The Indian Orthodox Church - A Brief History
- Sourced from M.G.O.C.S.M1 publicationsThe Indian Orthodox Church also known as the 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 part of the sub-continent.
The St. Thomas Christians or the Syrian Christians exist at present in different churches and denominations. But a major section of the parent body of St. Thomas Christians which has maintained its independent nature constitute the Indian Orthodox Church under the Catholicate of the East with headquarters at Devalokam, Kottayam, Kerala, India.
The beginning of the Church
That the Apostle Thomas, one of the Twelve, is the founder of the St. Thomas Christians has been well established. Christian writers and representatives of the Churches at least from the 4th century refer to the evangelistic labours of the Apostle Thomas in India and the Indian Christians ascribe the origin of their Church to this event in the first century.
It is reasonable to believe that the Apostle came to India, preached the Gospel, established the Church and died here as Martyr. Tradition has it that the Apostle Thomas established Seven Churches in Kerala and appointed Priests for them from 4 families.
The Persian Connection
The Indian Church came in contact with the East Syrian Church possibly from the 4th century. There is 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 influences. The Vatican Codex 22, written in Cranganore in 1301 gives the title as "The Metropolitan of the Throne of St. Thomas and of the whole Church of the Christian 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.
The Portuguese Period
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 throughout 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 which led to a general revolt in 1653 known commonly as the Coonan2 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.
A body of the people led by the Archdeacon, who stood for the administrative autonomy of the Indian Church inspite of serious difficulties, was determined to keep 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 party in the Church to the Roman Catholic community, an equally important party did not follow their way.
The Antiochene connection
The party that sought to preserve the Church's freedom appealed to several Eastern Christian Centers for help in restoring its episcopal succession. The Antiochene Syrian Patriarch 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 Mar Thoma by the laying on of hands by 12 Presbyters was now confirmed by him in his episcopal rank and both of them worked together to organize the church on a firm footing. Mar Thoma I was followed in succession by a series of Prelates with the same name till 1816 when the last of them namely Mar Thoma IX 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 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 Antiochene Syrian Patriarch was without any idea of formally submitting to his jurisdiction but only for an overall spiritual supervision and for keeping friendly relations.
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 Church Mission Society (C.M.S)
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 - Metropolitan Mar Dionysius II.
From 1816 the experiment of cooperation 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 bodies. One of them, a reformed group tried to make 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 organize itself as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. A small 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.
Catholicate established in Malankara in 1912
In this conflict the Metropolitan obtained the support of Patriarch Mar Abdul Messiah the immediate successor to Patriarch Peter III. Patriarch Peter III was succeeded in 1895 by Mar Abdul Messiah. Because of state interference, he lost his position in Turkey and came to be replaced by Mar Abdullah. While Metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI clashed with Mar Abdullah, the Canonical senior Patriarch Mar Abdul Messiah offered to come to the assistance of the former. 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 15th 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 co-operation of the Canonical Patriarch Mar Abdul Messiah who was senior to Mar Abdullah. 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 "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 tittle "Catholicos of the East" originated. Catholicos is an ecclesiastical dignitary recognized in the Antiochene 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. 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 Malankara Orthodox Church. It is the Association which elects the Catholicos and 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 the Malankara Metropolitan as its 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. The canonised saints of our church are St.Gregorios of Parumala, St.Dionysius and St.Baselios. 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 25 Dioceses now, 19 of them in Kerala and 6 of outside Kerala i.e., 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. The St.Mary's Indian Orthodox Church, Melbourne belongs to the Diocese of Madras. The Indian Orthodox Church is hence an ancient, autonomous, independent Indian Church whose Supreme Head is His Holiness The Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan.