Friday, October 29, 2010

Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

Remembering Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

(October 23rd marks the 25th anniversary of his passing away. Here is a tribute delivered at a memorial meeting on 7 March 1984 at the National Christian Council of Japan, Tokyo)

Silan Kadirgamar

It was with shock and deep grief that we received the news of the passing away of Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe, here in Tokyo. There are Christian leaders here in Japan who have been involved with him in work in the Asian field. His death is not only a loss to us in Lanka but also to the larger concerns he was involved with in Asia, in bringing together people of all faiths and ideologies in a greater commitment to Human Rights, and Peace. He was the distinguished President of the Civil Rights Movement commanding widespread respect, and a founder leader of the newly formed Christians in the Struggle for Justice. We commemorate the memory of one who was a “leading Asian Theologian, an important influence in the Christian Conference of Asia and in the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.” (London Times)

My memories go back to 25 years ago when I first met him and came under his pastoral care. It was my rare privilege in June 1958 to welcome the then Father Lakshman, on behalf of, and as president of, the Student Christian Movement in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. He was assuming duties as full-time resident chaplain in the newly dedicated Church in the campus.

The spontaneous reaction of many to his untimely death has been the question, ‘Why, Why at this time? Why should be have been removed at this time?” Lanka is facing the greatest crisis in its modern history. Crises of civilization as some have put it.  During those Peradeniya days he would often say that we are in midst of an ongoing drama. Some are active participants. Others part of the audience. But all of us involved as in any good drama. There is no escape; we are caught up in it. There are scenes, of tension, pain, joy, fear and horror, but none of us quite know what is coming next.  We are not able to explain the way of it. But we do have insights as to the final end. This analogy is particularly appealing to those familiar with Hindu mythology.

In later years I have heard him in the midst of long and trying discussions when opinions were strongly divided, as on the national question, he would suddenly say ‘I don’t know. We have to seek God’s guidance. We have to do according to what it is given to us to know and understand. We have to leave everything else in God’s hands! He was concerned about being Biblical. His, like that of many a Christian social activist was a Biblical vision, which was both intensely personal and intensely social.

Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson has referred to him as the “People’s Bishop … he was to those who were close to him the kindly light amidst the encircling gloom … the shining light of the Civil Rights movement. Sri Lanka has lost in Bishop Wickremasinghe a spiritual leader of great magnetism. The Church will find him irreplaceable.”

When in 1980 he organized the largest ever consultation among Christians both Catholic and non-Roman Catholic at Tewatte to arrive at a consensus on the problem of Sinhalese-Tamil relations, he saw to it that the first day of the two day consultation was spent on Bible Study, reflection and discussion. He was attempting to work out a Biblical basis on which to reconcile the Sinhalese and Tamil positions. His Biblical reflections are available in outline in the CCA-URM publication “Christian Response to Race and Minority Issues in Asia (1980)”.

He did not indulge in simplistic, escapist, peace and harmony talk, and pietistic condemnation of violent forms of struggle. He had a distinctive and honoured place in Tamil society. He has been referred to as “Jaffna’s dearest and most beloved Sinhalese friend.” He identified himself with the pain, the anguish and sufferings of the Tamil people. After every major outbreak of violence, he was among the first to arrive in Jaffna. It has rightly been acknowledged that the healing presence of Bishop Lakshman in Jaffna during times of tension was more eloquent than words. Not that he agreed with everything that the Tamils wanted. He condemned violence and very much wanted us in Jaffna to condemn violence. He was totally opposed to the division of the country. But precisely because he stood by us at times of crisis, because he identified himself with the sufferings of Tamils who had been victims of attack, and because he relentlessly worked for a solution based on justice to both Sinhalese and Tamils – because of these he was always welcome in Jaffna. He was respected and his sincerity was not questioned. He was listened to. He tried hard to influence the Buddhist Clergy. He was a great force for reconciliation based on justice. If ever Lanka were to become a truly integrated and united state it could be only under leaders like Bishop Lakshman, who have the capacity to win the confidence and allegiance of minorities.

His passion for liberation was grounded on and controlled by a distinctly Christian worldview. He gave precedence in all things to God’s free and sovereign grace. He combined in a unique way the pastoral, the teaching and the prophetic ministry.  We were fortunate to have a Bishop who with all the authority and respect he commanded threw himself on the side of the marginalized, the discriminated, the oppressed, and the poor. Bishop Lakshman’s ministry both as University Chaplain and Bishop came at a momentous period in the history of the country, when the tensions and contradictions that lay dormant in a typically newly independent colony from western rule, were beginning to surface. The mid – 1950’s was a period of social upheaval. The search for national selfhood was on. The common man as he was called was beginning to assert his place in the socio-economic set up. The working class was in a militant mood. The line was beginning to be clearly drawn between oppressors and oppressed, the privileged and less privileged. Liberation Theology was yet to be born.  The conditions for change were the dynamic forces at work. The founding of the Christian Workers’ Fellowship and the radicalization of the Student Christian Movement took place. But the response was not clearly articulated in theological terms. That was to come later. Action and involvement preceded theology.

Both, in his commitment to thought and action, Bishop Lakshman was in the forefront, responding to the challenges of the times, taking his stand firmly on the side of the oppressed. That was later vividly demonstrated by an act of his that will be remembered in history, when he presided over the workers’ mass for justice to the July 1980 strikers, which the CWF has recorded as a “decisive prophetic act… that rallied the forces for justice and democracy.” As Satyodaya Bulletin has appropriately summed up, Bishop Lakshman together with the late Bishop Leo Nanayakkara of the Catholic Church “had a powerful insight into social reality and talked about it with prophetic force and fearlessness.”

In September 1982 he identified himself fully with the campaign launched by the All Lanka Peasants Congress. On that occasion he said, “If the demands of those who suffer are to be won, all sections of the oppressed must join hands – forgetting all divisions they must come forward to win their demands.”

And with reference to the Plantation workers he has said, “my deepest sympathy is for these Tamils … they have suffered and have been humiliated because they were defenseless. I feel deeply ashamed for the pain and the loss they have undergone. It is a moral injustice that cries out to heaven.” In this same pastoral letter, his last, which the CCA has poignantly titled “A Cry from the Heart”, he said with reference to the July 1983 violence, “this massive retaliation mainly by Sinhalese against defenseless Tamils in July 1983 cannot be justified on moral grounds. We must admit this and acknowledge our shame. We are ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed.”

These words came from a man who acknowledged and drew inspiration from his Sinhalese Buddhist heritage. He sought to channel the forces of Sinhalese Nationalism in a positive and constructive direction, to revive, restore and develop that which was true, good and beautiful in an ancient culture.

As President of the Civil Rights Movement he led the protest against the gradual erosion of democratic rights in Lanka culminating with the infamous referendum of Dec. 22, 1982 by which the people of Lanka were persuaded, pressurized and manipulated to divest themselves of their sovereign right to elect their own representatives to parliament.  For his role in the Civil Rights Movement he was named and attacked publicly. Nevertheless his was the ‘power of the powerless.’ We who have known him know what role he has played in that great drama, and in that dream of his - he put himself on the side of the people. Even as we grieve that he has gone, we raise our hearts in thanksgiving and honour a life so nobly lived, a life so freely given for just causes, a life lived for others.

My last meeting with him was in April 1983 when we met for a full day in Colombo, as Christians in the Struggle for Justice. I had arrived from Jaffna with a report of the rapidly deteriorating situation there. We were deeply conscious that time was running out so far as the national question was concerned. We had a terrible feeling that something dreadful was going to happen and it did happen. Whatever the heightened degree of awareness there may be there is a point beyond which we as individuals and even as small groups are helpless. But we shared something in common – a hope, a longing for justice, reconciliation and peace. It was a meeting I will personally cherish very much like my first meeting with him 25 years ago. Once in a lifetime, a figure emerges who sums up the hopes, aspirations, and longings of a people who share the same faith and concerns. It was a joy and privilege to have lived in the times of Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe.

A persisting memory that lingers is that of the then Father Lakshman, young, handsome, humane and intellectually challenging in that homely and beautiful church in a picturesque setting in Peradeniya, leading us in worship. Facing the alter he would invite us with the familiar invocation that he was so fond of, “Come, let us worship God in the beauty of holiness.” People like Bishop Lakshman do not die. They live in the hearts and minds of people – ever inspiring us to continue in that for which he dedicated his life: “In the Beauty of Holiness”.


Rt. Rev. C. Lakshman Wickremasinghe
Bishop of Kurunegala, Sri Lanka.
Born: 25 March 1927. Died: 23 October 1983

After a brilliant student career at Royal College, Colombo and the University of Ceylon, obtaining a first class in political science, he proceeded to Keble College, Oxford and then Ely Theological College. After his ordination in 1952 he was on the staff of All Saints Church, Poplar, in the UK.

He was University Chaplain in Sri Lanka from 1958 to 1962, Bishop of Kurunegala from 1962-1983. He was elected Bishop at the young age of 35, youngest in the Anglican Communion.

An edited version was published in the Daily Mirror of 23 October, 2009
And the full text in GLEANINGS – Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, and may be in the Ceylon Churchman.

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