This article is written on the occasion of the new Bishop’s installation on 3 Jan. 2023. In Sri Lanka, by historic coincidence, there are two Anglican Communion Churches, the Church of Ceylon (CoC) and the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI). For the new Bishop, it is appropriate to learn from the heritage, experience and challenges of both sister churches
My protestant roots go to when my ancestor Cyrus Kingsbury, born in 1807, joined the church in 1825, soon becoming Assistant Pastor at the Tellipalai Mission. His son Edward Appukutti Kingsbury was Native Professor of Mathematics at Jaffna College. After the CSI was formed, that branch of my family joined the Anglican Church on my father’s side. I therefore take pride in the JDCSI.
Four challenges confront the new Bishop. The American Congregationalists (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the ABCFM) brought a strong tradition of learning with ties to American Ivy League Universities and elite liberal arts colleges. Their contribution to Jaffna is seen in eight secondary and sixty elementary CSI schools being nationalized in 1960. That weighty heritage was infused into all Christian schools as Congregationalist graduates joined the Anglican clergy (like Rev. T.P. Handy) or married into Anglican families. This heritage is hugely challenged with few Christians in our schools, whether as staff or students. Resolving this first challenge requires a political solution to the National Question to halt the bleeding of talent from Sri Lanka.
Second is the commitment to truthfulness among Christians. As a Hindu reporter remarked, “We were told that Fathers do not lie but that is no longer true.” Typifying this is that in Church archives St. John’s College was founded in 1851. However, after Tamils took over from missionaries, this date has been pushed back to 1823 to be older than Jaffna Central’s 1834. This despite the Church Missionary Society’s official history by CMS’s own priest (published by the CMS, “ONE HUNDRED YEARS in CEYLON Centenary Volume of the Church Missionary Society in Ceylon 1818-1918,” CMS Press,1922), gives 1851 as St. John’s’ founding. According to Balding, “An important high class boys’ school was begun at Chundicully in 1851, which is now known as St. John’s College.[my emphases].”
What the Johnian manipulators did was to trace the school’ origin to a school founded in Nallur by Rev. Joseph Knight. That school was shut down because of cholera in 1833. Subsequently it was moved to Chundikuly where St. John’s is in 1841. It was called the Chundikuli Seminary with no connection to Nallur. According to Balding’s record, from then to its close [note the word close] upwards of two hundred lads passed through the regular course, and seventy became converts to Christianity. Balding further states that it was on the Jubilee anniversary of the Chundikuli Seminary that the name St. John’s was given. Therefore there is no way in which St. John’s can be connected to Nallur’s seminary which was closed in 1833.
As if to prove that they can lie as well as their rival Johnians, Centralites shifted their start date from 1834 to 1814! Central’s feat is fantastic after Central published an inch-thick Centenary Volume in 1934. Founder Peter Percival has written to his Mission (published in Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 1835) that he announced the formation of a new English school in October 1834 and in a second letter that: On the 4th of November the boys assembled to the number of 186.” Central accomplished this by getting a judge, a professor and a Methodist Church President (Kathiravelupillai, Sittrampalam and Jebanesan, 1993) to write that a school at another location was the real Central College. They ignored their Centenary Volume and sealed the deal by getting President Maithripala Sirisena to issue a 200th anniversary stamp. How easy it is to create history in Sri Lanka, when politicians cannot resist any publicity!
Come March, the Bishop of Colombo, Dushantha Rodrigo will cement this lie by unveiling as scheduled a plaque/tablet at St. John’s commemorating 200 years of the school! I say knowingly because 2-3 times I have spoken twice, perhaps thrice, at the Diocesan Council, before Bishops and over 300 delegates, giving all the information. They seem deaf.
This story is not complete without mentioning that Jaffna College, a school by the JDCSI, claims a start date of 1823 when in fact according to Letters of Sydney Bunker, President of Jaffna College, the Seminary founded in 1823 was closed in 1833 and that what now goes as Jaffna College was established in 1872. But that is another story.
What is clear is that the churches – Anglican (including the JDCSI) and Methodist – have lost their reputation for upholding the truth. The Girls’ schools by the Missions seem to practice the moral imperative of the eighth of the ten commandments not to bear false witness.
Unbelievable though it is, the Church of Ceylon’s Eucharistic Prayer Book has only 9 commandments, the missing commandment being not to misuse the name of God. The prayerbook also gives prayers stating that God has no holiness. Unbelievably the Liturgical Commission of the Church, despite a near unanimous resolution from the Council, declared in writing that they unanimously state there is no need to change the Tamil prayerbook. The vast majority on the Commission cannot read Tamil. The one who led the writing, a classmate at St. John’s who failed, is good at cinema songs which goes for proficiency in Tamil.
The third challenge is Church unity. The other Protestant churches advocate unity as so imperative that articles of faith can be jettisoned in unity’s favour. So a Catholic-leaning Protestant will give up his view of holy communion involving real presence of Christ and concelebrate with a Methodist who thinks it is only a memorial and throw the left-over elements to the crows. Another example is that Methodists use something like Portello for wine which they prohibit, whereas Anglicans use real wine as Jesus did. At Bishop Dhilo Canagasabey’s consecration, in a fit of oneness, church heads were invited into the sanctuary and the Methodist head too was pressured. As I watched intently, when the cup was passed around, the Methodist Head looked to his left and right as if to see who was watching and quickly drank the wine. Unity must not pressure people into being what they are not. The challenge before the new Bishop to ensure that unity involves pluralism, not coercion.
Indeed, the time is coming when Sri Lanka has to go for a peace deal. As the only Tamil church, the JDCSI must be ready to put forward solutions to our ethnic problems and must not be silenced by unity just as the corrections to the Tamil Liturgy are being callously suppressed by Sinhalese nationalists in the Church of Ceylon seeing Tamils as coolies commanding no heed.
Indeed, if unity is over-arching, why are the Anglicans pushing the smaller Protestants but not the Raman Catholics? I believe it is because if unity is with Roman Catholics, Anglicans will be swamped, but with other Protestants, Anglicans will rule the roost. So My Lord Bishop, watch it!
The fourth challenge is democracy. When it was pointed out that Anglican archdeacons and bishops have been stealing endowment funds to buy themselves cars, councilors were too scared to object. Two Bishops had been bought cars at Rs. 5 million each; and 4 archdeacons at Rs. 10 million each. One was leased a van at Rs. 900,000 a month for a year. The problem was that the Diocesan Constitution requires Diocesan Council approval before using endowment funds for capital expenditures.
For sure that approval would not have been given, considering that most Councilors from outside Colombo are poor. So that crucial vote was not put to the Council. The purchase of cars in the millions from endowment funds was theft because it was not authorized.
Now why did no one object? Why was the negligent auditor who approved it renewed even after the Council was apprised? I believe it is because of the fear priests have of being transferred out of Colombo or being refused a transfer to Colombo where a birthday party might get a huge cash gift, a car from the parish and admission to prestigious schools for the children. Once the priest makes his mind known, the parishioners in Council from his parish also keep quiet. The diocese becomes silent. The ability to raise questions is an integral part of democracy.
My Lord Bishop, you must show that you are committed to integrity and would welcome questioning by the people to advance honesty and love within the Church. If you, My Lord, democratize the church, the first three challenges too would be simultaneously addressed.
God bless you.