It can only be a gift of Grace that the faith and tradition of a small community of the early Christians in India have remained alive and vibrant throughout nearly two thousand years. The early Christians of India (mainly on the southern coast) were known as Thomas Christians as the Church in India was founded by St. Thomas the apostle. This is attested by West Asian writings since the 2nd century (The Doctrine of the Apostle Thomas and the Acta Thomae), both of which were written at or near Edessa ca 200-250 AD - St. Ephrem, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregorios Nazianzen, in the 4th century; St. Jerome, ca 400 AD, and historians Eusabius ca 338 and Theodore, of the 5th century.
Against the background of trade between India and west Asia since ancient times, travel 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 St. Thomas Christians. 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 4th century, St. Ephrem and St. John Chrysostom 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 CHRISTIANS
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 includes 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 2.5 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 Indian Church is, at the same time, a distinctive and respected part of the rich religious mosaic that is India.
Until the 16th century, there was only one Church in India, concentrated mainly in the south west. The seven original churches were located at Malankara, Palayur (near Chavakkad), Koovakayal (near North Paravur), Kokkamangalam, Kollam, Niranam and Nilackel (Chayal). Of the same pattern adopted by the other Apostles, 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 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 good will of the other religious communities as well as the political support of the Hindu rulers. 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 Selucia and Tigris.
LINKS WITH PERSIA
The Persian connection of the Indian Churches has to be seen in the context of the internal dissension and state persecution of Christians in Persia from the 5th century. A synod of the Persian Church (410 AD) affirmed the faith of Nicea and acknowledged the Metropolitan of Selucia-Ctesphion 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 ‘Nestorain’ and its head to assume the title of Patriarch of the East (Babylon). From their base in the then flourishing theological school of Nisibis, Nestorain missionaries began moving to India, Central Asia, China and Ethiopia to teach their doctrines - probably associating with the work of St. Thomas the apostle, whom the Persians must have venerated as the founder of their own church.
By the 7th century, specific references of the Indian Church began to appear in Persian records. The Metropolitan of India and the Metropolitan of China are mentioned in the consecration records of Patrithe 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 Asia, a Maphrianate of the anti-Chalcedonians was established by Mar Marutha, a native Persian, became the first 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 of its own faith and culture. It received with the 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 by internal causes and the impact of Islam, affecting both the Nestorian Patriarchate of the East (Babylon) and the 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.
THE COLONIAL ERA
The post-Portuguese story of the Church in India from the 16th century is relatively well documented. In their combined zeal to colonize and proselytize, 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 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 ( slanting Cross) in Mattancherry in 1653, 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 up to Mar Thoma IX till 1816. At the request of the Thomas Christians, the 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 Syrian Orthodox Church, as it happened, in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the Indian Church.
History repeated itself in another form when the British 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 safe-guarding 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, ripen rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the relocation in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East originally in Selucia and later in Tigris and the consecration of the first Indian Catholicos—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 and independent Church linked to the Orthodox Syrian Church of the Patriarch of Antioch, and third, the accord of 1958, by which Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub 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 of peace, within and beyond the Orthodox community.
(Courtesy: Th Orthodox Church in India: Towards the Third Millennium, by lateH.G.Paulose Mar Grgorios .)
MALANKARA ORTHODOX CHURCH ORIGINS OF DIVISIONS
Malankara Orthodox Church is an ancient Church of India and it traces its origin to as far back as A. D. 52 when St. Thomas one of the Disciples of Jesus Christ came to India and established Christianity in the South Western parts of the sub-continent. The St. Thomas Christians or the Syrian Christians exist at present in different churches and denominations.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CHURCH
It is a well established fact that the Apostle Thomas, one of the twelve is the founder of the St Thomas Christians. Christian writers and representatives of the Churches at least from the 4th century refer to the evangelistic labostle Thomas in India and the Indian Christians ascribe the origin of their Church to this event in the first century.
The Indian Church came in contact with the East Syrian Church possibly from the 4th century. In the 5th century, the church of Persia came to its own. The Catholicos with his seat at Seleucia Ctesiphon began to be called also Patriarch and in 486 A.D. The church officially accepted a resolution in its Synod to recognise Nestorius as a Saint and Church Father. This decision was not however accepted by a minority of Persian Christians who acknowledged a Catholicos at Tagrit in northern Mesopotamia as their spiritual head in 629A.D.
We have evidence that in the 8th century the Indian Church had its Primate known as "The Metropolitan and the Gate of All India" a title adopted presumably under Islamic influence. The Vatican Codex 22, written in Cranganore in 1301 gives the titles as ‘The Metropolitan of the Throne of St. Thomas and of the whole Church of the Christians in India." The Indian Church maintained its autonomous administration. The Church of Persia had a tradition which acknowledged autonomy of Churches in its communion abroad. The Church in Kerala continued as an administratively independent community till the 16th century.
Things changed during the Portuguese period. The missionaries who came from abroad were eager to bring the Indian Church into communion with Rome. They worked on it almost through the 16th century. In 1599 by the Synod of Diamper; the assembly of representatives from churches was forced to give up the Indian Church’s connection with the Patriarch of the Persian Church in favour of the Pope of Rome. But there was dissatisfaction among the people. This dissatisfaction led to a general revolt in 1653 known commonly as the Coonan Cross revolt. Portuguese efforts to put it down by force did not succeed. Now Rome entered the field directly through Missionaries, and a section of those who rebelled went back to Roman allegiance.
Vast majority of Malankara Christians, led by the Archdeacon, who stood for the administrative autonomy of the Indian Church in-spite of serious difficulties were determined to keep to the independence of the Indian Church. The Portuguese were in fact instrumental in causing a division in the one united church in India. Although they succeeded in getting the allegiance of a section in the Church to the Roman Catholic community, an equally important section did not follow their way.
CONNECTION WITH ANTHIOCH
The section that sought to preserve the Church’s freedom appealed to several Eastern Christian Centres for help in restoring its Episcopal succession. The Syrian Patriarch of Anthioch responded and sent to India a Bishop, Metropolitan Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem who came to India in 1665. The Archdeacon who had been declared in the meantime to be Metropolitan â€˜Mar Thomaâ€™ by the laying on of hands by twelve Presbyters was now confirmed by him in his Episcopal rank, and both of them worked together to organise the church on firm footing. â€˜Mar Thoma Iâ€™ was followed in succession by a series of Prelates with the same name till 1816 when the last of them namely â€˜Mar Thoma IXâ€™ came to the scene, but was soon replaced by Mar Dionysius II Malankara Orthodox Church had felt the need of assistance for establishing systematic education for its clergy, teaching the people in the faith, instructing the clergy in properly celebrating the liturgical services and above all assistance in the maintenance of the Episcopal succession intact. But the Orthodox Church maintained its autonomous administration and life under local leadership. Even the help from the Antioch Syrian Patriarch was without any idea of formally submitting to his jurisdiction, but only for an over all spiritual supervision and of keeping to a friendly relation. There were differences of opinion over the authority of the Patriarch in the Malankara Church and it created certain difficulties. But the Church has always been successful in maintaining its freedom and never allowed any foreign domination.
CO-OPERATION WITH THE C. M. S.(CHURCH MISSION SOCIETY)
By 1795 the British established themselves in South India and Kerala came under their sway. During the time of Col. Munroe who was the British Resident in Kerala, Pulikottil Ittoop Ramban expressed his interest in founding a Seminary for the teaching of the Church’s Clergy. The Resident supported him and the seminary was founded in 1815. Pulikottil Ittoop Ramban became a Bishop â€˜Metropolitan Mar Dionysius II. From 1816 the experiment of co-operation between the Malankara Church and the C M. S of the Anglican Church was carried on, but it was found to be unsuccessful and was called off in 1836. This incident led to the division of the community into three. One of them a reformed group tried to bring about serious reforms in the liturgy and practices of the Church as a whole but failed. After about half a century of conflict within the church this body had to withdraw and organise itself as the â€˜Mar Thoma Syrian Churchâ€™. A smaller body of the Syrian Christians opted to join with the missionaries and be absorbed in the Anglican Church. The majority of the community continued in the Church without accepting the reforms.
AUTHORITY OF THE PATRIARCH OF ANTIOCH
The conflict between the reformation group and the orthodox which opposed it, was a serious development in the church during the 19th century. This led to the latter to appeal for help from the Antioch Syrian Patriarch. In 1875 Patriarch Peter Ill came to Kerala and held a Synod of representatives of Churches at Mulanthuruthy in 1876. This Synod adopted a number of resolutions including an admission that the Church would continue in the communion of the Patriarch and the Syrian Church of Antioch. However the Patriarch tried to see in these decisions more than the Indian Church really wanted to acknowledge.
Following the Synod of Mulanthuruthy in 1876 a litigation in court between the party in favour of the reforms and the party against it continued. It came to an end in 1889 with the judgement announced in favour of the latter by the then highest court of Kerala, the Royal Court of Appeal. The majority in a panel of three judges gave their verdict admitting that from the middle of the 18th century an over -all spiritual supervision used to be exercised by the Patriarch over the Malankara Church and that he had a right to claim it.
Patriarch Peter Ill was not satisfied with this judgement. He was keen to establish that he had full authority over the Malankara Church both in its spiritual and in its temporal matters and not merely an over all spiritual supervision. In fact he protested, though nobody responsible in the matter took note of it. His second successor Patriarch Mar Abdullah 11 was determined to follow up the matter. With this intention he came to Kerala in 1909 and pressed the issue. But that led to a sad division in the Church, from 1 911, one party siding with the Patriarch (Jacobites) and the other (Orthodox) lining up with Metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI of Vattasseril who stood against him and wanted to keep up the independence of Malankara Church.
CATHOLICATE ESTABLISHED IN MALANKARA IN 1912
In this conflict the Metropolitan could obtain the support of Patriarch Mar Abdul Messiah the immediate successor to Patriarch Peter Ill. Patriarch Peter III was succeeded in 1895 by Mar Abdul Messiah. By a state interference he had lost his position in Turkey and came to be replaced by Mar Abdulla. While metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI clashed with Mar Abdullah, the Canonical senior Patriarch Abdul Messiah offered to come to the assistance of the former(Mar Dionysius). Thus in 1912 he came to Kerala and associated with Mar Dionysius VI and the Bishops and the Church with him, to establish the Catholicate of the East in Malankara. The ceremony was held at St. Mary’s Church, Niranam on 15 September 1912. (Niranam Church is one of the seven Churches founded by St. Thomas during his visit here in the first century.)
The Catholicate of the East was thus established in Malankara, with the cooperation of the canonical Patriarch Abdul Messiah, who was senior to Mar Abdulla. Thereby the Patriarch himself has withdrawn his right of spiritual oversight if any in the Indian Church, which the Royal Court of Appeal had acknowledged for him in 1889. The designation â€˜Catholicos of the East’ to the successors of St. Thomas the Apostle was given by the Jerusalem Synod of AD 231. The head quarters of the Orthodox Church of the East was first at Uraha (Edessa) in Persia. This was moved to ‘Selucia’ and it was there the title ‘Catholicos of the East’ originated. Catholicos is an ecclesiastical dignitary recognised in the Antiochien Syrian Church also. He is equal in rank with the Patriarch though the latter is considered as first among equals (primus interparees)
CONSTITUTION OF THE CHURCH ADOPTED IN 1934
Malankara Orthodox Church is now administered as per the constitution adopted in 1934 which was passed by the Malankara Syrian Christian Association. The Association is a fully representative body of the church with elected members - priests and laymen - from all the Parish Churches. Now one priest each and laymen 1 to 10 depending on the number of members in each parish are members of the Association. There are about 1400 parishes under the Malankara Orthodox Church. It is the Association which elects the Catholicos and the Malankara Metropolitan and also the Bishops.
There is a Managing Committee for the Association with members from each Diocese elected by the Association. The Malankara Metropolitan is the President of the Managing Committee and the remaining Prelates having administrative charge are the Vice-Presidents.The Association Managing Committee has a Working Committee with Malankara Metropolitan as the President. The Working Committee is also the Consultative Committee of the Malankara Metropolitan.
The Episcopal Synod has all the Prelates of the Malankara Church as members. Matters concerning Faith, Order and Discipline are under the authority of the Episcopal Synod. It is the Episcopal Synod which installs the Catholicos.
The Indian Church has an Apostolic foundation. Now with the establishment of the Catholicate in 1912 the Orthodox Church has come to its own.Although majority of the members of the church numbering about 2.5 million live in Kerala, they could be found now spread over not only in all the different states of India, but also in all the continents through out the world. There are a total of 23 Dioceses now, 17 of them in Kerala and 6 of them outside Kerala, ie: Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, America and the Diocese of Canada-UK-Europe. Parishes outside India, other than those in the two Dioceses of America and Canada-UK-Europe are included in the four Dioceses of Madras, Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. Orthodox Church is an Ancient, Autonomous, Independent, Indian Church whose Supreme Head is His Holiness The Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan, with headquarters at Catholicate Aramana, Baselios MorThoma Didimos I. as the Catholicos and Malankara Metropolitan is vested with all spiritual, ecclesiastical and temporal powers over the entire Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, its Dioceses, Parishes and members wherever they are situated or resident.
MALANKARA CHURCH FEUD: REAL ISSUES
If we examine, we can understand that disputes dissensions and divisions were the very essence of Christian Church history. Till 313 AD Christianity was the religion of the poor and the have-nots, of the destitute and of the downtrodden. It was Christ who kindled hopefulness of a better life for them. So these persecuted used to hide in the caves and meet there together to rekindle their faith in Christ and to share the little food they have among themselves. Thus the original Christianity was of the poor. Emperor Constantine of Constantinople made Christianity the State religion.
Thence it became a Royal Church with 3 features of
(2) Worldly possessions in the form of church edifices, convents, asramams, educational institutions, hospitals and mundane reproductive capital of all sorts to create more income for rendering more christian services to the poor.; and
(3) Structural & organizational form with Prelates like Pope, Catholicose, Patriarchs, Arch Bishops, Bishops, episcopes and their holy seas, dioceses and bishoprics.
These worldly acquisitions and Positions led to personal differences and one-upmanship. Thus new groups and churches arose. Later they attributed dogmas and liturgy for these new churches. This is how the two thousand plus Christian churches of today came into being. The latest we know is the new Society created by Mar Thomas Dionysius, the newly created Sreshta Catholicose of the Patriarch faction in Kerala.
DISPUTES AND DIVISIONS IN CHRISTENDOM
The first major division in Christendom was the Separation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in 451 AD after the Chalcedon Synod. The second was in 1054 AD when the Byzantine Churches got separated from the main stream. The third division was in the 15th century when Calvin and Luther created their own new churches. Thus including Catholics, there are 4 major divisions and over 2000 sub-groups.
DISPUTES AMONG ST.THOMAS CHRISTIANS
This sort of division was repeated in every part of the world where Christianity existed including in Kerala. Here St. Thomas Christians existed from 52 AD. They were a free group ruled by their Arch Deacons. Christian travellers and missionaries from other parts of the World used to visit, influence and even rule them for short periods. Now we have plenty of Christian churches in Kerala.
Syrian, Roman, Latin, Knanite, and Antioch an Rite Catholics with many exclusive orders of priests and nuns in each of them; the Malankara Orthodox Church; Former Jacobite Church now transmuted to the New Society Church; Church of South India with many sub-groups like Syrians, London Mission, Dalits, Bassel Mission etc; Mar Thoma Church with Sathyam & Pathyam factions; Kaldaya Nestorians; Thozhiyoor Church; Yooyomayam; Brethrens of many hues; Salvation Army; Many kinds of Pentecosts and churches of Individual pastors. In short, division and dissentions are the rule in Christendom. Hence decrying the present day disputes among Christians as unchristian is denial of Christian history.
A Christian Church is a particular faith with its own liturgy and dogmas. Any change in them leads to another Church. A church also has its spirituality, structure and worldly possessions. Today without these 3 features a church cannot exist. The Prelate of the Church is the main trustee. His Bishops and priests are his representatives. They have a two-fold duty to dispense spiritual services to the people and to protect the structure and the worldly possessions of the Church.
Can any Christian Church go back today to the pristine and ideal Christian life that existed among our forefathers in the 1st or 2nd century AD? Impossible. So, saying that one is neutral in disputes, or such disputes are unchristian is only evasion of the problem. It is sheer escapism.