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Church of South India: You Talk the Talk, but can you Walk the Talk?

Church of South India: You Talk the Talk, but can you Walk the Talk?

By Dr. Joseph Muthuraj
October 23, 2017

When the Rt. Rev. Thomas Oommen, the Bishop of Central Kerala Diocese, was elected on 15 January 2017 as the Moderator of the Church of South India (CSI), he openly declared in his inaugural speech, 'The boundaries of the denominations of the Christian Church must become thinner in order to proclaim Jesus in practice.' This gives a wrong impression that the Church of South India is currently troubled over its erstwhile denominational boundaries. What is united about the united church in south India?

The CSI knows the price paid for union. It was expelled from the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1948 for taking the decision to unite with the non-episcopal traditions who for them were non-conformists. To test whether the union was a fake or formed by fluke, we were given a 30-year interim period to see if we kept the unity, unimpaired built around the episcopal model of ministry. Here also the CSI remained faithful to convince the Anglican family that we had strength and resolve to remain united without becoming home-sick to return to the past divisions. Now forty more years have passed, and CSI remains a comprehensive church, committing itself to the two Testaments, the three-fold ministry and to the observance of Liturgy and Sacraments.

There is something odd about Moderator the Most Rev. T. K. Oommen because he does not quite put his finger on the problem CSI is facing. Divisions between the constituent churches of the Church of South India are considered now a non-issue though churches in several regions in south India are still seen to be preserving the heritage of their parent denominations. It was part of the union philosophy that the positive ideals of each tradition were not extinguished but rather enlivened and conjoined with one another.

The dream was unfulfilled, of course, in that the CSI was not able to extend its organic union to the Lutherans in India, nor later to the Church of North India, to become a Church of India (Bharat Church) as envisaged by the early visionaries of the united church. This is the story of the past, and no one from either side of India is keen now towards a church united organisationally at the national level. Thomas Oommen clearly had this out-dated issue in mind in his first address. Yet, he said, '... we join hands with our partner churches in mission and move towards a BORDERLESS CHURCH ... May God Almighty help us to thrive for better unity by self-emptying our identity for the sake of the church; maybe for a Church of India' (CSI Life, February 2017, p. 4).

The union of 1947 exemplifies the borderless church, no doubt. But how can we be forward-looking instead of backward glancing to find meaning and fulfilment for the phrase 'borderless church'? The phrase 'Borderless Church' is the most valuable currency that floats before the eyes of the Synod hierarchy these days; it is looking for new ways to drum up support for it. Following the Moderator, the General Secretary of the CSI Synod has begun to act as an advocate of a 'borderless church' with fingers pointing to the organic unity achieved in 1947. In his own words, '... borderless-ness goes back to the time when different ecclesial traditions re-drew their borders together to form, very consciously, a united and uniting church ... They indeed looked intently on the form of their faith, spiritual expressions, ... and how they organised themselves as congregations and churches' (CSI Life, September 2017, p. 3). The General Secretary ends his remark poetically by stating that the many-ness turned into the powerful expression of one-ness. We have heard this rhetoric before so many times.

Is the CSI a borderless church today?

How borderless-ness stays as a permanent attitude of the CSI leadership, and whether it is practised in the organisational realm and is brought to bear upon all ecclesiastical matters are the major questions.

Now it comes as a rude shock when we read that the united and the uniting Church of South India has withdrawn from the Kerala Council of Churches (KCC), a 14-member church organisation which brought together the non-Catholic churches in the state of Kerala. It is a surprise that the CSI which was instrumental in the formation of the KCC has now decided to step out of it. The reason is that it objected to the inclusion of the Believers Church (which originated and is based in the Kerala region and now claims to have 2.5 million members all over India), headed by Archbishop K. P. Yohannan, a popular leader who has made his new church grow in the past 27 years from rich resources drawn from all over the world. His church claims to have established 4,500 congregations and 5,000 mission stations. He is all in all and controls every movement of the church as the public view it. Patheos blog has observed, 'He (Yohannan) is, after all, the "constitutional head" and "supreme authority of the Church" who holds "the final word on all matters whether concerning policies or theological beliefs and activities of the Church".'

But that is not the point at issue! Thomas Oommen told the leading national daily The Hindu on 28 August 2017 that the regional (Kerala) forum of the CSI Synod members had unanimously decided to disassociate themselves from the Kerala Council of Churches and its programmes. He said, 'The CSI never considers the Believers Church as an episcopal church or accepts its leader, K.P. Yohannan, a bishop. As per the CSI view, K.P. Yohannan is a layman and the KCC decision, overlooking the CSI objection, was unfortunate,' Bishop Oommen added.

This is not a good witness for the borderless church. The Believers Church securing the membership of the KCC is not dragging the CSI into an unholy compromise with that church or with the KCC when there are already other Pentecostal and independent free churches which form part of the KCC. Bishop Oommen commented, 'CSI could never accept inclusion of the Believers Church in the KCC strictly on moral and ethical grounds.' If each church sets up moral ethical boundaries even for being a co-member of an autonomous and inter-confessional body such as the KCC, there could never be fellowship of churches. The KCC also has admitted into its flock of membership 21 Christian organisations who are not termed technically as churches. If the four CSI dioceses in Kerala could tolerate them, why could they not accept the company of the Believers Church for the sake of maintaining the borderless character of the CSI?

The original sin was already committed by a former Moderator of the CSI without taking cognizance of the fact that K.P. Yohannan was a Pentecostal preacher who could never have subscribed to the confessional and the theological requirements of the CSI. The former Moderator K.J. Samuel remained adamant, asserting that he consecrated K.P. Yohannan as per the rules and regulations of the Synod. Where are they? None exist. Further, the theological Commission of the CSI clearly objected to the consecration after studying the request for consecration from K.P. Yohannan to the CSI from various angles.

The sorry aspect of the whole episode is that the decision made in the local dioceses in the Kerala region was projected as a decision coming from the Church of South India. A regional problem deliberated and decided by a regional Synod of one state cannot commit the entire CSI. Those bishops are the CSI bishops, certainly, but that cannot go under the name of the wider church, the Church of South India, which is spread over four south Indian states.

Similar regionalistic and parochial sentiments are seen behind the decision taken by the CSI bishops of Kerala state protesting against the inclusion of the Believers Church -- the Gospel for Asia -- into the fellowship of the Kerala Council of Churches. It is important to note that only four dioceses of the CSI have obtained their membership within the KCC. They are independent and separate members of the KCC. How is the collective sense as CSI brought into the decision of the dioceses in Kerala which are a small part of and are responsible to a larger community constituting churches from other regional states in south India? It is important that voices from other states are heard on a matter which is of concern to the whole of the CSI.

It is not a Believers Church vs CSI issue; it is the K.P. Yohannan vs T.K. Oommen encounter which has a strong regional overtone and is primarily confined to Kerala state. The right forum to discuss this issue is either the Executive Committee of the CSI Synod or the Synod itself. The whole CSI should be involved in deciding about the problem. But the trend set by Moderator Oommen is to gather the Synod members from Kerala around him to make decisions on behalf of the entire CSI. The border-fixing mentality is very much in evidence here, and the Moderator is trying to gain social capital from his regional members so that they provide the political support necessary for his decision-making and policy implementation. He is comfortable to work with the Synod restricted to his state. Can he speak about 'borderless church'?

The corrupt side of the issue

Thomas Oommen does not recognise the episcopal status of K.P. Yohannan, regarding him as a layman and branding his church as not episcopal. He is right in this and he probably protested along these lines in the year 2003 itself when the consecration of the Pentecostal bishop took place. But in 2017, T.K. Oommen converted it into an issue involving the entire CSI without the knowledge of the members of the wider synod. He told Anglican Link, 'As per the CSI view, K.P. Yohannan is a layman and the KCC decision, overlooking the CSI objection, was unfortunate.' A former Moderator hailing from Kerala did a mischief by transgressing the Constitution of the CSI. Christian Today reports that in 2003 the Rt Rev K.J. Samuel, then Bishop in East Kerala and the Moderator of the CSI, along with two bishops from the Church of North India (CNI), consecrated K.P. Yohannan as a bishop in The Believers Church. The two CNI bishops were quite rightly as per the canon of the CNI suspended for attending and effecting a consecration on an individual who was not accepted by the CNI for conferment of episcopal status. They were subsequently suspended by its Synod.

But no punishment was handed out to the CSI Moderator who consecrated K.P. Yohannan on 5 February 2003 without the CSI's approval. The ceremony was attended by at least two more prominent CSI bishops from the Kerala region; no action was taken on them either for their participation in the illegal service of consecration despite vociferous demands. Instead, they became Moderators following one after the other, succeeding K.J. Samuel. These CSI bishops were lured into performing the consecration by the acts of 'excessive hospitality' from the hands of K.P. Yohannan. Hence the personal and material relationship between some of the CSI bishops and the Pentecostal Archbishop was cordial and mutually benefitting. This relationship seems to have come under some strain at the present moment.

The result is that K.P. Yohannan has filed a defamation law-suit against the CSI for the negative comments and remarks made by its Moderator T.K. Oommen against the hero Yohannan who commands higher popularity and respect in Kerala than the CSI Moderator. K.P. Yohannan is claiming that he is in the line of the 'Apostolic Succession', whereas Bishop Oommen is prepared to respect him only as a layman and considers Believers Church as non-episcopal. This position of Oommen is considered defamatory, tarnishing the image of the beloved Archbishop Yohannan, according to the followers of Yohannan.

It is unfortunate that the Believers Church is treating it as defamation case against the CSI when no decision was taken by the CSI Synod to leave the KCC in protest of the Believers Church joining as a member.

The Border-less church is regionally divided and ruled, for which Kerala gives leadership

The borderless church which once transcended denominations is now caught up in the whirlpool of regional patriotism due to the Moderator's leadership style which hangs on mobilising support from his region to keep his office protected. Every Indian seeks support from his own region and language community, but a Keralite will go to any length to tap both emotional and political backing from fellow members of his state. The state will also match this effort by extending the arms of support merely for the reason of someone belonging to the state barring few exceptions. The very thought of cultural ecumenism with other southern states is an anathema to Bishop Oommen. We have an evidence here . Very recently the Moderator called for a regional synod of Kerala members and made in that forum some key decisions which are the sole responsibilities of the constitutional committees of the CSI.

The first-ever gathering of Synod members of the Kerala region of the Church of South India

The first-ever gathering of Synod members of the Kerala region of the Church of South India took place in August 2017, attended by the Moderator, Deputy Moderator and the General Secretary. This is an unconstitutional group, regionally demarcated and limited to persons speaking a particular language. The CSI Synod members from Kerala state took some key decisions on behalf of the CSI. Rt. Rev. Thomas Oommen as the Moderator of the Church of South India addressed the Kerala regional synod by saying, 'We are gathered here to discuss and deliberate how we can make the process of the managing this church (CSI) better to see that the spiritual and organizational growth gets momentum.' The concept of a regional synod is unconstitutional and against the spirit of the united and uniting church. Above all, he is least qualified to talk about 'borderless church'.

The proceedings of the illegal and unconstitutional Regional Synod are reported by the General Secretary in the September 2017 issue of the CSI Life (pp. 29-30). In his own words,

'The Regional Synod unanimously took the decision to have a non-cooperative stance towards the Kerala Council of Churches (KCC) as the council hurt the Church of South India by disregarding the CSI's stand to not to include the Believers Church in the Council. The Regional Synod pointed out that the Church of South India does not consider the head of the Believers Church as a Bishop, and thus the church is not an episcopal church according to the understanding of the CSI. The so-called consecration of the head of the Believers Church was theologically and officially rejected by the Church of South India as null and void. Since the KCC took a stand against the CSI, the members of CSI will not participate in KCC activities and not let the premises of the Church for the functions of KCC till the KCC rectifies its mistake. The Regional Synod explicitly stated that while ecumenism is the focal point of CSI, the Church demands a discipline in ecumenism' (CSI Life September 2017, pp. 29-30). For Oommen, 'borderless church' meant, 'As a united and uniting Church, we need to be flexible, adaptive, and innovative in the ministerial praxis and should act as a catalyst for further unity' (CSI Life, February, 2017 p. 4.). He is definitely not showing this in his handling of the membership issue of the Believers Church in the KCC. Is the CSI a catalyst for unity or disunity under the leadership of TK Oommen?

The unconstitutional gathering of the Kerala regional synod also decided on the celebration of the 70th year of the CSI, which is not the responsibility of Kerala to decide. The Regional Synod enthusiastically participated in the discussion on the preparations for the Synod level celebration of the 70th year of church union. The members decided that there should be at least 5,000 members attending the Thanksgiving Service and the public meeting, which would be held in Chennai on 27th September. It is a decision which should have been taken jointly with all regional members together and not by one region which the Moderator had the privilege of belonging to. The leader looks for loyalty from his cronies, not only towards him as an individual, but one must learn to appreciate and even glorify the region the top-level leader hails from. One should not cross with the CSI hierarchy for their narrow, regional and communal behaviour that goes against what they preach to others to maintain a borderless church. There is no one to question this hypocrisy in leadership, i.e. 'Talking the talk but not walking the talk'.

Here is a story attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. A woman disciple of his came to Gandhi seeking his advice to his son who was obsessed with eating sugar. She wanted Gandhi to tell his son not to be addicted to the use of sugar. Gandhi seemed not to be in a mood to advise the boy and instead told his mother to come back after two weeks. The disappointed woman approached Gandhi after two weeks with the same request. Gandhi this time asked the boy to stop using sugar. The boy promised not to do so. The perplexed mother asked Gandhi why he refrained from giving this piece of advice when she first approached him. He told her, 'Mother, two weeks ago I was still using sugar myself'. Gandhi did not allow himself to talk unless he was living by the talk himself.

CSI is a 'borderless church' as it has forgotten the border between Right and Wrong

The present ethos and culture prevailing in the CSI is causing theologians great concern. The young theologians should be well informed about the character and disposition in the CSI that are inimical to the Scripture, tradition and history. Their voices should not be choked by the Moderator so that they become feeble and incapable of standing and speaking for the truth and righteousness. They instead are encouraged to become yes-men and yes-women to the hierarchy and to act as faithful sycophants in exchange for power and positions. Surely the CSI and the CSI Trust Association which acts as a Trustee for maintaining movable and immovable properties of the church is indeed a borderless church and organisation.

The border between 'right' and 'wrong' is long forgotten and there is no tight line between integrity and immorality in matters of money and properties belonging to the Church. Wrong is defined as 'an injurious, unfair, or unjust act: action or conduct inflicting harm without due provocation or just cause; a violation or invasion of the legal rights of another; something wrong, immoral, or unethical; especially principles, practices, or conduct contrary to justice, goodness, equity, or law.' Right is basically the opposite of wrong. For all the wrongs committed in the management of movable and immovable properties of the Church, the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) is getting ready to restart its campaign despite the weapon of money-power used by the CSI to stall it. The National Company Law Tribunal court has already taken action against the directors of the CSITA and will soon confirm and implement the verdict of appointing an Administrative Committee headed by a retired Judge in which the present Synod hierarchy will not find a place. Need I mention the atrocities, unlawful activities, corruption and fraud and abuse of power in each diocese practised and justified in the name of administration and religion? Gross-mismanagement of money and property within the CSI Trust Association and serious violations of the provisions of the Indian Companies Act have been established by several investigative agencies of the Indian Government. The CSI Moderator is trying to stop them from probing further and prosecuting the leaders of the CSI. It will be in vain. Soon the arm of law will reach the CSITA, and the deeds of corruption and fraud committed by the leaders of the CSI will be exposed, and they will suitably be punished by the laws of this country.

In spite of this precarious situation, the Moderator Thomas Oommen is stating unscrupulously, 'Our Church is a church which has great assets and they were managed for the growth of the church and its people in the most appropriate manner' (CSI Life, September 2017, p. 29). Let us leave this statement to the judgement of the Serious Fraud Investigation Office and to the National Company Law Tribunal. The writing will soon be on the wall!

The Rev. Dr. Muthuraj, is a former member of St. John's College, Durham and a graduate of the University of Durham, UK. Through his publications, he has been established as a CSI historian who currently writes on the relationship between the united churches and the Anglican Communion. He has been one of the strongest voices in the global theological communion appealing for a renewal of Episcopacy to bring an end to the corruption in the Church of South India.

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