Ancient liturgy, Bollywood rhythms and stadium-filling enthusiasm: Syro-Malabar Catholics are reinvigorating the Church in the North West
This summer the weather in Liverpool has been more Madras than Merseyside. So it was an appropriate time to visit Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church, the new home for the city’s Syro-Malabar Catholics.
The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the 23 Eastern Churches that are in full communion with Rome while preserving their distinctive liturgy and identity. Its name refers both to its origins in the southern Indian state of Kerala, historically known as the Malabar Coast, and use of the ancient Syriac rite.
The Church traces its origins back to St Thomas, who is honoured by Indian Christians as the Apostle who brought Christianity to the subcontinent. The statue of St Thomas at Our Lady, Queen of Peace emphasises not his “doubting” but rather his dramatic declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
One of the peculiar legacies of Vatican II is that, while the liturgy in the West was dramatically recast with little regard for tradition, the Eastern Churches were exhorted to cherish their historic traditions. This is certainly the case with the Syro-Malabar Church, which has put a lot of effort into preserving its identity within a widely spread diaspora community. There are about 38,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics in Britain, many of whom work in the NHS. With 84 priests, they collectively form an eparchy, a kind of diocese covering the whole of Britain, and they have their own bishop, Mar Joseph Srampickal. (“Mar” is a title of respect in Syriac.)
Prior to 2015 the Syro-Malabar community was dependent on the kindness of parish priests who made their churches available for Syro-Malabar services. But they had no place that was specifically their own. That year Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster gave the Syro-Malabar eparchy its first Church in Britain, St Alphonsa in Preston, which now has the status of a cathedral. At the inauguration of the cathedral and episcopal ordination of Mar Joseph Srampickal, so many people came that the service that had to be moved to Preston North End football ground. It was said to be the biggest and best-behaved crowd the stadium had had all season.
This year Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool has given the Syro-Malabar community its second church, Our Lady, Queen of Peace in Liverpool’s Litherland. This has given new life to the parish.
Syro-Malabar services are not short. Ninety minutes seems to be regarded as fairly quick, and before the liturgy there is a 30-minute rosary said in Malayalam, the language of Kerala.
For Catholics used to the Ordinary Form Mass in English, the Syro-Malabar liturgy – known as the Holy Qurbana (“Offering”) – can be slightly disorientating. The liturgy is more elaborate, but the basic structure is reassuringly familiar. There are opening prayers, followed by readings from the Bible, a sermon, a collection (it is a Catholic service after all), the Consecration and then Communion. All these stages are dignified, prayerful and recognisable regardless of whether or not you speak Malayalam. One interesting difference is that Communion is by way of intinction, with the consecrated Host being dipped in the Precious Blood and then placed on the tongue. It is certainly far more hygienic than having everyone drinking from the same chalice.
The Syro-Malabar community puts a lot of effort into preserving its heritage, especially through music. At a sung Mass, the music can sound rather more Bollywood than Gregorian chant to a Western ear. But the choir at Our Lady, Queen of Peace is impressive, and listening to it certainly made me wonder why the English Church puts so little effort into maintaining our traditional liturgical music.
Every diaspora community faces the challenge of passing on the faith to a new generation with little direct experience of the traditions of the “old country”. All the sermons at Our Lady, Queen of Peace were in Malayalam and I wonder how this will be viewed in the future by an increasingly English-born, English-speaking generation. As a liturgical language Malayalam will, I expect, survive, but perhaps not as the language of general discourse.
Having attended a Syro-Malabar liturgy, I applaud the decisions of the Bishop of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Liverpool, and I hope that other dioceses will consider giving a church building to the local Syro-Malabar community.
Some may worry that giving Syro-Malabar Catholics their own church buildings will somehow separate them from the wider Catholic community. But I think this fear is unwarranted. The Syro-Malabar faithful in Preston and Liverpool are now visible in a way they never were before. They are firmly here as an integral part of the Catholic community in the North West.
I suspect, too, that the Syro-Malabar community in Liverpool will play an increasingly active role in the life of the archdiocese and in the British Church as a whole.
Neil Addison is a barrister specialising in religious freedom law. For further information about the Syro-Malabar Church in Britain, visit queenofpeacesmcc.com and syromalabarchurchuk.org
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