by  Dr. Thomas Mor Athanasius

[Former Assistant Metropolitan of Kandanad diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church]


The article reproduced below is from Chapter 4 of the book titled 'Janadhipathyavalkaranathiloode Anuranjanam?' (Peace through democratization?) written by Dr. Thomas Mor Athanasius and published in July 1995 by the Kandanad Diocesan Bulletin publication, Muvattupuzha.  In this book Metropolitan Athanasius is discussing the various aspects of the 1995 Supreme Court judgement and its possible implications in the Malankara Syrian Church.  The English translation of this chapter was done by Mr. T.P.Kurian and was published in ‘VISION’ a publication of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church Outside Kerala Diocese. This book was written when Dr. Athanasius was with the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church as the Assistant Metropolitan of the Kandanad Diocese under late lamented Catholicos of the East Aboon Mor Baselios Paulose II Bava of blessed memory. Since 1997 he is a member of Malankara Orthodox Syrian faction and is the Metropolitan of its Kandanad East diocese.


     I do not think that the split in the church is only a legal problem, nor do I believe that it can be solved by democratizing the matters of the church. The split involved faith as well as Theology. Though these points do not appear in the judgment, the peace that can be established without dwelling upon this will only be temporary and cannot be enduring. The trust attained by the church and church leadership today will be destroyed tomorrow. In short, the problem in the church is basically one of faith.

The Patriarch of Antioch has accepted the Catholicos in 1958 unconditionally. Thus, while accepting Geevarghese II, the rights of the Catholicate too were ratified, the court believes. Such unity was achieved without proper bilateral discussions on faith and without reaching a clear agreement regarding liturgy. This has created a sense of distrust in the minds of the laity.

What happened in 1958 should not be repeated. Since the root cause for this split pertains to faith, it should be comprehensively discussed and a unity of opinion should be achieved first. The traditions and theological vision are the invaluable treasures of the Syrian church. Matters of faith cannot be diluted. The Indian Orthodox will try to enforce the creed of faith they had borrowed from the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Our argument is that this faith is not ours. If it is forced upon us, it will be seen as an act of over-riding the traditional faith of the Syrian church. Faith is not something that can be decided upon majority basis obtained in the Malankara association.

Here is an attempt at elucidating some of the points of contention. First of all, let us take up the question of the throne. This was one of the reasons for the split. According to the Patriarch faction, only St. Peter has the Apostolic throne that is the essence of the Apostolic Benediction, Authority and Priesthood. The Patriarch, the Catholicos and the Metropolitan partake in this throne. The Patriarch faction cannot accept any other parallel Apostolic thrones. But the throne does not appear to be an important issue for the Catholicos faction. The court had pointed out (page 31) the ‘honorific’ nature of the Throne as claimed by the Catholicos faction. That means, if the throne is a matter of faith for one faction, it is merely ritualistic for the other. So it is clear that on this particular aspect, both factions basically differ in their views. To the Catholicos faction, according to their own understanding, the throne of Antioch also becomes honorific. Such a disposition is unacceptable to the Patriarch faction.

Another point in this regard concerns the Office of Peter, his authority and apostolic succession. The Syrians that constitute the Church belong to various localities and speak different languages. But the strength of their unique faith is endowed upon the special status of Peter, his authority and accountability. This is the basic principle enshrined in the constitution of 1934 and its article on Universal Syrian Church confirms the same. Therefore the traditions of the Syrian Church, its liturgy and theology must form the fundamental principles of the Church that enjoys St. Peter’s position and the apostolic succession. The reaction of the Catholicos faction in this regard must be known.

Another argument is the concept of national church. This has been borrowed by the Catholicos faction without truly understanding the church-science and history of Byzantine churches. In the Syrian church, the church has two stages. One is to see the Church as Universal where unity and quantitative catholicity are seen. This is the visible expression of structural unity. The second is that the Church is a congregation of worshippers. Where ever worship takes place under an Episcopa, there is a church. That way, the church is a liturgical community. Here the qualitative catholicity and the wholesomeness of the Church is revealed. These were the circumstances under which Ignatius and Cyprian had stated that wherever there is an Episcopa, there is a church. So it is not very essential to have a middle-order authority in between the Patriarch who is the symbol of unity and the metropolitan who is the head of the congregation. So when the church is called national, it has no scientific or theological basis. So also it is the very antithesis of unity of catholicity proclaimed in the Nicean creed.

Yet another point of the Catholicos faction is the claim of autocephaly. The court has clarified that by autocephaly, the Catholicos faction means internal rule. Since the constitution explicitly uphold the supremacy of the Patriarch, it naturally follows that authority must be understood accordingly. But for the Patriarch faction, autocephalous churches are totally independent National churches. So it is necessary to amend their constitution first and declare the Malankara Church as independent before being called autocephalous. Otherwise the use of autocephaly must be stopped. It is indeed impossible to attain structural unity, so long as ideological ambiguity and rift exist.

Matters of episcopacy are faith related. Episcopas used to be elected by the believers right from the earlier times. As a symbol of solidarity, Episcopas of nearby churches used to accord him due respect. During the election in one diocese, no other diocese had interfered. The Roman Catholics who are spread all over the world elect the Episcopa by the concerned diocese. This is not a mere matter of governance as the Catholicos faction claims. By this method, the diocesan parishes find their shepherd and the high priest by themselves. This is related to the science of churches too.

The different approach to these aspects by either parties impute separate identity to each. Thus, if ideological unity pertaining to this and such other matters is not obtained, it is not possible to establish eternal peace in the church and the dispute will remain.

The confidence in the court judgement is the present plight of the Catholicos faction. ‘Whatever be the matter, go to the court’ is their plight. The church leadership should know that whenever there is a problem, it should try to solve the same rather than adopting partisan methods. If that is not possible, they should have the humility and loyalty to seek solution through competent arbitrators. This indeed is the biblical vision. It is amazing that the church leaders are unconcerned about the indulging in litigation, which is categorically ridiculed by St. Paul in one f his epistles. The rigmarole of litigation, the money spent for winning the case, collection of funds for the same and the resulting corruption, the enmity created by the case and the tussle for implanting the court order etc. can in no way be justified. Christian faith needs to be endowed with virtues. Or else, faith must be given new expression and meaning.



Dr. Thomas Athanasius (former Assistant Metropolitan of Kandanad diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church)

(The book titled ‘Janadhipathyavalkaranathiloode Anuranjanam?’ (‘Peace through democratization?’) from which the above article was taken was originally published  by the Bulletin publication, Muvattupuzha in July 1995)



‘VISION’ a publication of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church Outside Kerala Diocese (Issue dated January 1996;  Volume IV Number 8)