Is Church Semi-Episcopal ?
- Yesterday I have read a posting in IOF forum in which the author
criticized our Catholica Bava for his recent statement that the
Jacobite Syrian Church will remain as Semi-Episcopal in its
administration. To establish that this statement of Bava Thirumeni
is wrong he said, Traditionally church is "Episcopal"
(ie; not semi-episcopal) in nature. According to St. Ignatius, where
there is a bishop there is Church. Church is Apostolic (the first
Episcopas of the Church), Catholic (Universal) and United.
Now let me explain my view on the subject.
There is no doubt that the Church is Episcopal in nature. I dont think
anyone in any Episcopal church, including Catholica Bava will deny this
fact. So I think the person who criticized our Bava Thirumeni has done
this with the malefic intention to confuse the innocent faithful.
What Our Bava Thirumeni tried to emphasize when he said that the Jacobite
Syrian Church will remain Semi-Episcopal was that, the Church will always
give freedom of administration to the independent congregations (Parishes).
This is what the Supreme Court has reaffirmed in its 1995 judgment. I dont
see anything wrong in this as long as these congregations dont deny the
Apostolic, Catholic and united nature of the Holy Church.
For further clarification on the subject, the role of Episcopacy or an
Episcopa in a Church must be defined. An Episcopa is a spiritual leader
who teaches his flocks about the faith and guides them. His authority is
in spiritual matters, not in temporal matters. Nowadays each parish has
many institutions which is developed and administered by themselves. I
dont think there is a need for a bishop to interfere in these matters of
a parish unless requested. Even then his role must be limited to that of
a guide or judge, not beyond that. I hope no one will deny the fact that
undue interference of spiritual leaders in these institutions will
ultimately lead to unwarranted situations and corrupt the whole system.
So the Church must follow a semi-Episcopal system in matters of
administration of parishes. It is this Semi-Episcopal nature that our
Catholica Bava mentioned in his speech.
Before the commencement of Portuguese aggression of the 16th century each
church in Malankara was autonomous upto a certain extent. The administrative
set up of the Syrian Christians was democratic. The affairs of the churches
were managed by the representative body or pothuyogam, presided over by the
parish priest who was elected by the pothuyogam, and ordained by the bishop.
There were training centers attached to the parishes conducted by the Malpans
who gave training in Bible, doctrines, and Syriac language. Those who got such
training were later elected by the pothuyogam for ordination.
The bishops or Jathikku Karthavyyan had only spiritual supervisory powers
over the general body and the parish in general. (Jathikku Karthavayvan
was the name of the local chief of the Christian Church, he was later called
as Archdeacon with the introduction of Nestorian faith in Malankara in the
The bishops or his equivalents were allowed to enter the churches only with
the consent of the general body of these churches. It was with the coming of
Portuguese, the bishops assumed the power to rule. The Portuguese Archbishop
Menezes summoned the meeting of the representatives of the churches so as to
gain control over parishes with a view to establishing that the consent of
the laity and the priests was unnecessary. (It is this episcopacy promoted
by RC which the Jacobite Church doesnt accept). It was only after the
Portuguese rule; the bishops took over the POWER TO RULE. (Even after, in
the Jacobite Syrian Church, Metropolitans had only limited authority over
It is this ancient tradition of administrative freedom given to each
congregation which is termed as Semi-Episcopal. I dont see anything
wrong in this.
In earlier times it was the parishioners who chose a priest for them, but
nowadays priests are not available from every parish. It is after considering
this peculiar situation a slight modification is given in the constitution
registered in 2002 (which is accepted by the High Court as well as SC). Here
it is mentioned that the diocesan bishop have the authority to appoint a
priest, but he must be acceptable for the parishioners also. I think with
the specific mentioning of this clause, it is the old tradition which the
Jacobite Syrian Church is emphasizing.
The fellow who criticized our Bava Thirumeni for terming our Church as
semi-episcopal has continued This of course is a strategy - to make sure
that parish churches are ruled by people siding with him (Catholica Bava)
and not the Bishop of the diocese. Separation and Semi-Episcopal nature
are not part of the true faith confessed.
By raising this unrealistic allegation he is again trying to confuse the
innocent faithful. Everyone who closely watches the administrative structure
of the Holy Church knows that, the Chief Prelate gives a great amount of
freedom to a bishop of the diocese and the bishop in turn accepts the autonomy
of the parishes. In these circumstances I cant understand why my IOC friend
is saying that our Catholica Bava is trying to rule the parishes, over the
diocesan bishops. May be the administrative structure of his Church forced
him to say so.
Now the question must be shifted to who is a Bishop and who must select him.
According to opposite IOC faction, a bishop for any diocese will be elected
by their association, ie; no diocese has a say on who should be their bishop.
I think this is one of the fundamental mistakes that created split in the
Church. In the book published by Dr.Thomas Athansius in 1994, he has pointed
out the repercussions of this clause. For more clarification on this, His
Grace has cited the example of selection of a bishop for Kochi diocese of
IOC in 1990s.
Here H.G. has mentioned that during the election of their Kochi diocesan
bishop, the candidate from kochi diocese was defeated as they could not
obtain enough support in the association in which representatives from the
whole Church had a say. The result was an outsider (from Niranam diocese)
became the bishop of Kochi diocese. This shows that, in the IOC, there is
only a limited possibility for a person from Kochi or Northern dioceses to
become a bishop since all these dioceses together can send only a very few
persons as representatives to their association compared to their southern
But in the Jacobite Syrian Church, a bishop is elected from the diocese
itself. Later he has to get the approval of the Episcopal synod. I think
this is the correct procedure. By giving the freedom to choose a bishop from
the diocese, autonomy is given to each diocese like that given for parishes,
a system that was in existence even from the earlier period of Christianity.
It is under these pretexts that our Catholic Bava Thirumeni has mentioned
that our church will remain Semi-Episcopal in nature. The fundamental
problem with IOC is that they dont give much freedom to each parish and
their institutions. I think it is somewhat an autocratic attitude of IOC
leadership which is the root cause of all the problems in the Malankara
Church. Giving freedom to manage the properties of a parish or asking for
the acceptance/choosing of a prelate from them, will only strengthen the
Church. It will never keep away the Church from its Episcopal nature. On
the contrary, if everything is centralized, it will be against the basic
nature of Christianity. Thats why our Bava Thirumeni has said that the
Jacobite Syrian Church will remain Semi-Episcopal. I think that no right
thinking persons can ever find any fault in this statement of His Beatitude.