By Mario Palihakkara –
There is growing unease among Sri Lankan Anglicans that there will not be a just and legitimate outcome with respect to the election of the 16th Bishop of Colombo.
A statement issued by the outgoing Bishop of Colombo, the Rt. Rev. Dhiloraj Canagasabey on Saturday, 29 August to all clergy with the instruction that they should read it to all congregations the next day and the following Sunday (6 September) has heightened speculation that the Bishop and his close advisors wish to ensure that the Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo, the Headmaster of S. Thomas Preparatory School, Kollupitiya, does not become the next Bishop of Colombo.
Rev Rodrigo obtained an overwhelming majority of 67% of the lay voters and 54% of the clergy voters (63% of the combined vote) in the final round of voting at the special session of the Diocesan Council on 15 August. Rev Rodrigo defeated Ven Perry Brohier, the Archdeacon of Colombo who received 33% of the lay votes and 46% of the clergy votes. Rev. Marc Billimoria, Warden of S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, was eliminated in the first round of voting with less than 20% of the total vote.
The Canagasabey statement did not refer to the details of the vote count but rather highlighted the fact that because no candidate obtained the requisite 60% of the vote in both the house of clergy and the house of the laity, an overwhelming majority of the Council voted to request the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint the next Bishop. In open acts of defiance, many parish priests refused to read the statement while others added details of the vote to give their congregations an accurate picture of what transpired at the election.
A senior member of the church stated that many Anglicans both clergy and laity see the statement as preparing the ground for the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint someone other than Rev. Rodrigo, on the advice of the outgoing Bishop. This would mark a departure from precedent where the Archbishop of Canterbury considers the “mind of the Diocese” as his main guide in the appointment especially after the enactment of the Church of Ceylon Act 1998 that clearly established the Church of Ceylon is a national church responsible for the management of its own affairs. In 2001, when a similar situation arose the then Archbishop of Canterbury appointed Rev. Duleep de Chickera as Bishop because he had consistently polled first in both the houses of clergy and the laity, though he was unable to obtain the requisite 60% majority in either house.
Some commentators expressed the view that it would be unthinkable that the present Archbishop of Canterbury would act like a “colonial monarch” and ignore the democratic mandate of the council. They pointed out that the local church constitution set an unusually high bar of 60% whereas in many other Anglican dioceses the bar was a simple majority of 50% plus one. They also wondered whether any defeated candidate or “outsider” would be sufficiently thick skinned to accept such an appointment when 63% of the electoral body had supported the popular and dynamic Rodrigo.
However other persons close to the church were not so confident. They pointed out that Rev. Rodrigo had in recent years often been critical of the policies and actions of Bishop Canagasabey, in church forums such as the Standing Committee and the Incorporated Trustees. Though he had been careful to express his dissent in the appropriate forums and not in public, his independence had irked both Bishop Canagasabai and his close advisors/appointees, the Archdeacons and the Registrar. This small group had launched a discreet and concerted campaign to portray Rev Rodrigo as a troublemaker and polarizing figure in the minds of Archbishop Welby’s advisors.
Among the issues that Rev Rodrigo expressed concerns about in recent months were the increasing influence of money and financial considerations in the life of the Diocese and the church’s weak positions on national issues including human rights and reconciliation issues in the north and east. He joined a large group of Anglican leaders who questioned the propriety of the contentious, previously unscheduled, ordination of priests ( where 10 deacons, including a businessman with little theological education, were suddenly “promoted” without completing the usual one-year probationary period) just weeks before the special session of the Diocesan Council to elect a new Bishop. The retired Bishop and Archdeacon Brohier were responsible for the controversial ordination.
It is ironic that this controversy has arisen following the adoption of the 1998 Act and the adoption of a new church constitution in 2007, both of which sought to strengthen the Church of Ceylon as a national church with the power to regulate its own ecclesiastical and administrative affairs. The outgoing Bishop, his associates and legal advisors, are urging the Archbishop of Canterbury to ignore the unequivocal will of the Diocese and impose the will of Canterbury (which is in effect the will of Canagasabey), by appointing a protege of the outgoing Bishop.
It is left to be seen whether Archbishop Welby will follow such advice and act undemocratically. The concern is that if he were to do so, the dwindling but influential Anglican church will become irretrievably divided and that the battle will then move on from Canterbury to Hulftsdorp.