Last weekend (23rd) I was at A.R. Rahman’s concert at the packed Oakland Arena stadium. It was a predominantly, Tamil, electrified audience, mostly youth from India now working in prestigious jobs in Silicon Valley. The audience underscored how America’s economy thrives by letting in the best minds from other countries. I again saw the impact of America’s immigrant population when I attended church the next day. Although many countries around the world are drying out of priests, this service in California was officiated by a priest from the Philippines, with other churches in America led by Indian-, African-, and Latin-Americans.
But immigration also has its dark side. The Indian-dominated tech industry in California is facing a growing outcry about internal practices of caste discrimination, brought across shores from privileged-caste employees. The State of California has sued tech giant CISCO, and Google is facing its own inquiries. According to research by Equality Labs, 67% of Dalit workers have felt discrimination in the US workplace. The issue of whether US law provides protections from caste discrimination is being contested. Privileged-caste Hindus are calling these lawsuits religious discrimination.
Caste in the Anglican Church of Ceylon (CoC): Fluidity of Power
In India there is the anachronism where caste discrimination is prohibited even as caste labels are entrenched for purposes of affirmative action. In Sri Lanka where there is no prohibition on caste, ethnic and caste boundaries are fluid as people migrate to the dominant label. As such, many who want the dominant, profitable “Sinhalese-Buddhist” label migrate through name change from Anglican and Tamil. Prominent examples are SWRD Bandaranaike (descendant of Neela Perumal) and J.R. Jayawardene (descendant of Tambi Mudaliyar). Both were of the Agricultural strain which was diminished as many married well-to-do Tamils, as seen in proudly displayed family trees where Tamils have successfully reclassified themselves as Sinhalese-Buddhists. Another classic example is the Coreas. The Speaker Shirley Corea’s full name reveals his true ethnicity: Srikumaradas Charles Shirley Corea. That the Bandaranaike, Obeyesekere, and Kotelawala families were all close relations from the CoC shows the evolving, fluid nature of ethnicity a hundred years ago.
Over time, as ethnicity became more firmly drawn, purity of ancestry became more important. There were high stakes to being identified as non-Tamil, and privilege, security, and ascendance to be had from being Sinhalese. When a Kandyan friend of mine claimed to be Agricultural Buddhist, I needled him a little saying that I had seen someone of his name in Church documents. He said with some difficulty, “Yes, may be. I vaguely remember my grandfather having been a Christian.”
As Tamils emigrated in large numbers and many Sinhalese transitioned to Sinhalese Buddhism, the once influential Anglican Diocese of Colombo faced diminishing numbers. Hidden in these patterns of migration and transition is the issue of caste. Agricultural Tamils and Sinhalese had more means and markers to make a transition. The Church pretends outwardly that it rejects caste and that all are equal in the eyes of God. But for generations, church leadership has been dominated by members of privileged castes. Today, with new openings in church leadership, coastal Sinhalese, mainly fisherfolk, are moving into dominance.
Contestations about caste and ethnic contestations overlap. Although Tamils like Jabez Gnanapragasam and Dhilo Canangasabey have been elected Bishop, this is less likely in the future as Sri Lankan dwellers who can fluently speak both Tamil and English grow fewer. As a result, the Church is moving into a place where caste-based power is more fluid, but there are fewer allowances for North-East Tamils.
The North is a bastion of caste. The Church has both challenged caste and sanctioned its perpetuation among its members. The Anglican Bishop Daniel Wilson, for example, vigorously contested caste, insisting on the use of the same chalice by all, and prohibiting cousin marriage which led to marrying unconverted cousins. The America Ceylon Mission (ACM), on the other hand, the largest Protestant Church in Jaffna’s history, deliberately cultivated the agricultural castes saying they are “emphatically our people.” This was to avoid the identification of the Church with the lower castes as in India that prevented conversions. The ACM had substantial influence, running numerous schools, a College, and a girls’ college that provided Christian brides with a dowry.
Tamil Members of the ACM and CoC intermarried. Leadership of the Church grew to mirror caste-based hierarchies in the society to which it belonged, rather than subverting these hierarchies. To the mid-1970s all CoC clergymen in Jaffna were agriculturists. The few lower-caste laity, for example at St. James’, the most important CoC Parish where the Bishop held ordinations, sat on the last two pews and went up for communion after the agriculturists.
At this point, the Methodists and Anglicans took on lower castes who had applied for ordination and were refused in Jaffna, and posted them in the South. In Jaffna itself, after Fr. J.T. Richards Navaratnam, the last agriculturist Archdeacon, there followed from 1975 or so a series of untouchable or Indian Tamil archdeacon appointments. It was affirmative action from the South that was grudgingly welcomed even in the North. By then the agricultural migration abroad was in full force and these Archdeacons were well accepted as the agriculturalists soon became insignificant. A happy convivial situation evolved as the lower castes took on high positions in church schools and other institutions, even as national institutions like the university and the hospitals in Jaffna never gave the lower castes a chance.
That oppression is evident in one incident. I was running Peradeniya’s Computer Science Department’s and the Ministry of Science and Technology’s websites. Some oppressed-caste youngsters from church asked me to run a website for them show-casing their achievements as professionals and administrators. I agreed, but as work began, they reversed their position saying their elders had told them not to, since once their caste is announced on the Internet, they would find it difficult to survive in the larger Hindu world outside Church.
The Church of Ceylon and Hypocritical Commitment to Good Governance
The CoC had done good work uplifting the lower castes in Jaffna at least within the Church. In time however, from Bishop Gnanapragasam, most Bishops in the predominant Colombo Diocese have been lower castes including fisherfolk.
In the minority Kurunagala Diocese, once dominated by Kandyans (with the exception of the first Bishop of the fisher clan, who was appointed by Canterbury despite losing the election to Archdeacon Christopher Ratnayake as I recall), three Bishops in sequence were agriculturists, but the last two elections had other castes taking over as agricultural power waned among Christians.
Over time, the CoC which is cut from the same cloth as the Sinhalese Buddhists has become pro-Sinhalese like the rest of the country, neglecting to follow basic rules of governance despite expressing several noble sentiments on the crises facing Sri Lanka – the need for heeding the voice of the people, for democracy, and decrying anarchy – see box. The wider Church itself pays mere lip service to these ideals which service the need for aggrandized power.
Anarchy in the wider Anglican Church calling for respect for the constitution: As Anglican Bishops, some 650, meet under the Archbishop of Canterbury every 10 years, this time 26 July – 8th August 2022, the anarchy is obvious. After approving I.10 in 1998 affirming traditional Christian sexuality, the Americans, Canadians and many English Dioceses are in open rebellion. To get these traditional views toppled and slant the conversation the Archbishop has invited retired Bishops (now priests) from Canada to be delegates whereas only diocesan Bishops deserve invitations. Spouses of Bishops in same-sex living-together have been invited, prompting a call to boycott masses at the conference.
The Archbishops of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda are boycotting the conference because of its slant against Christian marriage but some 75% even without them are likely to support traditional views. Their role in defence of marriage is taken over by the Archbishop of South Sudan heading Anglicans upholding Christian marriage.
The Archbishop of the Church of South India was detained at the airport on his way to Lambeth by Indian Police on a corruption investigation and had to sign some bond to proceed abroad. The Haitian Anglicans have been caught importing many containers of arms for the drugs cartel.
CoC’s two bishops who tend to vote with western liberals have not announced the side they will take when attempts are made to weaken I-10. Traditional views receive no sympathy from the BBC and the Guardian,
Democracy in the CoC as well as Anglican Churches is weak when the Bishops do not reflect the views of the laity – a lot like Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who has no standing among the people.
Claiming “True presence” at the Eucharist our Bishops encourage joint celebrations of the Eucharist with those like many “National Christian Council” Churches who do not believe in it. It is an anarchic call to violate the CoC constitution.
Jesus said, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” Quoting this, the CoC wants union with the Methodists with whom the Anglican/CoC view of the Eucharist and clerical orders – the centrality in worship – is totally off. But given our numbers we will dominate the selectively united church. But we do not talk of Jesus’ principle of unity with the Roman Catholics with whom we have a full match on the eucharist and are almost there with male clerical orders because uniting with them, given our paltry numbers, we would be swamped and lose control of our billions in property.
In contrast, in the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury has launched joint efforts with the Pope for peace in South Sudan and a Common Declaration by Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was issued on 5 Oct., 2016 which “got lost” in Sri Lanka.
The undoing of our selective ideals for unity excluding Roman Catholics, was accelerated by the urgent need of our Bishops to make our two dioceses under Canterbury into 3 and qualify to be a province and become an Anglican Province with one of them made an Archbishop. The present Archbishop himself in Canterbury, does not wish to be our Archbishop anymore after facing the wicked politics at our last election of Bishop. No candidate reached the required 65% from church so it came down to the Archbishop having to pick a person. It led to vicious politicking, and it appears the Archbishop did not want to be part of the process again. It would have been simple for him to have picked the top vote getter, Dushantha Rodrigo (as he finally had to), over the second highest vote-getter, Perry Brohier, as had been always done previously (with one exception in the Diocese of Kurunagala when Lakdasa de Mel was appointed in 1950 over the highest vote getter).
As the Archbishop of Canterbury pushed us to be independent, our bishops vainly argued in obedience to Canterbury that we do not wish to continue under our colonial masters. About 2 years ago, some Bishops were brought in from Australia and Africa to tell us to ask for an Archbishopric. Few were impressed. Why canvass again unless it is to over-ride ordinary Christians to be Archbishop?
Large meetings in Colombo, Kilinochchi, Galle, and Talawa opposed a new diocese. Since Galle-Moratuwa will likely be the new diocese if this anti-people thrust succeeds, one obstacle is property – will St. Thomas’ College be lost to Colombo Anglicans and become even more for fisherfolk in a church of fisherfolk bishops? Although Tamils are 50% in Colombo, will the tiny allocation for Tamil students at St. Thomas’ be retained if it goes out of the Colombo diocese? Will Colombo Sinhalese have access to St. Thomas’? Tamils felt especially safer to have neutral Canterbury in case Sri Lanka turns more anti-Tamil as at the last elections.
The grassroots question has always been this: when the first Bishop managed a Church of 100,000 with one archdeacon and only ships and bullock carts (and trains from late 19th century), why today, with member numbers diminished to 20,000 and still going down, and four Archdeacons having been provided with Rs. 10 million each for a car, do we need another diocese? Another question was why when Bangladesh and Hong Kong were allowed a Province with two dioceses like us, can we not ask for the same privilege?
The Archdeacons have been tasked by the Bishops with getting every parish to endorse their idea for another diocese. People wonder why even ask for this when 2 years ago every regional grouping was against this.
Failing Good Governance in Jaffna
The most recent appointee as Archdeacon of Jaffna, despite the Church’s call for good governance, is fomenting caste-hatred in a Church where there was none. He was the Bishop’s batchmate at Pilimatalawa and also appointed the Vicar of St. James’ Nallur. In Jaffna where from ancient times, every geographical area had an associated caste, he tried to rename the Church area as Nayanmaarkattu, a place of oppressed caste people with a few exceptions. He rescinded his plans only after it was pointed out that Church records are clear that the parish address has always been Nallur and never Nayanmaarkattu. The Archdeacon of Jaffna is playing caste politics and is succeeding.
Aiming to strengthen his own power, the Archdeacon has led many actions that violate or disregard the Church constitution. The Annual General Meeting of the parish scheduled for 5 June had the same resolution at Parish level at the Diocesan Secretary’s request given as a draft. The draft had untruthful claims. When this was pointed out a corrected redraft was put forward. There was no proposer or seconder. It was the Archdeacon’s resolution. It was not posted on the notice board as constitutionally required.
Remember in the context of the Church’s call for Constitutional Governance, the Archdeacon is the Bishop’s personal choice. He is supposed to supervise other priests on behalf of the Bishop. Here in Jaffna we have an Archdeacon who is either dishonest or lacks the spiritual fervor to read and implement the Constitution. How can he supervise other priests after being unable to conclude an AGM even after convening it three times and is going to continue a completed meeting a fourth time? Is the Bishop taking the Tamil people for granted again and again by imposing on us such an incompetent, dishonest manipulator? Is he fit to absolve us of our sins? Invoke the benediction?
Is the Church of Ceylon a failed institution like Sinhalese Sri Lanka? Good Anglicans must rescue the Church.