The role of Archbishop of Canterbury is always surprising. It is a great humbling experience for those who would be foolish enough to believe that they were important. I have been told that I was too short, too untheological, and too English.
The Anglican Communion is also a remarkable gathering. It arises from a history with many bad times to it, the history of colonialism and imperial rule. But in the power of God and through the teaching of Jesus Christ, the church slowly learned to separate faith and the flag and to become more what Christ designed for it to be, a holy people, belonging to God, who seek to bless the communities in which they live.
There are about 80 million Anglicans in the world. The average one is not from the UK or the USA, but is a woman in sub-Saharan Africa, in her 30s, with a 50-50 chance of being in a place of persecution. She will be living in extreme poverty, probably on less than three US dollars per day.
The miracle of the church, for Christians, is not that it disagrees. After all, with over 2000 languages and cultures it is absurd to think that we would always be in agreement.
The miracle of the church is that we agree on the basics and the most important things, especially the obligation to love God and to love our neighbour. We agree on the nature of Jesus Christ. We agree on the love of God which reaches out to us. We don’t always, sometimes not often, practice what God has given us but we agree that when we do fail we are able to turn around and go in a different way, what Christians call repent, and seek the forgiveness of God and his power to do better in the future.
So, what’s this got to do with Sri Lanka? Well, to go back to the first paragraph, one of the most surprising things about this job is I found that I had direct responsibility as what in the church is called a Metropolitan in all sorts of parts of the world. One of those was Sri Lanka. The Church of Ceylon had not joined in with the Church of South India when that was created in the late 1940s and had not formed its own independent and autonomous church at any time later. The Anglican Communion has 41 provinces and although if it were a province the Church of Ceylon would not be by any means be the smallest, it does need to form at least one possibly two more dioceses (area overseen by Bishop) in order to reach the minimum size.
For historical reasons that had not happened and therefore a few weeks ago I found myself with responsibility for choosing the next Bishop of Colombo, because the electoral college had nearly but not quite been able to get a sufficient majority to make their own choice.
I am sure you will gather from what I’ve already said that this is not what I think should happen. It is a model that needs to change, and I am sure it will. The Church of Ceylon must become a province of the Anglican Communion like every other province, fully autonomous but because we all belong to the same God interdependent and related to one another. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not like the Pope with authority over the different provinces, but more of a sort of patriarch, a first among equals, bringing them together.
Earlier this week, after many people in Sri Lanka had given generously of their time and advice to me both in writing and with zoom calls in order for us to discuss the way forward, and after considerable prayer and reflection, I was able to offer the post of Bishop of Colombo to Father Dushantha Rodrigo. To my delight, he accepted. I don’t pretend that the role of Bishop is an easy one. You have to know how to lead your flock, and to care for them, to love them as you love yourself. You need to mix mercy with justice and to ensure that the church learns to look like Jesus Christ whom it worships. And yet, everyone in the church is a human being, with all the fallibilities and faults that go with our humanity, whether you are an Archbishop or a newly baptised disciple of Jesus Christ.
I have no doubt that Father Dushantha will be a wonderful Bishop of Colombo. I believe that he is called by God to this post and I urge all those within the Church of Ceylon and especially the Diocese of Colombo, and also all those of goodwill to support him and welcome him, to advise him and help him.
There is a wonderful passage in the book of the prophet Jeremiah in the Christian Old Testament, where exiles in Babylon write to the prophet Jeremiah and say “what are we to do, where in this terrible city, we’ve been exiled and all prophets and priests here tell us we will soon be back and everything will be okay”. Jeremiah replies many things, but the one that always sticks in my mind is “bless the place in which God has put you”. The call of the church is always to be a blessing to its community. It is to love the poor, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to visit the prisoner. It is to speak up for justice and truth. It is to give an example of reconciliation and hope.
Sri Lanka is a wonderful, staggeringly beautiful, fertile country with exceptionally intelligent people of enormous capacity. I know that the Church of Ceylon will be a blessing to them. I pray for Sri Lanka, for government and opposition, for its judiciary and its people, for its armed services and its police, that all will seek the blessing of the nation and the common good of its people