The Orthodox Indian Church
Once while I was reporting from Jerusalem, I was quite intrigued when two Indian women in bright pink and saffron saris entered barefoot into the monastery of the birth of the Theotokos and prostrated in front of the icons. What struck me most were their quick intense movements as if they were furtively stealing the holiness of the place. They even snatched a handful of sand from the candle box and deposited it inside their brassiers or whatever the upper part of the sari is that keeps breasts in place. They left as quickly as they had come leaving a trail of sand behind them. They jolted with quick scissor steps to the next holy site on the Via Dolorosa; they reminded me of holy crack addicts. Intensely rushing to take everything in in the short amount of time they had. How could I tell them this was not proper? They were so devout in the intensity of their piety.
I found out by witnessing the kaleidoscope of Christian diversity that paraded through Station Five on the Via Dolorosa from the second floor flat of where we lived that indeed there were Indian Christians, sometimes referred to as Thomasian Christians. Actually the Christians of India are so diverse their history so long and complicated it is easy to confuse them not only with Hindus but other Christian denominations. Upon my return to the US, I discovered that there were several parishes of the Indian Orthodox Church, otherwise known as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, right in Bellerose, Queens and stone’s throw in bordering Floral Park. In fact, since the mid 20th century, when the US immigration quotas opened up and allowed more people of Indian descent to enter, the Indian Orthodox Church established an American Diocese, divided into Northeast and Southeast Diocese, boasts 50 parishes and growing, according to the official website of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Here is our attempt to give a brief overview of the Indian Orthodox Church and narrate the impressions of one curious Greek Orthodox girl as she did the unthinkable–attended an Indian Orthodox liturgy.
The history of the Malankara Orthodox Church goes back to the Holy Apostle St. Thomas. He spread the gospel as far as south India, the modern day Kerala province, from ad 52. A total of 12 original churches were founded by St Thomas and his successors. This early church took part in the first three ecumenical councils The first schism within the Orthodox ranks took place during the Council at Calcedon when the Indian Orthodox Church sided with the Syrian Orthodox as they had always kept up strong relations. But after the provinces colonization by the Portuguese and then the English the history of the Indian Orthodox Church requires a college course. It’s actually quite complicated as splinter groups influenced by the Jacobean Protestants infiltrated in the 18th century causing another autocephalous church to form. To keep it simple, then, the church is theologically and traditionally a part of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches. The Indian Orthodox Church accepts the Miaphysite Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria and uses the Malankara Rite, a local variant of the West Syrian Rite.
According to Wikipedia entry on the Malankara Orthodox Church, in 1968 Fr. G. John (John Geevarghese), an Ecumenical Fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, started celebrating the Holy Qurbana every Sunday in the Seminary chapel, thus organizing the first congregation on America soil. After 1970 the Malankara Orthodox Church gradually spread to many major US cities, with increasing numbers of clergy and laity. In 1976 the Holy Synod decided to establish more dioceses in various parts of the world. At this time the numerous churches in America were placed under the authority of the Metropolitan of the Bombay Diocese, Thomas Mar Makarios.
Mar Makarios was given authority of the American Diocese and the enthronement of the newly elected Metropolitan Mar Makarios was held at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, under the authority of the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan, Baselius Mar Thoma Mathews I, on July 14, 1979. The enthronement was well attended by many leaders of the Orthodox Churches, as well as representatives from various other denominations. Notable during this time was the grand celebration of Saint Thomas Day by parishioners and church leaders across the nation at Union Theological Seminary, NY.
His Grace Zachariah Mar Nicholvas is the reigning head of this particular diocese whose administrative headquarters is in Muttontown, Long Island.
The ritual of Holy Liturgy in the Indian Orthodox Church follows the liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom by way of the Syriac tradition. But as is typical of the Orthodox Church, it allows for the distinct cultural differences of its adherence and gives them the freedom to color their worship as they see fit.
A Sunday in St. Gregorio’s Indian Orthodox Church in Floral Park, NY
Upon entering the vestibule of St. Gregorio’s church, sandals and mounds of shoes are strewn all over the place, neatly of course. The practice of removing shoes upon entering a sacred place is common in churches of the Eastern rite. (I am naturally a bare footer at home so taking off my sandals was for me like Mr Rogers’ ritual of taking off tennis shoes and slipping into something more comfortable.)
Once in the church proper, the first pleasant surprise there was a young high school girl reading from the Book of Job from the Old Testament at the front from a central podium. This practice is in keeping with Jewish tradition and differs quite strongly from our Greek Orthodox practice that bars women except in monastic form from all things liturgical. On first visual impression, the church seemed vibrant, open, inviting and jubilant. There was no iconostasis just velvet heavy drapes to curtain off the inner sanctuary. Altar men held up long silver poles adorned with seraphim in silver relief around which jangled bells and tambourine castanets. They would synchronize their moving over the aged priest who would read from Scripture and shake them at the same time swinging heavy incense burners that would leave a stark cloud of fragrant smoke through the room.
The homily delivered was in keeping with the Christian Orthodox method. It is the same message–to pray, to be generous, to give thanksgiving and to forgive one another, continue your good work, love one another, encourage one another. It echoed the same principles that any Greek Orthodox priest would agree with. My ears pricked up discerning the Greek phrases left over and I could even hear the Indianized chanting of “Kurieleison” over and over. During the litany of supplication, however, I noticed that each congregant moves to their neighbor to the right left front and back and offers each the symbol of peace- not a kiss as do Catholics but their hands holding them up first in the gesture of prayer and then opening up their palms to receive open palms in a caress.
The church was packed to the very last pew even at 20 past the scheduled time for liturgy. So packed in fact that I had to take a seat in the very last row on the right side of the temple where nursing mothers rocked infants back and forth. The sight of these ladies dressed in their Sunday best– sumptuous saris of rich burgandy bedazzled with silver sequins and clinking with gold bangles–made me jealous. I too would want to don a sari and look so beautiful for the Lord. Another difference at first impression was how participatory the service was. Although a formal choir exists to the left front, the entire congregation breaks out in song. The chanting, which to my Western ear combined the sweet melodic high pitch of a Bollywood siren with the ancient Syriac even Aramaic spoken verse, was absolutely enchanting. It brought me to tears more than once. In fact, it was the music that had led me to St Gregorio’s as I had Youtubed “Orthodox morning chant” only to find a long playlist of Orthodox Indian morning prayers that had been uploaded by very web savvy congregants. (A casual search on Google for “Orthodox Indian Church” will yield a very rich and bustling internet multi-media presence.) So soothing, so heartfelt was the music that I followed its trail to the official Indian Orthodox website which produced no less than 35 parishes just in NY alone. One of these was St Gregorio’s, a short drive from home.
My guide into the liturgy was Meenu, a poised polite 17-year-old senior at Thomas Edison High School. She courteously took me under her wing and initiated me into the finer details of the ritual. She is very active in her church, not only singing in the choir but serving on the youth board as secretary. While attending service, she was also flipping through a loose leaf book highlighted with notes she was scheduled to take the exit qualifying Sunday school exam at 12:30 that day. Her passing the exam would mark her official entry as a member of the Orthodox Indian church. I jotted yet another difference in my mental notes. Do our Sunday school kids have to pass an exam or is their graduation automatic?
The first thing I learned was the Holy Liturgy is called “Holy Qurbana”; the dialect spoken at church was Malayalam native to south India and the province of Kerala. The priest is known an “Achen” (pronounces Ack-ken). Achen Gregory Varghese, an erudite young priest, officiated Holy Qurbana. On the Sunday I participated the parish was saying goodbye to its founding vicar, the very reverend father who was retiring and commemorating the repose of Catholicos Mar Thomas Didymos the First who had fallen asleep the Tuesday prior at the age of 94.
“Clergy in your church retire?” I asked of Father Gregory at trapeza. “You will find that the Indian Orthodox Church is very practical and pragmatic,” was his response.
During the part of the liturgy called the Litany of Supplication, there was another difference with our own liturgical text that I could not help but make a mental note. There was a prayer to guard against evil that specifically supplicated the Lord about protection from merciless authorities. When I mentioned this to Achen Gregory, he observed the uncanny resonance of such prayer in the present time when so many Syrian Orthodox are being persecuted by their very own government. It seems very ironic that this prayer included in the Syriac liturgy from the most ancient of times rings so poignantly in the malaise of the 21st century civil war in Syria.
“As Christians we are supposed to pray for our political leaders,” Achen Gregory said, “but we should not be married to any political party or government.”
At Trapeza, graciously hosted by the parish (No, it wasn’t saag paneer, or briyani but boxes of delivered Domino’s pizza), I was treated to freshly cut mangos and chatted with the retiring Achen Samuel and official vicar. He had immigrated to NYC in the 1950s and studied at General Union Seminary from 1951-1956 attaining a Masters in Theology and in biology. He was in attendance when the first Orthodox Indian liturgy was practiced in the Latman Chapel in the basement of Union Theological Seminary. He had also studied at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary under Alexander Schleimemann.
I also had a chance to talk to the ladies of the parish. Shyamala Phillips, the secretary of the women’s group, said that every parish has MarThom Maria Group that would be equivalent to our Greek Ladies’ Philoptochos society. However, unlike our church, she informed me that the Malankara Orthodox Church encourages equality in governance of church affairs.
“Women are not allowed to preach,” explained Phillips, “as our church follows the doctrine of St. Paul but women are allowed to read from the holy books as they are considered to be the cornerstone of the church because of their significant role in the family, which is the foundation of the church.”
Two years prior, the central Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church voted to allow women to serve as elected officials in the church heirarchy. (Now, that doesn’t happen in our Greek church.)
Taking part in Holy Qurbana at at Gregorio’s church was a moving experience. I will visit again; this time in my flaming fuchsia sari.