Every church is defined by the time it manages to put behind it. The time adds to the seasoning and maturity of its tradition as they stand through the test of times. Every great church tradition is thus a test by time. The tests change with the time as well and become different for changing generations. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church is steeped in tradition and time tested beliefs and faith. But with the turn of the century clock come new challenges put forth by the experiences of the younger generations of the church. These experiences are not better than the experiences of the older generations but different. But these varying experiences bring us to the need of having to look at how we can live meaningfully in the church we belong to, even as we continue living our lives in the changing times with new innovations and new work and living conditions.
Some of us resist not just change but even discussing the change we have already undergone. The dichotomy which exists between our secular and religious lives is appalling and yet we choose to ignore it. But ignoring this aspect of our lives will not take away the reality of what is happening. We have members leaving the church for other spiritual expressions, short term gains, due to language incompatibility, cultural problems, misunderstanding of church doctrines and tradition, and isolation by a powerful minority in individual churches. Each reason is a problem in itself and one cannot tell others in one’s church to get out if they don’t like how things are inside. Every member of the church is in possession of the right to belong and be a part of the church and this right cannot be usurped by a certain few.
At times the change which many want to be discussed may not be a change from tradition to modernity but a change from the true faith of the church. Our refusal to discuss and deliberate goes against the very premise of tradition because tradition itself has come out of discussion and deliberation among other things. Some of the challenges faced by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church are
1. Language related challenges- English though a colonial left over in India has managed to become a common language in a country like India which has several languages. The absence of a common language otherwise offers this importance to English. Hindi has not come to the level of English as being a common language in India. Also, English is a common business language and so many learn, use and converse in it. The ignoring of this by the church will lead to a vacuum which will be a gap between the liturgy language and the spoken language. Many concepts will go un-understood due to this and the younger generation especially will not understand truly what is going on in church. The same problem arises from Sunday school onwards and continues to the youth which then is brought up in a different spiritual tradition which is completely different from the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. The use of language should also include the vernacular languages of every particular region which will give more acceptance to the church and its faith and traditions.
2. Country specific challenges- The faithful in Kerala may not be the same as the faithful in the U.S. or in the Middle East. Even though a good part of the crowd has migrated from Kerala they have changed their mannerisms and their children have completely been brought up in a different culture. One cannot engage this crowd in the same way as we do in Kerala. This seeks for a better understanding of the needs of such a group and what the church can do specifically for them. This includes having priests from the same region for the purpose of the congregation identifying with their priests. Country specific challenges also bring about a change in the perception and celebration of festivals and special anniversaries. These celebrations will be different from how it is celebrated in Kerala and therefore they have to be seen from this context. The church has to accommodate different kinds of people who live in different contexts. The church has to re-interpret the practices of the church with relation to the context in which the church exists.
3. Family challenges- The constitution of the family also undergoes significant changes in different church contexts. The number of children in a family, the concept of equality and acceptance in a family, the role of the woman in the family are all bound to be different from that of how it is in Kerala. Even Kerala will have its own differences. Sermons and discussions in church have to take into account these things. One cannot forget the equality which should exist within family and church contexts. For this more discussions on the church traditions and faith has to happen in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
4. Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages- More and more inter-religious and inter-caste marriages can be seen happening in church. Such couples have to be given help for church related integration and should not be isolated from the church fold. Isolated couples will not come to church and will prefer to stay away or go somewhere else. Sermons in church should also reflect a respect for other religions while we talk about our own. This will give a more accommodative picture about the church and will lead to having a diverse but strong membership within the church.
5. Using the youth and other groups in the church- As in India, the church has a predominant percentage of youth. The youthfulness of the church should be used so that the church reflects this youthfulness. In this sense all groups should be given representation in the church committees. Men, women, youth, and even teenagers should be included. This will bring first hand knowledge of the needs of each group within the church and the committee will be able to discuss these issues while formulating various policy decisions of the church. This representation will also give more transparency and participation.
6. Social issues and the church- The church has by and large been a group which comes together, prays and then disbands. All this while the country and world go through various challenges! This total dissociation with reality throws up several questions on the need for such churches. The continuous expression of the Holy Qurbana through the life of the members of the church calls for an involvement in issues which affect the society and the world we live in. Social issues have to be a part of not just the Sunday sermon but has to be weaved into the over all fabric of existence of the church.
7. Using technology to keep tradition alive- The internet has been a technological evolution which has helped people come together and create communities spanning countries and continents. The use of this technology by the church enhances the options of creating a much deeper bond between members of the church. It also allows an opportunity for the church to explore online counselling, knowledge sharing, information dissemination, and bringing people together.
8. Devising a special Sunday school curriculum- The concept of the Sunday school itself is a mounted concept on the church. The church has to decide on a framework which is children friendly and takes into account the feed back of the children as well. Other initiatives should involve learning different parts of the liturgy as this contains the theology of the church. The children should also feel close to the environment they live in and spiritual enrichment should involve this aspect. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in this way should be child friendly and respect the initiatives by children rather than always dumping imported Sunday school concepts on them!
9. The church as a public platform- The church should not just be a place where we congregate in silence and go away to our homes. They should also be spaces where we are given an opportunity to speak our mind. People should be mindful that this does not mean hurting others and misusing personal feuds. But otherwise people who come to church should sit down and speak to one another and seek to help and guide one another. The priest will play a big role but he should also be helped by both men and women lay leaders in the church.
These points offer an important cross section of the challenges that face the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. I do not claim that these are the only challenges though. The need to discuss them is important. But the platform to discuss should be explored. This could be in churches, prayer meetings, houses, online forums and the like. Whatever the route selected the end result would benefit all.