The Church in India
The Church of St. Thomas
It can only be a gift of Grace that the faith and tradition of the small community of the Early Christians in India have remained alive and vibrant through nearly two thousand years. Even amidst periodic storm, from one source or another, across these centuries of change, the community has maintained an inner calm , in the safety of the spiritual anchor, cast in the original concept of the word Orthodox, that is the ‘right glorification of God'.
The Early Christians of India ( mainly on the Southern coast ), were known as Thomas Christians and indeed by no other name – until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16 th century, followed closely by the British.
That the Church in India was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle is attested by West Asian writings since the 2 nd century ( The Doctrine of the Apostles and Acta Thomae both of which were written at or near Edessa ca 200 -250 AD; St. Ephraim, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregorios Naziazen, in the 4 th century ; St. Jerome ca 400 AD, and historians Eusebius ca 338 and Theodore, of the 5 th century .
Against the background of trade between India and West Asia since ancient times, travel by ship close to the coast of Arabia was feasible and not uncommon, reaching Malabar, the Tamil country, Sindh ( Scythia ) and western India (Kalyan ), around the time St. Thomas came to India .
There is a wealth of corroborative evidence to support , and no good reason to doubt the living tradition of Thomas Christians that the Apostle arrived in Kodungalloor( Muziris) in Kerala in 52 AD,
preached the gospel, established seven churches, and moved on to other kingdoms, returning to Madras ( Mylapore ) in 72 AD where he was martyred that year. Writers of the 4 th century, St. Ephraim and St. John Chrysostim knew also about the relics of St. Thomas resting at that time in Edessa, having been brought there from India by West Asian merchants.
The Church founded by St. Thomas must have been rather spread out in the subcontinent , including the North –West, the Western and Eastern coasts of the Peninsula, probably also reaching Sri Lanka.
Tradition associates the ministry of St. Thomas with the Indo – Parthian king, Gondophares in the north and with King Vasudeva ( Mazdeo) of the Kushan dynasty in the south. It was the latter who condemned the Apostle to death.
Among the Early Churches
The Orthodox Church In India is one of the 37 Apostolic Churches , dating from the time of the disciples of Christ . Nine of them were in Europe and 28 in Asia and Africa . Today , it belongs to the family of the five Oriental Orthodox Churches , which include Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia , and Armenia, and to the wider stream of the world's Orthodox Churches , comprising in all over 150 million Eastern Christians . It has a strength of over 2 million members in about 1500 parishes mainly in Kerala and increasingly spread all over India and in many parts of the globe. Eastern in origin and Asian in its moorings, the India Church is , at the same time, a distinctive and respected part of the rich religious mosaic that is India .
Until the 16 th century, there was only one Church in India , concentrated mainly in the south – west. The seven original churches were located at Malankara ( Malayattur ?), Palayur ( near Chavakkad ) Koovakyal ( near North Parur ), Kokkamangalam ( South Pallipuram?) , Kollam , Niranam and Nilackel ( Chayel ). Of the same pattern adopted by the other Apostle, each local church was self – administered, guided by a group of presbyters and presided over by the elder priest or bishop .
The Indian Church was autonomous then, and is now, like all Orthodox Churches. This is clear from the fact that no name of any church in India is seen in the now available list of bishoprics of the church in Persia from the fifth to the seventh century.
The Early Church in India remained one and at peace , treasuring the same ethnic and cultural characteristics as the rest of the local community. Its members enjoyed the goodwill of the other religious communities as well as the political support of the Hindu rules. The Thomas Christians welcomed missionaries and migrants from other churches, some of whom sought to escape persecution in their own countries. The language of worship in the early centuries must have been the local language , probably a form of Tamil. In later centuries , the liturgical language mingled with East Syriac received through the churches of Seleucia and Tigris
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Links with Persia
The Persian connection of the Indian Church has to be seen in the context of the internal dissensions and state persecution of Christians in Persia from the 5 th century . A synod of the Persian church ( 410 AD ) affirmed the faith of Nicea and acknowledged the Metropolitan of Seleucia – Ctesiphon as the Catholicos of the East . Not long after, the Christological controversies of Chalcedon , fuelled by the strains between the Persian and Byzantine empires , swayed the Persian church to declare itself ‘ Nestorian' and its head to assume the title of Patriarch of the East ( Babylon). From their base in the then flourishing theological school of Nisibis , Nestorian missionaries began moving to India , Central Asia , China and Ethopia to teach their doctrines probably associating the churches in these countries with the work of St. Thomas the Apostle, whom the Persians must have venerated as the founder of their own church.
By the 7 th century, specific reference to the India church began to appear in Persian records. The Metropolitan of India and the Metropolitan of China are mentioned in the consecration records of the Patriarchs of the East . At one stage, however, the India church was claimed to be in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Fars but this issue was settled by Patriarch Sliba Zoha ( 714 -728 AD ) who recognized the traditional dignity of the autonomous Metropolitan of India .
There were other development in the Persian church of potential import to the India Church . A renaissance of the pre- Chalcedon faith began, led by Jacob Baradeus , emphasizing the West Syrian Christological tradition of the ‘one united nature' influencing the church in Persia as well. Availing the relatively equable political climate following the Arab conquest of Syria and other parts of West Asis , a Maphrianate of the anti – Chalcedonians was established and Mar Marutha, a native Persion, became the first ‘Jacobite' Maphriana ( Catholicos ) of the East. The jurisdiction of this Catholicos at Tigris extended to 18 episcopal dioceses in lower Mesopotamia and further east, but, significantly, not to India .
On the life of the church in India during the first 15 centuries, the balance of historical evidence and the thrust of local tradition point to its basic autonomy sustained by the core if its own faith and culture. It received with trust and courtesy missionaries, bishops and migrants as they came from whichever Eastern Church – Tigris or Babylon , Antioch or Alexandria , but not from the more distant Constantinople or Rome . There were times in this long period when the Christians in India had been without a bishop and were led by an Archdeacon. And requests were sent , sometimes with success, to one or another of the Eastern prelates to help restore the episcopate in India .
Meanwhile, the church in Persia and much of West Asia declined from internal causes and the impact of Islam, affecting both the ‘ Nestorian' patriarchate of the East ( Babylon ) and the ‘ Jacobite' Catholicate of the East ( Tigris ). As will be seen from the later history of the Indian Church , the latter was re –established in India ( Kottayam ) in 1912 while the former was transplanted to America in 1940.
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The Colonial Era
The post - Portuguese story of the church in India - from the 16 th century - is relatively well – documented . In their combined Zeal to colonize and poselytize , the Portuguese might not have readily grasped the way of life of the Thomas Christians who seemed to accommodate differing strands of Eastern Christian thought and influence , while preserving the core of their original faith. The response of the visitors was to try and bring them under Romo Syrian prelates , apart from the new converts in the coastal areas under Latin prelates.
Pushed beyond a limit, the main body of Thomas Christians rose in revolt and took a collective oath at the Coonen Cross in Mattancherry in 1953, resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy of their Church and to elect its Head. Accordingly, Archdeacon Thomas was raised to the title of Mar Thoma, the first in the long line upto Mar Thoma IX - till 1816
At the request of the Thomas Christians , the ‘ Jacobite' bishop, Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came to India in 1664, confirmed the Episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church in India . Thus began the formal relationship with the ‘Jacobite' Syrian church, as it happened , in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the India Church .
History repeated itself in another form when the British presence in India encouraged ‘reformation' within the Orthodox church, partly through Anglican domination of the Theological Seminary in Kottayam, besides attracting members of the church into Anglican congregations since 1836. Finally , the reformist group broke away to form the Mar Thoma Church. This crisis situation was contained with the help of Patriarch Peter III of Antioch who visited India (1875 -77 ). The outcome was twofold : a reaffirmation of the distinctive identity of the Orthodox Church under its own Metropolitan and , at some dissonance with this renewal, an enlarged influence of the Patriarch of Antioch in the affairs of the Indian Church .
Thus a relationship which started for safeguarding the integrity and independence of the Orthodox Church in India, against the misguided, if understandable, ambitions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Protestant churches, opened a long and tortuous chapter in which concord and conflict between the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches have continued to alternate , to this day.
Three landmarks of recent history , however, lend hope that peace and unity might yet return to the Orthodox community , riven rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the re- location in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East, originally in Seleucia and later in Tigris and the consecration of the first Indian Catholocos – Moran Mar Baselios Paulos – in Apostolic succession to St. Thomas, with the personal participation of Patriarch Abdul Messiah of Antioch; second the coming into force in 1934 of the Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India as an autocephalous Church linked to the Orthodox Syrian Church of the Patriarch of Antioch ; and third, the Accord of 1958, by which Patriarch Ignatius Yakkoub III affirmed his acceptance of the Catholicos as well as the Constitution .
The fact that the Christian church first appeared in India, as elsewhere as a fellowship of self – governing communities, belonging to the same body and born into the same new life, may yet light the path to a future peace, within and beyond the Orthodox community
A Living Faith
As in the other Eastern Churches, the Orthodox faith in founded in a harmonious understanding of the Bible , the Liturgy and the life and work of the Father of the church .
Starting with the Apostles of Christ and their direct disciples like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna, the Fathers include other pre – Nicene Fathers of the second and third centuries like Clement of Alexandria, Irenus of Lyons and Hermas the author of The Shepherd
The Fathers of the three Ecumenical councils – the Synods of Nicea ( 325) Ephesus (381 ) and Constantinople (431 ) – as well as the Fathers who lived and taught during the period 300 -450 AD, even if they were not present at these councils, are among the founders of the Orthodox Faith. They include Mar Athanasius, ( ca 296 -373 ) Mar Baselios ( ca 330 -379) Mar Gregorios Nizazen (329-389) Mar Gregorios of Nyssa (330 -395), Mar Cyrillos (died 444) and Mar Ivanios ( St. John Chrysostom, died 407). Of this period 325 -451, mention must be made of Alexander of Alexandria, Mar Didymus the Blind, Mar Theophilos of Alexandria, Mar Eustathius of Antioch, Mar Eusebius of Caesarea, Mar Kurillos of Jerusale, and Mar Dioscoros of Alexandria .
Many of these names are commemorated in the intercessory prayers ( thoob- den ) of the Eucharistic Liturgy , the last of them, remembered in the fifth thoob –den, is Mar Jacob of Edessa ( died 708), and Mar Issac of Nineveh (died 700 ) .
Without attempting an exhaustive list of the Fathers of the Church, the great ascetic tradition of the monastic father like St. Antony, St. Pachamios, St. Makarios , St. Simeon Stylites , and St. Ephrem must be emphasized as a bedrock of the Orthodox Faith .
The articles of the faith, based on the conclusions of the three great councils of the Early Church , are contained in the Orthodox Creed, an essential part of the daily prayers of the faithful.
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The Ethos of the Church
The witness of the Orthodox Church is a quiet one. It is founded more on a life of worship of love and of service than on preaching and proselytizing . This worship – orientation is its basis for all thought and action as well as the reason for its survival through recurrent terms of trial.
For the Orthodox , tradition is ever alive and is indeed the witness of the Holy Spirit, His unceasing revelation of good tidings. For the living members of the church, tradition is not so much an outward historical authority as the continual voice of God, not just the voice of the past but the call of eternity.
There is not better guarantee for the members of the church that they are following the right path than for them to preserve the organic unity with the saints, the holy men and women of the past generations who are known to have lived in communion with the Holy Spirit. The principle of apostolic succession upheld by the Orthodox Church has to be grasped in this light, as a living bond between successive generations of church members, preserving the unity of faith and life, in spite of the constant flow of time.
It is this concept of unity in which the individual voluntarily merges his or her life in the wider fellowship of the whole body, that has helped the Orthodox to preserve the truth of the Christian revelation. The identification with the familial community, rather than discipline through centralized authority , is the life – breath of the church. From this flows the communitarian ethos of the church and the fine balance achieved between democratic functioning and Episcopal maturity. The role of the bishop is to sanction in the name of the church an action performed by the Holy Spirit, expressed as the unanimous will of all the members of the church, present and invisible, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. This principle sustains the democratic orientation of the Orthodox community, indeed of all Eastern Churches.
The Constitution of the Orthodox Church in India ( which has retained the traditional name , Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church was brought into force on 26 December 1934, with some amendments made later in 1951 and 1967.
Article 4 defines membership of the church: “ All men and women who have received Holy Baptism and believe in the divinity of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Holy Church , and the application of the Nicene Creed , three – in – all, the divine inspiration of the Holy Traditions, the intercession of the Mother of God and the Saints, the commemoration of the departed ones, the administration of the seven sacraments and the canonical observances like fasting , and have accepted the obligation to observe them, will be members of the Church.”
The Structure of Governance
The Constitution defines the institutional structure of the Church for preserving its integrity and autonomy and for administering its spiritual , ecclesiastical and temporal functions . It upholds the historical tradition that the Patriarchate of Syria and the Catholicate of the East freely function, each in its own sphere, mutally respecting and not interfering in each other's domain . the church is self – governing under the ethical and spiritual guidance of its ecclesiastical head .
The representative basis of self – governance is assured at all the three levels – th parish , the diocese and the church as a whole . The Parish Assembly of all its members elects the Managing Committee each year from among the lay members . The vicar, appointed by the Diocesan Metropolitan is the joint – steward, together with the elected lay trustee of the assets of the parish, and presides over the managing committee and the parish assembly.
Likewise, the diocese is administered through the Diocesan Council representing all the parishes. It is presided over by the Diocesan Metropolitan and assisted by the Diocesan Secretary .
At the apex, the Church has a representative Association , by the traditional name of Malankara Syrian Christian Association. It consists of the priest and two lay members elected by each Parish Assembly . The Church Managing Committee is drawn from among the members of the Association . the Catholicos, as the Malankara Metropolitan, presides over the Association and the Managing Committee . Those prelates having administrative charge of a diocese are vice - presidents of the Association.
The Catholicate in India
“I am the good shepherd”
The good shepherd lays down his life fir his sheep”
This verse (John 10:11 ), recited at the consecration of the Catholicos, echoes the essence of the Christian calling, personified by him.
The Catholicos is the supreme head of the Orthodox Church in India . The present Catholicos is the 89 th chronological successor to the Catholicate of the East founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in Seleucia , later revived in Tigris and relocated in 1912 in Kottayam.
The prime jurisdiction regarding the temporal, ecclesiastical and spiritual administration of the church is vested in him, in his capacity as the Metropolitan of theMalankara Archdiocese. He is the trustee of the central assets of the Church, together with two elected co-trustees, a priest and a lay member of the Association.
The Malankara Metropolitans, is elected by the Malankara Association and approved by the Holy Episcopal Synod .
The Catholicos presides over the Holy Episcopal Synod which is the supreme authority in all matters concerning faith, order and discipline in the Church.
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What indeed is the Orthodox Church ?
Most people in India have heard about Roman Catholics and Protestants , but know very little about the Orthodox . They assume every Christian has to be either Roman Catholic or Protestant. There are more than 150 million Orthodox Christians in the world today - in Russia Romania, Ethiopia , Egypt , Syria , Armenia , India , Greece , Bulgaria , Serbia , America , Europe , Asia , Africa and Australia . We are now in two families: the Oriental Orthodox comprising the five ancient churches of Egypt , Syria , Armenia , India and Ethiopia , and perhaps now a sixth formed this year in June, the Erithrean Orthodox church, still waiting to be recognized by all. This family has a total membership of some 35 million, including around two million in India . The other family is larger, with more than 120 million members, in some 20 national Eastern Orthodox churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in Istanbul , Turkey . The two families separated from each other in the 6 th century, but hold to the same faith and tradition to this day, after 13 centuries of separation.
In today's parlance, “ Orthodox” means ‘conservative' strict in observances, unwilling to change . That was not the original meaning when the word was actually created by the Church in the 4 th century. Orthos doxadzein was a Greek expression of ‘ rightly glorifying through the right doxologia:' “Glory be to The Father , and to The Son, and to The Holy Spirit”. The Arian Heretics had changed the doxology to suit their heresy – i.e., that only the Father is God, and that the son and the Holy Spirit are merely creatures. Their new doxology was: Glory be to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. That gives glory only to the Father, the two persons becoming channels or instruments.
The Pillar foundation of the Orthodox Church ( both the families ) is the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God incarnate as a Human Being, as testified to by the Apostolic witness and teaching . To be in continuity and communion with that Apostolic heritage and teaching of the One Undivided Church of the early few centuries is the touchstone of the Orthodox faith , not any particular dogma. The Orthodox are united in denying any authority for one national church over other national Churches. They are therefore unanimous in rejecting the claims of the Pope of Rome to have authority or jurisdiction over anything other than the Western church . The principle is that each national or regional church should be autocephalous, that is, having its own head and not normally dependent on other churches for consecration of new bishops or for maintaining continuity . Every autocephalous Orthodox Church is governed by its own Synod, and represents in itself the fullness of the Church - not just part of a Universal Church , but the whole Church fully present in the locality, nation or region. The India Orthodox Church too represents the fullness of the Church . It is not under any other Church or Prelate outside .
We believe that all of us human beings have come from God in Christ, and subsist in Him, irrespective of whether one is Christian or not. to be human is to be in Christ . God is our origin; in Him we subsist; without Him we are nothing ; and in Him we shall find our fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of all. He is the Saviour of the Whole Universe, including the unseen dimensions of the Universe. No human being, in fact nothing in Creation, is alien to Him. Except Sin, Darkness and Evil. Christ is the Light in all human beings . As the Prologue to the Gospel of John puts it: He is Light, and the true Light that illumines every human being coming into this world.
Christ loves the whole of humanity , and the whole of Creation, and the Christian cannot set lower limits for his or her own love. Universal love for all is the nature of Christ and that should be the nature of Christians as well. God is Love and where Unfeigned Love is present , there the Presence of God can be experienced .
For the Orthodox , true worship of God with genuine compassionate love for all is more important than Dogma or Creed. Where there is a failure of love, there is the failure of the Church; for the Church's main task is to manifest that love. And many indeed, as well as tragic, are the failures of love in the long history of the Church. Divisions and wars , oppression and exploitation, corruption and injustice, cruelty and violence – these are basic failures of love, whether in the Church or in the life nations.
We believe that Humanity is ultimately One, and that all divisions and groupings, whether of nation or race, of culture or religion, of language or caste, of economic status or social rank , have no final validity, and are meant to be transcended. Humanity is also One with the God – given Environment, and is its Steward and Caretaker, responsible for respecting it and cherishing it.
There are moments when I feel truly ashamed of the record of the Christian Church . Where have Wars and Colonialism - Imperialism come from in this century? Which nations are the strongholds of the perpetrators of global cultural and economic injustice today ? Which nations are the creators of the oppressively dehumanizing urban – industrial technological civilization in which most of humanity lives and feels suffocated today? Which nations have the major responsibility for the present Environmental disruption? Which nations lead in the death – dealing arms trade and armament race today ? The answer is obvious – those nations which were called “ Christian Nations”! I hang my head in shame.
This is not to ignore or undervalue the tremendous self – sacrificing labours of Christians throughout the two millennia, their role in promoting a moral order in the world with some semblance of justice; their persevering work with the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the outcast, their positive role in health and education, governance and peace –keeping. That is a noble record indeed; but in the minds of many the dark side f the record is dominant.
Here is the challenge today, before the Orthodox Church, as before other churches and religions . We have oppressed, exploited , ignored, neglected or despised large segments of humanity. We continue to do so. Today the world is waiting for the Church and the Religions to become authentic and creative , so that the darkness enveloping humanity can be dispelled , and the pall of gloom that lies over the earth be lifted . May the Light of God shine through the Orthodox Church as well as through other. Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu . Peace be with you. A Blessed New Year to all of You .
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