Mar Thoma Church

A  Historical Sketch by Rev. Dr. T.P. Abraham


A step into the First Century 

History and tradition together provide much materials to believe in the St. Thomas tradition of founding the Indian Church in A.D. 52. In course of time the infant Church that took roots in the Kerala soil had registered tremendous growth in the various parts of the Southern State of India. But following the martyrdom of its Apostle St. Thomas the growth, development and mission of this Church got shrouded in mystery. This state of affairs unfortunately continued when a missionary from Alexandria, Pantaneus by name, visited Kerala in 189 A.D.

Early Relationships 

Within the period of fifteen centuries the Syrian church entered into cordial relationships with the Alexandrian church and the Persian Churches. As mentioned above, the Alexandrian connection was marked by the arrival of Pantaneus. But we have no clear picture as to the impact of this connection of the Syrian Church. The Persian connection was quite alive until the end of the 15th century. The two immigrations from Persia under Thomas of Cana(345 A.D.) and Marwan Sabriso(825 A.D.), the visit of Cosmas Indicopleutus (522 A.D.), the existence of Copper Plates, etc. prove the truth of the connection of the Syrian Church with the Persian Church.

The Syrian Church and the European Christianity 

During the middle ages, the Church got connected with the European Christianity. Many missionaries such as John of Monte Corvino, Marcopolo, Jordanus, Oderic, and others visited Kerala. From their travel accounts we learn more about the Church of this period. But we get a detailed history of the Church only with the coming of the Portuguese toward the last decade of the 15th century.

Gleanings from the Roman Catholic Church Connection 

A new age dawned in the history of the Syrian church with the arrival of Vasco de Gamma in 1498. His arrival initiated a flow of Portuguese people into the nation for trade and commerce. Slowly they began to field economies and political power in the country. As the Portuguese community grew in number they had also become progenitors of Roman Catholicism. Their sole idea was to bring the Syrian church under the roman ecclesiastical supremacy. In order to achieve this aim Alexis de Menezes, the then Archbishop of Goa, convened a synod at Diamper in 1599 and coerced the Syrian Church to accept the Roman doctrines and practices. The church had to continue in the newly introduced Roman faith for over five decades. In 1653 the Church shook off the shackles of ecclesiastical slavery and ascertained its freedom and autonomous nature by taking an oath called ‘Crooked Cross oath’. Until this historical incident the ancient Syrian Church remained essentially one. Having affirmed its independent ecclesiastical identity the leaders and the people of the Church wanted to be conscientious believers of the simple Gospel preached by St. Thomas and carriers of the age old practices of the Syrian Church. However, the Oath also points to a tragic split in the Church forming two groups. viz., the Syrian Church and the Roman Church.

Beginning of Native Episcopacy 

The resultant division in the Syrian church was in the strict sense a blessing to the Church. The Antioch eve Church on request helped the Church to have a duly consecrated native bishop of its own. Mar Thoma I, was thus consecrated to shoulder the responsibilities of the Church. His consecration by Antiochave Prelate inaugurated the connection of the Syrian Church with the Jacobite Church of Antioch. During the period from 1665 to 1877 the Church was led one after another by thirteen bishops. Among them the first nine bishops hailed from the Pakalomattom family, a family from which St. Thomas was believed to have ordained priests. Mar Thoma VI, was an able leader and an administrator. It was during his period many significant things happened in the life of both the nation and the Church. Tipu Sultan’s invasion on Travancore’ the pact between the British and Travancore-Cochin States, formation of the Independent See of Thozhiyoor, arrival of British residents to Kerala, creation of a trust fund called ‘Vattipanam’ and visits of early C. M. S. missionaries like Dr. Kerr and Dr. Claudius Buchanan were some of such events of this time. All these directly or indirectly aided to the zigzag history of the Syrian Church of the later period.

The Decaying Church – An Agean Stable 

At the beginning of the 19th century the Syrian Church life was in a state of decline. Life within the State and the Church was grievously disturbed by varying factors such as political, social and theological issues. Lack of leadership qualities, absence of theological insights, poor knowledge of the Bible, loose moral life, enforced celibacy of the priests, unscriptural doctrines, etc., weakened the church day by day. Besides, all sorts of superstitious beliefs that were rampant among the people caused a fatal break in their spiritual life. Consequence of all these was that the place and value of faith was taken over by unscrupulous observances of rituals and such other practices. The Church which ought to be the household of faith thus became an agean stable with problems of ignorance, immorality and false beliefs.

Harbingers of Reformation 

‘The Mission of Help’ from the Anglican Church of England came to Travancore in 1816-1817. The first batch of the missionaries of the Mission known as the ‘Kottayam Trio’ (Joseph Fenn, Benjamin Baily and Henry Baker) made invaluable contributions to the Church and the society through their active involvement in the different fields of evangelism, theology, education, Bible translation and printing. During this period Palakunnathu Abraham Malp an and Kaithayil Geevarghese Malpan, the two professors of the Syrian Seminary at Kottayam, dedicated themselves to the cause of a reform in the Syrian Church. Their teaching and preaching helped to trigger the spirit of reformation in the minds of many. Their subsequent work including the revision of the St. James liturgy translation of the same into the vernacular, submission of the ‘trumpet call’ of protest against the false doctrines and practices of the Church invigorated the reform movement in its efforts to cleanse the Church from all the spiritual, moral and social abuses.

The Resurgent Church 

The reformation brought out powerful currents of change in the Church. Slowly and steadily the Church disavowed the evils and thus it broke off the fetters of spiritual and moral bankruptcy. The Church got resuscitated once again and it was led to honor and adopt the place of Bible in its life, the purity and simplicity of Apostolic faith, the right of self-government (autonomy) and the uncontaminated life and work of the St. Thomas Christians of the early period. This enabled men and women free to think, act and live in and outside the Church. This period also witnessed two able leaders, viz., Mathews Mar Athanasius (MII th Mar Thoma) and Thomas Mar Athanasius (XlVth Mar Thoma), in leading the Church on the path of reform. As a result there was a quantum leap forward in all walks of church life. The Church began to experience the joy of right form of worship, and intelligent understanding of the Bible, responsible freedom and activity. However, the Church was not without problems. The Church plunged into a litigation known as the ‘Seminary Case’. Finally, in 1889, the church was marred by yet another division. This was a turning point in the life and mission of that section which cringed to the ‘alone formulas’ of the reform movement such as Grace alone, Christ alone, Bible alone and Faith alone. This reform section which formed part of the ancient Syrian Church is now known as the Mar Thoma Church.

Reconstruction on old foundations 

The agony and pain of litigation came to an end. Yet the reform efforts were not so easy. In spite of that the reformed Church refused to give up its adherence to the principles of reformation. The church entered into a period of reconstruction on old foundations. The spirit of reform touched the lives and activities of the people. With outstanding Bishops, Clergy and Lay Leaders at the helm of affairs of the church, it achieved steady progress. Similarly the revival movement of the decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the present century rendered marvelous service to the Church in its building up. As years passed by, the Church became more and more spiritually stronger, united and developed. Churches were built, organizations were added and institutions were established one after another to ensure the spiritual, social and economic progress of the people. After the demise of His Grace the Most Rev. Dr. Alexander Mar Thoma Metropolitan (XIXth Mar Thoma), now the Church is being led by His Grace the Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Metropolitan (XXth. Mar Thoma) and the eight Bishops of the Episcopal Synod.

The Church spreads its wings 

As we have noted the Church had a humble beginning in Kerala. But as the Church expanded its work and her people migrated to new areas seeking education and employment we see the Church spreading to the different corners of the continents of the world. Thus the presence of the Church through its members, congregations and varied activities is now felt far and wide and currently it has become in every sense an integral part of the contemporary global Christian community.

The Mar Thoma Church : Foundations

As mentioned elsewhere the Mar Thoma Church forms part of the ancient Syrian Church of Malabar. Being a Church resorted to the fundamental principles of the Reformation Movement for its reformatory efforts it has been widely acknowledged that it is a reformed Church. Here we recognize an amicable blending of two characteristic tracts, namely, the eastern Church features and reformation ideals. This nature of the Church points to its uniqueness when compared to other Churches. Thus the Church finds its place among that family of the Lesser Eastern Churches. But this position and status of the Church never hinder the Church from entering into friendly contest with the Protestant Churches and other Christian denominations. The autonomous nature of the Church has been well guarded by its democratic constitution. Therefore, all sorts of policy making, operational and administrative functions are all governed by the rules and regulations stipulated and adopted by the concerned elected bodies of the Church. As the Church is essentially indigenous it is self governing, self supporting and self-propagating. It is not the product of the missionary activities of a foreign Church. As has been noted, the ancient Syrian Church came into being as a result of the strenuous missionary endeavors of the St. Thomas the Apostle. It is against this background the church claims its uninterrupted link with the Syrian Church. Besides, the Church also affirms its belief that it constitutes an essential part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. So in conformity with the faith of the Christian Church it believes in Jesus Christ and in the Triune God and accepts the Holy Bible as the basis for all matters of doctrine and faith and Nicene Creed.

The ministry of the Church has been blessed by the offices of the Bishop, priests and the deacon. Unfortunately diaconate (the office of the deacon) and the monastic order are not permanent offices of the Church. The Church values highly the importance of apostolic succession and celebate episcopacy which is constitutional in nature. Thereby the Church continues in the age old beliefs and customs of the ancient Syrian Church. The leadership of the laity is always an asset of the Church. Therefore, their places and role in the Church can never be underestimated. They are deeply involved in the life and mission of the Church and are full participants in the priestly ministry of the Church. They render yeoman services of the Church and the community at large and become strengthening forces of the local congregation, the church and the society. Thus their leadership and assistance encompass not only the life and activities in the church but also that of the society. Administration of the church has been guided by a democratic constitution. To facilitate efficient functioning of the Church, it is divided mainly into dioceses, parishes, regions and centers. All dioceses, currently ten in number, are under the governance of a Diocesan Bishop. The local parishes are looked after by clergy. The supreme authority of the church is the General Assembly which is consisted of the Bishops, the Clergy and elected representatives of the local parishes. The Assembly meets once a year and determines the multifarious functions of the Church. In addition to the Assembly, the Episcopal Synod and the Executive Body help in the general administration of the church. In the like manner the administration of each diocese is being controlled and guided by two elected bodies, vis., the Diocesan Assembly and the Diocesan Council. People who accepts and profess the faith and practice of the church are grouped into parishes. The Parish General Body and the Executive Committee are designed in such a way as to render assistance in the able functioning of the parish. The parish works through specially formed organizations with different objectives to cater to the spiritual needs of the members. They are Sunday School, Youth Organizations, Women Auxiliary, Parish Mission, Prayer Groups and the like.

The missionary impulse of the Church led her to organize different institutions, conferences and camps to carry out missionary work among her own members and among people who are outside the membership of the Church. These organizations such as the Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association (1888), Christian Education Department (1905), Women Auxiliary (1910), Voluntary Evangelists Association (1925), Youth Department (1933), Mar Thoma Students’ Conference, etc. won stupendous achievements in their work. Above all, the Church drew strength and vigor in her life, vision and mission from their accomplishments. The conventions convened time and again also enriched the spiritual life of the people. Of all the conventions the Maramon convention (1896) ranks first with respect to the large number of people attending to it every year and in making people conscious of their Christian responsibility in all areas of their life as individuals, families and Christian communities. In 1995 the Maramon convention celebrated its centenary in the most appropriate way.

The Church has always been keen in providing opportunities to all theological education. The Seminary of the ancient Syrian Church founded in 1813 at Kottayam was the first of its kind in giving training to its clergy. It was here Abraham Malpan and Geevarghese Malpan thought aloud the need for a reformation within the Church. Their dream, as we have seen, materialized in due course. Having purged the Church from all its abuses and revitalized it by reformation ideals, the church found herself influenced by a strong sense of theological and mission consciousness. The result was the formation of organizations and institutions to build up a new life for mission in and outside the Church. When we put together the efforts of these organizations and institutions in the field of theological education, evangelism, unity, social matters and the like we will see that they have succeeded in fashioning and placing a new trust in the ongoing mission and ministry of the Church. At this point we recognize and applaud the continuing contributions of the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Vanithamandiram, Episcopal Jubilee Institute, C. P. Mathew Memorial Ecumenical Study Center, Juhanon Mar Thoma Study Center and Thomas Mar Athanasius Memorial Orientation Center.

The Church has also initiated numerous successful projects in the field of education, medical mission and other kinds of charity work. The enthusiastic leadership of the Church in all these areas are commendable and it has a positive impact upon the life style of the Church and that of the people in and around it. It is suffice to say that the above mentioned field of its activities bear an eloquent testimony to the Church’s lively care and concern for those who are in need.

In the past centuries there were many attempts to relate the church with other denominations. As the Church entered into the 20th century, the efforts at union among the Churches had become more and more systematic and rewarding. The year 1936 witnessed a remarkable achievement in the field of Church union movement when the Mar Thoma Church and the Anglican Church of India (CIBC) had established a formal occasional intercommunion. Now the Church enjoys full intercommunion relationship with the world wide Anglican communion, CSI, CNI and Episcopal Churches in USA and Canada. The Coming into existence of CSI – CNI – MTC Joint Council is yet another forward step-in their efforts to achieve more close unity between the three Churches. The Church also maintains friendly contacts with other Churches like the independent See of Thozhiyoor, Roman Catholic Church, Jacobite Church, Orthodox Church and Chaldean Church and Interdenominational organizations like the Bible Society, CCA, NCCI, KCC, etc. its long term association with the WCC has been remarkable and all the more enriching to the Church in its varied forms of ministry.

The history of the Mar Thoma Church as it is focused in the foregoing paragraphs reflects its life and mission from the very day of its origin to this day. The years immediately preceding the Reformation in the Syrian Church witnessed all sorts of ecclesiastical abuses and moral failings. But the Reformation and Revival Movements brought out an added sense of responsibility for the spiritual and moral welfare of the Church and its people. The blessed result was that the church got rejuvenated from all its defections. By the passage of time forces of reform and revival and spirit of ecumenism joined together in molding the church as it is seen, known and accepted today. To conclude, in 1938, late Dr. Stanley Jones wrote of this Church as follows:

“This church, entirely Indian manned, is the brightest Christian movement in India. They (its members) are progressive and will bleed and die for their Church.”