At the intersection of Church and Lothian Roads in (Old) Delhi you will indeed still find a church. The neighborhood around it looks like a movie set of an old west cowboy town that has been invaded by a drove of broken farm tractors and the hired drifters who’ve herded them. Sludge, seeping antifreeze, and gear oils grime the blacktop and give off a heavy, used petroleum stink on hot days. Street dogs and mechanics lick clean the foil cups that hold their lunch. An outdoor barber clips hair. Life curls on and the neighborhood labors around it, seemingly immune to the beauty and manners of St. James Church.
Modeled after the Florence Cathedral in Italy, it has patiently been a rare church landmark in Delhi since it was completed in 1836. It never shouts, “Viceroys and princes knelt and took Communion here.” It just quietly invites.
St. James is a very popular name for churches the world over. What makes this one different is that it isn’t exactly clear which sainted James is the namesake: the brother of Jesus or James Skinner. The latter is the brave Anglo-Indian who, when wounded in battle promised God that if He would preserve his life, he would return the favor by building a really fine church. He was as good as his word.
The church doesn’t disappoint. It is like a jewel displayed against the black velvet of the declining neighborhood. It has the requisite stained glass, polished woodwork, flappy song books in the numbered pews, and curios of history adorning its walls. For those familiar with history, this church is a monument to the great Mutiny of 1857. When fed-up Indian soldiers finally exploded in revolt and viciously murdered so many of fine, upstanding British people, the deceased were memorialized on plaques around the church.
Sit inside quietly. Something feels slightly amiss. Like when you come home and the top of your desk has the same stapler, computer, piles of bills and tape dispenser—but things aren’t exactly as they should be.
Maybe it is the posted annual ledgers of all the members of the two army regiments that Mr. Skinner founded. Or his battle flags. Or the gleaming brass lectern in the shape of a fierce eagle from which Scripture is read each Sunday. Or how on the pulpit the major billing goes to fallen heroes instead the fallen and risen hero for whom the church is supposed to exist. Or the fact that Mr. Skinner, while very grateful for his recovery, was not especially devout and circumspect. Ask his fourteen wives. Yet he is buried in the crypt in front of the altar beneath the communion table.
The church is museum for might. An English tribute of human resolve and a shrine to firepower. Apart from a nod to an answered prayer, the essentials of Christ are as absent as tears of repentance. Which makes it an opposite of the second church.
St. Stephen’s Church was built about ten years after the same first war of independence in 1857. But it is like stepping into a different religion. It stands on Mission Road in Old Delhi. Instead of being constructed in a congenial place for regular church-goers, it was built close to a loud, major street of commerce and in the shadow of a looming mosque. It was anchored at a crossroads which people of all backgrounds and faiths must pass. But instead of an attractive color palette, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel chose a red sandstone to remind them of the shed blood of their Savior, the blood of the first martyr Stephen and the blood of all martyrs who would follow in their steps.
Inside, the pulpit actually never was leveled exactly right. It’s still a little out of skew. The glass cheap; the building materials simple. The plaques around the room honor those never celebrated by battle. Or trumpets and parades. But with tin basins and worn towels. With cracked chalkboards and the wheezing pump organs that missionaries preferred. Remembered are faithful saints who spoke with grit, yet sweetly. Serving anonymously and patiently until the husks of their lives finally fell away for good and Christ invited them home.
The most striking for my mind is the baptismal pool in the back of the sanctuary. In itself this is remarkable. Anglicans seldom prefer inconvenient immersion to the more respectable sprinkling for converts. Yet this is in a place no one could miss as people enter. But what makes this pool more unique still is that it is in the shape of a coffin. Imagine stepping into those waters! When a new believer climbed in, there was no missing that their life, as they knew it, was ending. It was surrendered, not forced. They had been bought with a price and wooed by grace.
Picture yourself there. Read the words below slowly. Imagine what it must have been like to step into those waters. Then imagine how it felt to step out again!
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
St. Paul, Letter to the Romans, 6.3-4