Heritage of England
We Anglicans have the heritage of the mother of Parliaments. As such we expect our Sri Lankan Anglican Church, the Church of Ceylon which is the successor to the Church of England in Ceylon, to be run most democratically. However, like our country, we too show signs of decline in our democracy. It is a make-or-break time for the Church, and I raise some of the issues at a time our new and dear Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo, just finished his first Diocesan Council on 26-27 Nov. 2021. The Church has assets worth well over 2 Billion Rupees and a regular communicant membership of 20,000 (Higher figures may be quoted using those who maintain nominal membership to retain their right to be married in a magnificent church building and buried with their parents in the church graveyard, or even to retain good memories from their childhood coming to Church for Easter and Christmas services which often are a choral concert.
The Diocesan Council reports are a case in point. Chartered Accountant Rajan Asirwatham has for years maintained the funds which are so well-managed that are seen to grow every year. But Asirwatham is aging. Most of us do not understand these esoteric numbers. Every year I see fewer and fewer questions raised at Council on these accounts. I fear for the long-term prospects of these vast sums as good people die or quit our shores.
The resolutions are how we lay folk escape theocracy, the rule of priests. We Council representatives, whether laity or clergy, can put forward resolutions to express our views and have them carried. It is in the resolutions that our democracy is expressed.
A case in point is the Tamil Eucharistic Liturgy, the highest form of communion with God during the Mass. Passing Resolutions is a tightly controlled episcopal exercise. It has to be submitted to the Standing Committee 60 days early. Rarely is this cautious restriction eased. Even if passed, it fails if the Bishop refuses his assent. All that failed this year as Rev. S.D. Parimalachelvan who campaigned for the Bishop’s election was allowed to introduce multiple resolutions on the floor with bad grammar, poor translations and the bishop still gave his assent, even though they were voted on without time for study or correction.
Resolutions have run into clericalism. The liturgical Commission mostly has Sinhalese. They gave the Tamil Liturgy to Rev. Joshua Ratnam who came to St. John’s College from Trinity College after failing, was in Special V, and the day the results came he left school after not making the mark again. He naturally found a vocation in the Anglican priesthood.
Ratnam was good with the clerical hierarchy and putting him in charge of the Liturgy was a means of rewarding him for supporting liberal agendas shared with former Bishops Kenneth Fernando and Duleep Chickera. What would happen when a scholastic failure writes our prayers? Disaster upon disaster.
For one, the 10 Commandments became 9 Commandments. Almighty in “Almighty God” had Almighty deleted because Theological College Pilimatalawa teaches that the word implies that God is mightier than other gods. So on and so forth. The worst was the prayer “O God without Holiness and Destruction.” The poor man was in Diocesan Council saying indefensively before everyone that if it is broken up correctly it is acceptable.
The Liturgical Commission approved Ratnam’s disaster. So the Bishop says we cannot blame Ratnam. This seems the purpose of Committees. One man runs it and takes decisions. The Yes-man Committee gives him cover so it does not seem a one-man show. I say the majority Sinhalese never read what thry approved.
Anyway, Fr. Steven Jebachelevam and I of Nallur moved a resolution demanding immediate revision. Bishop Dhilo Canagasabey gave it his assent because the approval was near unanimous so even to defend his man he could not deny the resolution to save face for his man.
After 2018 we have been calling God Him without Holiness. It is OK because we are stupid Tamils in the eyes of the church. We Tamils will play meek and dumb as we have done for 3 years without a word of protest. I have asked Bishop Rodrigo many times at the Standing Committee. He too has stalled saying “soon” but we Tamils are the step-children of the Lord Bishop even Tamil Lord Bishops who rely on Sinhalese to manage the Church. I say that Moratuwa Christians would not have allowed such brazen meddling with their prayers and would have kicked out the Bishops who tried this.
Rev. Steven Jebachelvan who seconded the resolution is a rare priest with a national university degree, B.Sc. Peradeniya, in addition to the normal B.Th. degree from Pilimatalawa. He has been ignored for all serious appointments in the Church and been put under a poorly educated Archdeacon. He has to taught the lesson not to cross our Lord Bishops!
Former murdered St. John’s Principal Anadarajan’s son, already a school administrator in Canada, came and offered his services as Principal of St. John’s. He was turned down. When Archdeacon Ponniah who as a theology student was suspended for smuggling hard liquor into the theological College and scraped through courses was appointed, and I asked why Jebachelvan is not better, I was told that Jebachelvan lacks personality. He is not shorter, if at all, than Ponniah. And the Church now has a height specification for Principals rather than degree requirements! CMS which is responsible for principals’ appointments seems not to look at qualification for Principals or for its own Members. The CMS, an institution that must upkeep standards, had a Chairman going as Dr. Dan when he had no earned doctorate. what a standard for the world.
Is the church taking Tamils and Tamil institutions for granted? Would the Church dare put a man without a university degree in charge of any of the St. Thomas’ schools or Trinity? We in Jaffna do not wish to be the dumping grounds for Church favourites.
Sabotaged Resolutions by Council
We who moved the Tamil Liturgy resolution are not the Church’s only stepchildren. Fr. Nesakumar of St. Thomas’ Gurutalawa has had a resolution from 2018 going nowhere for lack of funds in a church with Rs. 10 million for cars for each of the 4 archdeacons and Rs. 300+ for sending routine letters by courier after sending them first by email. It has almost Rs. 3 billion in assets.
Another ignored resolution is from 2015. It calls for including other churches in the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL). And the objection? The new churches are converting our members. The clue to the objection is the new resolution in 2021 (by Mr. Keshan Leitch and Rev. S.D. Parimalachelvan) reminding us of the 2015 resolution telling the Church to ensure that the admission of new members to the NCCSL does not undermine its statements on comity and ethics in mission. The cat is out of the bag. People voted for the new resolution, most of us not knowing the comity principle from the nineteenth century – that demarcates different cities to different missions. We were tricked into voting for the 2021 resolution against the new churches while pretending to be all for ecumenism!
Resolutions without Understanding
Besides the NCCSL resolution, another example of being tricked into voting is the Resolution by Parimalachelvan and Christopher Baraj. It reads correctly but at the end asks that we move towards costly discipleship Christ demands – “cultic and service” orientation to “transformation mammon to God’s reign.
Christ asks us to be cultic? What is cultic (an adjective) and service (a noun)? Mammon is worldly wealth. What does “transformation mammon” mean? I think Anglican grammar has collapsed. What is worse is that cultic does not appear in the garbled Tamil translation. Tamils were tricked into voting for this without seeing the official text in English.
And the Bishop gave his assent. Or was he asleep when he agreed that we should make our worship cultic. We see the beginnings of this transformation in the church undermining the value of resolutions and prayerbooks in Joshua Ratnam’s Tamil Liturgy!
Yet another sleight of hand is the resolution by Marc Billimoria and Niroshan de Mel on the 5 marks of mission adopted worldwide in 1984. These are well known and innocuous. However, they have added a sixth mark of mission: “To engage with people of diverse faiths and ideologies to discern God’s presence in them.”
The resolution wants us to plan and implement all our local and regional activities in line with the said marks of Mission.
It is a call to celebrate Saarsvathi Pooja and festivities to the 33 million gods (counted in British times) in our churches – a follow up to Bishop Dushantha lighting up for the recent Navarathiri festival. A Councillor remarked that Satanic worship is now an official religion with millions of followers worldwide. Do we worship the Devil to discern the mind of Christ in the Devil? Fr. Jebachelvan asked “How do we proclaim the Good News of the kingdom if others already know the mind of Christ proclaimed in the first mark?” These were pooh-poohed by Ratnam who called the objections arrogant.
Devolution to Rural Areas
Who runs the Church? In theory it is we, the members of the Diocesan Council chosen as representatives from our parishes. Priests are also there. Unfortunately, as in the country, the educated have fled and few of us can comprehend these reports. Reading, together with English fluency, is a dying skill in the country. Technically we can speak in Tamil or Sinhalese in Council and translations are provided. But in a divided country, speaking in Tamil or Sinhalese can put-off many and the message is lost. So those who have things to say but cannot in English, choose silence. Even if they did, short interventions in Tamil or Sinhalese are lost because the message would be over before the headphones can be put on and switched on.
Those who can truly represent their parishes are the representatives from Colombo and Moratuwa who usually speak English. In addition, they attend all church functions and services in their turf, know each other and can get votes in an election for the Standing Committee which runs the church under the Bishop’s chairmanship. Rural people are too unknown to get votes.
Bishop’s Nominee Usurping the Place of Rural Deanery Nominee
Recognizing this problem well-meaning people amended the Constitution to say that from the outlying Rural Deaneries, one candidate with the highest vote gets elected to the Standing Committee – even only with the two votes from the proposer and seconder. A few have come into the Standing Committee on this quota but do not speak because they fear that what they say in Tamil will not be listened to. One man from long ago has managed to come every year and speak in Sinhalese. In the 1990s I kept quiet out of fear. I still do not believe he does not know English to include all of us. Now however I have insisted on a translation and am provided it, albeit short.
In Sri Lanka reforms are there to show some inclusion of minorities. But after getting credit for that, the same reform is used to aggrandize power at the expense of minorities. An example is the 13th Amendment. On the books Tamil is the court language in North-East courts. But in practice, the police come and read charges in Sinhalese. The judges and lawyers speak in English. Poor clients have no choice but to retain layers. Tamil lawyers are happy with that since it makes the good money. Even Tamils speak in Sinhalese to make the opposing side be lost and to ingratiate themselves with the Sinhalese police.
So it is with the diocesan quota for rural areas. I have seen two bishops playing tricks with it. They use their quota of Diocesan Council seats to nominate a rural person. The Bishop’s agent in the relevant rural Deanery, the Archdeacon, quickly jumps ups and nominates the Bishop’s nominee for the Council to the Standing Committee and then holds secretive meetings of Colombo and Moratuwa council members to vote for the Bishop’s nominee. Now that Bishop’s nominee is reckoned as a representative from the Rural Deanery and not a representative of the Bishop. I have written to Bishop Dhilo questioning this and the then Bishop, like royalty, did not deign to reply. The problem was averted because both were elected on their own vote. A Bishop’s nominee so elected to the Standing Committee did not speak one word at the Standing Committee over the year in office except to say “Present” during roll call!
During the last 2021 election too, a Jaffna Nominee and the Bishop’s nominee reckoned as a Jaffna nominee stood for election. There will be a problem, when results are announced this week, if neither gets votes below the cut off marks and the Bishop’s nominee gets more. Then who will represent Jaffna? These issues need to be addressed early to avoid divisive problems and suspicions of intentions.
Whither Anglican Democracy?
I have bad feelings. No one seems to believe in democracy. The Bishops seem happy to exploit the weaknesses in our democracy to carry forward their agenda. The prognosis for the church is poor.
Democracy, after all, is rooted in Biblical teachings:
Deutronomy 1:13: Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes and I will set them over you.
The church must support the democratic structures for that choosing. Bishop: please note. Democracy is from God! Choose wise, understanding and respected persons as school principals and for the CMS.