Sub: A Suggestion for Peace in Malankara Church !
The ongoing dispute with regards to the Kolencherry church between the two Malankara Churches has become a shame for the entire Christianity in Kerala. Though such disputes are not isolated ones in the history of Christianity worldwide, it is becoming a headache for the present day Christians of this small state where our people are a minority. Now how can we solve such disputes without escalating tensions is a concern for everyone. In my opinion only a referendum at parish level can solve this problem particularly considering that the issue of faith is a complex one with no concrete evidences for anything except for some unending heated arguments that may go on endlessly. Referendum is not all a new methodology for solving the problem, but has already been implemented successfully in atleast a few churches in Kerala in this era itself like in Mulanthuruthy, Piravom etc.
If we dig into the history it is very clear that a problem of such magnitude can be solved by only considering the will of the majority parishioners and not by judging the faith matters which is a very complex matter.
Mass revolt in 1800's by the Changanacherry Catholic Church parishioners
One of the examples which I would like to cite here is the great protests done by the Roman Catholic Church members of Changanacherry and Alleppy along with their Vicar General and priests of the Catholic Church, when in 1800’s the British man Mr. Fenn tried to capture these parishes and hand it over to the Church at Niranam in the pretext that these churches were once the chapels of the Great Church at Niranam. At that there was clear verdict from the local government authorities in favour of handing over these churches to the mother church at Niranam. This happened in early 1800’s and is recorded in history.
The then British rulers even took control of the churches with the help of the local government and appointed priests from the Niranam Church. However unprecedented protests that followed soon under the leadership of the Vicar General of the Catholic diocese and thousands of faithful which included a large number of men as well as women, of both the parishes marched ahead without fearing the cruel atrocities of the British as well as the local government authorities, and very soon it became a serious law & order problem. 'The Romo-Syrian Vicar general who arrived to help his flock was put in prison. Notwithstanding threats and punishments, the Roman party, which included women and children, could not be driven out. They were so determined, that nothing short of death could make them move from the church. They lay in the street to prevent others from entering the Church'. This was one of the greatest revolts by any Christian group against the Government here after the forced conversion made by the Portuguese in 1653. Finally the British and the local government authorities had to yield to the will of the majority and stop all the atrocities against the parishioners and accept the reality that the majority cannot be overruled by a small minority even-though the later are enriched with money or other means.
So the duty of a democratic elected government is to find out the will of the people and decide what to be done particularly in such cases where the faith and traditions remains intermixed and cannot be separated by drawing a line and say one is correct and other is wrong.
Can anyone categorically say that one faith is correct and other wrong ? No !!
As we all know there are people who say Apostle Thomas established Christianity whereas some others say it was St. Bartholomew. Again there are others who claim that the father of Christianity here was none other than Knai Thoma who came in 345, being mistaken by the later Christians as St. Thomas. Then there are people who say it was the Brahmins who were the first converts, while others say there were no Brahmins at all in Kerala at that time. There are also theories that it was only the Jews who were converted at the dawn of Christianity in Kerala. Similar is the dispute over whether the Christians in Kerala were Syrian Orthodox Jacobites, Roman Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Nestorian Assyrians, Malankara Orthodox, Marthoma Syrians etc. Since we don’t have any authentic records regarding any of these, nobody including any court can say anything certain about any of the above matters and the only thing we can categorically say is that the parishes in Kerala belonged to the parishioners alone and was managed by their chosen representatives at all times till atleast 17th century (and also even after that !!!).
The need of the hour ! - A return to the old traditions of Kerala Christianity ie; pre-17th century
Now please have a look at the Kerala Church before the arrival of Portuguese. Most of the historians agree that the cultural and social heritage of the Keralites to some extent, was destroyed from the time of Portuguese invaders. Before the coming of these aggressive invaders, 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 centre 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 had only spiritual supervisory powers over the general body and the parish in general. The bishops were allowed to enter the churches only with the consent of the general body of the Churches. It was with the coming of the Portuguese, the bishops assumed power to rule the parishes. The Portuguese Archbishop Menezis summoned the controversial meeting of the representatives of the churches/parishes in the 17th century because they were clearly aware that as per the then prevailing Kerala Christian tradition, the consent of the laity and the priests were very much necessary for them to gain control over individual parishes.
In short it was only after the Portuguese rule that the bishops took over the “power to rule”. Before that everything was decentralized in Kerala Christianity with elected pothuyogams (representative bodies) of each parish dealing with their respective properties and wealth; the spiritual heads never bothered to interfere in that.
Only Solution/Methodology for ending tensions
I think the time has come for us to go back to that early stages to attain peace, particularly because the Christianity here in Kerala is divided into different denominations with each having different perception on the origin and the development of Christianity with no ample proof for any section to claim their antiquity.
In short what the government can do is to implement the will of the majority in each and every parish on the basis of a proper voters list prepared by the Government authorities and under the supervision of the honorable Courts. Referendum at parish level is the only solution considering the fact that every ancient parishes in Kerala, were disputes exists, was started by the parishioners themselves without any monetary support from any of the Church denominations and hence they are, and must be, the sole owners of these properties. This is the only way to prevail Justice as well as people’s will.
Certainly with this referendum at parish level and handing over its full authority to their respective elected bodies without any outside interference, the Kerala Christianity can be proud of going back to the roots of their ancient rich traditions.