By Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D. D.
It was a shocking surprise to hear the report that a German national of Syrian Orthodox descent was ordained to the episcopate at Trichur in India by two bishops of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East- Malankara a few weeks ago. The ordination was conducted by Metropolitan Meletios of Trichur and Metropolitan Athanasios of Kandanad-East, who had changed their canonical allegiance from the See of St. Peter in Antioch to the See of St. Thomas in the East, a decade ago, in the light of the Supreme Court verdict of 1995 that justified the 1934 Constitution of the Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara and the Catholicate of the East that rests on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Thomas in the East.
We pledge allegiance and obedience to our Holy Synod and honor the actions of the Holy Synod of our Church. But as Orthodox Christians, we believe that we have certain rights as believers and we hope that our rights to react should not be strangulated when there arise occasions in the history of our Church that demand uncomfortable and unpleasant reactions from our part. This is such an occasion. We are sorry if this reaction is interpreted as insubordination; but with all honesty and with all due reverence to the members of the Holy Synod we state that our purpose is the defense of the Church of Malankara and her canonical integrity. Again, this reaction does not imply disobedience or disloyalty to the Holy Synod of Malankara or to the Catholicos of the East.
This writer believes that this episcopal ordination is irresponsible and illegitimate because of the following reasons:
The Church of Malankara is an autonomous and now an autocephalous Church. It has its own Episcopal Synod to run its administration with a canonical executive who is of the patriarchal rank with the title, commonly known as the Catholicos of the East. In this Church the matter of episcopal ordination is the ultimate prerogative of its Synod and its head, the Catholicos of the East. In this Church an episcopal ordination is never within the domain of any individual bishop or bishops, who do not receive the Systaticon at the time of their investiture as bishops to ordain another bishop. The Catholicos of the East or his deputy only has the canonical right to ordain another bishop. Within this perspective the episcopal ordination under consideration is a blatant violation of the standing canons and practice of this Church.
It is reported that the question of ordaining three monks from Germany to the episcopate, who were disenchanted with the Patriarch of Antioch as the latter was reportedly prejudicial to the former because they hailed from the Thurabdin area of Turkey, came to the consideration of the Holy Synod of Malankara a few months ago. Rather than taking a decisive action on this question, the Holy Synod appointed a “Consecration Committee” (?) to study the feasibility of such an action by the Church of Malankara with Metropolitan Makarios of Canada and Europe as its Chairman and Metropolitan Meletios of Kunnamkulam (the present Catholicos-elect), Metropolitan Meletios of Trichur, Metropolitan Athanasios of Kandanad-East and Metropolitan Severios of Kandanad-West (the Synod Secretary) as its members. But this committee reached nothing conclusive about this issue until the point of this mess.
It is said that these monks again surfaced at Kottayam for the purpose of getting ordained bishops. But neither the Catholicos, nor the Catholicos-elect, nor the Synod Secretary was in favor of their consecration. For some time they disappeared. However, through the Internet, one of them claimed to have been consecrated a metropolitan by Metropolitan Meletios of Trichur and Metropolitan Athanasios of Kandanad-East and substantiated the claim by publishing pictures of his investiture in episcopal insignia. It was at this time the Church of Malankara woke up to hear the sad news that her Synod was put to shame and cheated, and the authority of her Catholicos was seriously wounded by two bishops who became disloyal to their canonical assembly. In fact this is an indelible shame for the Holy Synod. It is a challenge against the authority of the Holy Father of the Church, who only has the sole authority of ordaining bishops in a national church. This action of arrogance by these two bishops is both irresponsible and illegitimate. It is an open attack on the authority of the head of the Church and on the special prerogative of the Holy Synod.
The sad story is that the Holy Synod swallowed the explanation of these bishops when they were called to report to an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod to deal with this crisis. It is reported that the Synod was satisfied with their explanations and a plain “apology” expressed by these prelates. Can a simple expression of “mea culpa, mea culpa, or a mea maxima culpa” atone or propitiate for a heavy and serious canonical crime committed against the Holy Church, and for a deep wound inflicted on the body of our mother, the Holy Church? Or is it sheer incompetence from the part of the Holy Synod? It seems that a body which is recognized as being “Holy” does not exclude “incompetence”! If an ordinary priest commits a less serious offense out of his ignorance or of his poverty, his bishop would definitely fell him with an excommunication or suspension! Should the faithful of this Church think that the crime of these bishops is less offensive or punishable than the offense of a priest when he blesses a marriage during the Lenten season?
The most precious deposit of any church its valid apostolic succession, in simple term, its priesthood. It is its priesthood that perpetuates its faith and morals. It is this apostolic priesthood that keeps the flow of the Holy Spirit without interruption, simply speaking, the flow of salvific grace within the Holy Church. It is this priesthood that brings in the Holy Spirit to the Holy Myron (Chrism). In other words, this priesthood is the ultimate source of the divine life of the Church. Without a valid priesthood a church is just a party or a community, or a club. That is why the late Metropolitan Mar Thoma Dionysius of Niranam, an illustrious champion of orthodoxy, often called the so-called churches without a valid apostolic priesthood “sects”. This was the same reason why the Pope was reluctant to accept the Protestant bodies as churches, a position that projected the Roman Church as unecumenical. Orthodoxy, however, reiterates this truth without hesitation and compromise.
As the priesthood is the precious treasure of the Church, from the very beginning of Christendom its conferral was done only after careful preparation and screening of the ordinands. Simon Magus wanted to buy it; but my readers very well know what the apostles said to him and his end. St. Paul later clearly outlined the basic qualifications of an aspirant to the priesthood. The Church of Malankara stipulates that a candidate to the priesthood should finish a college degree and a five-year spiritual and theological program before he is advanced to the holy orders, in addition to his reputation as an exemplary Christian. When we elect someone to the high priesthood (bishopric) of the Church, our screening process is meticulous and time-consuming, although its political aspects sometimes become seriously questionable. The most important truth is that there is a well-defined process in place before a person is ordained to the episcopate of the Church. A priest is a successor of the apostles and a visible sacramental icon of Christ, and a bishop is the plenitude of the grace of priesthood, who is a source of every grace needed for the salvation of his people.
Readers, the most valuable treasure of the Church of Malankara is its apostolic succession and its high priesthood; nothing else. That is the only highly treasured jewel in this ancient Church. Would you confer this invaluable treasure on anyone without discretion, without proper screening, without a valid reason? If is given to anyone indiscreetly, you can call that action irresponsible. It is like throwing your pearl in front of pig that cannot have the rationality to figure out the proper use of it. Any violation of this sacred treasure is at best an act of senseless sacramental prostitution at the hierarchal level. Our high priesthood is not a commodity for exchange; nor is it meant to be used for any ulterior motive. It is the most precious gift of Christ our Redeemer the Holy Church is endowed with.
Now whom did our bishops confer this precious gift on? Our reports indicate that it was a monk, who was disciplined by the head of his Church. Our sources further show us that those men who wanted to be ordained bishops had ongoing disciplinary problems with their superiors; and it is one of them that received episcopal ordination from the hands of two of our bishops. It is also reported that they are all under or around age thirty. What kind of spiritual and intellectual maturity can a Church expect from these men? Or is it just enough that they are single men without wives? How much of moral certitude does the Church have about their spiritual preparation and internal strength to practice, at this very young age, the vow of chastity that is conventionally required of an eastern diocesan bishop? What about the other virtues of humility, poverty, obedience and the like? Are these men worthy vessels to contain the gift (mauhabtho) of high priesthood, at least in our human judgment? Can the Church of Malankara honestly acclaim, “Axios, Axios and Axios!” at this consecration? We leave this for the thought of the consecrator and coconsecrators in the presence of God. Please realize that there is a God, Who watches what we do, and Who knows our intentions and motives. If we act on selfish motives or as retaliation, we will have to bear the consequences of our action. This writer seriously, and justifiably, thinks that this sacred gift was not served with propriety. This very act will considerably diminish the integrity of our character as a responsible apostolic Church within Orthodox circles word-wide, and will definitely tarnish our image of decency which we have been proud of so far.
Under what circumstance shall we share the gift of high priesthood with another Church? Is it proper to ordain some one because of the only reason that he has asked for it? Church history provides many cases of precedence for sharing the gift of Holy High Priesthood or Apostolic Succession. The person who is ordained, (or ordinand) should represent a Church, a sacred assembly of believers to shepherd; and in this case it should be another Orthodox Church that requests the Church of Malankara for a favor like this. In other words, at the receiving end there should be a Church behind the recipient, because a person does not receive holy orders for himself, but for the Church of God, for the people of God. This is an important element in the theology of holy orders, which is a standard principle for legitimizing and validating an act of ordination.
Parenthetically, let me highlight a historic event in which the Orthodox Church of Malankara, under the instruction of the Patriarch of Antioch, consecrated Joseph Rene Vilatte to the episcopate in Sri Lanka almost a century ago. This writer believes that the factor of a Church at the receiving end was seriously missing in that consecration; but the Church of Malankara believed Vilatte’s claim that he had a Church to pastor in the new world and anxiously waited for abundant fruits in the evangelical field of America. This man actually did not construct the Kingdom of God, but was touring across America selling his sacred Gift in the rooms and halls of hotels in exchange of thousands of dollars, and finally retired into a Roman Catholic monastery, where he was laicized and buried as a layman by the Roman Church. There are many groups in America that claim Malankarese Syrian priestly succession and “play churches”.
One “bishop” among them contacted a Patriarch in the Middle East, with a monetary donation to the Patriarchate, for regularizing his group and for union with the Orthodox Church. But the Patriarch courageously turned him down for obvious reasons. The same bishop contacted me for union with the Church of Malankara; and as I was studying his group, which was minuscule, he was advised by another priest to contact Metropolitan Gregorios Paulos of Delhi for a speedy union. Metropolitan Gregorios contacted me and I sent him a bundle of materials regarding the background of this group with my assessment. An illustrious scholar in sacramental theology, Metropolitan Gregorios replied me immediately “concurring” my evaluation that the group was neither orthodox nor its bishop possessing a valid episcopate. Vilatte’s episcopal and priestly ordinations are considered valid by the Roman Church based on its formulary determining the validity of sacred rites. Obviously the orthodox churches do not exactly follow the Roman Catholic position on the validity of a sacrament. In the case of Vilatte’s ordinations, it is commonly regarded that they are “closet ordinations”, where Vilatte did not represent a body of believers and his beneficiaries were basically without a believing flock behind them. If we scrutinize the intentions of Vilatte at the time of his own consecration, a strict theological mind may find him also lacking a body of believers behind him to validate his own ordination that he received from the Orthodox Church of Malankara, although this Church was made to believe that he had a flock to shepherd after his episcopal ordination. At least the ordinations Vilatte performed were to be considered invalid. Hence no canonical Orthodox Church considers them as possessing valid apostolic successions. I intercepted with the Vilatte situation here in order to clearly emphasize the problem we are in with regard to the consecration by Metropolitan Meletios and his coconsecrator. Was there a Church behind these consecrators? Was there a Church behind the German ordinand? We do not want anyone to interpret this episcopal ordination as a “closet ordination”, although it was performed in a chapel/ church at Trichur.
The consecrators should also represent a Church. Primarily, a sacrament is part of the ministry of the Church; it is a deposit with the Church, not with an individual. Every sacrament is administered through the ministry of the Church. Even the very basic sacrament of baptism is administered through the ministry of the Church. The baptizing priest is the extension of the bishop, who symbolizes the entire Church and represents the faith community. In the Orthodox Church, there is no private baptism, (or private mass); the very act of baptizing is a congregational act. This truth is well-articulated in the most solemn act of consecration of a bishop. It is the Church that consecrates a candidate to the episcopate, not an individual bishop with his coconsecrators. The Apostolic and Nicene canons stipulate that there should be at least three bishops to ordain a bishop; and these canons simply emphasize the role of the Church behind every consecration, and underscore the participation of a wider Church behind an episcopal ordination.
In the context of the Church of Malankara, the body that represents the people of God, the Church at large, is its Holy Synod. Without an act of the Synod an episcopal consecration cannot take place. This writer has seen some arguments in favor of an election by the Syrian Christian Association of Malankara to support an episcopal ordination. Let me emphatically state that this is not required for ordaining bishops for a different jurisdiction; it is required only for bishops to serve the Church of Malankara. However, an episcopal consecration should be the decision of its Holy Synod if the Church of Malankara becomes the consecrating Church. We know that the Synod made no decision about it, nor was it informed of it in order to receive its approval. In other words, there was no Church behind the consecration of the German monk to the episcopate.
Before every consecration there is a ritual called “the profession of faith” (OMOLOGIA), which is administered by the main consecrator; usually it is administered by the head of the Church. In the consecration under question, which “profession of faith” did Metropolitan Meletios of Trichur administer? We believe he had no right to use the one used by the Church of Malankara, because he had no authorization to perform it. Whom did the ordinand pledge his “oath of allegiance”? In whose name did his consecrator accept his pledge of allegiance, to which Church did this ordinand make his profession of faith,…? These are complex issues that need to be addressed. Again, who issued the Systaticon after the consecration? Only the head of a Church can issue a Systaticon that outlines the functions, rights and privileges of the newly ordained bishop. In this consecration who granted him permission to exercise his functions. In fact the Church is giving the power of exercising his episcopal functions through the archpastoral ministry of its head. Even when an ordinary bishop consecrates another bishop in the Roman Church, it is the pope who grants him the authority to execute specific functions of his high priesthood. The same principle is applicable to this consecration under question. Sadly, Metropolitan Meletios did not have the authority to issue a Systaticon; because he was neither the head of the Church nor authorized to perform a consecration. This writer thinks that the Holy Synod has sinfully overlooked this fact and unjustifiably became lenient on a person (or persons), who totally ignored and violated the collective responsibility attached to membership of the sacred college of bishops, and challenged and violated the authority of the Catholicos of the East, who currently holds the power to execute the decisions of his Synod. In the view of this writer, these bishops committed a very serious canonical breach which does not have a satisfactory explanation under the circumstances known to us, but does demand the strictest canonical measures of disciplining.
What are the possible reasons behind this consecration? Some one was telling me that the main reason was to teach the Patriarch of Antioch a lesson in retaliation to his actions of infringement into jurisdictional boundaries of the Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara. Yes, the Church of Malankara has serious grievances against the Patriarch of Antioch for courting with the dissidents in India. The Church of Malankara has been always patient in dealing with the Patriarch of Antioch for almost a century.
In the history of Christendom, we see that counter excommunications were normal retaliatory procedures against excommunications. When the Patriarch of Rome excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularios of Constantinople for no valid reason, and without a legitimate authority, the latter shot a counter excommunication back at the Pope. It is said that in 1975 the Patriarch of Antioch excommunicated the Catholicos of the East for no apparent reasons, such as doctrinal heresy or teachings against Christian morality, and without a legitimate authority over him. But the Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara paid no much attention to it, chiefly because the Patriarchal action was baseless in every aspect. Later the Supreme Court of India ruled that such an action was null and void. In other words, the Church of Malankara was not shaken least by this action. The Catholicos of the East never issued a counter excommunication against the Patriarch; he just ignored the Antiochian intimidation. Canonical excommunication is the ultimate weapon against heresy and unrepentant public immorality, used by the Church at large to defend orthodoxy of doctrine and morality. However, a national Synod and its head may use this weapon to discipline an individual bishop or bishops in order to deal with a situation of obstinate disobedience or other canonical irregularity. If it is a question pertaining to the administration or self-administration of a national church that strictly belongs to the affairs of its synod, no outside synod or its head can interfere with it, or pass a judgment against it or its head. Having known this fact very clearly, the Synod of Malankara was not concerned much about what Antioch was doing, except waiting for the best occasion to reestablish good relations with that Church of the Middle East. Again, the Church of Malankara has never imagined to go with a counter attack on Antioch. If this is true, what relevance there was for such retaliation against Antioch? It does not definitely exhibit the sublimely civilized manner with which the Church of Malankara has been dealing with the Church of the Middle East for over a century. As the Church of Malankara is earnestly looking for the best opportunity to reestablish cordial relationship with its sister Church of Antioch, would this consecration in any manner enhance and further the chances for it? Let me tell my readers honestly: this action does not brighten the image of the Church of Malankara. It showed that the Church of Malankara had fallen from its virtues of decency and propriety.
Even if Malankara has to retaliate against Antioch, did she have to use her sacred gift of apostolic succession in order to achieve such an ulterior motive? If a great gift like the apostolic succession is imparted on someone in a retaliatory spirit, would the Holy Spirit descend on the ordinand freely to make it a genuine sacrament of Holy Orders? Would the Spirit descend upon that person with pleasure? It is important that we realize that the Holy Church is not privileged to perform a sacrilegious administration of any mysteries that are meant for the salvation of mankind!
Under what circumstance can the Church of Malankara confer her gift of the Sacred High Priesthood on someone outside her normal jurisdictional boundaries? Yes, a Church can help another Church of the same faith and table of life when there is a legitimate reason. This legitimate reason has to be approved as canonical and acceptable by its Holy Synod and its head. In history we see that the Holy See of Alexandria extended this act of fraternity to Jacob Burdono, when the Syrian Church became sacerdotally stagnant, in which situation it was a great act of charity towards a sister Church. When the Church of Malankara lost its apostolic succession, the Antiochian bishops helped it with a valid apostolic succession in the 18th century. There were many such precedents in the history of Christendom.
Suppose, there is a considerable number of people in Europe isolated or separated from the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch for a longer period, and if these people are denied access to the mysteries of the Church due to the obstinacy of the Patriarch of Antioch and his Synod, the Church of Malankara may be morally forced to help this community and keep them a living Church. If this alienated Church requires the presence of a validly ordained bishop to keep itself sacramentally alive, the Church of Malankara can justifiably consecrate a suitable person, after proper screening and examination. The church that requires a bishop may also elect its candidate for the episcopate. Consecrating such a person for the archpastorate of such a Church is a charitable act and is worthy of commendation. Is the German candidate for the episcopate is such a candidate and is there a Church behind him? Further, canonical courtesy further requires that the Church of Malankara duly inform the Patriarchate of Antioch about this situation and the episcopal consecration performed by her.
And there could be another scenario. If the Church of Malankara can find a beneficial relationship with a foreign Church by ordaining one of their candidates to the bishopric, such a consecration may be justifiable. It is always good to have cordial relationships with churches outside the country that profess the same faith and share the same table of life, particularly follow the same liturgy. Again, the decision is made by the Holy Synod of Malankara, not made arbitrarily by an individual bishop.
We have to scrutinize if there is an Orthodox Church in Germany that needed a bishop, and if that Church is going to establish a permanent cordial relationship with Malankara, and if that Church makes any plans to elevate anyone to the bishopric. It is the duty of the Synod of Malankara to evaluate these things, which might take even months. After the Synod studies the situation, it makes a decision together with its president, the Catholicos of the East. If the decision is to go ahead with an episcopal ordination, it is the Church of Malankara that performs the ceremony; which means the Catholicos of the East ordains the German ordinand to the episcopate; he also administers the profession of faith (Omologia) to the ordinand and issues to the newly-ordained bishop a Systaticon codified by the Synod specially for this purpose (not the one generally issued to the newly-ordained bishops of the Church of Malankara). The Catholicos may also designate another consecrator and coconsecrators according to the Apostolic and Nicene canons to perform this ordination. This should be the standard procedure to ordain an episcopal candidate from another Church outside the Catholicate of the East.
Obviously these norms are blatantly violated by the two metropolitans who performed the so-called episcopal ordination of the German national.
In any civilized form of government, there is a consequence for every action of violation of standards and laws that keep the society in place and in its proper structure. In other words, every violation has a punishment attached to it, which is part of a system of justice. Justice is fairness equally distributed. A violation demands justice to repair the damage inflicted by it. Can anyone in his sane mind deny the culpability of the episcopal ordination under question? Can anyone undo the damage inflicted on the Holy Church by this action? Can anyone condone the belligerent attack on the sole authority of the Holy Synod of Malankara and the Catholicos of the East? Can anyone be pleased with the audacity with which these prelates insulted the moral conscience of the faithful of Malankara? Can anyone overlook that the intrinsic rectitude of a moral community is tarnished by this act?
Should such an act of violation be left unpunished? It seems that the Holy Synod did not make any attempt to bring these prelates to justice. It is said that the members of the Synod were just satisfied with a simple apology! Was this act of violation just a silly breach that required only an apology? Readers, this was an irreparable offense against the Church of Malankara. If anyone tries to silence those who question this act of violation, it is a violation of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression.
It is believed that disciplinary actions against these bishops were not imposed solely due to the fear that it might create another schism. Some even conjectured that these prelates might go out to start another church with the new German bishop threatening the current stability of the Church of Malankara, creating more divisions and confusions. We believe the children of Malankara are stronger than many think; those who had supported the Catholicate of the East from the time of its restoration in India supplied a much stronger generation of their children to uphold the Catholicate with unimaginable resolve and determination; and many more have taken refuge at the helm of this ship since then. So we believe that the Church of Malankara should never have feared about executing justice for her offenders.
We reiterate; this document is not to disregard, or disrespect, or challenge any actions of the Holy Synod or of the Holy Father; rather this is to protect the integrity of the Church of Malankara, to defend the prerogative of the Holy Synod of Malankara and to safeguard the canonical authority of the Catholicos of the East. If the powers of the Holy Synod and the Catholicos are dismantled by such an act of violation, it definitely shakes the foundations of the Church of Malankara; and she will be ridiculed by other Orthodox Churches for lack of disciple and for lack of resolve to discipline her serious offenders.
We would like to remind everyone concerned that every act of violation of laws and norms, whether in the civil world or in ecclesiastical realm, demands the execution of justice. The Church of Malankara also demands just that, nothing else.