Ecumenism in Praxis

A Historical Critique of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church

by Joseph Daniel (Author)
©2014 Thesis 328 Pages


The Malankara Mar Thoma Church’s ecumenical outlook – marked by twin facets of openness and autonomy – has been the underlying ethos guiding its history, helping it to establish a unique identity. The book retells the church’s ecumenical history dating back to its founding in 52 CE. This study throws ample light on the period between the significant changes of 1889 and the present times. It deals with questions such as: How did the church start practising an ecumenical outlook even before the word ecumenism was coined? Could this have resulted from the church’s interaction with Indian culture that upholds unity in diversity?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Message from His Beatitude
  • Zum Geleit (Forward)
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Rooted in tradition, open to fresh ideas
  • Historical-critical analysis
  • History versus agenda
  • Praxis, openness, autonomy …
  • Chapter I
  • An Indian Church
  • Diamper decisions
  • The Coonen Cross revolt
  • The Antiochian connection
  • Chapter II
  • A Wider Ecumenical Outlook
  • Origin of the Malankara Church in India
  • North Indian tradition
  • Law of St. Thomas
  • Church soaks in Indian culture
  • Ecumenical theological vision on mission
  • Chapter III
  • In Communion
  • Persian connections
  • A Nestorian nexus?
  • Biased historical account
  • An archdeacon and prince
  • Foiling imperialist designs
  • Chapter IV
  • A Reformed Church of the Orient
  • Seeds of reforms
  • Reforms and the CMS
  • Reforms fuel confrontation
  • Reforms in faith and practice
  • Malayalam liturgy
  • Decisive steps for reforms
  • Faith practices and ecclesiology
  • Chapter V
  • Autonomous Church Reaches Out
  • A new beginning
  • Autonomy asserted
  • Dedicated to Indian mission
  • When liturgy met evangelism …
  • Church’s centrality in mission
  • An Incarnation mission model
  • Renewal through revival
  • Ecumenism revived
  • Mission strategy
  • Acts of social emancipation
  • Educating the ‘outcastes’
  • Democratic church polity
  • Chapter VI
  • Project for Indian Evangelisation
  • Mission with a mandate
  • Missionary joint-venture
  • Chapter VII
  • Blending Hindu, Christian Ascetism
  • Sadhana path to salvation
  • Passion for ashrams
  • Christ, the true guru
  • Chapter VIII
  • A Church For The People
  • Church stands for the people
  • ‘Responsible government’ stir
  • Church and ‘responsible society’
  • Abraham Mar Thoma’s leadership
  • Bold, open support for Congress
  • Call for responsible government
  • Chapter IX
  • Church Unity in Action
  • Ecumenism to the rescue
  • Bishops’ bid for authority
  • Full communion with the MISC
  • Essential points for full communion
  • Administrative assistance
  • MISC’s scepticism on reforms
  • Chapter X
  • Proactive Ecumenism
  • Developing ties that bind
  • Missionary ties to inter-communion
  • History of Anglican Church in India
  • Agreement on membership
  • Full communion agreement
  • Chapter XI
  • A New Ecumenical Paradigm
  • Defining conciliar fellowship
  • Unity in diversity
  • Ecumenical engagement with the CSI
  • Preparing the church
  • Ecclesiology
  • Metropolitan’s encyclical sidelined
  • Finding a common ground in faith
  • Ministry and sacraments
  • Response to Lambeth concerns
  • Inter-Church Relations Committee
  • Full communion
  • Engaging the CNI
  • Chapter XII
  • Conciliar Fellowship in Action
  • Critical reaction to organic union idea
  • In step with global moves
  • Leuenberg Agreement
  • Chapter XIII
  • Helming and Guiding Global Ecumenism
  • Titus II, the motivator
  • Abraham Mar Thoma, the nationalist
  • Juhanon Mar Thoma, the articulator
  • Institutional links
  • Icon of cooperation
  • Engaging global ecumenism
  • Leadership in WCC
  • M.M. Thomas, the pioneer
  • Evanston and New Delhi
  • Ecumenical association for Asia
  • A ‘bridge church’
  • An appeal for unification
  • Chapter XIV
  • Quest for The ‘Kingdom’
  • Church and nation-building
  • A concept takes root
  • Clearer focus on Kingdom concerns
  • Christ, the reference point
  • A fertile field for mission
  • Christ, the ever-present reality
  • Challenge to change mindsets
  • Home to the homeless
  • Church responds to society’s needs
  • Sustainable society concerns
  • Deconstructing social structures
  • Proactive initiatives
  • Leading by example
  • The message trickles down
  • Cold response from parishes
  • New church’s for the marginalised
  • Pivotal role of women
  • Robust response to ‘emergency’
  • Scholar turns bishop and ecumenist
  • Bishop with a cosmic vision
  • A great administrator
  • Work in progress
  • Chapter XV
  • Ecumenism in Practice – A Progress Card
  • Caste system – bane or boon?
  • Harbingers of change
  • Vision for mission
  • Faith-liturgy integration
  • Church in solidarity with struggles
  • Pioneering church unity
  • Focus on the ‘kingdom’
  • Conciliar fellowship favoured
  • The caste scourge
  • Need for Eucharistic hospitality
  • Bibliography


This book attempts primarily to reconstruct the evolution of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church’s pragmatic principle of ecumenism as it appears in history since its beginning in 52 CE and particularly during the period between the significant changes of 1889 and the present times. The study also looks at investigating instances when it skewed its pragmatic principle of ecumenism in its praxis.

The ecumenical outlook – marked by twin facets of openness and autonomy – has been the underlying ethos guiding the ecumenical history of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.1 The subject matter of this study, the Mar Thoma Church, as it is commonly called, is believed to have been founded by St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, in India. The church adopted the Persian East Syrian liturgy in the 4th century. In the 17th century, the church started fresh ecumenical engagements with the Antiochian Church and it eventually adopted the west Syrian liturgy, or St. James Liturgy in 1836.

The church has seen significant reforms since 1889, a year when it took on a new existence. The faith of the church is anchored in the Holy Scripture and the three ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431. Currently the church consists of 12 dioceses, of which two are overseas dioceses with a membership of about 1 million.2 The other denominations that claim the St. Thomas tradition in India are: Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite Church), Syro-Malabar Rite of the ← 23 | 24 → Roman Catholic Church, Malankara Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, Malabar Indepedent Syrian Church and Chaldean Syrian Church of the East.3

The ecumenical disposition of the Mar Thoma Church can be traced back in history to the time when it applied ecumenical outlook in practice by bringing together converts from three ethnic Indian groups – the Brahmin, the Dravidian4 and the people of the land5 – under the ambit of the church. This ecumenical ethos led to the church establishing its own unique self-identity. The self-consciousness of the church of being a participant in the common cultural heritage of India has helped it to share in India’s socio-cultural disposition towards unity in diversity and the spirit of tolerance with other faiths and church denominations. The church had no qualms about receiving episcopal supervision from the Persian church and in effecting inter-communion agreements with other church denominations even before the idea of inter-communion between churches surfaced in the history of the ecumenical movement.

The underlying hypothesis of the study is the church’s ecumenical outlook that underpins its inherent quality of openness and autonomy. This conforms to the meaning-content of the word, “ecumenism”, as referred to by the modern ecumenical movement in its relation to other religious faiths (wider ecumenism) and other Christian denominations. This underlying premise, which guided the selection of source materials and its interpretation, underscores the fact that the history of the Mar Thoma Church evolved over the years through its ecumenical engagements with other churches. The church has also been a source of enrichment to India’s socio-religious history. ← 24 | 25 →

Rooted in tradition, open to fresh ideas

The Mar Thoma Church has shown this ecumenical outlook throughout its entire historical development and progress and particularly when it encountered challenges in its engagements with the Persian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Antiochian Church, the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (MISC), the Anglican Church, the Church of South India (CSI), the Church of North India (CNI) and the world-wide ecumenical movement. The history of the Mar Thoma Church should thus be viewed in the light of its continuous engagement to bring into fruition the centuries-old tradition of openness and autonomy in its life and witness. This book attempts to give an explanation of its unique identity and highlight instances of this reality by investigating into the church’s historical and theological aspects.

The Mar Thoma Church has cherished its apostolic tradition and at the same time remained open to fresh insights and ideas from other faiths and Christian denominations. Based on this, the reforms within the church during the 19th century can be understood as being partly a result of its wish to keep age-old church traditions and partly a result of its ability to receive fresh ideas from the reformation and CMS missionaries to contemporize it. Consequently, when the Mar Thoma Church started engaging other churches and faiths, it listened, respected differences and adopted new insights and resources including the liturgy for enriching its life and witness. In this process, the Mar Thoma Church upheld its special vocation as part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” and its richness as a separate indigenous church.

In the light of these facts, this study attempts to deal with questions such as: How did the church start practising an ecumenical outlook, even prior to the word, ecumenism, being coined in the ecumenical movement? Could it be the result of the church’s interaction with Indian culture, which upholds unity in diversity? Or, could the church have considered openness and autonomy as a requirement for its existence in India’s multi-religious and pluralistic context? I would think it more appropriate to equate the life principles of openness and autonomy of the Mar Thoma Church with the term: “ecumenism”, in order to emphasise that the church remained part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”. Again, the church’s ability to project mutual respect and church unity engagements, while preserving its autonomy, brings to mind such a reasoning. ← 25 | 26 →

Historical-critical analysis

This book follows the historical method of the Church History Association of India that is the commonly accepted historical method in reconstructing the history of Christianity in India.6 The Church History Association of India (CHAI) highlighted the role of Indian churches and Indian Christians in the development of Christianity, by the process of historical-critical analysis of the data available for the reconstruction of Indian Christian history. It deals with different aspects of Christianity – social, cultural and ecumenical – in relation to other religious and cultural movements. A particularly focussed analysis of Indian Christian participation and ideas is pertinent in this method. Its main emphasis is on the contribution of Indian Christians to the development of Christianity in India.

One of the perennial questions challenging and disturbing the Mar Thoma Church has been the “unity in diversity” concept. The church has attempted to find answers to this in different historical contexts, and a permanent solution to the issue could have been found in its ecumenical outlook. This work thus inquired into the evolution of the Mar Thoma Church’s pragmatic ecumenical life principle and its historic praxis in India’s multi-religious and multi-cultural context. The church’s pragmatic ecumenical outlook took shape through its ← 26 | 27 → active engagement in the struggles against the “caste system”, its association with other churches, and its impact of the church’s leadership on socio-political movements as well as on the institutional expressions of modern ecumenism such as the International Missionary Council (IMC) and later, the World Council of Churches (WCC).

This book follows a chronological sequence of the Mar Thoma Church’s life and witness since its inception and particularly after 1889. However, due to the interplay of historical reasons and the simultaneous historical functioning of ecumenism in the church’s multi-faceted realms, a chronological sequence of the historical analysis is discarded for consistency and clarity in some respects. Therefore, there appears to be an overlapping of historical periods in the presentation of facts and their interpretations in this book.

History versus agenda

Methodologically, the writing of history is supposed to be objective and free from prejudice. However, the historical interpretation of the source materials often reveals the writer’s attitude and bias towards the materials and their interpretation. The Indian church historiography contains the writings of the history of various church traditions; they often claim to be the direct custodians of the history of the Malankara Church, founded by St. Thomas in India. Therefore this study has taken precautionary steps to avoid such clandestine writing of history.

At the same time, as an ordained priest of the church that is being studied, I have had to guard against the possibility and tendency to unintentionally collect available data for the reconstruction of history in an apologetic mode. While searching for the church’s own identity, the Metropolitans, bishops, the episcopal synod and the general body of the church have received more attention in this analysis than the laity – the worker bees in the making of the history of the church at the grassroots or parish level. The church’s administrative structure has a well-defined hierarchical structure, but also democratic agencies to formulate and implement the church’s ecumenical life principle at the level of the local parishes. Therefore, while the role of the church leaders could be overstated, the study has taken precautionary measures to investigate the available sources using historical-critical method, in order to avoid the skewing of metanarratives. ← 27 | 28 →

Praxis, openness, autonomy …

The conceptual clarity of the terminology is essential in understanding this study. The term “historic praxis” is used by several writers attributing different connotations, based on different perspectives. However, the term, as used in this study, to signifies the church’s conceptualisation of the internalised meaning of ecumenism – from its multi-religious and ecumenical experiences – and indicates how those meanings could be practised in its life and witness. In plain term, it refers to the church’s process of using its internalised and digested knowledge of ecumenism into its life and witness.

The term, “ecumenism” used in this study signifies a particular rational view and pragmatic functioning principle that emerged within the Mar Thoma Church and the manifestation of that principle in its historic praxis, which led to the church becoming open to other churches and movements by imbibing their insights and resources to forge unity, while remaining an autonomous and indigenous church. The central thesis is that ecumenism is the principal underlying ethos moulding the church’s core, around which the church evolved through centuries. This is not to say that the church has perfectly adapted to its pluralist, multi-religious and multi-cultural environments. This study is both an exposition of ways in which the Mar Thoma Church views the world, the other denominations and other religions as well as an account of what the church has learned about its evolution from its historical engagements with other churches, ecumenical movements and other religions.

“Ecumenism”, in this sense, is in conformity with the meaning of the Greek word oikoumene, which has been referred to as the “whole inhabited world”7, the “whole of the Roman Empire”8, “the whole of the Church”9, “universal ecclesiastical validity”10, “world-wide missionary outreach”11, and “unity of churches”12. This refers to the plurality of the world including the plurality of religious and denominational existence. This is also a way of relating the church to other denominations and religions to enhance mutual respect, promotion of an informed understanding of each other and building of mutual relationship. However, it ← 28 | 29 → neither advocates uncritical adaptations nor syncretism by damaging the core fundamental values of the church for the sake of unity. Rather it is an attempt to practise unity in diversity, with mutual respect helping to form a community of communities.

The term, “openness”, as used in this study, is the pragmatic functioning characteristic of the Mar Thoma Church to the fact of the existence of different church traditions and religions. This characteristic feature of the church equips it to listen and entertain new ideas, when it encounters other church traditions and religions. This quality helps the church to adopt new ideas, symbols and customs from those church traditions and religions that it encounters.

The term, “autonomy”, has different connotations in the Roman Catholic, Oriental and Eastern Orthodox traditions, based on the different perspectives in which they see the term in the context of the local church’s relation to its mother church.13 However, the term used in this study signifies the Mar Thoma Church’s self-understanding of its internalised meaning of independence, from other churches of the St. Thomas tradition in India and how that independence can be maintained in its life and witness, while keeping ecumenical engagements with other churches and religions. In other words, it refers to the Mar Thoma Church’s status as a self-governing, independent church that is subject to its canons and Constitution. “Autonomy” is not used in the sense of the Mar Thoma Church’s status as an autocephalous Oriental church, but in the sense of it being an independent church governed by its own Metropolitan, episcopal synod, general assembly and appointing its own Metropolitan.

This book has 15 chapters that wraps the evolution of Mar Thoma Church’s ecumenical journey starting from its earliest history and moving through posers on its assimilation of external influences, while keeping its autonomy. The study has sought to analyse critically the church’s relation to Indian culture and its caste affiliations, from an Indian cultural perspective.

The part played by the Mar Thoma Church’s Archdeacon, the reaction of its members to subjugation moves by other churches and its response when faced with a leadership vacuum, are among the various landmarks in that ecumenical journey that the book looks at.

The first few chapters cover a brief historical survey of the church after its inception to a newfound existence in 1889. The study then deals with how it preserved ← 29 | 30 → its indigenous church identity, while participating in the larger ecumenical movement. The book analyses the church’s underlying ecumenical life principle and its application to India’s social, religious and political context. The church’s oriental liturgical base and reforms are analysed against this background. I found the church’s auxiliary organisations having a powerful influence in keeping the centuries-old ecumenical vision in its core. From an administrative and structural perspective, the part played by the Metropolitans, the head of the church, the episcopal synod, the church council and the general assembly are examined critically.

This book also seeks to dive deep into the church’s ecumenical engagements with the MISC and the Church of India, Burma and Ceylon (CIBC), the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (CIPBC) as well as its participation in the national, regional and global ecumenical movements. The study seeks to unravel the ecumenical ethos that drives the church to define its relation with other churches and to the national, regional and global ecumenical movements. The church’s conciliar model of ecumenical relations with the Church of South India (CSI), the Church of North India (CNI) and the Communion of Churches in India (CCI) are also dealt with in this book. The book assesses the progress of the church’s ecumenical process by employing a detailed study on the ecumenical engagements with the churches of the world-wide Anglican Communion, the CSI, the CNI and the Nilackal Ecumenical Trust.

The final part of this book looks at the response of the church to the programmes of the WCC by outlining how the Mar Thoma Church has responded to those programmes in its life and witness. The church’s life and work through auxiliary organisations – Development Department, and Christian Agency for Rural Development (CARD), Mar Thoma Gospel Women’s Association (MTSSS) – are analysed at length in this chapter. It also covers the church’s response to the political crisis following the declaration of emergency rule in India in 1975. Chapter 15 wraps the general conclusions of this study.

Joseph Daniel
← 30 | 31 →


1.    Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church is hereafter reffered to as “Mar Thoma Church”.

2.    There are differences in the stastistics provided by different writers on the number of members of the Mar Thoma Church and other churches in India. For instance, the number of the Mar Thoma Church members as per the stastics provided by Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church Diary 2014 is 1.5 millon. Acording to Karl Pinggera the number of the Mar Thoma Church members is 600,000. In the Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, the number of members in the Mar Thoma Church is 1,061,940.
See, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church Diary 2014, 14; Karl Pinggera, “Die Kirche der Syrisch-Orthodoxen Tradition” In: Christian Lange, Karl Pinggera, (eds.) Die altorientalischen kirche-glaube und geschichte, (New York: Cambridge University Press (WBG), 2002), 87–89; Daniel Patte, (eds.) The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 253–254.

3.    Acording to Karl Pinggera the number of members of the churches that claim St. Thomas traditions in India are as follows: Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (1 million), Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite Church) (1million), Malabar Independent Syrian Church (10,000), Syro- Malabar Rite of the Roman Catholic Church (3700,000) and Malankara Rite of the Roman Catholic Church (400,000). See, Karl Pinggera, “Die kirche der Syrisch-Orthodoxen tradition” In: Christian Lange, Karl Pinggera, (eds.) Die altorientalischen kirche-glaube und geschichte, op.cit., 253–254.

4.    The Dravidians belong to the Mediterranean race. They are believed to be the main racial element in the Dravidian population in South India. They are considered as the relatives of the people of the Indus Valley civilization. Nairs, Vellalas, Ezhavas may belongs to this group. This race also consists of the scheduled castes – Pulayas, Parayas, Kuravas and others.
See, A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survy of Kerala History, (Madras: S. Visvanathan Publishers, 1988), 44.

5.    The “people of the land” are the hill tribes of Kerala. They belong to the dalit community such as “adivasis” in India.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
Ekklesiologie Pluralismus Autonomie Multikulturalität
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 328 pp., 2 graphs

Biographical notes

Joseph Daniel (Author)

Joseph Daniel, Rev. Dr., holds two post graduate degrees in History and Theology. He is recipient of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Award and University Merit scholarship for academic excellence and gold-medalist from the Mahatma Gandhi University. He is now vicar of the Salem Mar Thoma Church and teaches at Mar Thoma Theological Seminary (India).


Title: Ecumenism in Praxis
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