Kerala church plays empire
- Kerala church plays empire
By Tiki Rajwi
Picture a chessboard with multi-coloured pieces where the pawns, on attaining the far rank, are not queened but promoted as ornate bishops. Picture again, fresh diagonals being created for the new bishops, with the chequered terrain gradually swelling. The analogy aptly illustrates something significant happening to the church in Kerala, one of the oldest in Christendom.
In recent times, the churches here — many trace their ancient roots to AD 52 and the arrival of Saint Thomas the Apostle, others are factory-fresh — have witnessed a phenomenal spurt in the population of bishops and the number of dioceses. A variety of reasons — theological, political and economic — has contributed to this development, say church leaders.
Take, for instance, the ten-lakh-strong Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church. It has today 33 bishops and 15 dioceses. Seventeen of the bishops are quite recent appointments. Outside Kerala, the church has dioceses in Australia, the US, the Gulf, Kuwait, Chennai (Mylapore — where St Thomas attained martyrdom in AD 72), Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. “It’s a policy decision,” explains Fr Varghese Kallappara, spokesperson of the Church. “Our Episcopal Synod had sanctioned new dioceses and bishops in 2005 itself. We applied to the Patriarch of Antioch who is our spiritual head, and approval was given in 2009. We are planning two more bishops.”
This structural expansion of the early St Thomas Churches is born out of a spiritual imperative, reasons Gabriel Mar Gregorios, Thiruvananthapuram Bishop of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The Church boasts 26 dioceses and a like number of bishops. By May 12, it will have seven more of the latter.
“For one, the migrant Christian Malayali population has increased. Also, for the young, the St Thomas tradition is not that relevant. We see this as a serious challenge,” he says, but adds that the Church is not opening new dioceses as a knee-jerk reaction but is acceding to the spiritual demands of the diaspora. “We can take the Russian Orthodox Church as a model. It is now rooted in the American culture. They have many converts there. There is a flow to Orthodoxy,” Gabriel Mar Gregorios says.
An episcopal consecration — as the anointment of bishops is called — is a spectacle that is designed to generate awe; sceptres, mitres and red-and-gold robes ritualistically flash about on-stage as drawn-out Amens punctuate ancient lilting chants. Solemn yet majestic, it’s a ceremony that is reminiscent of the coronation of kings.
For the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, a five-lakh strong Christian denomination headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram, the 13th of last month dawned a red-letter day. Witnessed by the faithful, the Church ordained four new bishops on the day, taking its total number of shepherds to 13. Incidentally, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church was founded with merely five individuals 80 years ago. Today it boasts five lakh, a stupendous growth that prompted the late Pope John Paul II to call it the “fastest growing church”.
“It is not just a political or economic development, the Church is also growing from within,’’ says Thomas Mar Anthonios, one of the newly ordained bishops. Formerly Rev Fr Antony Valiyavilayil, Mar Anthonios heads the Major Archiepiscopal Curia. He was ordained priest 30 years ago. As bishop, he is in charge of implementing the synodal decisions and assists the Major Archbishop in charge of his duties.
The history of Christianity in Kerala — and by extension Indian Christianity — is traditionally traced back to the evangelical activities of St Thomas who is believed to have landed at Kodungallur in AD 52. Over the next few centuries, the Malankara Christians came under the influence of the Persian Church. But things started hotting up with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. They tried to impose Roman Catholicism on the native Christians. This culminated in the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor Sunnahados) in 1599, a forcible attempt at conversion.
In 1653, the native Christians mutinied, organising the Oath of Coonan Cross near Kochi’s Mattancherry. One group chose to show allegiance to the Pope (today’s Syro-Malabar Christians, for example) while the others preferred to remain aloof from the Western Church. Today, the Christian community in Kerala is divided into umpteen denominations. To the layman, their allegiances, constitutions and internal disputes can often prove labyrinthine.
Today, there are three major denominations that proffer allegiance to Vatican; the Latin Catholic community, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The latter entered into Communion with the Pope in 1930, when Mar Ivanios, a bishop of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, broke away with four other individuals, to found the church. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church have been at loggerheads over a property struggle for decades now.
The Malankara Mar Thoma Church, another St Thomas Christian rite, is in Anglican Communion. The Protestant denominations are grouped under the Church of South India (CSI). And in recent times, the Pentecostal divisions have annexed a lot of ground.
Kerala churches are also capitalising on the weakening of European dominion in the Christian world, says Fr Paul Thelakkat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church and editor of Satyadeepam. “Earlier it was a European story of the church. But today, the churches in Asia and Africa are increasingly vibrant. The European church is declining. Formerly missionaries came here. But today the trend has reversed. Our priests and nuns are the most sought after in the West,” he says.
Within the Syro-Malabar Church, there is continuous clamouring for more dioceses outside Kerala and the country. Today, it has one diocese in Chicago, which has to cater to the spiritual needs of the faithful in both the US and Canada.
But unlike independent churches like the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church which can decide on their own where and when to open dioceses or ordain bishops, the churches that are in communion with the Pope need his official sanction for doing so. “Rome does not allow jurisdiction over external dioceses at present. Churches have submitted applications in this regard, and Rome is studying them,” says Fr Stephen Alathara, secretary of the powerful Kerala Catholic Bishops Council.
The clergy’s argument that pastoral care of the faithful is the prominent reason — the other being administrative easiness — for new dioceses and bishops are rubbished by many in the community. Says Joseph Pulickunnel, a vociferous critic of the Church. According to him, the churches in Kerala, particularly the Catholic Church, are engaged in a strategy of “colonial expansion” the early Roman church had tried out, succeeded in, but in which it would ultimately fail.
“Crores of rupees — unaccounted money — are flowing to the Churches from outside. They are not interested in spreading Christian values, but in expanding their institutional network and material wealth,” he says. In Mediaeval Europe, even the hint of such a remark would have had an Inquisition hustle him off to the stake. We live in more tolerant times. But Pulickunnel is unrelenting in his tirade. He likens the growing material influence of the church to the erstwhile British Colonialism. “Christianity for them is a front to further their corporate interests. Where is Christ in it?”‘ he asks. “Buddhism was born in India. And even though the religion is no longer flourishing here, we still have the concept of Ahimsa ingrained in our hearts. Can the Church claim a similar contribution?” Amen.