‘Gandhian Christians’: Murray & Mary Rogers

Pilgrimage of Awakening:
The Extraordinary Lives of Murray and Mary Rogers
By Mary V.T. Cattan
Pickwick, pp. 442, $51

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Review by Titus Presler

Mary Cattan’s perceptive biography of Murray and Mary Rogers offers a compelling story that will strike a chord with those exploring inter-religious encounter, cross-cultural mission, mystical spirituality and innovative Christian community. Central is Jyotiniketan — Sanskrit for “Place of Uncreated Light” — the Christian ashram they established in 1954 in the village of Kareli in north India, and which they moved successively to Jerusalem in the 1970s, Hong Kong in the 1980s, Ontario in the 1990s, and finally Oxford until their deaths in 2006 and 2007.

Murray and Mary were a married Church of England couple who moved to India with their children as missionaries of the Church Mission Society in 1946, Murray as chaplain to Allahabad University’s Agricultural Institute, where, he said, “the cross was talked about but not much in evidence.” Disillusioned with the mission establishment, they spent a year at Sevagram, the ashram established by Mahatma Gandhi, where they felt “the cross was not talked about, but it was very much there.” They began to consider themselves “Gandhian Christians.”

Jyotiniketan embodied the Rogers’ longing to live out Christian community in solidarity with the poor of India and nourished by the spirituality of Hinduism as expressed through the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads. For them and the several companions who joined them over the years, each day began with silence, followed by the Eucharist enriched by Indian texts and Sanskrit chants. Community members were distinctive in wearing the saffron robes typical of Hindu pilgrims.

Jyotiniketan had “four marks to live by”: the centrality of worship, prayer and silent meditation; simplicity in solidarity with the poor; obedience through shared lives, resources, and decisions; and “expanding awareness that we are called to harmony, solidarity and unity as an essential response to God’s creation.” The community’s mixture of married and single persons evokes comparison with Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding.

Though Max Warren of CMS supported the Rogers’ ashram venture, they broke off their mission connection in 1966 and became more dependent on the generosity of people in India and around the world who were intrigued by their life commitments. Jyotiniketan inhabited small, humble spaces that were loaned or donated by well-wishers.

Crucial spiritual mentors and personal friends and were Henri Le Saux, the French Benedictine who lived in India as a sannyasi ascetic and went by the name Swami Abhishiktananda, and Raimondo Pannikar, the well-known theologian and author of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. The post-India homes of Jyotiniketan brought them into dialogue with Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Native American spirituality, which further enriched their theology and worship. Peripatetic Murray often spoke at interfaith gatherings organized by the World Council of Churches and other bodies.

Contemplation bore fruit in action, which brought Murray into conflict with church authorities, especially when the community’s public policy stances disturbed the church’s equilibrium with governments. Jyotiniketan became unwelcome in Jerusalem, where Murray criticized the Israelis for occupying Palestinian land, and in Hong Kong, where he criticized accommodation to the mainline Chinese government in advance of the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Community members also participated in environmental and anti-nuclear activism.

Cattan details all this and much more in an exceptionally well-researched and sensitive biography. She writes as one nourished by the Rogers’ ministry at Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut, where they made extended visits biennially from 1979 to 1996.

Yet she does not avoid discussing difficult aspects of the Rogers’ life. One is their decision to send their three children to live with a family back in England, which one child found especially difficult. For an anti-colonial couple committed to the Indian milieu, this was a strikingly regressive move, especially when the Woodstock boarding school, full of expatriate children, was less than a day’s train journey away.

Another is the somewhat distant relationship between Murray and Mary, complicated by his platonic but temporarily too close relationship with Heather Sandeman, one of their two lifelong fellow community members.

My spiritual life was indelibly imprinted by the couple during a Jyotiniketan-style retreat for students at the base of the Himalayas. Yet I also experienced how their witness was divisive between my parents, both scholars of Indian religions. My mother went on periodic retreats at Jyotiniketan and shared the Rogers’ enthusiasm for Teilhard de Chardin, while my father objected to their dependent semi-mendicant lifestyle, which he thought imposed on other Christians. Few were neutral about Murray and Mary Rogers.

One aspect of their approach merits more scrutiny. The Hindu traditions that Jyotiniketan incorporated were Brahmanic, accessible to the elites of Hinduism. Given the oppression inherent in the Hindu caste system, dependence on this stream of spirituality may be problematic, and it may help explain why Kareli’s Hindu villagers did not frequent Jyotiniketan liturgies.

Indigenous Christian theology in India today instead relates the gospel to the spirituality of the Dalits, the outcastes, from among whom the vast majority of converts to Christianity came. The approach of Jyotiniketan, Pannikar and others needs to be brought into dialogue with this liberative movement of Hindu-Christian theology.

Mary Cattan’s tribute to the Rogers and the life of Jyotiniketan is arresting and luminous. Her work invites a wider audience to explore the vision of a remarkable community and consider what it may contribute to the missional, inter-religious, and societal urgencies of today.

The Rev. Canon Titus Presler, ThD, is president of the Global Episcopal Mission Network, has mission experience in India, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, and was president of the Seminary of the Southwest. He is the author of Horizons of Mission and Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, and coauthor of Questing: The Way of Love in Global Mission.


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