Malankara World

Faith of the Church

Malankara's Mythical Minefields

Myth: The church is universal. Therefore, to stress on one's national heritage is unchristian

Fact: by Georgy S. Thomas, Bangalore:

The church is indeed universal. But for the message to be understood, its language has to be rooted in the cultural milieu of any given society. When we talk about the universality of the church, our focus should rightly be on the apostle St Paul, without whose single-minded devotion in preaching the message to the gentiles, the worldwide Christian church wouldn't have been a reality. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the apostle St Paul, himself a cosmopolitan Jew and a Roman citizen to boot from Tarsus, ensured that his actions and speech were always rooted in the cultural context in which he found himself.

Take for instance, his speech at the council of the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:19-33), where speaking, no doubt, in Greek, he adopted the tone of a philosopher suited for a city, whose residents, according to St Luke, "spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing". The apostle St Paul even quoted from Greek poetry to impress his listeners, and impress he did to an extent.

A few chapters later, in Acts 23, we find the apostle explaining his stand before a very agitated Jewish Sanhedrin, and using a language rooted in the milieu. "Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided..." A very effective communicator indeed!

As the original and truly Indian church founded by St Thomas, for our message to be effective, it should convey the good news about Our Lord Jesus in an idiom in tune with the cultural moorings of this country. Otherwise we will always be perceived as aliens, and the universality of the Christian message will be lost in suspicions about hidden agendas. It thus becomes important for us to stress our national heritage. And by doing so, we become at once universal (in the sweep of the message) and particular (by stressing our independence and adopting an idiom rooted in the milieu).

Oriental Orthodoxy And Nationalist Self-Assertion

If we look at the origins of the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches to which we belong in terms of faith, we find that the monophysite* doctrine - which led to the parting of ways of the Armenian, Egyptian and Syrian Churches from the Chalcedon position - though located in Christology, conveyed a sense of nationalist self-assertion by all the above people against the Greek-dominated Byzantine government. In other words, the differences were one part Christological, and one part self-assertion by groups of aggrieved people organized along ethnic lines. (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Byzantine Empire)

Even today, the Egyptian (Coptic), Armenian and Syrian Churches are known for their ethnicity. After the separation of the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches, the Coptic Church is almost exclusively composed of ethnic Copts. The Armenian Apostolic Church is entirely composed of Armenians. Except for the Jacobite faction in India, all members of the so-called universal Syriac Church are ethnic Suryoyo (Suriyani) people. ''When we speak of Syriac Christianity, we refer to Christians whose native tongue was Syriac and those who employed Syriac as their liturgical language,'' explains the Syriac orthodox resources (sor) website in its overview section.

That the Suryoyos do not have a country of their own, and are spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and a diaspora in Europe and America, is a function of history. If they had the opportunity, they would have gladly formed themselves into a nation state.

In short, what our Jacobite brothers in India are effectively saying is that the Suryoyo people can organize themselves in a manner which stresses their cultural heritage, but we Indians cannot. Isn't there some injustice in this?

Conclusion: Considering its antiquity, its cherished St Thomas tradition, and the importance of conveying the message in an idiom rooted in the cultural milieu, the Malankara Orthodox Church is justified in its claims of independence and quest for Indian moorings. At the same time, it's desirable that the Church continues its spiritual association with the Syriac Church. Instead of getting apoplectic about it, our Jacobite brothers should join forces with others in creating a structure for the Malankara Orthodox Church which will enable a united church to honor both our spiritual association with the Syriac Church founded by St Peter and our legacy as a church founded by the apostle St Thomas.

Note: *The preferred term nowadays is miaphysitism. But I am using monophysitism because for researchers who want to look up the subject, more material is available under that head than under miaphysitism. For example, a simple Google search under the head 'monophysitism' returned 72 pages, whereas one under 'miaphysitism' returned only six pages.

Response by Very Rev. Kuriakose Moolayil, CorEpiscopa:

Nationalism and Oriental Orthodoxy

My friend has first created a myth by himself by combining a fact and a fiction. Let me quote his words,

"Myth: The church is universal. Therefore, to stress on one's national heritage is unchristian."

This statement is presented by Georgy as a myth created by the Jacobites! To me, the first sentence is not at all a myth but is a fact accepted and honored by all. The IOC also accepts this as it is. Anyone who accepts the Nicene Creed should attest to it. It is not at all a myth. The second part is also another unquestionable truth. It becomes fictional only when Georgy says that 'some' says it to be unchristian to stress on one's national heritage! There is no problem at all in 'stressing one's national heritage'. I heard even recently H.H., our blessed Patriarch, admonishing the SOC followers to be good citizens of their own countries. The SOC in India is greatly upholding the cultural antiquities of their great country. We are by faith universal, adaptive to cultural heritages and social observances in countries where we live and politically we are nationalists. I have never heard anyone in SOC challenging this equation. These are by no means unchristian and none says like this. So this 'myth' created and replied by Georgy is a mere smoke screen created to attack the SOC and to wrongly emphasize that the SO Christians are not nationalists. This is just Don Quixotic to fight against imaginary enemies.

The Indian Christian community is composed of many denominations that have spiritual and temporal ties with sister and partner churches abroad. I have heard none other than RSS and VHP saying that the Christian ties abroad amounts to anti nationalism of Indian Christians! The Roman Catholics, The Church of the East, Episcopal Protestants and Pentecostals keep their religious and financial ties with partners abroad and live as good Nationals. Why the IOC alone is skeptical on SOC's relation with their spiritual head on the reason that he is living abroad. To the best of my understanding the SOC is the least financially assisted church in Kerala from overseas. We can be proud of our indigenous self support.

Dear Georgy, Nationalism and spiritual affiliation are two different aspects of life which will go together without harming each other. Our forefathers proved this very well when they lived in Kerala before the formation of the Indian Union or the Unification of Travancore. They were then members of different petty Kingdoms but they gave their due to the Kings and kept their spiritual unity among themselves as well as with their spiritual supreme lived far beyond the seas. They also very meticulously discerned their spiritual shepherds coming from abroad and received only those who were united in faith and rejected those professed heresies.

Let me now come to some specific inferences by Georgy on this subject.

1.Christological separation of Antioch and Alexandria was also prompted by self assertion of ethnicity and Nationalism. I am very sorry to say on this issue that our Church Fathers defended the faith of the three councils not on the basis of their nationalist spirit nor for their Copt/Syriac identity. This is a very unkind expression against their sincerity of conviction and faith. Actually it was easy for them to be 'National Christians' and the supporters of the King! But they preferred the other way of professing the faith of their forefathers in spite of all sufferings and persecutions. Our Church and its Fathers always worked beyond the territorial limitations.

2.Antioch is the model of the first multi ethnic, multinational and multi cultural church. Please read AA.11:20 and 21. We see here the Greeks are told about Christ and many turned to Him. The model of the Church at all times was that of Peter to Cornelius. Read AA.10:28 to understand the policy followed by St. Peter and the early church on ethnic and national issues. The work of Jacob Burdono all over the churches in all places is another later example of the attitude of the church that worked beyond ethnic and national parameters.

3.The copts worked among the Ethiopians and the Syrians worked in Armenia, Persia, India and up to China beyond these limitations. Georgy's examples are very recent on the separation of Ethiopians and Eritreans forming national Churches. This too was upon the inclination of the local churches that tuned themselves to the whims and fancies of the rulers. They favored this notion to avail the protection of rulers like Hailee Salasee and the present Eritrean administration. The present situations there will prove the aftermath of their actions. Also note the return of Eritreans to Copts for their consecration. The attitude of Armeian Church to the Antalias (Lebnon) Catholicate was not liberal nationalists. They emphasised the idea of one church. Similarly the Ethiopians preferred to keep the Eritrean church to be with them as one church beyond the national spirit. None of it worked. SOC is fully confident that the so called oneness and unity in MC is impossible and is calling for a peaceful separation and to continue as a mutually accepting and respecting sister churches.

The Syrian Church declared its willingness to accept the TOC as a sister Church in the Mulanthuruthy declaration 2004 in presence of H.H. the Patriarch. But the IOC is not coming forward to accept this and to negotiate. A simple response to this call will solve all the problems in the Church.

4.The Syrian Orthodox Church, outside India is also a mix of nationalities, languages and Cultures. Georgy, please read about the Syrian Orthodox Church of the middle ages with dioceses in Gulf Countries. There were bishops like George of the Arabs. Qatar and Bahrain were once populated by the SOC. Even now in the Syrian Church there are peoples of different languages and different ethnic origins. But are all united as one in Christ as members of the one SO Church.

Moreover, it is we, the Malayalees are more confined to these limitations. We are more prone to be boasting with the pride of the fallacy of Brahminic origin, Malayalee complex and the national limitations: we prove thus to be more ethnic, linguist and narrow minded nationalist people . With these allegations we are proving ourselves much more selfish and narrow.

Next: Myth 2: Autocephaly is an exclusively Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) concept and is alien to the Oriental Orthodox

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