A feud that began in 19th century: What happened before Jacobite-Orthodox locked horns

What started as a disagreement between a few higher-ups in the Church hierarchy has snowballed over the years into a major religious issue in Kerala.
A feud that began in 19th century: What happened before Jacobite-Orthodox locked horns
A feud that began in 19th century: What happened before Jacobite-Orthodox locked horns

In a small ancient church located in the Malabar Coast of India, an intense factional dispute has been raging for the past hundred years. What started as a disagreement between a few higher-ups in the church hierarchy has grown over the years into a major religious issue in Kerala.

The story of Malankara Church gives us insight into an organisation that managed to preserve itself for a significant amount of time until it started growing after being set up by natives from various parts of the Middle East through trade routes. Today, the Malankara Church is an organisation that is married to the larger identity of the land of Malabar, adopting several region-specific cultural symbols and thus standing out from amongst other Churches.

The turbulence faced by this small Church throughout its long history and the struggles it faced curiously mirrors the same that India faced in its long history. There is one common theme for the biggest disputes in Malankara Church since the 16th century and that, in my opinion, is the need for freedom in the spiritual and temporal activities.

On July 3, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a verdict on the dispute and awarded the entire property and control of the Malankara Church to the Orthodox faction, including churches and parishes that today constitute the Jacobite Church. The Constitution of the Orthodox Church drafted and adopted in 1934 was made binding on the church.

But first, it is important to introduce two important factions that are at the centre of the historic dispute.

  1. Patriarch faction: Bava Kakshi, presently known as the Jacobites and call their church Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, claim that the Patriarch of Antioch (head of Syriac Orthodox Church of the entire East) as the supreme head of the Church.

  2. Catholicose/Metropolitan faction: Metran Kashi, the Catholicose/Metropolitan faction, consider the Catholicose of the East residing in Kottayam, who is also the Metropolitan of the Malankara Orthodox Church, as the head of the Church.

The beginning of Malankara Church

The Malankara Church is believed to have been established by Saint Thomas (Thomasleeha) in the 1st century AD. By the late 14th century, the Church was in communion with the Nestorian (make it Nestorian Church) in Persia, who gave them episcopal support through Bishops sent via trading ships. However, the arrival of Portuguese in the 16th century resulted in the severance of this relationship, bringing the church under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Pope.

However, in 1653, the St. Thomas Malankara Church broke free from the Roman Catholic dominance - one of the main events that highlighted this struggle is known as the Coonan Cross Oath. This was the first instance of an organised anti-colonial struggle by an Indian Community. Malankara Church then proceeded with an association with the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch, Turkey.

First Split: Church Missionary Society

In 1816, the Malankara Church started working together with the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a British mission society working with the Anglican Communion and Protestant Christians. This relationship severed after two decades primarily, inter alia, due to theological differences. This was the first in the series of splits Malankara Church suffered. 

Malankara Church rejected any proposals and talks for reconciliation with CMS. Following this, a small section of the Church left to join the Protestant Church, a community of Christians whose beliefs contradicted the Roman Catholic Church.

Second split: Reformation Movement

A section of the church, inspired by CMS, supported reformation and tried to assume control over the church. They wanted to adopt some changes that they felt were due, but they were opposed by another section. The struggle between these two sects lasted for several decades.

It started soon after Orthodox Church parted ways with CMS in 1836 and lasted till the 1870s. In a bid to end the dispute, the traditional faction or anti-reformist faction, led by Mar Dionysius V, invited the Patriarch Antioch to Kerala in 1875.

Patriarch helped end the dispute and also helped the Traditional Faction secure control of the church. The pro-reform faction would leave the Malankara Church following the 1889 Royal Court verdict and start an independent church from scratch. They are today known as the Marthoma Church.

Mar Dionysius V had to concede significant powers to the Patriarch in order to oust the Reformist Faction from the control of the church. Malankara Church formally recognised the spiritual authority of the Patriarch over the church, although the temporal powers still resided with the Metropolitan.

Patriarch vs Metropolitan

In 1895, Abdul Masih II became the Patriarch of Antioch and the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 1903, he was deposed and the Turkish Sultan withdrew the royal decree called Firman, which was issued in his favour. Patriarch Abdullah Sattuf II was elected as the successor Malankara Church: 1908 – 1934.

In 1908, Mar Geevarghese Dionysius (Dionysius VI) and Mar Kurilose Paulose were ordained as Metropolitan Designate by Patriarch Abdullah Sattuf II. Upon coming to India in 1908, Patriarch tried to obtain registered documents from the Metropolitan that stated that the Patriarch held temporal authority over the church and its possessions. Some sections of the church, which were opponents of the Metropolitan, supported the Patriarch and the split ensued.

Patriarch called for a meeting of Church representatives to make his case; however, his proposals were rejected by them. He then appointed Bishops, who signed the agreement to the fill vacant positions and also approached individual parishes directly to get their support - all of which fell through. In a bid to undermine the authority of the Malankara Metropolitan Mar Dionysius VI, the Patriarch issued a letter (dated May 1911), conveying the excommunication of the Metropolitan of Malankara. 

Mar Geevarghese Dionysius convened a meeting of Malankara Syrian Church, which declared his excommunication as invalid.

Patriarch Abdul Mesih II, though deposed by Sultan, could still claim to be the head of the Church outside Ottoman Empire and was senior to the current reigning Patriarch. He wrote a letter to Mar Dionysius VI, expressing his opposition to the excommunication. Dionysius VI and his supporters invited the deposed Patriarch to Kerala.

Upon the arrival of the Patriarch, an episcopal synod (a council of a church) was convened and it was decided to consecrate a separate Catholicate for Malankara Church. Mar Ivanios was proposed as the Catholicose of this Church. 

Patriarch Abdul Messih helped install the new independent Catholicate and consecrate the new Catholicose, which was the wish of the synod. He also made two proclamations, which granted full independence to Malankara Church, including the right to appoint its own Metropolitans and Catholicose.

Mar Dionysius VI, the Metropolitan of the church, who led the effort to secure the independence of the Church, died in 1934. The same year, the constitution was drafted and formally adopted, upon which the office of Metropolitan of the Church and Catholicose was combined.

There was a third split before 1934 in Malankara Church, which led to the formation of Malankara Syrian Catholic Church, although it is not directly part of the Jacobite-Orthodox Feud.

Later Events

In 1968, peace prevailed upon the church and the Jacobite and Orthodox factions came together when Patriarch Moran Mor Yakub III came to Kerala and ordained Mar Augen as the Catholicose of the East. The unity, however, suffered by 1974 when the Patriarch ordained three priests in Malankara Church, in violation of the 1934 Constitution of the Church, which deals with Parish Church and Parish Assembly.

There has been nearly a century of litigation between the two sides and the Supreme Court Verdicts of 1958, 1995 and 2002decided the issue in favour of the Catholicose. In 2002, the Jacobite faction left the Malankara Church to form the Jacobite Syrian Church with its own constitution.

Aaron Nedumparambill writes about interesting events of the past and present. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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