25 March, 2023


The Church Of Ceylon In Anarchy: Caste & Affirmative Action

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

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.

AR Rahman Concert at Oakland, 23 July 2022: New Challenges as Indians Move into the US

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

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.

Church Unity

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.

Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis: Ecumenical Forays together

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.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    “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.”
    I am always amazed at Dr.Hoole’s ability to be an expert IT professional and at the same time be able to deal in irrationalities like the above. To each his own.

  • 4

    Difficult to understand how such kinds of society survive as a healthy nation. Modern day of globalization that Lanka craves (or at least its fruits of), requires each and every person as a contributary entity for its success.

  • 5

    Dear Jeevan,
    You are a scientist
    who has excelled in that field. From there you shifted very successfully to the filed of conducting elections. In that field you did Sri Lanka lots of good by exposing corruption and many instances of cheating. How much good you did, at great personal risk, is difficult for us to yet evaluate.
    Religion is a very personal matter, and the labels that we give ourselves are misleading. I have no doubt that you are very sincere and committed to Christianity as you understand it. However, each individual has a unique blend of beliefs, values and practices that constitute his/her religion.
    Organised religion, I’m sure was always full of contradiction. All religions. Whatever you say in this area is relatively harmless. But always remember that you’re not making any particularly valuable contribution here. You’re not in control; you’re merely playing out what what what History has ordained for you.

  • 6

    Castes evolved owing to feudal systems of social organisation. Since I got to know you, at least eight years ago, I’ve been begging you to steer clear of public discussion of what is now a delicate subject. The significance of “Castes” will disappear with time. There will be well-intentioned efforts to either hasten the disappearance of the caste system( like what you’re doing), and mischievous attempts to prolong its significance. In this matter you are merely a helpless cog in the machine.
    Useful work academic work in this area is being done by sociologists. Leave it to them.
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela

    • 3

      Almost fifteen hours after submitting the two comments above, I find that it is still possible to comment.
      Therefore, I assert the following:
      Ultimately, we humans seek to uphold certain values through all our incessant activity.
      In Lanka, the (Roman) Catholic Church has a certain social significance. So have the recent Evangelical Churches. Reservations about them, I do have.
      The older Protestant Churches in this country have outlived their usefulness. They ought to be studied by anthropologists rather than by sociologists. They could, of course, be studied as “Social Clubs” where corruption thrives. I’m even older than you, and I have seen the sad degeneration of these Churches.
      The Anglican Church controls some of our best schools. They ought to be upholding Truth, Honesty and Justice. Jeevan, you have been upholding such values more than most of us. Unfortunately, such values are being constantly subverted by the Church. This article shows you to be doing your best to ensure that the Church furthers the eternal values that I have referred to. This is what I’m grateful to you for, Jeevan, and your contribution in these areas of concern has been outstanding.

    • 3

      Time was when Anglo Tamils (the English-speaking) like Ramanathan pretended there are no Sinhalese-Tamil differences and were rudely awakened to find that the majority that was in control had taken over everything. So it is with Panini and caste. They pretend there are no differences when there are. Panini is like the idealistic Anglo Tamil who refused to Admit there are real differences

      As I write there is news from St. James’ Nallur. The man that Archdeacon S.P. Selvan, Bishop Rodrigo’s man, tried to make a diocesan representative, broke out his week during choir practice in church in the choicest Tamil filth against a woman whom the Archdeacon had unsuccessfuly tried to keep put of parish membership.The Archdeacon did not stop him. When such people come to Council the infection will spread.

      The church is burning . Will the Bishop continue to fiddle?

  • 3

    As for whether caste is truly disappearing in church, and whether there is responsible democracy, consider this. About 4 years ago at the same St. James’ Nallur, the youth who rarely came to church came like a gang to the AGM and elected themselves to 3 of the 4 important Wardens’ posts..
    There was a young Hindu girl attracted to the Christian worldview and coming occasionally to Church. While she was bathing at her well, a newly elected Warden filmed her hiding behind the fence. Her brother saw him and apprehended him. The Warden immediately took out the sim card and chewed on it. The police were paid off. The Warden denied the incident but asked the brother to forget the incident. The brother in my presence and the telephone speaker on, telephoned and engaged the Warden in a conversation that made it clear that the incident was real.
    My wife who had been elected a Warden insisted on disciplinary action. The parish was split. The miscreant Warden’s father came to my home and told me they would become Hindus if his son was removed as Warden. The then Parish priest also denied that the incident had occurred. Half the co-caste members at church stopped even smiling at us in church. The helpless victim of the Warden, the girl who was robbed by the Church of her dignity and security, no longer comes to church.

    The Archdeacon then was Sam Ponniah. He fortunately was outside Jaffna’s caste politics. He got the Warden to step down.
    I invite Bishop Rodrigo and Anglo-Sinhalese idealists like Panini, who take the liberal view and disdain speaking of the realities of caste and its oppression to visit the trenches of St. James’ to see if caste is truly disappearing.

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