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 ‘Mar Thoma’ 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. ‘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 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 ‘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 ‘Mar Thoma Syrian Church’. 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 namely the “orthodox”
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 ‘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 21 Dioceses now, 15 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 Marthoma Mathews II, 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.