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Jesudas M Athyal

Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message
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Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message in the 21st Century


By Jesudas M. Athyal


The book, Metropolitan Chrysostom on Mission in the Market Place was published at a crucial juncture in the history of the Mar Thoma Church. By the end of the 20th century, the Church had come to a turning point in its history. A Church that was confined largely to a small geographical part of Kerala had rapidly moved to all parts of India and several regions around the globe. The challenges this new phase raised were enormous. Addressing these and several other similar questions through this book, Metropolitan Philiopose Mar Chrysostom triggered off a process of serious reflection in the church.

This article addresses some of the issues raised in Mission in the Market Place in the light of the rapid changes during the last few years as well as in the light of the current thinking of Chrysostom Thirumeny. Three areas are identified here for a discussion. They are: (1) Re-reading History (2) Ecumenical Relations (3) The Diaspora Church. Thirumeny's speeches during his recent visit to Chennai have also been reviewed for the purpose of writing this article.

Re-reading History from Subaltern Perspective

Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom has the rare quality to look back self-critically at the heritage and history of his own church. He accepts and cherishes the fruits of Reformation but affirms that it is not by romanticising the past nor by eulogizing the pioneers but by learning from the lessons as well as the mistakes of the past that we go forward. Speaking specifically of the period of Reformation in the Eastern church, Thirumeny recalls that, according to the historians, Abraham Malpan had two options before him: one was to join the missionaries with his reformed group; the other was to remain as a reformed eastern church. It is our accepted history now that the Malpan chose the latter course. Thirumeny, however, recalls that some scholars felt that one reason why the pioneers of the Mar Thoma Church did not want to join the missionaries was that the missionaries were set to work among the Dalits. He added: "Our aversion was not so much to the missionaries as to the outcasts! We wanted to be independent of the missionaries not because we valued independence but so that we would not have to associate with the lower caste people. Though we do not accept this criticism, we should seriously examine whether there is any truth in such an understanding" (Mission in the Market Place, p. 33).

At a time like this when the churches in Kerala are increasingly demonstrating communal and institutional images, it is refreshing to note that at least some ecclesiastical leaders haven't yet lost the capability to critically look at our own history and heritage. Greatness is not necessarily in projecting an inflated image of oneself, nor even in announcing to the rest of the world that our heritage is the greatest. It is, on the contrary, in our preparedness to be humble and learn lessons from the past for our onward journey.

Metropolitan Chrysostom has the capability to not only re-read history but also create history. He shuns populist action, but through his life, bears witness to what he preaches. By his thought and praxis, he poses a serious threat to the hegemonic and patriarchal structures of the church. Dr. Ramani Pulimood's account of how he, as a bishop, accepted Holy Communion from her hands during the Sunday worship service at the St. John's C.S.I. Church in Vellore is well known. Not equally well known is Dr. M. M. Thomas' account of how Thirumeny, at the WCC Uppsala Assembly (where both of them were present), magnanimously stepped aside to facilitate the election of a lay person of his own church to the highest office of the World Council of Churches. Dr. Thomas recalled: "I was nominated to the Central Committee. That put me in a quandary because I thought Bishop Mar Chrysostom should represent the Mar Thoma Church in the central body. So I decided to propose the substitution of the Bishop in my place in the open Assembly plenary. The Bishop was opposed to this" (My Ecumenical Journey, p. 314). At the Uppsala Assembly, Dr. Thomas went on to be elected as the Moderator of the Central Committee - the highest office in the world body. Chrysostom Thirumeny stood apart from his contemporaries in not only his thought but also genuine action. It is probably the life and praxis, not sermons and scholarly contributions, that elevate a person from being an ordinary mortal to a great soul.

In a traditionally clergy-centred church, Thirumeny's attempts to bring the laity to centre stage are crucial to understanding his commitment to re-interpret the history and heritage of the church. He believed in elevating the church to the Biblical vision of the "priesthood of all believers" but was convinced that the laity should be theologically mature and politically alert. He was harsh on the clergy who attempted to arrogate power to themselves. As he put it, "the Achens and bishops who are often dictatorial in their style of functioning today govern our church structures". He believed that not only the leaders, but the people too must grow. He involved people at a deep level.

Chrysostom Thirumeny is also committed to transcending the traditional image of the priests in order to address the challenges of our changing world. He felt that in today's context, we should think of newer forms of ministries, such as worker-priests and priest workmen. The challenges emerging in the 21st century include the sector of Information Technology and the other areas of globalisation. The psychological stress, emotional uncertainty and spiritual vacuum in the IT sector have led to an unprecedented situation where the youth are increasingly turning to sex and alcohol for solace. It is important to address this situation with all the urgency and pastoral sensitivity it deserves.

Ecumenical Relations

Dr. Konrad Raiser, the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches had noted that Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom is one of the very well known ecumenical figures of our period. Thirumeny had participated in several historic developments of the past century, including the Second Vatican Council and several assemblies of the World Council of Churches. Through his life, he has shown a refreshingly genuine way to live ecumenically. On Sunday January 26, 2008, at the Chapel service of the Gurukul College (conducted according to the C.S.I. liturgy), he preached on the text: "That they may all be one" (St. John 17: 21). To the Gurukul community comprising of theological students and faculty members from all parts of India and from diverse churches, Thirumeny spelt out the grand vision of God that is not only limited to Christian unity nor even human unity but unity with the whole cosmos. He said:

The cause for division is sin. God's will is that all of us should be one. "One" is not mono; one is a composite number. Human beings become human only in relation to God and to nature. God created human beings differently from the other creatures. He moulded man and woman out of dust. Dust contains elements of everything in nature. God, thus, created the human out of nature. The created order was put together in the human so that humanity would be related to God the creator as well as to the created nature.

As a genuine ecumenist, Thirumeny believes that unity should begin at the local level. He recognises Mar Thoma Church's historical and ecclesiastical links with the Orthodox church and believes that these should be strengthened. It was a combination of certain historical as well as doctrinal factors that led to the division of the Syrian church of Kerala into two. Thirumeny believes that the changing times call for a changed attitude on the part of the churches. He quotes approvingly the late Orthodox bishop Philipose Mar Theophilus who used to say that if the Mar Thoma Church's position at the time of Reformation had been what it is today and if the state and condition of the Orthodox Church in those days had been what it is today, then this Reformation would have been only a change, not a reformation. "In other words, it would have been a movement, not a rift."

While participating in the reception for Chrysostom Thirumeny and Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma in Chennai on 19 January 2008, Mr. Varghese Eapen, Vice President of the Madras Medical Mission and a prominent lay leader of the Orthodox Church, too echoed these words. He affirmed that while Reformation that led to a rift in the Kerala Church was a historical reality, there is the need today for the churches to come closer in order to face the challenges of the 21st century. Mr. Eapen urged the Metropolitans to take the necessary steps in this direction. Just as division was a historical necessity as well as the faith response to a certain situation at a particular juncture in history, so also the challenges facing us today call for unity wherever it is possible.

Ecumenical unity during the past century was confined largely to strengthening the relationship among the mainline churches. In the 21st century, however, the rapid growth of the Neo-Pentecostal - charismatic movement and the questions they pose for ecumenically active churches is an area to be reckoned with. It is not the institutional Pentecostal churches but the neo-Pentecostal movements and the charismatic movement in the form of para churches that has a direct bearing on the life and witness of the churches. A large number of people from the mainline churches; particularly the youth - believe that the neo-Pentecostal movements fill the spiritual vacuum of the traditional churches. It is true that several of the Pentecostal groups are other-worldly and escapist in their spiritual orientation, but their wide appeal needs to be seen as a reflection of the crisis in the pastoral ministry of the traditional churches. There is, therefore, the need for the Mar Thoma Church and other churches, to approach these questions sensitively.

From Diaspora Church to Immigrant Church

Few other churches have experienced such an extensive process of migration during the last few decades as the Mar Thoma Church. From the insecurity and uncertainty of the adolescent stage, the provincial church has grown to be a global church. How can the cultural and liturgical practices of the church be related to the rapidly evolving global context? Should the priority of the churches in the diaspora be to faithfully represent the values and practices of the Kerala Church or adapt the ministry and heritage to the new contexts? How can the "generation gap" between the first generation immigrants and the second and subsequent generations be resolved?

In the midst of all these questions with regard to the identity and mission of the church in the diaspora, Chrysostom Thirumeny has a firm theological basis for the positions he take. For him, the church is a place where we celebrate our identities in Christ as the primary identity. If we still want to hold on to our social and cultural heritage of "two thousand years" it is not clear how it will become a church of the Christ where our primary identities need be withdrawn in terms of our relations, in terms of our faith to Jesus Christ.

In the context of the United States, Thirumeny has made it clear that, eventually, he would be "happy to see that there is no Indian church in America. The people should become a part of the land. I do not even want the Mar Thoma Church to survive. I would say that the American Church should survive. The Mar Thoma, the Episcopal and other churches should all together evolve into an American Church" (Mission in the Market Place, p. 125).

Chrysostom Thirumeny recognises the reality that, for the reformed church to survive in a meaningful way in the global market place and continue to contribute theologically and missiologically, there is the need for the church to move from the realm of a diaspora church to an immigrant church. The diaspora church is little more than the branch of a mother church in a foreign land, remote controlled from its native land. Such a church would have limitations in meaningfully addressing the challenges of the new context. An immigrant church, on the other hand, accepts its cultural identity as a faith community of foreign origin, yet affirms the new identity and is committed to taking roots in the new soil.

The challenges the diaspora context raise for the traditional church needs to be seen also in the area of our "mission fields". In several parts of India, the local people have responded positively to the Christian message preached by our missionaries. How does gospel and culture interplay in the lives of these new believers who have joined the Church in their thousands? What are the challenges the new believers raise for the culture and practices of the traditional Christians? Would it be possible for a Karnataka Mar Thoma Church to evolve, where the church is rooted firmly in the local soil? Chrysostom Thirumeny says:

I am against the ethnic church. If a church remains an ethnic church, it will be really questioning the nature of the Church itself. Now that the Mar Thoma Church has members from Karnakata and Tamil Nadu, we have the liturgy in Kannada, Tamil etc. I will say that that is when the Mar Thoma Church became the Church (Mission in the Market Place, p. 119).

Theologically speaking, the church itself is a diaspora community - a pilgrim community that is involved in a journey to fulfilling God's ultimate purpose for humanity and for all God’s creation. Tentatively speaking, however, the diaspora church is a misnomer as it places its cultural and social identity above its witness and mission. The challenge before the diaspora church today, therefore, is to move to being an immigrant church, with relevant forms of worship and witness. As far as this writer understands, this is also the message of Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom in the 21st century.

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(Dr. Jesudas M. Athyal is Associate Professor of Social Analysis at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai)



(This article was published in Darshan (Delhi Diocese, Mar Thoma Church) in March 2007)

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