Visit to the Syrian Christians in India.
Account of a Visit to the Syrian Christians in India, contained in an Extract from a Letter
addressed by the Rev. W. H. Mill, Principal of Bishop's College, to the Secretary of the Society
for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, dated Ajmeer, July 29, 1822.
BEING supplied with letters from his lordship (the bishop) to Cochin, and to Archdeacon Barnes at Bombay, I embarked at the end of October last year, and arrived at the former port in November, with the intention of visiting the Christians of St. Thomas, as they have been very generally called in the interior.
A church subsisting like theirs, if not from the apostolical age, (a tradition justly suspected,) at least from the ages immediately succeeding, whose members have been recognized as a distinct and respected class of the community, in the very heart of Hinduism, for more than fifteen centuries, is a phenomenon which cannot but claim the attention of every one engaged in the propagation of the Gospel in this country; and is itself a most satisfactory answer to the many who contend, that its permanent reception by any class of respectable natives is an impossibility.
The Christians of St. Thomas, though evidently Indians themselves in origin, as in complexion and language (which is the Malayalim,) have received their orders, with their liturgies and ecclesiastical traditions, from the more ancient parent church in Syria. Accordingly (notwithstanding the inaccurate later rumours concerning them, which seem with many to have superseded the excellent and laborious accounts of their former history, given by Dr. Michael Geddes, and by La Croze) they resemble, in their form of government, every other ancient church of which we have any knowledge, by which Christianity has been planted in the midst of idolaters: neither in the three orders (to which they have superadded many of confessedly inferior authority) do they differ from the Western church, except that the deacons exercise fewer of the proper functions of the catanars, or presbyters, than custom has allowed them among us. It were happy, if with this apostolical regimen, of which they are most carefully tenacious, they had preserved uniformly unimpaired the fundamental articles of the Christian faith; but the unhappy disputes respecting the person and natures of our Lord, which beginning with verbal questions, ended with dividing the Oriental churches into two opposite erroneous confessions, have extended their evil influence to the church in Malabar. It is evident, from the accounts that La Croze has detailed with his usual candour and sagacity, that at the time when the Portuguese were forcing the Romish tenets upon them, they were, like the see of Babylon to which they adhered, Nestorian. And it is evident also, that those bishops and priests from Syria, by whose assistance, half a century after, they were enabled, for the greater part, to throw off that usurpation, and recover their ancient ecclesiastical independence, were from the see of Antioch, the most opposed to that heresy, being Jacobites. And this is accordingly the creed of all the independent parts of the Syro-Malabric church at this day, who are under a metropolitan bishop of their own nation. These correspond with the church in Antioch: like them, have the anti-catholic expression (to say the least) in use, of the two natures forming one nature, and unanimously hold the Nestorian duality of persons in the utmost detestation. The other great division of this church, who remain under subjection to the see of Rome, though they have still priests of their own nation, and their liturgy in Syriac, printed at Rome for their use, have all their superior governors sent to them from Europe, and are in a singular state of schism; the Portuguese archbishop of Cranganore, as suffragan of Goa, still claiming them as his charge; while this right is denied by the Propaganda Society at Rome, who have constantly sent out Italian vicars apostolic, and now latterly an Irish bishop, residing at Verapoli, to rule them. These unfortunate churches, still sufficiently proud of their ancient character to feel their present degradation, yet under the terror of the exclusive pretensions to catholicism and infallibility, submit partly to the one, partly to the other, of these opposite claimants.
It is the former and happier division of this singular people to whom we look with the greatest interest and hope, as those whose recovery and rise to their early primitive character will, as we may confidently expect, bring with it the emancipation of the rest. From their venerable metropolitan, Mar Dionysius, who is exerting himself in various ways for the improvement of his clergy and people, I had the happiness of hearing very warm expressions of respect and attachment to the Church of England and our late regretted bishop, whose interviews with himself, and mutual presents, he evidently remembered with great satisfaction.
The persons to whom I was chiefly indebted for my intercourse, both with the priests and laity of this extraordinary people, (of whose Indian language I was ignorant,) were three clergymen of the Church of England, resident at Cottayam, in Travancore, and actively employed in superintending the college and the parochial schools; the former of which, by the grant of the heathen government of that country; the latter, by the desire and contribution of these Christians themselves, have been recently established in their community. Singular as such a superintendence may appear, and almost unprecedented, there is nothing in it, as exercised by these clergymen, which opposes the order, either of that episcopal church they visit, or, as far as I am capable of judging, of that to which they themselves belong. For the former, they certainly do nothing but by the express sanction of the metropolitan consulting and employing them: their use of the Anglican service for themselves and families at one of his chapels, is agreeable to the Catholic practice of these Christians, (who allowed the same 250 years ago to the Portuguese priests as to persons rightly and canonically ordained, even while they were resisting their usurpations,) and is totally unconnected with any purpose of obtruding even that liturgy upon the Syrian Church; while their conduct, with respect to those parts of the Syrian ritual and practice which all Protestants must condemn, is that of silence, which, without the appearance of approval, leaves it to the gradual influence of the knowledge now disseminating itself, to undermine, and at length, by regular authority to remove them. For the latter, which involves the more immediate and far more sacred duty of the two, though no opportunity for the display of this has yet existed in this native government, without the company's territory, and the limits of the operation of our Indian church establishment hitherto, yet I believe they fully acknowledge the episcopal relation and jurisdiction to which they, equally with myself, or with any chaplain of the company, are spiritually subject.
In stating these points respecting the Syro-Indian Church, I do little more than repeat what I had before stated at greater length to Bishop Middleton; and it is not amongst the least of the losses that I have sustained from his lamented and unforeseen departure, that I have been deprived of hearing from himself an opinion on these subjects; on some of which he alone was competent to decide, and on all of which his interest in this people, and extensive acquaintance with their concerns, ancient and modern, enabled him to decide so well.