A colourful Indian painting A colourful Indian painting

Visit to India

Article by Philip Tovey

I travelled to India just after my consecration on St Mark, 25th April. Part of the reason for the journey was a fact-finding mission for the Malabar Independent Syrian Church Support Group of which I am a trustee. Part of my interest was in monasticism and there were some interesting reactions. I was visiting different sorts of Syrian churches in Kerala (of which there are 7), some are Eastern Catholic, some Syrian Orthodox, and one Reformed Oriental. Don’t worry if you are confused by that it took me some time to sort it out myself.

We (I was with a companion who was a bishop) were greeted at the airport by our Syrian bishop friend. He had been able to get through to just after passport control – bishops are very privileged in Kerala. Turned out he knew most of the employees of the airport. He had asked if we were on the flight and the staff had said ‘can’t see a bishop and priest’.

We were whisked away to a house and the family said, once we had washed and dressed in the obligatory cassock ‘Oh so you are clergy’. There are no clergy in a queue unless they are dressed as clergy! Dress code is very strong in Kerala indicating religion, cast, and status.

 Syro-Malankara’s Bishop’s House

We stayed in Kottayam at a Syro-Malankara (Eastern Catholic) study centre (SEERI), which has a most impressive Syriac programme, the liturgical language. I managed to pick up the Trisagion in Syriac. When out on a trip Fr Jacob introduced me to the Vicar General ‘He is one of us, a celibate’ he said. There was an obvious approval and this made me ‘in’ in some way. Interestingly the traditional version of the monk, Ramban (which is required of all bishops) was not very important here. Clergy were asked at chapter each year who would like to be consecrated, and any that raised the hand were done.

 I then went one day to the last event in the consecration of a new church of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church (Reformed Oriental in full communion). Their process is to have the rites of Consecration on Saturday and then celebrate Holy Communion on Sunday. One of the clergy there was the Acharaya (Abbot) of a monastery.

After some conversations in Malayalam by the bishop, I was driven into the Western Ghats to visit the monastery. It was a most beautiful place.

They did not seem to know anything about Anglican religious life and sort of assumed there are none, as there is virtually none in CSI.

They decided that I am some sort of brother and have invited me back. The ashram is lovely in the mountains, mostly surrounded by rubber plantations. The brothers and some visitors!  The vine you can see growing up the tree is pepper.

A traditional monasticism

They have the traditional monasticism (Ramban) but only the bishops are so ordained. Theoretically all of the bishops are monks of this ashram and under obedience to the acharaya. Believe that if you will! I would like to go back there.

 We then went on to our northern venue of the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (Syrian Orthodox). This is a more traditional place and I had sent a copy of the consecration service to the bishop’s in advance. One asked ‘if you are not becoming a bishop, why take celibate vows?’ Both determined I was some sort of Ramban. They decided I was vegetarian although fish was allowed. I had some great fish curries. One bishop gave me a rather lovely cross, the beads being an Indian tradition for those who are religious. It would appear that the bishop has in mind some suitable robes as well!

Anyway they were very welcoming and assimilated me into their tradition. What was fun was at the Holy Communion they saw I had a translation of the hymns and we ended up with one verse in Malayalam and the next in English. It was quite demanding when for some hymns I heard the tune once to suddenly do a solo.

 I would really like to go back again. We gained enough knowledge to have some more projects to support. It would seem likely for a return visit in the next few years.

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