least a dozen led the congregational singing.

The service can only be described as a holy mess. Most of the service was in Hindi, but they gave us and the handful of other foreign visitors a copy of the liturgy and hymns in English, inviting us to follow along in our language. The sound system was a little questionable, making it difficult to hear anything spoken from the pulpit. Indeed, a number of the congregants gave up on hearing altogether and dissolved into their own conversations. Several domestic tourists apparently had a completely different desire in attending the service; they ran up and down the aisles with cameras and video recorders. (At the end of the service, as the priests stood at the front for the dismissal, one man even ran up and squatted in front of the priests while his friend took a picture!)

Communion was almost more riot than recognizable ritual. Though we were sitting near the front, we were one of the last to take communion. A mob began to accumulate even before the prayers had been completed, and the approach to the altar rail was more of a crush from all directions than a queue. After we communicated, we noticed that the bulk of the crowd was being physically restrained from approaching the altar.

I cannot claim to fully understand what I have witnessed over the past several days in Christ Church. At first, I thought it was little more than a landmark and dead relic from an imperial past. But then I witnessed such an incredible crush of interest. I doubt all or even most of the congregants could be called Christian, but yet they all experienced some insane impulse to come sit in a cold, crowded cathedral on December 25.

I cannot claim to fully understand what I have witnessed in Christ Church over the past several days, but I can explain what it has meant to me. It has been an extraordinarily encouraging and heartening experience. The seeds of the faith brought on the boots of the British occupiers and missionaries are flourishing in their own way and in their own time, despite the fact that the people who brought them didn’t always manage to minister in full accordance with their high principles and good intentions. God can work, even across cultural boundaries as deep as the chasm that separates East from West.

Christ Church has been such an indescribable blessing for me in this time far away from home. They say that the Church is more than a building, and this is true. Certainly, if Christ Church were no more than a slightly under-maintained landmark, it would mean very little. But we must not forget that the Church is also a building. As an old, beautiful cathedral, Christ Church provides a link to the historic presence of Christians in the area, and provides a space for people to explore the faith on their own terms, and at their own pace.

Buildings have the power to express the faith, hope, and aspirations of a people in a way far more enduring than our small, temporary communities. A building can connect us to the past and give us a vision for the enduring aesthetic of the faith that can be preserved even when the insanity of the rapidly changing world makes it momentarily hard to believe.

In today’s world of proliferating strip-mall churches and mega-box congregations that seem to draw more architecturally from Wal-Mart than the treasury of Christian architecture, we need to remember the incredible and unpredictable power that a beautiful building can have to transcend time and inspire the faith of future generations.

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