St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India

EAST KERALA DIOCESE

                                       
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The founding of Christianity in India – The Syrian Church


The Christian Church in India was founded by St. Thomas, the Apostle of Christ, in A.D. 52. In those days, Arabs and Turks used to work as business men and merchants between India, the Middle East, and Europe. Europeans had no direct land or sea link with India. The merchants used to come to Kerala for trade - buying ivory, condiments such as pepper, cardamom, ginger, etc., and timber such as teak, rosewood, mahogany, sandalwood, black wood, etc. which were greatly appreciated, treasured, and sought after like gold by the Europeans and the Middle Easterners. Thus, along with these traders, St. Thomas came to Kerala in 52 A.D. on a merchant ship from the Middle East.

The present Kerala State (named Kerala in 1956; "Kerala" means "the land of coconut palms") includes most of the former Travancore, Cochin, & Malabar princely provinces. Then Kodungallore was the main sea port in Kerala. Upon his arrival, St. Thomas was received as a dignitary by the King of Cochin, a sea port in Kerala, India. Cochin was a powerful and prominent princely state at that time. St. Thomas explained his religion, Christianity, to the king. The king was impressed by his words and more by the prospects of expanding business by establishing new trade links. The King of Cochin, as well as the natives in Kerala, were very hospitable and accommodating towards Apostle Thomas and the visitors. Brahmins - the highest among the Hindu castes - were the only people who had any type of education. The communications of the king were carried out by the Brahmins. The legend has it that the King was so enamored with the new religion that he ordered sixty four well-to-do Brahmin families to join the new religion. The king gave prominence to the Christians in his palace and in his kingdom. The two dozen Christian families who had come with St. Thomas along with the local Brahmins constituted the first Church. St. Thomas converted many to Christianity, and eventually went to Madras State (now Tamil Nadu) to preach, and was later murdered by the natives at Mylapore near the city of Madras (now Chennai). He is buried at St. Thomas Mount, near Madras. Thus the first Church in India was established on the Kerala Coast and became known as the 'Malankara Church'. Kerala is bordered on its north and east by the mountains and on its west and south by the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

 The strip of land - Kerala - lying between these mountains, the sea, and the ocean [consisting of Travancore, Cochin, & Malabar (Calicut or Kozhikode)] was known as 'Malankara' in the old days (Mala = Mountain, Kara = Coast). After the British came, they started referring to the region as the 'Malabar Coast' instead of 'Malankara'. Thus the ancient Malankara Church in Kerala was also called the 'Malabar Church'. From the Sun worshipping Brahmins, the ancient church adopted some customs; namely facing to the East (rising sun) when praying, tying "Mangalyasutra" or "Minnu" (means a necklace with a special cross) and the giving of a Sari - "Pudavakoda" or "Manthrakodi" - (means wedding dress) to the bride by the bridegroom at the time of marriage, etc. As it was started with the Middle Eastern visitors and immigrants, a relationship to the Antioch Church was developed from the early centuries.

From the second century onwards, the Churches in Kerala got their Bishops ordained by the Patriarch of Antioch. This system continued for a long period of time. Except for the ordination of Bishops, the Church was independent. For the first three centuries this church had no other contact with Churches outside. Middle easterners comprising of Christians, Jews, and Muslims kept migrating to the Kerala coast even into the early 20th centuary.

In the fourth century, in 345 A.D., one Thomas, a prominent and wealthy Merchant of Cana (Syria - Palestine), came to Cranganore (ancient Muziris) in Travancore (now part of Kerala) with a group of 400 Persian Christian immigrants as their leader. In those days, many Christians left Persia because of the religious persecution of Christians during the reign of Emperor Sapor II of Persia (310-379 A.D.). Thomas the Merchant and his group were wholeheartedly welcomed by the kings and their subjects in Kerala, and were granted several special privileges. The people in Kerala started referring to Thomas, the Merchant of Cana, as "Syrians' Knaye Thommen". One subsect of the present day Syrians in Syria are still called 'Knanaye Christians' and can trace their origins to this group of immigrants from Persia. The Persian Christians who immigrated with Thomas of Cana joined the Malankara Christians in their Churches for worship. From thence in the fourth century, the 'Malankara Church' became known as the “Syrian Church” or the “Malankara Syrian Church” and its members became known as the "Syrian Christians".

Catholicism in India  

In the sixth century the Syrian Church came under the influence of the Nestorians. Then in the 16th Century, the Portuguese, under Vasco de Gama, came to Kerala. Soon after the arrival of the Portuguese in India in the sixteenth century, this small church was brought under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. They forcefully converted the Church members to Catholicism. This led to the historical Koonan Kurishu Satyam, by which many members of the Church declared themselves out of the yokes of Catholics. Thus after fifty-four years (in 1653 A.D.) it was able to reassert its indepenence, though it lost a good number of its members to the Catholic fold.  

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The re-established Church consecrated Mar Thoma I as the Metropolitan by the laying on of hands of twelve presbyters of the Church. The Roman Catholic association, though brief, had left its indelible mark on the emancipated Church. However, this led to more dependence on the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch and his extremely Orthodox doctrines engulfed the Church. The Church came into close contact with the Jacobite Syrian Church of Antioch. As a a result of this, some of the doctrines and practices of the Antiochean Church such as the doctrine of Consubstantiation, Invocation of Saints, Prayer for the dead, Traditions of the fathers and most of their rituals, gained firm ground in the ancient Church of Malabar.  

The Reformation  

Perhaps, the greatest event in the history of the Malabar Church was the publication of the Malayalam Bible, a glorious achievement of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.), an arm of the Anglican Church of England. [Malayalam is the mother tongue in Kerala and is one of the major Indian languages.] The free and easy access to the Word of God and the influences of the C.M.S. Missionaries had already begun to produce results. Their mission work led to a revival and reform in the Church. Mainly due to the labor of the Rev. Abraham Malpan (Malpan = A Syriac Professor) and a few others, a movement was set afoot with a view to purify the Syrian Church, in light of the teachings of the Bible. He emphasized the place of "the open Bible", the message of sinners’ direct approach to God through Jesus Christ, and the importance of the worth and freedom of the individual. In a memorandum submitted by Abraham Malpan and his associates to Col. Munro, the then Bristish Resident in Travancore-Cochin, requesting his help and support, they stated what reforms were necessary in the Church. This was naturally resisted by the authorities of the Church which had by this time become steeped in ritualism, lifeless sacerdotalism, and even superstitutions. In fact, the only course open to the Reformists by then was to secede from the parent church.  

The movement to separate was spearheaded by Abraham Malpan Achen (Achen means Priest) and Palakunnathu Mathews Athanasius (Bishop), who was excommunicated by that time thanks to the tricky dealings of Pulikottil Metran (Metran means Bishop) who wanted to declare himself as the Malankara Metran (means Presiding or Chief Bisop) with the support of some others in the Church. This led to the formation of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar which had by then lost all court cases (against these tricky dealings in the parent church) and started with just five and a half Edavakas (parishes). The Rev. Abraham Malpan accordingly made certain changes in the liturgy of the Holy Communion and other offices of the Church as some of the prayers of the liturgy were against the Scriptures. Today the Marthoma Church is a towering institution among Kerala Churches.  

The Basis of the Reformation  

The changes made by Abraham Malpan Achen (Achen means Priest) in the liturgy for the Holy Communion and accepted by the General Synod of the Mar Thoma Church show the fundamental tenets of the Reformed Church enumerated below:  
Expurgated all invocations to the saints.  
Expurgated all prayers for the dead.  
The following prayers of the minister while taking the consecrated bread in his hand, "Thee who holdest the extremities of the universe, I hold in my hand, Thee, who rulest the depths, I grasp with my hand", and after putting the bread into his mouth, "Thee, who are God, I put into my mouth", were expurgated. Instead of the prayer: "We offer into Thee, O Lord, this bloodless sacrifice (referring to the Eucharist) on behalf of Thy Holy Church which is in all the world", the following prayer was inserted: "We offer into Thee, O Lord, this prayer on behalf of Thy Holy Church which is in all the world", leaving out the words "bloodless sacrifice" and inserting instead "this prayer". The declaration that “Living Sacrifice is offered” (the reference is again to the Eucharist), was changed into: "living sacrifice, which is the sacrifice of grace, peace, and praise". Expurgated the declaration: "this Eucharist is sacrifice and praise". The declaration that “the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier of the censor” was removed. The note that the censor should be sanctified was taken away. The prayer: “Let Him (Holy Spirit) make this bread the life-giving and saving body of Jesus Christ”, was replaced by: “Let Him (Holy Spirit) come upon and make this bread to those who partake of it, the body of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and life everlasting”. (This clearly teaches the Receptionist Theory.) The prayer: "Thou are the hard rock which was set against the tomb of our Redeemer" (referring to the Eucharist bread), was replaced by: “Thou art that tested and precious hard rock rejected by the builders” (converted it into a reference to Christ). The following changes were made to the practices of the Church: It was decided that the Eucharist should be administered in both kinds. The practice of auricular confession and obtaining absolution from the priests was abolished. The practice of celebrating the Eucharist when there was nobody to partake of it was abolished.

The Mar Thoma Church

The new Church grew up as an independent, indigenous, episcopal and evangelical Church. Its sole basis for all matters of faith was the open Bible. The Church grew in strength extending its sphere of influence to distant places in India and abroad. The frequent spiritual revivals in the Church also played a very significant part in the development of the Mar Thoma Church.       Click here to continue... reading