The Church of Ceylon – Readying to be an Anglican Province
The Church of Ceylon, which is Anglican, periodically calls for human rights, and open and accountable governance from the state. There are press statements by our two Bishops, the Right Reverends Keerthisiri Fernando and Dushantha Rodrigo, especially on human rights day (10 December).
The Bishop of Kurunagala, The Rt. Rev. Fernando issued his own statement calling for open, transparent and accountable government in a Report titled “The Current Situation in Sri Lanka.” He exhorts us:
“The way forward in this regard will be to devise accountability at all levels and to bring production to the country. In terms of politics and the rights of citizens the present government has over the years showed [sic.] its inability for good governance but rather cut deals to secure their [sic.] own power and stability.”
I applaud my church. Nonetheless, I need to question seriously how deep our commitment is to the values we profess. I remind readers that our Bishops too tend to cut deals to secure their own power and stability.
Our Church previously was the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. In preparation for independence these broke up into national churches, the Indians naturally breaking up into the Church of North India and the Church of South India. Our church with over 100,000 members at independence had only one diocese, the Diocese of Colombo, insufficient to be a Province. But now it is down to 20,000 it is said. However, a Church is supposed to have at least 3 or 4 dioceses to be an Anglican Province. We were therefore not allowed to be a Province. We were the Church of Ceylon under the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As the politicians realise that we are no huge vote bank, attempts are made to show otherwise by making ours a Province with one of the Bishops the Archbishop of Sri Lanka. This requires at least another diocese, instead of the 2 we now have. But how do we justify this with the attendant expenditure of a cathedral, bungalow, archdeacons and staff, and car for each new bishop; especially when one Bishop comfortably looked after the 100,000 members we once had? Although Tamils are a half (but probably more) of the membership in the Church of Ceylon (with no attempt to do a headcount) the power remains in the archdeaconries of Colombo and Galle (which includes Moratuwa) while the Tamil archdeaconries of Jaffna and Nuwara Eliya represent poor members making hardly enough contributions to sustain a separate diocese. The next bishop, the third, is therefore likely to be from Moratuwa. Tamils in general are not for another diocese for this reason as well as for the fact that when church politics and communal issues come up as they do, we are more comfortable with the Archbishop of Canterbury sorting things out as our Metropolitan Bishop.
Bending Democracy for Power and Stability
The two Bishops (Keerthisiri Fernando and Dhilo Canagasabey (really Canagasabai but Anglicised)) then, seemingly desperate to cut deals to secure their own power and stability, went after the creation of a new diocese, asking for grassroots support. However, it soon became apparent that there is no support. To facilitate a yes vote Bishop Canagasabey sent two Tamil women from Colombo who came to Jaffna and asked for translations since they claimed not to know Tamil even though their schooling must have been in Tamil. It shows the total lack of inclusivity and accountability. At the Jaffna meeting (held in Kilinochchi) the discussion was going against the bishops’ project. The question was therefore not put and withdrawn. Similarly, there was strong opposition in the powerful Colombo meeting. The two Bishops, shamelessly determined (so it seemed) to establish their power, betrayed their “inability for good governance but rather cut deals to secure their own power and stability,” much against their own sermonizing to the Rajapaksas. They are now moving from the top through the General Assembly and the Archbishop of Canterbury who seems not to want to be our archbishop after he dirtied his hands in trying to go with the recommendations of Canagasabey when the last Bishop’s election failed. The person the Archbishop offered the position to, had the good sense and decency to decline.
That is not all. I have been an elected member of the Standing Committee, the so called highest administrative body of the church. However, there are constitutional provisions disallowing us elected members who reflect the heart of the laity from continuing for more than 3 years without a break. On the other hand, the vast majority of the Standing Committee are ex officio members (the Bishop and the 4 Archdeacons appointed by the Bishop) and the Bishop’s nominees on whom there is no three-year restriction. Many are annually reappointed. The Liturgical Commission that writes how we pray is appointed by the Bishop and the Standing Committee, but in the years I was on the Standing Committee the appointments never came up and were done secretively in some cloistered place.
There is worse. The Church established a provision for backward regions to be represented on the Standing Committee by the highest vote getters even if their votes were few. And then in the last two Colombo Councils the Bishop (or his agents) untruthfully listed his own nominees to manipulate the count as representatives of under-represented regions so as to dominate the Standing Committee at the expense of the true elected representatives. This is like Sri Lanka’s defeated MPs who are made National List MPs – lawful but scandalous.
I know that the Colombo Bishop’s political statements are drafted by a secret group including Rev. S.D. Parimalachelevan (his batchmate and friend) and presented to the Diocesan Council where it is routinely approved.
While a member of the Standing Committee I did not know where the Standing Committee’s statement on “The State and Nation” came from. It usually has high-flowing sentiments on human rights. I had not even been shown the report I was part of. I did not even know who had authored it. I was told when I complained that it was “an oversight.” I remain unconvinced. I believe the Church lies and is cut from the same cloth as Sri Lanka’s corrupt majority running our state machinery.
The sixty-day notice required for a resolution so that it can first be vetted for grammar and translated at the Standing Committee is selectively waived for favourites, ensuring the loss of the rule of law. The authoritarian Standing Committee blocks statements it does not like (like my resolution on the Tamil Liturgy) by all kinds of ruses such as telling a proposer and seconder that they must come to Colombo and defend it before the Standing Committee; whereas there is no warrant in the Constitution for the Standing Committee to block a resolution to be moved at the Diocesan Council. It is all in favour of Colombo folk who are obedient. However, about three resolutions submitted by Rev. S.D. Parimalachelvan were accepted by Bishop Rodrigo at the Diocesan Council. As such the last-minute translations contradicted each other. One of his resolutions called our services “cultic.” It passed and received the required Bishop’s assent for validation. So we Anglicans now officially belong to a cult! I have stopped receiving Holy Communion when Parimalachelvan is the Celebrant, wondering what cultic thing’s presence he has invoked in place of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Church Appointments in Jaffna
The Human Rights Day statement for 2021 is headlined “Church of Ceylon says distressing developments undermine Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” saying, “Many significant human rights violations that affect the equality and dignity of persons and undermine the Rule of Law remain unaddressed,” and that “we call upon the Government to pay particular attention to the equal rights and dignity of marginalized groups.”
I salute and support these noble sentiments. But are they sincere? I regret that all this grandiloquence is smelly flatulence with no sign of substance! Church managers now try with marginalized Tamils on behalf of their favourites what they would not dare in Colombo.
Just look at how the Church treats us Tamils. Pretty much all appointments in the North are of unsuitable favorites who after the appointment would be promoted using that unsuitable appointment as a qualification. I wonder if Parimalachelvan is on track to be Bishop of Jaffna if such a See is created.
CMS and its Appointments
One John Devadasan has pointed out how the Anglicans’ CMS (Church Missionary Society) having oversight of our premier schools in Jaffna has appointed people with honourary doctorates pretending to have earned them by improperly using the title “Doctor” before their name. Others who have failed their university entrance have been appointed CMS Chair. Another with an honourary doctorate goes as “Doctor” but has failed his university entrance; he has been appointed Manager of St. John’s College. And for the first time the Manager does not live in Jaffna. He has a busy job in Colombo at World Vision – as if the Manager only has to come once in a while to sign cheques.
It is good to recall how an Anglican priest from St. John’s College in The Jaffna Christian Union signed blank cheques because he was busy and allowed millions in Tsunami money to be swindled by the other signatory and a group of crooked priests. I hope St. John’s will learn from that.
Another example is our Tamil Liturgy. How did it happen that the Church authorized the liturgy where terrible mistakes are made? God is called “Him without holiness.” There are only nine “Ten Commandments.” Tamil priests prayed with their congregations and left out words like “Thou only art Holy” from prayers etc. when the Liturgical Commission’s mandate was to translate the English which had these words. Who appointed unqualified people to tell Tamils how to pray? It was a matter of doing favours to friends to credential them for promotions. The chief culprit became Reverend Canon.
After complaining from 2010, and three years after passing a near-unanimous resolution demanding the revision of the vulgar and uneducated Liturgy, Tamils, like coolies, have been asked to continue praying with these blasphemous words. Now we suddenly hear that they are going to print a new version. An unofficial copy I obtained showed many printing errors, although to our relief God is no longer unholy and has given us ten “Ten Commandments.” Some old mistakes remain, besides printing and spelling errors.
I have told Bishop Rodrigo of the mistakes. If he wants he can ask me or my wife and the Co-sponsor of the resolution (The Rev. Fr. Stephen Jebachelvan). I found mistakes even in the English Liturgy! Panini Edirisinhe (an English language professional) to whom I showed my numerous corrections in English has told me that there are more, and that a printed book should have none. Will the Bishop lose anything by asking qualified Anglicans like Edirisinhe to help? I am sure he will do it free. Or does the Liturgical Commission think there is no one to correct its English?
People who truly know English know that we all make mistakes and seek others’ help. Does a church with Rs. 20 billion in investments and spending Rs. 10 million on a car for an archdeacon, not have any money to ensure that the prayerbook is right? If not our priorities are wrong.
Who appointed such haughty ignoramuses to redo our prayerbook? What are their qualifications? Has the Church only priests who failed their OLs and then got God’s calling to be a priest? Why does the Bishop not tap the many able priests and laity in the Church
Archdeacon of Jaffna
Another such appointment revolves around Rev. Sam Ponniah whose father is “an evangelical,” a magic wand with Bishop Dhilo Canagasabey. Ponniah was made Archdeacon of Jaffna and then Manager and Acting Principal of St. John’s although it is well known that Eksith Fernando who was appointed Warden of St. Thomas’ by his uncle Bishop Kenneth Fernando had his appointment thrown out by the courts that ruled that 10 years of teaching experience is required to be Principal. Ponniah lacked that. Ponniah, unlike Eksith Fernando, also lacked a UGC-recognized degree. But good enough for Jaffna?
There were many good choices for Archdeacon. The obvious choice was The Rev. Fr. Stephen Jebachelvan, the only Tamil priest I know in service who has a B.Sc. degree from the national university system. All others failed to enter any national university. When he was overlooked for an appointment, I was told by a CMS high-up that he lacks personality – a height requirement! I was also told that he does not speak good English. I enquired and was told that he had been kept in the Vanni for almost 20 years as a means of not letting him be seen and his talents recognized.
Such a senior man, however, could not be locked up in the Vanni forever. He was moved to Jaffna. In addition to his normal duties he conducts English services at Christ Church now after Ponniah left. I have been to these services. His English is pretty good. Last weekend he was suddenly requested to lead a service in English impromptu – an American theologian was slated to speak but the curfew intervened. We dared the curfew and asked Fr. Jebachelvan for the service in English as all in church were proficient in English. He did a perfect job.
That is how the church operates. Spread an untruth around. The gang will magnify these untruths so much that it will be believed. That is how Jebachelvan was so unfairly mothballed, keeping the unqualified Church appointees safe.
Jebachelvan was the most qualified person academically and by seniority to be Archdeacon of Jaffna. But Bishop Rodrigo chose S.D. Parimalachelvan. I think citing Parimalachelvan’s recent comment in Colombo Telegraph says it all:
Do you understand him? What is he saying? Is he of the quality to be the Archdeacon of Jaffna? In what language does he write to Bishop Rodrigo? Is this what we in Jaffna deserve? Are we being used by the South to fulfil their obligations to their friends, taking us for granted?
Would Bishop Rodrigo dare to make him Archdeacon of Colombo? I say he would be run out of town if he tried.
S.D. Parimalchelvan is the editor of the Church’s Tamil newspaper Thelivu. I hope his Tamil shows more Thelivu (clarity) than his English comments.
We Tamils are a broken people. When there were demonstrations against the Rajapaksas last week, it was Sinhalese students at Jaffna University who played a key role. When curfew was declared, no one came out in defiance like in the South. Even after the curfew was lifted on 04.04.2022 many shops remained shut. We are a scared people, and our fears are exploited by the Church knowing we will not protest against its atrocious appointments.
It is that our broken status that has allowed the Bishops to keep us blaspheming for 12 years, calling God unholy among other things. They were saving on printing costs I am told and can reprint only once in ten years. If the present version comes out, we will be stuck with it for another ten years.
The Dogs Must Continue Barking
We of the Church are no better than the Sinhalese state. Both are run by the same people. It is that conviction that drives me to write this, especially after not receiving a single reply from Bishop Dushantha Rodrigo to any of my complaints. The caravan of Church can move on (as the Bishop seems to hope) as the dogs bark. This dog, however, is determined to keep barking as the determined church tries to move on despite the barking about corruption.
The Church must not be allowed to lose its moral authority through its corruption and recover its compass. Once that authority is lost, there is no point in having the Church. Bishops, please take note! Easter (17 April, 2022) celebrates the Resurrection. May Church too rise with Him from the morass it is sunk in. Amen.