The Vision for the Orthodox Church of India

Written By: on Jun 4th, 2013 and filed under Articles, Features, Youth And Faith.

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I consider it a great blessing to have this opportunity of participating in the 17th centenary celebrations of the martyrdom of St. George. I recall with great pleasure my visits to this church on several occasions in the past. However today’s is my first visit after the reconstruction of the church building. The architectural beauty and majesty of the buildings impress me enormously and I congratulate the Puthuppally Parish for undertaking this work in such a highly satisfactory manner. Puthuppally Parish has the great distinction of having produced some of the most eminent leaders of the Orthodox church who had served the church with great devotion and dedication in the critical years of its troubles and tribulations. I would particularly acknowledge with gratitude the contributions of great leaders like Rao Saheb O.M. Cherian, Justice K.K. Lukose, Z.M. Paret and the pride of the Puthuppally parish, Mathews Mar Ivanios for preserving the independence of the church. I recall with great pleasure my friendship with the late Z.M. Paret, the illustrious historian of the Orthodox church. For him the completion of the eight volumes of church history was a ‘tapasya’ or a ‘yajna’ which he undertook as his duty to his mother church. On this occasion I also recall an anecdote narrated by Z. M. Paret in the presence of Mathews Mar Ivanios when both us together called on him at Puthuppally. When Malankara Metropolitan Vattasseril Mar Dionysius who was the guru Fr. Paret pressed him about a couple of years before the Metropolitan’s demise to agree to be elevated to the position Bishop, Fr. Paret had politely declined saying that he had not received the ‘divine call’ (dhei-va-vi-Li) for it yet. The Metropolitan ~hided his disciple by saying that ‘divine call’ did not mean that God Almighty would come to his room and catch him by his hand and tell him to become a Bishop. He told Fr. Paret that when people like him tell him that he should agree to become a Bishop he should consider it as a ‘divine call’ and it was his duty to obey it. However, Fr. Paret evaded giving a positive reply as he had felt that he should remain a priest for some more years to serve his home parish of Puthuppally.

There are no clear historical evidences to prove when exactly the connection between St. George and the church in Malankara had started. The fact that a large number of Malankara Nazranis carry the name of the saint in its different variations, George, Geevarughese, Varkey, Varughese, etc., and that there are several scores of churches in Kerala instituted in the sacred memory of St. George, show the strength of the relationship between the saint and the Malankara Church. I am sure the Puthuppally Parish will arrange to undertake further researches on the origins of the sacred relationship between the Saint and the church in Malankara and Puthuppally parish in particular.

I understand that several members of the Orthodox church from various parts of the country are present here today to participate in the 17th centenary of the Saint’s martyrdom. I wish to avail of this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the vision that we should have about the future of our church and the aims and objectives which we should keep in view in carrying out this vision. Some people may wonder why I should be talking about the objectives and aims or the directions in which the Church should proceed at this stage of its history.

After a prolonged saga of tensions and conflicts, we have today the satisfaction of having achieved almost everything that we wished to achieve through the unambiguous judgments of the highest court of the land. In the long history of the Malankara church spanning over a period of 2000 years, the 100 years from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century (when the Supreme court passed this historic judgment of 1958), have been years of great troubles and tensions which few other Christian churches in the world had ever to encounter in their relations with other churches. The heads of the Malankara Church or the Malankara Metropolitans chosen by the democratic process of election by the representatives of the clergy and the laity were subjected to the humiliating experience of being `excommunicated’ by the Patriarchs of Antioch who had no legal or ecclesiastical authority whatsoever to do so. The Patriarchs who committed such unwarranted acts against the duly elected prelates of the church were not constrained by the principles of natural justice or of Rule of Law which were all alien to their traditions and culture. They chose to indulge in such high handed and arbitrary acts because they could create a division in the church and retain the allegiance of one section of the Malankara church. The most important question now is what should be done by us in order to protect and preserve our rights from future encroachments and assaults by persons who have no legal or spiritual authority to resort to such acts.

I have to turn the pages of history a bit to explain to you how the church was forced to put up with such bitter experiences for over a hundred years. I should also point out the sad fact that we have ourselves been partly responsible for placing the Antiochian yoke over our necks because of our great fear that we would otherwise be overpowered by the rising clout of Western missionaries backed by their foreign political patrons.

We have always taken pride in the fact that the Malankara church had been an Apostolic church established at the sacred hands of St. Thomas the apostle of Jesus Christ as early as AD 52. But what will surprise anyone looking at the history of our church is the fact that for a period of 1900 years, that is till 1912, our fore fathers had not bothered to take the required steps to establish its well-deserved and most necessary status as an autocephalous church. They appeared to have been contented by maintaining occasional contacts with the Eastern Orthodox churches in Babylon, Persia, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc., and happy with the fact that the affairs of their church and of the Nazrani community were administered by local leaders elected by them as their Archdeacons. Even after liberating themselves through the historic Coonen Kurissu oath from the 54 years old Papal over lordship (1599- 1653) imposed on the church by the Portugese authorities in India our forefathers did not think of asserting the `selfhood’ of the church for consecrating its own ecclesiastical heads. Instead the Malankara church after the 1653 oath for very inexplicable reasons approached certain churches in the Middle East with a request to send a Bishop to formally complete the consecration of Archeadeacon Parampil Thomas who had been elected by them as the Metropolitan of the Church. Finally a Metropolitan arrived from Antioch and completed these formalities and Archdeacon Thomas was proclaimed as Metropolitan Marthoma I of Malankara.

For the next nearly 200 years none of the churches in the Middle East including Antioch ever tried to establish spiritual or temporal authority over the Malankara church. It continued to function as an autonomous church acknowledging no authority outside Malankara as its spiritual head. However, certain subsequent steps taken by the church to ward off the rising influence of foreign protestant missionaries and by the protestant reforms movement started by some influential members of the Malankara church led to most disastrous repercussions.

The first time a candidate for the position of Malankara Metropolitan chose to go to Antioch to be consecrated in that position by the Patriarch of Antioch was when Palakunnathu Mathews Mar Athanasios took that course in 1842. However, when the Church realized that the new Malankara Metropolitan was keen on implementing his own agenda of introducing Protestant reforms in the church, it rebelled against his actions. In order to protect the church from being sucked into the protestant faith, the Malankara church resorted to the unusual step of proclaiming its allegiance to the Antiochian patriarch, which act they thought, would prove to be a powerful shield against protestant subversion. In the litigation that followed the newly formed Marthoma church lost its claims as the authentic Malankara Church and it chose to function as a separate church with no linkages with Antioch or the Malankara authorities. Earlier in 1836 our forefathers had declared through a formal document executed at Mavelikara (known as the Mavelikara Padiyola ) pledging total subservience to the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch. Thus the fear of protestant subversion drove us into the fold of Antioch and the church in that process lost the autonomous status it had enjoyed over since its inception in AD 52.

The visit of the first Patriarch from Antioch to Malankara, namely, Peter III in 1875 marked an important turning point in the history of the Malankara church. Peter III convened a meeting of the church representatives at Mulanthurithi in 1876 and made them agree to several declarations and pledges which resulted in the total subordination of the church to the authority of Antioch. The Patriarch had no authority, civil or spiritual to do what he did in Malankara which in t11any respects was an attempt at the ‘Arabisation’ of the culture and traditions of the Malankara church, but in its anxiety to stem the tide of Protestantism it allowed itself practically to become almost a parish of the church in Syria with disastrous consequences. The Malankara church succeeded in preventing the take-over of the church by the C.M.S. missionaries as well as by the reformist movement started by the Mar Thoma group by accepting the over lordship of Antioch, but the remedy proved to be worse than the disease; VeLukkan theChathu PaanDaayi poya Anubhavam. The Malankara church found itself for the first time in its 2000 years history in danger of altogether losing its autonomy and having been reduced to the level of a unit under the Church of Antioch.

The successor to Patriarch III Mar Abdulla who visited Malankara during 1909-1911 tried to formalize Antiochian supremacy over Malankara by demanding written agreements from the Bishops and various parishes conceding to the Patriarch both spiritual and temporal authority over them. The unprecedented act of ex-communication of Vattasseril Mar Dionysius the duly elected Metropolitan of Malankara and the attempted ‘suspension’ of the Metropolitan in 1932 by Mar Julios, a mere resident delegate of the Patriarch in Malankara, were the worst examples of high handedness on the part of the Antiochan authorities. But worse was to follow. The Malankara church had adopted a new constitution in 1934, which according to Article 94 had vested the authority for the spiritual and temporal administration of the church solely with the Malankara Metropolitan. The Supreme Court in its historic judgment of 1958 had unequivocally recognized the validity of the institution of the Catholicate in 1912 and the binding nature of the constitution of 1934 for the entire church. In spite of all these facts Patriarch Yakub III chose to repeat the thoroughly high handed act earlier committed by Patriarch Abdulla of \ex- communicating) the Catholicos and Malankara Metropolitan in 1975. It is amazing that the Patriarch could resort to exercise powers which he or his church never possessed, ignoring the provisions of the constitution of the church and the judgments of the highest court of justice in the country. But this is what exactly happened.

The question before us now is whether we can allow such things to happen in future. There is no point in trying to acknowledge the authority of the Patriarch subject to the provisions of the constitution of 1934 as the Patriarchs have shown no inclination to respect that constitution. Some people may say that as per Article 101 of the 1934 constitution the Patriarch cannot exercise any authority over the church unless he had been elected with the co-operation of the Catholicos and recognized as canonically consecrated as patriarch by the church. But then these constitutional provisions and legal niceties are relevant only in countries like ours which believe in Democracy, the Rule of Law and the authority of the Supreme court to interpret the Law and the constitution. We should remember that we are dealing with certain authorities who function from countries like Syria or Iraq which have no traditions of democracy or commitment to Rule of Law. Therefore, it is important that we guard ourselves against repetition of what had happened in the past.

It is my considered view that the only way of ensuring that we would not have to suffer the indignities and injustices of the past is to completely sever the connection of our church with the Patriarch of Antioch. This will have to be done following due process of law and without diluting the rights we have gained from the judgments of the Supreme court. The appropriate legal measures to be taken to achieve this objective should be left to the experts, but the first step required is the decision to make a complete break with our relationship with the church of Antioch which had come into force in the middle of the 19th century. Some enthusiasts about the Antiochian connection may argue that the Patriarch’s authority over the Malankara church has already been reduced to a ‘vanishing point’, and there is no harm in leaving it at that level. But we should never again take the risk of future attempts of the type taken by some patriarchs in the past to establish their authority over the Malankara church.

If we decide to take such a step there is no point in carrying out the litigation with the group known as the Jacobite Syrian Church which has unreservedly accepted the Patriarch of Antioch as the spiritual and temporal head of that Church. This group is no longer a part of the Orthodox Church of India; it has opted to separate itself from the Orthodox church and repudiated its allegiance to the Constitution of 1934 and to the Catholicate validly established in 1912. These are its own decisions and we should not question their rationale or logic. It has chosen its own constitution and has legally nothing more to do with the Malankara Orthodox Church. The only sensible thing which we in co-operation with that group should do is to recognize the fact of their separation without further recrimination or fault finding. A difficult question that would have to be tackled is one of allowing them to continue in possession of a few churches in which they have now an overwhelming majority in numbers. This would call for the evolution of a formula acceptable to both sides for deciding which are the churches which should continue to remain with them irrespective of the legal validity of our claims over such churches based on the judgment of the Supreme Court.

The time has come to take some firm decisions about our future. Even after renouncing the position of the Patriarch in our church we can continue close relations with Antioch as a sister Oriental Orthodox Church.

I am of the firm view that we should not resort to further litigation in order to oust the Jacobite group from certain churches where they enjoy an overwhelming majority in numbers. We should accept their decision to separate from the Malankara church and to remain as an integral part of the Syrian Orthodox church at Damascus as they have done already. We should deal with them with all the courtesy due to a unit of a sister church as we deal with the Marthomite church in our country which had earlier separated from us. There should be no recriminations and fault finding about the injustices of the past. Instead we should extend to the Jacobite group the hand of friendship and co- operation due to a unit of a sister church. If we are to establish permanent peace in the church we should be prepared to begin negotiations with them which could lead to the evolution of a suitable formula for the possession of some of the churches in dispute. I am aware that a small section in our church may not be very happy with the solution that I am suggesting now to restore peace and good will. But I want to ask you a question. Is the physical possession of a few more parishes more important than establishing lasting peace in the church as a whole? Why did our forefathers and we go through the enormous efforts and expenditure involved in litigation for over 90 years? Did we do that just to get possession of a few more parishes or did we do it in order to get certain fundamental principles established through the courts of law in the country? What we fought for till now and what we achieved in unequivocal terms through the judgments of the Supreme Court, were for the vindication of four
fundamental principles.

They are
(i) the independence of our church from the control of any foreign ecclesiastical authority;

(ii) the validity of the re- establishment of the Catholicate in India in 1912

(iii) the legality of the constitution of 1934 and (iv) the validity of the elections of the Malankara Metropolitan including the present Metropolitan. We have achieved all these four objectives. Should we now carry on a vendetta against our own brothers who believe that they have made a correct choice of separating from the Malankara Church? Should we bother at all about giving up our claims for a few parishes, even if their number may be about 100 or so, if that is the price we have to pay for lasting peace? I wish to remind you that if we have to lose a 100 churches in the interest of establishing peace with our brothers, we will have no difficulty whatsoever in constructing even 250 new churches in their place in less than six months’ time. The Indian Orthodox church has the will and the financial capacity to construct 250 new churches to replace the churches we may have to give up as the price for peace. Our choice has not to be based on the number of churches we gain or lose but on the vindication of the principles for which our forefathers and we fought. For me the choice is clear and I place this proposition before you to ponder over. If you find this approach acceptable we should be able to get appropriate orders from the Supreme Court itself incorporating the conditions agreed to by both parties. The details can be worked out with the assistance of legal experts, once we accept the principles and policies I am recommending for the consideration of the church.

I would like to make two other points as well. My vision for our church is that it should develop into a cent percent national church. I wish to remind you that almost all the Orthodox churches in the world take pride in their national identities. In the larger family of Orthodox churches there are five churches known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches and they are all national churches. They are the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Armenian Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Orthodox church. We will have our honoured place among the five Oriental Orthodox churches which respect each other’s independence and where no church is subordinate to another. This is the right time to take a firm decision about severing the Antiochean connection in its present form and establishing friendly relations with the newly established Jacobite church recognizing it as a unit of our sister church, namely, the Syrian Orthodox Church. Our new relationship with the Syrian Orthodox Church should be on the principle of complete equality similar to the relationship we have maintained with other Oriental Orthodox Churches. Terminating the over lordship of one Church over another is nothing new in the history of Christian churches. The Ethiopian church was once under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Coptic church of Egypt. The Armenian church was once under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople and later under the Patriarch of Russia. But in due course all these churches became completely independent of each other, without having to go through the horrifying and demeaning experiences which we had to for over a century. But let us not quarrel any more about what happened in the past. Let us draw the right lessons from the past and try to preserve our independence as the other Oriental Orthodox churches have succeeded to do.

In this connection I would like to remind my fellow members of the Indian Orthodox church that we should take pride in our identity as the national church of India. We have to remind ourselves and keep constantly informing others also that we were not converted to Christianity by colonial rulers like the Portugese or the English. Our ancestors have been Christians long before Portugal or England or Holland heard of the message of Jesus of Nazerth. We should also remember with pride that we are the inheritors of 5000 years of a glorious civilizational heritage. Our ancestors wrote the Vedas and the Gita, and proclaimed the great truths of the Upanishads at a time when most of today’s Christian world was steeped in the darkness of ignorance. Therefore, we should be proud of our Indian identity and to be known as the Indian Orthodox church and not by its historic name of the Malankara church. What we propose to do with our church or our constitution is our concern and we are not bound by the opinions and views of those who have voluntarily severed their connections with the church. Simultaneously we should not also bother about what those who left the church do with their future. One more point for your kind consideration and with that I will conclude. It is time that we have a close look at our forms of worship and see to what extent they can acquire greater Indian content. It is time that we have a good look at the ‘Thubaden’ we follow in our worship. We remember in the ‘Thubaden’ the names of several holy men about whom we know little. But surprisingly we have forgotten to include the names of even the five holy fathers who had held the eminent position of Catholicos of the East from 1912 through the process of election and democratic recognition.

In conclusion, I would plead with you that the time has arrived for taking some firm decisions about the future of our 2000 years old church. As I have already said, our vision is peace and friendship with the Jacobite group and absolute equality with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches including the Syrian Orthodox Church at Damascus. It is this vision that now beckons us for serious consideration and early action.

(This is the English translation of Dr. PC Alexander’s speech, which he delivered on 5 May 2004 at the St. George Church, Puthuppally, Kerala on the occasion of the 17th Centenary of the martyrdom of St. George. Dr. Alexander himself rendered the speech into English on the request of Mar Philoxenos of Delhi because its relevance in the present context.)

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