Church of South India facing a constitutional crisis

Dr. R. Jayakaran Isaac offers the case against the bishops of the CSI, accusing them of usurping authority not granted them by the Indian church’s constitution.

What is happening in the Church of South India? While news of the fast growing church in recent years has been focused on corruption cases among its bishops, there has also been a long running legal battle, now before the high court in Madras, over the administration of the church. Lay leaders have accused the bishops of usurping authority not granted them by the constitution. The essay below by Dr. R. Jayakaran Isaac offers the perspective of concerned lay leaders.

The Church of South India is an unregistered body. It has now about 45-50 lakhs members (4.5-5 million) in 24 dioceses spread over the five southern States.  As far as the administrative structure is considered, based  on the Presbyterian Form of Government, there are basically three graded assemblies consisting of ex officio, elected and nominated members at the Pastorate, Diocesan  and the Synod level. The Church of South India Synod is claimed to be the highest representative body , its supreme governing and legislative body of the Church. In so far as internal matters of a diocese are concerned, the Diocesan Council which consists of ex officio, elected and nominated members  plays a similar role. At the pastorate level, the pastorate committee is given a certain amount of autonomy. Though an attempt has been made to integrate the Episcopal, Presbyteral and Congregational elements in a balanced manner, the fact remains that the administrative pattern is tilted towards the Episcopal element. The major objection to the recent amendments sought to be imposed on the people is that  they are anti-people and seek to strengthen the hold of the Bishops on the administration.

The purpose of the present note is to draw the attention of the members at large  to one particular manner in which the Synod administration consistently and very subtly continues to reinforce the pre-eminence that is sought to be given to the bishops in the administration. The Constitution of the CSI ( I use  this terminology for want of a better description, because there are serious objections to the use of this term for the rules and regulations that we have been conditioned over the years to use in the matter of our administration) prescribes certain functions and responsibilities to the Diocesan bishops, of which one is that they are Presidents of the Diocesan Councils. The Constitution also recognizes a Diocesan Council for each diocese with a prescribed membership  and specifically mentions appointment of an executive  committee and officers of the Council. Chapter IX of the Constitution describes the structure of the CSI Synod  and the Rules 6 to 12 deal with the Officers of the Synod and their functions and responsibilities.

A fact which is often overlooked is that while the Church of South India consists of  unspecified number worshipping members, the Synod, Diocesan Councils and the Pastorate Committees are administrative bodies whose membership can be specifically identified. The Church, therefore, is different from the Synod. The Officers of the Synod cannot be called as Officers of the of the CSI , though the Moderator is given the responsibility of representing the Church in its business with other Churches and Organisations. At the same time, the Synod being an unregistered body has no separate existence apart from the  members of the Synod. The same is true of the Diocesan Councils and the Pastorate Committees.

Having made the above observations about the relationship among  the various bodies , let me focus on two  particular issues , namely , the issue of communication between the Synod and the Diocesan Councils on issues which affect the Church as a whole and the collateral issue of publication of acts  of the Synod in exercise of  legislative powers claimed by it.

Rule 11 of Chapter IX says that the General Secretary shall be the correspondent between the Synod and the Diocesan Councils.  This provision clearly indicates that any communication from the Synod should recognize the structure of the diocesan councils prescribed in the Synod Constitution itself. The Bishop of the Diocese is only the President of the Diocesan Council and is in no way the sole representative of the Diocesan Council. Yet, the Synod consistently follows the practice of addressing all communications with regard to the Diocese only to the Bishops/Commissaries without even marking copies to the Officers of the Diocesan Councils. This practice, I strongly believe, is a subtle way of reinforcing the pre-eminence of the Bishops which is contrary to the Governing Principles of the Church. A consequence of this practice is the Bishops are tempted to act independently on all issues without consulting the Executive Committee or even the Officers of the Diocese. Instead of exercising oversight, the Bishops are enabled to exercise executive authority which is illegal and unconstitutional.

This unhealthy, illegal and unconstitutional practice has far reaching ramifications in the matter of amendments and bylaws claimed to have been passed by the Synod. In respect of the bylaws, the General Secretary had sent a letter dated  14 April 2015 to the Bishops/Commissaries that certain bylaws have been considered and passed by the Synod at a special meeting held on  8th April, 2015. At the same time he had also sent a letter dated 14-04-2015 stating that certain amendments proposed by the Executive Committee have been considered by the Synod at the same meeting  and they are being circulated  to the diocesan councils for ratification.  Both those letters were addressed only to the Bishops and Moderator’s Commissaries and not even a courtesy copy was sent to the Officers of the Diocesan Council. Yet, as far as I know, no Officer of  any of the diocesan councils raised any issue about those  communications. Those communications was meekly accepted and steps were taken to call for meetings of the Diocesan Council to consider the amendments. More importantly, when the Working Committee met on 16 November 2015 and claimed that 16 diocesan councils have ratified the amendments and authorized the General Secretary to  declare that the amendments have  come into force (based on a  self serving bylaw), once again the General Secretary had sent an email communication only to the Bishops and Commissaries making a grand announcement the amendments have become the law of the Church which must be given  full force in letter and spirit, without marking a copy to any of the Officers.

The first and foremost question is how such communications  can be considered as satisfying the constitutional  requirement of communication between the Synod and the Diocesan Councils?

The second question is  how can a mere email to the bishops be considered as publication of some thing that is claimed to be a legislative Act for  compliance of the members?

While considering the above issues we have to necessarily look into  the legal status of the rules and regulations of the Church which is an unregistered body. It is claimed and also accepted by Courts that such rules are in the nature of a Contract between the Church and its members (whether collectively  or severally) which are  binding on all members.  Incidentally, the membership of the Church  includes a substantial and sizable  section of  baptized infants and confirmed minors who are, according to Section 11 of Indian Contract Act, 1872, incapable of contracting. Such contracts are not just voidable but void ab initio according the decision of the Mohori Bibi vs Dharmodhar Ghose (1903) case. The Courts have been applying the principle that  the rules of unregistered associations are contracts to the Church on the assumption  that all the members are capable of entering into a contract. Whether this approach is correct when a substantial and sizable section of the membership is incapable of contracting is a moot question.   We will be having, if my understanding right, a peculiar situation where a large and significant section of membership is legally excluded from the provisions of the Contract. I leave further consideration of this issue to legal experts.

In respect of the second issue regarding the communication which speaks about the alleged amendments to have become the law of the  Church, we have raise the aspect of proper and legal publication. It  appears that the phrase “law of the Church” is used in the context of the claim made by the “ Constitution” that the  Synod is a legislative body of the CSI. If that is so, is it not correct and necessary that accepted principles of making any legislation known to the public (in the case of CSI , public would mean the 45-50  lakhs worshiping members) are followed and if not, would it not be a significant infirmity in the whole process ?

I believe that as a Public Religious body we are bound to follow accepted principles that govern publication of  actions that impact all the members who are not mere worshipers but stakeholders as well as contributors equivalent to tax paying public. As far as our Country is concerned, the issue of publication is taken care of by stipulating that Central Enactments become law only when they are published in the Gazette of India , after which no one can claim ignorance of the concerned law.

This being the case how a mere email addressed to the Bishop of the diocese can bind the members of the Church? How can the Synod claim that the amendments and bylaws are deemed to have been implemented ?

Let me emphasize that this attitude on the part of the Synod is a manifestation of the deliberate intention to function as if only the bishops are running the Church. Apart from the illegality, all members of the Church should raise their voice against being marginalized in a Church which cannot exist without our contributions. As a matter of fact, no action of any elected body in the Church is ever made public in a manner known to law. The so called representatives of the people do not take any responsibility to publicize any action of the Church and we do not even  have a website which publishes such actions.

I have raised issues which have legal ramifications but more than that I wish to highlight the fact the  above issues are a part of a deliberate distortion of the Governing Principles of the Church which contain a pledge that the episcopal, presbyteral and congregational elements will be kept in balance and domination of one element over the other will not be allowed.

When will the slumbering worshipers, beneficiaries, stakeholders and contributors wake up and assert their right ?


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