Ask Ambrose: ECUSA and the Mar Thoma Church: What does it mean on ground level?

Crest of the Mar Thoma Church

Q: A parishioner is an “ordained Liberal Catholic priest of the Malabar Rite which emanates from the Syrian line.” There is an agreement between this Mar Thoma Syrian Church and The Episcopal Church, which offers pathways for congregations to sort of be a part of TEC (agreement). I believe that this parishioner hopes to serve alongside the paid clergy and retired, volunteer clergy in various capacities, among them as Celebrant during the Holy Eucharist. In anticipation of this request, I’m hoping you can direct me toward any applicable canons and possibly offer your overall perspective on how you would guide the conversation. Thanks in advance.

A: It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it, that separated brothers and sisters are increasingly recognizing catholicity in one another wherever possible, while at the same time recognizing that each communion has its own gifts, character, and style to contribute to the church worldwide. The Episcopal Church has a number of agreements that recognize catholicity and establish full communion, but they can differ in details,
including with respect to the way clergy function across those relationships of full communion. For example, the agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allows for Lutheran pastors to preside at Episcopal altars, and Episcopal priests to preside at ELCA altars.

Episcopal Church ShieldI, your brother Ambrose, note that the relationship of the Episcopal Church with the Mar Thoma Church (in fact of the Anglican Communion with the Mar Thoma Church) was driven especially by the desire for Mar Thoma congregations in diaspora to be able to participate in the life of the larger church. It is a relationship of full communion but, so far as I can tell, it does not specify the interchangeability of sacramental ministers (as our agreement with the Lutherans does). What it DOES specify is that Episcopal/Anglican clergy can participate (and they have) in the liturgies of the Mar Thoma Church and vice versa, while recognizing the autonomy and full catholicity of each in their own right.

I almost said in their own RITE – which is pretty much exactly the idea. In other words, it appears that it would be appropriate that your Mar Thoma acquaintance assist at the Eucharist but not that he preside, as he is not ordained in our rite, and our agreement does not appear to authorize interchangeability at that level – not as I read it, anyway. Just as you might assist some time in the liturgy of his congregation but you would not preside. That’s not to say some well-meaning Episcopal priest has not at some point had a Mar Thoma priest preside at his or her altar, because, hey, we’re Episcopalians, and you can probably find that just about everything has been done in one place or another by someone. (Ambrose does not approve of this – he simply observes that it is the case.)

Is this Mar Thoma priest a minister in a Mar Thoma congregation? The ideal would be to establish a relationship between the Episcopal and Mar Thoma parish and then assist at each other’s altars from time to time, and, as a whole congregation, engage with one another in shared ministry. All could receive at each other’s altars. But the ordained ministers would not preside at one another’s altars.

But I suppose this Mar Thomas priest must not have a congregation, or you wouldn’t be posing the question the way you do. So I suppose, even if he has no congregation, you might consider his assistance at your altar (again, not as presider, in this case) for the sake of holding out the good of ecumenical partnership within your own congregation. But, as I read the agreement, it would not be appropriate to”cross rites,” that is, for him to preside using your rite.

As a final note, I would certainly discuss this with your bishop in advance of the query you anticipate from your Mar Thoma parishioner. This is something that the Bishop should be aware of and supportive of, even within the parameters of the official agreement.

Here’s to ecumenical advancement, and to the day that we are “one flock, with one Shepherd.”