The Madras High Court has ruled that a constitutional amendment delaying the retirement age for the Church of South India’s bishops did not pass with the required two-thirds majority. The amendment passed at a March 2022 meeting of the church’s synod had changed the Church of South India’s mandatory retirement age from 67 to 70.
Justice Senthilkumar Ramamurthy ruled that a new bishop should be elected within four months, and that a retired judge should be appointed to serve as the election’s supervisor.
The Church of South India’s moderator, the Most Rev. A. Dharmaraj Rasalam, turned 67 in May, and he has pledged to appeal the court’s ruling. Rasalam is Bishop of Kerala and in his role as moderator is counted among the Anglican Communion’s primates. As moderator of the ecumenical Protestant church, he oversees dioceses in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka.
The ruling is part of ongoing fallout from a special synod called by Ramsalam in Trichy on March 7, 2022. Youth4CSI, an interest group within the church, reported that Ramsalam had refused to allow a secret ballot for the controversial amendment, taking only a voice vote, and then stating that the amendment had passed “amidst much bedlam.” Two senior lay officials immediately appealed to the Madras High Court for a stay of implementation, which was granted on March 10, 2022.
Within the Church of South India, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of synod council members and two-thirds of 24 diocesan councils. The March 2022 stay on implementation focused on the impropriety of the voice vote, while Justice Ramamurthy’s ruling relied on an argument that the retirement-age amendment had only been approved by the church’s bishops and not by two-thirds of diocesan councils.
The issue has landed in secular court because critics, including former secretaries of the church, believe there is an “erosion of moral values” in the Church of South India. They often post comments critical of the church in a Facebook group, Corruption-Free CSI.
M.M. Philip, a former general secretary of the Church of South India, wrote an open letter in 2015, when the church proposed changing the retirement age.
“It seems many of the proposals are intended to give more powers to the moderator in the synod and bishops in the dioceses, curtailing the rights and privileges of the presbyters and lay people,” he wrote. “This is a violation of the basis of union and the governing principles of the church.”
He added that allowing later retirement for bishops limited opportunities for younger pastors and for aspirants to ordained ministry.