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The Anglican Church of Ceylon: Two self-proclaimed Archbishops?

The Anglican Church of Ceylon: Two self-proclaimed Archbishops?
The Two Bishops Sign as His High Grace

Dec. 27, 2019

The Anglican Church is a lot about authority, elitism, and identifying with those in power.

At the Church of England's very founding Henry VIII of England broke off from the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and proclaimed himself 'The Supreme Head of the Church of England'.

Henry's wife Catherine of Aragon, had been married at the age of three to his elder brother Arthur who was heir apparent to the English throne, but was widowed five months later. Henry asked Pope Clement VII to declare the marriage null but was rightly refused

The Archbishops and Bishops of England under their new Supreme Head complied with his wish to divorce his lawful wife proclaiming his marriage to Catherine annulled despite Catherine having been Queen of England for some 24 years and begetting for him the Queen after Henry, Mary I, and some sons who did not live long.

The Church of England said there had been no marriage so that the teachings of Jesus on marriage and divorce may not be violated and Henry could marry his mistress without a divorce! Many Bishops and officials of England who refused to accept Henry's supreme headship and the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine were beheaded -- the most notable of these being Catherine's good friend Sir Thomas More (who is now sainted).

That has unfortunately been the trend in the Church -- to make black seem white and vice versa in servility to authority.

The Church of Ceylon came here as the Church of England in Ceylon and now is the Church of Ceylon

In that tradition, the Oxford educated elitist Bishop Harold de Soysa as head of church and by lifestyle naturally sided with the 1965-1970 UNP's Dudley Senanayake Government declaring on the eve of the May 1970 elections in the State newspaper The Daily News in bold headline 'Do not vote for totalitarianism of any kind'. It was a reference to the communist-Trotskyite-socialist United Left Front (ULF) coalition headed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, challenging Dudley Senanayake's UNP.

The ULF swept the polls, winning a two-thirds majority to rewrite the Constitution. The Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera promptly declared that the UNP Government had wrecked the economy and we were bankrupt as a nation. He started a Save-the-Country Fund.

The Bishop ordered every parish to donate the next Sunday's collection to the Fund. My father, then Vicar of Christ Church Jaffna, refused saying that that was for the parish to decide. After some correspondence the Bishop backed off. However, most priests did not dare to challenge their episcopal boss's authoritarian diktat.

The current situation

Today we have the same situation. Just before the Presidential Election, Bishop Dhiloraj Canagasabey as Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Colombo issued a report with words ridiculing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa about "the former President Mahinda Rajapakshe [sic] creating history and political turmoil" with regard to the dissolution of Parliament in October 2018.

Claiming, "With democracy at its lowest ebb" during the crisis of October 2018, the Bishop headlined a section of the report 'After Ten Years Back to the Gloom of Terror'. This was to raise the spectre of the return of the Rajapaksas to alter the people's verdict.

Discussing the report on church premises, the Bishop was in violation of the law and has escaped prosecution by a member of the Election Commission arguing that the politically-biased words were in a report that was discussed and not "uttered" as prohibited in the relevant Act.

After Gotabaya Rajapaksa's resounding election, Bishop Canagasabey did a volte face like Harold de Soysa as Anglicanism demanded, bowing down to whoever is in authority, the State in particular. He did not stop with the courtesy of offering his congratulations. He changed position completely.

The Church of Ceylon said: "The victory came at a time when the nation finds itself seemingly lacking in stability, direction, and confidence." With Anglicans' clever play with words, the Bishop was suddenly blaming his old masters for lacking in stability, direction and confidence (News First, 24 Nov. 2019) which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was promising. Touche.

This is the time the Church of Ceylon is seeking to be a Province of the Anglican Communion. It takes four or five dioceses to be accepted as a province. However, the Church has been bleeding members to Churches like the Assemblies of God. With over 100,000 members at independence, it lost to rice politics as those like J.R. Jayawardene and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Buddhists.

Anglicans now number below the Methodists' 40,000 members although the Anglicans trade in inflated numbers because many who have left for newer churches retain nominal membership for weddings in grand buildings, to be buried with their parents and for school admissions. Many give 25,000 as a more reasonable estimate, well below new-churches.

With waning numbers, and lots of money in trusts established by loyal Anglicans who never foresaw the collapse, power is sought through becoming an Anglican Province. The problem is that members do not want this expansion as clearly demonstrated at island-wide consultations.

When members want consolidation of what we have, the Bishops seek to be a Province which brings the title of archbishop and replacement of that waning power through new international Anglican connexions.

A simple resolution asking Anglicans whether they want a diocese was turned down before it could even be presented by Bishop Canagasabey on the advice of Diocesan Registrar Chanaka de Silva, PC, on the grounds that simply asking the diocese if they like another diocese "is contrary to the provisions of this Constitution and concerns a matter beyond the competence of the Council and is detrimental to the fellowship and unity of the body of Christ in the Diocese."

The Bishop readily accepted the opinion as correct. Diocesan Council representatives would not be allowed to express their views by voting on the resolution asking if they want another diocese or not.

In a drama to show democracy letters were sent by the two Bishops, Dhlio Canagasabey of Colombo and Keerthi Fernando of Kurunegala, to write in our views on another diocese. We were asked to write to the self-styled Provincial Secretary Arun Gamlath who really is Diocesan Secretary. It showed that a decision has already been decided to establish a diocese and make us a province for there can be no provincial secretary without a province.

The Bishops' letter gave a two week deadline in the busy time of Christmas. Then on 22 December, another letter was placed on our church noticeboard giving us another two weeks' notice for a mere two-hour session in Anuradhapura, Galle (on a Sunday when no one would cut church to go) and Colombo to ask questions.

No one from Jaffna or the hill country where many Anglicans live can realistically go. Colombo was up to its tricks again. A priest asked how he can skip Sunday service to go to Galle. Another dissenting priest said: "I want to go but will be transferred in punishment."

And the shocking thing? Both the Rt. Rev. Dhilo Canagasabey and the Rt. Rev. Keerthi Fernando have signed off as His Highest Grace Dhilo Canagasabey and as His Highest Grace Keerthi Fernando.

A soundly-educated Anglican would know a Bishop's prefix is always the Rt. Rev. or His Lordship; whereas an archbishop is the Most Rev. or His Grace. There is no "His Highest Grace", elevating them above an Archbishop.

What is going on? Provincial Secretary and two Archbishops even before we are a province with one Archbishop at most? A power struggle for who becomes Archbishop? Or are they living a fantasy?

The Church had outstanding leaders in the past and people respected them for what they were and not for any superlative titles. It is the leaders' doubts about themselves that is at the root of the problems.

The leaders do not trust the membership and try to make up for what is lacking with titles; and democratic norms within the Church are disappearing. One of the healthy practices was to respect local choices in appointments to church bodies. Now all appointments and meeting venues focus power in Colombo.

Presently the Church uses its titled clerics and officers to campaign against local choices to the extent of the Bishop delivering harangues against individuals at council meetings to manipulate elections. Many are too afraid for their soul or their purse to decide on their own.

When it comes to church schools, democracy and consultation are crucial to quality. On the board governing the S. Thomas' group of schools, practically nine are appointed by the Bishop of Colombo and five are elected.

What the dedicated old boy Panini Edirisinghe has told us through social media is that the Church goes to extreme lengths to ensure that even one or two of the five to be elected to the Thomian Board do not rock the boat. The Church becomes bankrupt when holy terror becomes a substitute for reason and true holiness.

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