Written by Rev. Fr. Dr. V. C. Samuel, as seen on the Northeast American Diocesan website.
In its essence Christianity is a life which men and women seek to live as members of community in the midst of the realities of existence in the world, on the basis of faith. The faith gives each member of the community and the community itself a character, with the inner strength, which they need in their everyday life and a hope for the future. Christianity believes that the faith, which holds, can offer a direction in life for men and women everywhere and in every generation. This is why the Church feels obliged to carry on its missionary activities in the world.
Ever since its founding in the first century of the Christian era, Christianity spread in the world incorporating in to its adherence individual men and women as well as human communities belonging to various cultures, intellectual backgrounds and social conditions.In fact, it is in the setting of the Greco-Roman civilization and culture of those ancient times, including their intellectual and spiritual thought forms and heritage, that Christianity acquired its historical character. In this way they're developed two great ecclesiastical traditions. One of them consists in the Roman Catholic Church within its Western Latin outlook and mentality,from which the churches of the Protestant reformation broke off since the sixteenth century. The other comprises the eastern churches,which have inherited the legacy of the Greek culture and civilization mingled with the Hebrew religious heritage. This latter form of Christianity expanded to several Eastern people and adopt the name `ORTHODOX', while the first tradition prefers to be called as `CATHOLIC'.
We shall discuss one point and its implications referring to these Eastern Churches, without necessarily implying that the emphases contained in them are possible to be found in varying degrees in the Western Churches also, whether Catholic or Protestant. It should also be made clear that we do not mean to suggest that the Eastern Churches agree in all the things , or that the Syrian Orthodox Church of India should conform to the traditions of any one or more of the other Eastern Churches in order to be Orthodox. Infact, the claim of autonomy which we make for our Church on the strength of its apostolic founding has no real meaning unless we develop a character our own. The central issue discussed in this paper is, in fact, how as a Church we can and should develop that character.
Orthodoxy is primarily a community, which has inherited the Christian faith as the raison de etra of its existence in the world. In order to have the faith made a dynamic reality in the lives of its members one of the important means adopted by Orthodoxy is its worship. Infact, in Orthodox worship, liturgy and theology are so combined that the latter is made part of the devotional life of the people throughout the former. This fact may be illustrated by referring to four ideas repeatedly noted in Orthodox worship.
Orthodox worship is thus aimed to strengthen the community in the faith, inorder that the community as a whole and its members individually may become confirmed in the Christian calling and character.
Orthodoxy as hierarchy comprising the three orders of bishop, Presbyter or Priest and Deacon, who place lives primarily in leading the worship. The rank of the Bishop included the various dignities of Patriarch or Catholicose, Archbishop or Metropolitan and Bishop or Episcopa. If any one of these dignitaries be present at a worship service, he is defacto its leader. Normally, it is the Priest who leads the worship. Deacons assist the Bishop and the Priest in the fulfillment of their functions. The hierarchy is thus in the community, with the special responsibility of building it up.
As leader of worship the various orders of the hierarchy have the responsibility also of teaching and preaching. Worship by itself is not sufficient to educate the community in the faith and in its implications. Teaching and preaching are also equally important from this point of view. Orthodox worship and Orthodox religious education do, in fact, go together. They aim at leading the community to grow in to the likeness of Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and to be a servant community the world on the other. Christians are called to be the `salt of the earth', in the sense of maintaining of quality of life which the world cannot afford to ignore or lose. In conserving this quality of life and in wowing it forth in the world, the hierarchy as a preeminent role to play.
The basis of the hierarchies' appointment leadership in the Church is the commission of our Lord to the Apostles - `As the Father has sent to me even so I sent you'. Taking this commission seriously, we can say that the members of the hierarchy should make themselves servants in the three ways. They should, in the first place, be servants of Jesus Christ. We live in a world full of tensions of various kinds. These are their even in the Church itself. In the face of this hard reality, the world craves for the message of the love and reconciliation, which Jesus Christ has brought to us, and it is the Church lead by the hierarchy that should give it both to its members and to the world outside. Secondly, they should be servants of the community over which they have been appointed leaders. It is a fact that a large section of the Christian community does not really know of a quality of life, which is different from what they see in the world around them. They should be helped with this knowledge. Thirdly, the members of hierarchy are also servants of the wider community, whether it be Orthodox or non-Orthodox, or Christian or non-Christian. In this third area of service the hierarchy should have with them their communities. In this way the Christian community as whole will be a servant community.
This is indeed a very difficult task to carry out. Infact, the Christian way promises victory only after the Cross. St.Thomas the Apostle, whose mission we celebrate at the Master Himself would expect this of us. What is difficult for man is not so far God.
If Orthodoxy is basically a community, its attitude towards renewal deserves some discussion. Many people both within the Church and outside think that Orthodox consists merely in keeping to existing customs and practices, without permitting any change whatsoever. In fact a good friend of mine told me recently that Orthodoxy meant for him the maintenance of the prevailing ethos of the community. The word `Orthodox' as it is usually taken to mean may suggest this concept. But if this were the truth, Orthodoxy would lead to archaism, and the character of Orthodoxy as a living community with a message for the moral and spiritual progress of men every where and in every time would be lost. If Orthodoxy is to be meaningful and relevant, it should become contemporary, and this would be possible only when change and growth take place.
What we mean here may be explained further. If Orthodox worship and religious education are meant to build up the community in the faith and to help the Church in the fulfillment of its Christian task in the world, the worship and the religious education which Orthodoxy maintains should be such that they will serve the purpose effectively. The same way customes and practices which are in vogue in the Church, whether they are noted in the accepted Canon Laws or not, so long as they are not based fundamentally on some principle of the faith, if they are found to create unavoidable hindrance and problems in the lives of its members, the Church should take them up for a fresh evaluation and appropriate modification.
This can be done, however, only by drawing a distinction between what is essential and what is not essential. In judging, a custom or practice too indispensable or changeable, the criterion should be its relation the Churches' norms of the faith. As a community living in the world the Church has customs and practices accumulated over the centuries. Many of them may have had justifications at some time in the Church's history, but have lost them in course of time, some others may have been developed in the light of a distorted interpretation of certain basic principles. Costumes of these two kinds cannot be regarded as binding on the Church. Therefore, if they are found to offer moral or spiritual obstacles in the lives of any section in the Church, it is the moral responsibility of the Church to change them.
In performing this duty the hierarchy, particularly those of the rank of the Bishops, has a significant role to play. As the leaders of the community they should be sensitive to the problems which the clergy and the members are facing, and they should take the initiative in offering solutions to them.
The witness of Orthodoxy lies, in a word, in seeking to build up the community on the basis of the Christian faith. A visible Head on the historical plane does not govern this community. It has a hierarchy, which constitutes more liturgical and spiritual leaders than men endowed with the authority to rule. It can have local variations in liturgical practice and even in theological explanations. So long as there is agreement in essentials.
The word `Orthodox' implies two ideas. In the first place, it prefers to the belief that these Churches call to the faith as our Lord through the Apostles has handed it down and as it has been maintained the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Secondly the faith does not lie in the intellectual realm of theological formulation only, but is also made real in life through the worship.
The fact that our church was founded originally by St.Thomas, one of the Apostles of our Lord, does not give us any special credit. The coming St.Thomas to India indicates the bringing into our country of the Christian Church as a "Servant community". As we celebrate the nineteen hundredth anniversary of the Apostle, may God open our hearts and mind to see the many tasks that lie before us, and may He enable us to fulfill our responsibility in the years to come.