The Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar
The Mar Thoma Church is one of the historic Churches of Christendom. It is an independent Church with head-quarters in Tiruvalla, Kerala, South India and it belongs to the Eastern family of Churches. The Church is established in A.D. 52 by St. Thomas, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. The early Church was known as Malankara Church. In the early centuries the Church had ecclesiastical leadership from the Church of Syria and due to this association with the Syrian Church the name of the Malankara Church has been changed to the Malankara Syrian Church.
The foreign domination in India in quick succession by the Portuguese, the French and the British paved the way for the spread of Christianity in India. The 16th and 17th centuries which saw the heyday of Portuguese rule in India was a period of great missionary activity and the rapid spread of the Roman Church. The missionary efforts of the Roman Church in Malabar were mainly directed towards winning the Syrians over to the obedience of the Pope of Rome. The decrees passed by the Synod of Diampher were all calculated to bring the faith and practices of the Syrian Church into conformity with those of the Church of Rome. To counter this move the leaders of the Syrian Church made frantic efforts to get a Bishop from one of the Eastern Churches. In 1653 the Patriarch of Babylon sent a Bishop named Ayatollah to Malabar, but the Portuguese seized him on his arrival and deported him to GAO, where he was tried by the inquisition and eventually burnt at the stake. The Syrians became furious when they heard about this dastardly act and they assembled in their thousands in front of the Church at Mattancherry and took an oath to have nothing to do with the Portuguese any more. This is known as the famous “oath of the Coonen Cross” because the granite cross around which the people assembled was inclined to one side. This event was a mile stone and a turning point in the history of the Syrian Church. Thus the ancient Malabar Syrian Church was divided into two branches, one group with the Roman Catholic Church and the other group as an independent Church under the leadership of the Arch Deacon.
The arrival of Mar Gregarious, in 1665, a prelate of the Jacobite Patriarchate of Antioch was indeed a very significant mile stone in the growth of an independent Church in Malabar. He consecrated Arch Deacon Thomas as Bishop under the title of Mar Thoma I. This resulted into a new relationship with the Jacobite Church of Antioch.
Although there were Christians in India long before the spread of Christianity in Portugal, England and Spain, unscriptural customs, superstitious belief and practices had crept into the Syrian Church over the centuries. But there was a nucleus of people who longed for the removal of such unscriptural faith and practices. There were two outstanding leaders in this group, Palakunnathu Abraham Malpan and Kaithayil GeeVarghese Malpan of Puthupally. They had occasions to come into personal contact with the C.M.S. Missionaries and to imbibe their spiritual insights regarding Christian life and nature and functions of the Church as depicted in the New Testament. There was stiff opposition from the conservative sections in the Church. But the movement gathered momentum as time passed.
The first printed Malayalam Bible, translated from Syriac was published in 1811. Known as Ramban Bible it contained ony the four Gospels. By 1841, the whole Bible was translated, printed and released.
Rapid progress has been made in the wake of the Reformation movement pioneered by the Martin Luther of the East- Abraham Malpan. He translated the Liturgy of the Holy Communion in Malayalam and he had the courage to celebrate the Holy Communion in Malayalam. On Sunday, August 27, 1837, Abraham Malpan Achen conducted the Holy Communion service in the mother tongue Malayalam at his home parish Maramon Mar Thoma Church. This in fact had marked the resurgence of the ancient Church in Kerala and has given new life and inspiration to the total renewal of the Church. Abraham Malpan soon realized that unless he had the support of a Bishop who was sympathetic towards his reforms, there was little prospect of the reform movement gaining ground. So his nephew Deacon Mathew was sent to Patriarch at Mardin in Syria. Impressed with the character and ability of the Deacon, he was consecrated as Bishop with the title Mathews Mar Athnasius. The inevitable separation took place in 1869. Cases were filed by the conservatives in 1879 regarding Church property, Seminary and parishes.
The Mar Thoma Church having lost their claim to property had to begin from scratch, building churches, organizing themselves as an independent body. The earnestness and spiritual fervor of the leaders, lay and clerical had borne fruit and there was a phenomenal expansion of the Church all along these centuries.
The Church awoke to its social responsibilities and provided leadership to spread its faith and service activities from Tibetan Border in the North to Cape Comorin in the south and the Mar Thoma Church has been singularly fortunate in having a galaxy of 20 Metropolitans who where faithful to the legacy of the Church and building up the social cultural and spiritual atmosphere in Kerala and the world at large. There has been a phenomenal expansion of the Church all along these centuries widening its frontiers to the various countries of West Asia, Africa, North America and Western Europe.
The Mar Thoma Syrian Church today maintain healthy and cordial ecumenical relations with Churches the world over and is a member of the World Council of Churches right from its very inception. Dr. Yuhanon Mar Thoma was elected President of the World Council of Churches in 1955 in Evanston. And Dr. M. M. Thomas, a member of the Mar Thoma Church, as President of the Executive Committee of the W. C. C. and Moderator of the 7th Assembly at Nairobi who rendered yeoman service to the cause of world peace unity and understanding.
The famous Maramon Convention which we have been holding annually for over a century, is a source of great spiritual power and inspiration for innumerable people. The losses were forgotten in the zeal of spiritual fulfillment.
There has been a phenomenal expansion of the Church during the last six decades, widening its frontiers to various countries of West Asia, Africa, North America and Western Europe. The Church has now 1166 parishes including congregations, divided into twelve dioceses. There are 13 Bishops including the Metropolitan and 795 active priests (and 151 retired priests). It has a democratic pattern of administration with a representative assembly (Prathinidhi Mandalam), an executive council (Sabha Council) and an Episcopal Synod.
The Church has been active in the field of education and owns 8 Colleges, 6 Higher Secondary Schools, 1 Vocational Higher Secondary School, 8 High Schools, 1 Training School and other educational institutions owned and managed by individual parishes. We have 3 Technical Institutions at Cherukole, Kalayapuram and Anchal.
The Church has 31 social welfare institutions, 11 destitute homes and five hospitals. The Mar Thoma Tehological Seminary (Estd: in 1926) and 6 other institutes cater to the theological education of both the clergy and the laity. Further, there are three Study Centres, at Managanam, Kottayam and Trivandrum for arranging regular study programmes and to provide opportunities for creative dialogue between church and society on various ethical, moral, social and religious issues. The religious education of children is looked after by the Christian Education Department – the Sunday School Samajam (organized in 1905) and the work among youth is carried on by the Youth Department – the Yuvajana Sakhyam (organized in 1933). The Church has a women’s department – the Mar Thoma Suvisesha Sevika Sanghom (organized in 1919) which is vigorously active.
The Mar Thoma Church is in full communion with the Anglican Church, The Church of South India and the Church of North India and has cordial relations with the various denominations of the Christian Church. The Church actively co-operates with the C.S.I. and the C.N.I. through CCI (Communion of Churches in India).
The Mar Thoma Church is financially independent and maintains its indigenous nature. Its regular work as well as special projects are entirely financed by contributions from its members at home and abroad.
While the history of the Church especially during the last century shows advance and growth in various directions, it will be admitted that there is little room for complacency. In the life of the individual as well as the community, we lag far behind the standard set by our Lord. The Church is in need of renewal in Spirit in order to become more effective and useful instrument in His hands for the extension of His Kingdom. As members of the Church let us therefore surrender ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that He may exalt us and use us for His glory in the years to come.