Church: Power and Democratic Rights
Light on Our Dusty Path
Essays for a Bible Lover
(Festschrift for Rev.Dr.Dyanchand Carr
Edited by Israel Selvanayagam
BTESS/SATHRI, Bangalore, India, 2008
In a timely and thought provoking article titled “C.S.I: Prospects and Problems,” Professor K.C.Abraham gave expression to the ideal of a pilgrim church:
In 1947 when the Church of South India was formed … that formation was an epoch making event. It was not a merger of some organizations, not an institutional arrangement, not even the creation of a new denomination but it marked the beginning of a new process of revisioning the Church and its mission in India. It was a significant milestone in the journey of a pilgrim church. (1)
It is in the context of what happened in the CSI in recent years especially in relation to the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India that the above theme is chosen. Extensive references are made here to the comments of two well known leaders of CSI of an older generation. They are Professor Abraham and the late Bishop Kulandran of the Jaffna Diocese. The latter laid the foundations for a diocese that functioned with a substantial degree of integrity. His successors, especially in the last decade, were lesser men carried away by their hubris leaving today’s generation to reap the nemesis. In stressing revisioning and structure Abraham explains:
A distinctive feature of the C.S.I. related to the interpretation given to church offices and the structure that it wanted to evolve…the primary focus and function of ministry should be pastoral and not administrative or ritual. For example the C.S.I. does not use the title ‘priest’ but prefers ‘Presbyter’. The minister is not just a “poojari”. (2)
Significantly the CSI came into being in 1947, the historic year of Indian Independence, after twenty five years of negotiations. The Methodists, Congregationalists, the Anglicans and other denominations came together under the leadership of people who were of academic excellence, integrity and personal piety. The non-Episcopal churches accepted episcopacy. In Lanka the Jaffna Council of the South India United Church that came into existence in 1910 rooted in the American Ceylon Mission founded in 1816, opted to join the CSI, until such time as the United Church of Lanka came into existence. On three occasions after the formation of the CSI, the JDCSI in council voted unanimously to join the Church of Lanka. Union in Lanka failed in the early 1970s. The JDCSI is the smallest among the Dioceses in the CSI. But it and its predecessors had a long and meaningful history, especially in the contribution made towards education in the Tamil homeland of northern Lanka.
The writer and his contemporaries of that generation, young as we were then, have fond memories of the celebrations of September-October 1947 that ushered in what was expected to be an era of hope and a new vision as expressed by K.C.Abraham above. While Subramania Bharathi’s songs of freedom, justice and equality rendered by the melodious voices of South India’s famous singers echoed throughout the towns and villages of Jaffna, this United Church was born, giving pride of place to indigenisation of worship and marking a break with the colonial mentality that characterised large sections of the church in the Island. We took pride in Indian Independence and in belonging to this church that had within its fold several whose lives had been molded by the Gandhian nationalist movement. Jaffna, with strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties with India had been that part of Lanka where the impact of the freedom movement in India had its greatest impact. Bishop of Kurunegala, Lakshman Wickremasinghe of revered memory and much loved friend of the suffering Tamils in Lanka and a regular visitor to Jaffna, once referred to the sung liturgy in Tamil celebrating the Eucharist in the JDCSI as extraordinarily beautiful and spiritually uplifting.
In its 60th year after union the CSI has got engulfed in a serious crisis as the predominant majority of the members of the JDCSI, one of the 22 Dioceses of the CSI, have broken away, reverting to congregationalism and forming the Church of the American Ceylon Mission. As to whether this will have any impact on the CSI is yet to be seen. Strong voices of dissent are nevertheless being heard.
A Brief Survey of What Happened
To place the theme chosen in context a brief survey of what happened is necessary for readers who may not be acquainted with the issues. (See end notes.) Why this happened has been adequately documented, not the least by the Rev.Dr.Dhyanchand Carr, who together with others provided the theological insights and constitutional expertise to the CACM. High priority was given to ethical and moral values. The writer has known Dhyanchand from the early 1980s when involved in the human rights movement in Lanka in the context of the unresolved Lankan National Question. Human rights, democratic and fundamental rights are indivisible and are as relevant to the state as much as to church and society. Dhyanchand belonged to a group of well known high profile Indians who followed events in Lanka and took a positive and constructive stand from the perspective of the above rights. (3)
With the high ethical values the Church affirms and proclaims one would expect it to be in the vanguard in defending such rights. On the contrary the CSI has faltered and failed in practicing these values within itself as a body. The violation of the democratic rights of the members of the JDCSI took place in August 2006, when a Bishop was secretly consecrated in Chennai, under rule 37, chapter VI of the CSI Constitution. (4)
How the whole process was manipulated has been extensively documented. Why this secrecy and the clumsy haste in which this event occurred? Lanka and India are not totalitarian regimes where the church has to function underground! A consecration of a bishop is a celebratory event with weeks if not months of preparation, and the participation of thousands, both members of the church and the general public. The whole episode smacks of something sinister, which only the then Moderator, the officials of the Synod and the Bishops who participated in the consecration can explain. The Chennai hegemonists also under-estimated the commitment the laity and large number of presbyters of the JDCSI (many of them young and living under trying conditions in the war zone) have to democratic rights, and their loyalty to time honoured practices, conventions and traditions of the church. They failed to see that Lanka had been in the past few decades, and continues to be, the scene of intense struggles, complex as the situation is, and at tremendous cost and sacrifices paid by people in the pursuit of what they believed to be just and right.
Among those seeking by every means possible to legitimise the unethical and questionable decisions made in 2006, are self-styled champions of the democratic and human rights of the Tamils in Lanka. These include church bureaucrats from the legal profession, who adopt double standards, one for the state and another for the church. Their clients do not hesitate to use the institutions of the state and its repressive apparatus when it suits them. These are modern day scribes and Sadducees for whom the law alone is supreme, placed above commonsense ethical values. These arrogant and self-righteousness men of the law, reminiscent of events two thousand years ago, have no place or space for the teachings of Jesus. Performances are characterised by cheap and tasteless exhibition of histrionics, especially in Jaffna, where after thirty years of war the one time distinguished and eminent legal profession and the judiciary is starved of human resources due to the flight of talent. These Machiavellian advocates have placed the handful of clergy and laity still with them at sixes and sevens, as they hang on to the words of ‘wisdom’ that fall from their tainted lips. The damage they have done to the life and mission of the church is immense, especially in the perception of the general public, in these grave and dangerous times... The Jaffna district is under a highly militarised internal security state, where free movement, the freedom to assemble and express opinion are severely restricted.
The main purpose it is now obvious is not concern or loyalty to the mostly small underfunded parishes per se but the institutions and projects that generate massive foreign funding. This is done under the pretext of defending the sanctity and integrity of the institutional church. This happens in a country that is increasingly being taken to task. The state, its legislature, executive and the judiciary are under severe scrutiny locally and internationally for grave violations of human rights. Victor Ivan the well-known investigative journalist has revealed the state of affairs in the judiciary. He would do well to visit Jaffna and expose what is happening there. (5)
The crisis reveals in particular the failure of episcopacy in the CSI. Without adequate checks and balances, in violation of the letter and spirit of the constitution, and using loop holes in a weakly drafted constitution, Bishops wield excessive power and patronage. This makes the office of Bishop an attractive position for opportunists and charlatans, pursuing a short cut to wealth, power, patronage and domination. Twenty five years ago the Christian Conference of Asia organised a workshop in Malaysia on the theme “Peoples’ Against Structures of Domination.” This was in the context of the increasing violations of human rights in the Asian region, within authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states. Several church leaders from the region together with human rights activists participated in this valuable conference. Today it is sad to note that the Church itself perpetuates structures of domination with authoritarian tendencies.
In the words of Dr.Carr himself what we have today are “monarchical bishops” remiscent of the dark ages of the church and state in Europe. The experiences that the members of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India went through calls for a thorough reform of the Church of South India and if necessary a reversion to the position prior to Church Union in 1947, as some churches breakaway from the hegemony exercised from Chennai. This is a matter to which the Anglican churches and Bishops worldwide should give the highest priority, since historical episcopacy was an Anglican legacy in South India.
The writer was once asked by the widely respected liberal minded Rev. Sydney Bunker, President of Jaffna College and the last American missionary in Jaffna to hold high office, why people addressed the Bishop as Lord Bishop. The writer answered that it was possibly accepted tradition. The Oxford educated Mr. Bunker explained that the practice came from the custom adopted in England where all Anglican bishops were members of the House of Lords! Some people think this has something to do with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Some of these Bishops, some though not all, over dressed in their colourful princely attire totally unsuited for local climatic conditions, gold rings and chains prominently displayed are an obnoxious sight to see, especially when the flock they claim to shepherd live in dire poverty. Their positions and titles have nothing to do with lordship in a religious sense leave alone anything amounting to the servant hood of the Lord. Today in the western world several bishops and members of the clergy of the older Episcopal churches adopt a simple and humble profile more often informally dressed rather than in the kind of attire we frequently see among those who are recent adherents to episcopacy. I remember the time when our pastors in Jaffna, some of whom had a first degree in addition to a theological degree, well read and educated, were almost always seen in verti and shirt.
Kulandran and Abraham on the Episcopacy
Bishop Kulandran, the first Bishop of the JDCSI (1947-72), was simple in his life style and was seen dressed in worn out clerical cassocks sometimes revealing darned patches, walking the fields and roads of rural Vaddukoddai chatting freely with whomever he ran into. He lived within his means, scrupulously adhering to democratic norms, though steadfast and firm when it came to matters of doctrine and practice in the church. He never interfered in the day to day running of the institutions that came under the church.
Kulandran placed on record his views on episcopacy which his successors in the CSI both in Jaffna and in South India would have done well to note and digest. Published in the South India Churchman in March 1983, titled the minimum age for Appointment of Bishops, Kulandran gives his valuable insights on why and how the CSI accepted episcopacy. The purpose of his article was to oppose the amendment that raised the minimum age from 30 to 44. We quote at length. He made the poignant point that some of the great Bishops in the past were in their thirties when appointed and among the names he listed were that of “William Temple undoubtedly the greatest Bishop of this century” and “living at the present are our own Leslie Newbegin who was 37 when appointed and Lakshman Wickremasinghe, a shining light, now Bishop of Kurunegala was 32. How much the church would have lost if these had been debarred by age?” Discussing the case for and against episcopacy he wrote:
All Churches need not have Bishops. Of the three constituent bodies that entered the Union, two had Bishops before it. So it might be imagined that the question of whether the new Church should have Bishops would have been the hardest on which the agreement would be reached. But surprisingly enough, it was a point on which agreement seems to have been reached almost from the start, to have made the matter one of the four fundamental planks of the Scheme of Union. How was this possible? Because episcopacy in the new Church was to be exercised in a constitutional manner (emphasis mine).
This meant that though historic episcopacy was to be preserved, the Bishop was not free to do what he liked and when he liked. He had to function through a Council, and Boards and committees, just as non-Episcopal Churches that joined the Union had functioned before; only instead of a Superintendent or some such officer, there would now be a Bishop as the head.
When I was Bishop we had 26 Committees or so in our Diocese and 3 Boards. I was Chairman of only two of them, the Diocesan Court and the Literature Committee. I was of course an ex-officio member of all committees, but I attended the meetings of only two…
In regard to Boards, I seldom attended the meetings of the Primary Schools Board. I attended the meetings of the Secondary Schools Board more often and those of the Medical Board regularly. In those meetings my word was not worth anything more than that of any other member…
Of the Executive Committee I was Chairman… Any proposal would be accepted only if it received a majority vote; it did not matter who sent it up. If in any matter in which I was deeply interested and which I considered essential for the good of the diocese, and the decision of the executive went against me, I had only one option. And that was why I used to say that often I went to the Executive with my resignation in my pocket.
In lighter vein he admitted:
Only in regard to one subject the Diocesan council allowed me to have sole authority – Trees... I considered them a precious heritage and wanted to be the sole authority in the matter – to preserve the trees. This, of course, was a trivial matter.
What then are the duties of a Bishop in the C.S.I? They are to act as a guide and as an Executive Officer once a decision has been made. This is how a constitutional Bishop functions. If you have allowed him to be above the Constitution, you have made him into something that was not intended by the Act of Union. (6)
The role and functions of the bishops and presbyters, says Abraham, have been given new interpretations. Quoting the report, “Thirty Years After” he notes:
The structure gives a dominant position to the pastorate and the diocese, neglecting the local congregation. The congregation is not the centre but the wider structure. The same report also points out that ‘the bishops at the diocesan level and the presbyter at the pastorate level have emerged as powerful functionaries’. The report continues, “it is generally believed that the bishop is the lynch-pin of administration in the diocese.
His comments echo the shocking allegations that have come down the grapevine to us in Colombo and Jaffna. Professor Abraham does not mince his words:
The allegation is that even large sums of money were used to lure people during the time of the bishop’s election. The Bishopric is for sale! This is a sad state of affairs. The episcopacy, the election to it and the practice of it, is in need of change as it failed to express the founding message.
It is an open secret affirms Abraham that enormous amounts of money that came for Tsunami relief have been grossly misused and siphoned off by powerful leaders of the church.
For some of them Tsunami came as a great blessing…A church which held forth great promise and an altered vision sixty years ago has now degenerated to a decadent institution presided over by a corrupt and power hungry leadership. It is with pain and agony I say this. Can we reclaim some of the cherished goals that shaped it or is it an impossible dream? (7)
Professor Abraham poses a fundamental question; “the key question that emerges is the use of power and authority.” To reclaim those cherished goals and realise that impossible dream we have to grapple with the issue of power.
In confronting the dilemma of power one goes back to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral man and Immoral Society” in which he asserts how “the will-to-live becomes the will-to-power.” The church throughout its history has had its problems with the demonic use of power. But none of us in Jaffna on that historic date in September 1947 expected that 60 years later we would live to see the CSI descend to such depths.
The concern with power is a matter we are normally preoccupied with in relation to the state and the capitalist world of big business. Human rights activists often seek the support of religious dignitaries to challenge the abuse of power in the state in the pursuit of democratic rights and human rights. In the 1960s and 70s inspired by the programs on “Dialogue” initiated by the World Council of Churches the challenge to work in “Partnership with Peoples of All faiths and Ideologies”, was placed on the agenda. In Lanka the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality came into existence led by Fr.Paul Caspersz a Jesuit priest, drawing support from trade unions, religious organizations and parties on the Marxist left. Today, in a most tragic way far from the church being a committed participant in such struggles, the leadership of the church itself (that is in the CSI) has become subject to scrutiny accused with the worst forms of corruption, abuse of power and violation of constitutional norms and time honoured convention and traditions. (8)
The following comments in a web site titled “Power-de-Churched” are pertinent. “Power and dependency in the church today - It's still there, and nobody holding a position of authority is ever likely to give it away, are they? Don't be simplistic about church power.”
Some questions were posed: “Is the church power problem simply having the wrong people in charge? And all we need to do is get the right people in charge? Is it good to question power and authority? Or bad? Does the Bible value being a servant rather than a leader? Don't Christians claim they already have ALL things in Christ? Well, why then church power struggles? Does ego come into it at any stage”?
These are relevant though not new questions. Why, one may ask, is it that young men challenged to enter the Christian ministry with the objective of service, as they grow older become ambitious and ruthless in the pursuit of power? The same happens in the world of politics. The liberators of yesterday become the oppressors of today. But here we are talking about what claims to be a divinely ordained institution, a fellowship of believers proclaiming high ethical values. Is it a character flaw or has it something to do with the very structure of the church as an organization? This was not a dominant issue in the Jaffna that we knew in the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps there has been a change in recent decades. Too much funds have flowed in without transparency and accountability from a variety of donors both for social alleviation and assistance to the poor, for relief to war ravaged refugees and more recently the unprecedented natural disaster – the tsunami of 2004. Has the Christian ministry become a short cut to power and wealth?
Apparently some church leaders have succumbed to the values of the political world in South Asia where bribery, corruption, flunkeyism, sycophancy and adulation reign supreme. Arm-twisting, threats and intimidation are commonplace and have seeped into once hallowed institutions. We have moved away from the visions, dreams and aspirations of the decades of the freedom movement and the early decades of the post-independence period. The nasty and abominable ways of the political world have contaminated ecclesiastical bodies.
The path to wealth and advancement came normally through sweat and hard work, through competitive examinations leading to professional advancement, demanding university courses, or through risks taken by entrepreneurs in the business world. In some cases it came through inherited wealth from feudal times and the colonial period. Today in South Asia, a breed of the ‘new rich’ has emerged consisting of politicians, bureaucrats and officers in the security forces. They are virtual parasites in the body politic. Bribery and corruption hold sway. It appears that the values of the underworld and under the table deals have seeped into the church. This is a matter for grave concern calling for a new reformation that re-defines the life and mission of the church.
One possible answer to this growing crisis in the Church is a return to smaller churches, congregationalism and greater control by the laity through the exercise of their democratic rights.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) in his several works has emphasized “the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, and the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (9)
Niebuhr further asserts:
The value and dignity of the individual is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man. The individual is not discrete. He cannot find his fulfillment outside of the community; but he also cannot find fulfillment completely within society. In so far as he finds fulfillment within society he must abate his individual ambitions. He must die to self' if he would truly live. In so far as he finds fulfillment beyond every historical community he lives his life in painful tension with even the best community, sometimes achieving standards of conduct which defy the standards of the community with a resolute "we must obey God rather than man."
Editor, educator and commentator, Norman Cousins decades ago grappled with the issue of power. His “The Pathology of Power” is primarily concerned with the effects of total power on American Government and its impact on the world. His guidelines are worth quoting:
Man is today not safe in the presence of men… In short, man has evolved in every respect except his ability to protect himself against human intelligence… For the conflicts that involve twentieth–century man are not solely ideological or political. They are personal, historic and transcendent. They involve his relationship to others all the way from the immediate community that surrounds him to the human commonwealth as a whole. These conflicts can be resolved in terms of first principles. Some of these are:
If there is a conflict between the well being of the nation and the well being of mankind, the well being of mankind comes first. If there is a conflict between the needs of this generation and the needs of all the later generations, the needs of the later generations come first. If there is a conflict between public edict and private conscience, private conscience comes first. If there is a conflict between the rights of the state and the rights of man, the rights of man come first. The state justifies its existence only as it serves and safeguards the rights of man. (10)
The church cannot escape this challenge given the tall moral and ethical claims it makes. The church justifies its existence only in being faithful to these values as it serves humanity.
For many the church is their immediate community, if not the only community that they relate to, sometimes more than the extended family. When there is a conflict within a church it hurts deeply and it must be resolved on what Norman Cousins defines as first principles. The rights of man and private conscience come first.
In a pertinent commentary on the present Presidential election campaign in the USA, a commentator wrote:
It's not because they're humble, or desperate to reform health care. [Candidates] are forced by the conventions of politics to be disingenuous about at least one core issue: why he or she is running. They are running because they are ambitious.
Four decades ago, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, created a sensation with a book called “Making it” that revealed how even intellectuals are ambitious. But the purest form of ambition is political ambition, because it represents a desire to rule over other people. What motivates most politicians, especially those running for President, is closer to your classic will-to-power than to a deep desire to reform the health-care system.
But because ambition can never be naked in a political campaign, it must be clothed in deceit. And that does make a farce of a lot of what goes on in our democracy. Sin and redemption have nearly become requirements for presidential candidates. The one sin for which redemption and forgiveness are not available is ambition. And yet it's the one sin we know they are all guilty of. (11)
Read replacing candidates or politicians with candidates for the Bishopric and high office in the church and the message is clear. The aim is naked power. The CSI Constitution is absolutely clear on the power of Bishops. These relate to matters of doctrine, faith and worship and not to the day-to-day administration of the Synod, Dioceses and local churches. It is explicitly stated that Bishops and the clergy shall have an oversight over finances, while the laity and the elected officials of the church control the finances.
Community in the church - inclusive and not exclusive
Moltman discussing the evolution of the established church in the post-Constantine years and through the centuries had this to say:
The church lost the visible form of community … the church was organized into parishes, dioceses, territorial and national churches. The priestly office took on an authoritarian character: the priest became the lord and master of the parish. The division between clergy and laity became complete… Community in the church was replaced by community with the church. In this way what we nowadays call ‘the church from above’ came into being, the church … in which the people have no say. This is the church as hierarchy…
Paradoxically, the passivity of its members is the very basis on which the established church operates. If all Christians were active members, this church for the people would cease to exist, and a new church of the people would come into being. But this is not at all what the organizers and theologians of the established church want. (12)
To this hierarchical church in South Asia and other developing countries in the last two or three decades came unprecedented funds, from foreign donor churches and other funding organizations. The Foreign Aid or the ODA phenomenon meant for development that plagued the state was now repeated in the institutional church. Relentless pursuit of power in the church became commonplace. The perks were substantial. The control exercised through patronage grew by leaps and bounds. There was one fundamental difference between the state and the church. The vibrant parliamentary systems like the ones in India and Lanka through the periodic elections held made it possible to throw the rascals out. The structure of this church from above with lifetime clergy and bishops in office for substantially long terms gives little space for change or reform. Self-perpetuating bureaucrats control the system. The members and in particular many youth of today prefer the soft option. That is to quit the established church and join one of the free churches. As Moltman points out:
What this bourgeois religion offers is what Dietrich Bonheoffer called ‘cheap grace’… you can help yourself as you do in a supermarket. This is not merely a critical judgment; it is unfortunately a sad reality, especially in the ‘electronic church’ that we find in the United States, which, by cheap sale of religious commodities, and by collecting a great deal of money, is destroying communities and congregations belonging to all the Christian churches. (13)
The remedy lies in openness, transparency and accountability to the church in community, and in restoring the role of the laity. The passivity of the members of the church is partly to blame. One way out is to become more inclusive as the church reaches out to the larger community especially to those in need. As suggested by John C. Bennett decades ago:
The church needs many ministers who identify themselves with the efforts of the poor to gain power to balance the thousands of ministers who, implicitly, give their blessings to the way the strong keep their power.
The local church or a group of churches may move into various forms of action that from the purist position may seem problematic, but at a given moment these may be actions of enormous importance in giving dignity and opportunity to the people of the various congregations and their neighbors. Here we return to the emphasis upon the more inclusive church—inclusive of people in the suburbs and inner city, of all races, of people of many different opinions and on both sides of most conflicts. Churches must live with the problems created by inclusiveness. (14)
The present crisis in the church calls for a return to “Partnership”. Inward looking, self-righteous churches, and its hierarchy cannot do this. The grave problems facing humanity and the world are beyond the scope of the adherents of any single religious or political persuasion to resolve. In fact an inward looking church is socially, politically and economically irrelevant in today’s world. It can be made relevant only by reaching out, becoming engaged in the world, in partnership with peoples of all faiths, and by being more inclusive and not exclusive. This in itself may have a cleansing effect on its internal squabbles, factionalism, and power struggles.
A disturbing feature in the process leading to the formation of the Church of the American Ceylon Mission in Lanka was the attempt made by interested parties to stifle free speech and the freedom of assembly, through court injunctions, threats and intimidation. Lanka is a country where its citizens have enjoyed democratic rights from 1931, especially the right to vote, free association etc. A major issue in the country apart from the National Question and the consequent conflict is media freedom, the rights of journalists and the press, and the gradual erosion of democratic and human rights. This is today a matter of grave local and international concern. The church and its members should be in the forefront in defending these rights. Here we may repeat relevant clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and call for adherence to these principles among church authorities and their power elites.
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Article 20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Article 21. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Of particular relevance is article 21 where the will of the people exercised by secret vote is emphasized. This is a fundamental right and it was the violation of this right that led to the breakaway from the CSI and the founding of a separate church. Historically due to the service oriented nature of the church, and the educational and other service institutions it ran it is often looked upon as a model. That era apparently is now over, but the hallow associated with the church remains. It is of fundamental concern that governing bodies of the church scrupulously adhere to democratic norms.
Peter’s assertion “We must obey God than men.” is the ultimate principle in Christian Political Thought (Acts 5:29) It supersedes two other frequently cited verses, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17) and “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Roman’s. 13:1)
The latter two texts lend themselves to legitimization by authoritarian and fascist regimes. Here we have the problem of how one interprets these words. The Rev. Celestine Fernando, Ceylon University Chaplain in the 1950s was fond of saying, “Everyman has a God, and his God is what he lives for.” We are increasingly seeing in contemporary times how the message of the Bible is distorted to promote the narrow agenda of ambitious and self-centered wealthy power elites in state and society. Ignored, if not rejected, are the challenges pertaining to peace, justice, righteousness, and concerns for the poor and the oppressed and for their economic, social and political liberation. This poses the choice that when faced with a challenge to ultimate values we should obey a higher law than that of men. In issues affecting state and society this is also the position of human rights and justice movements.
This higher law is a moral law. Fortunately from 1946 the world’s best minds have through the United Nations enacted several declarations and covenants that have placed on record this higher law. These include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and numerous other declarations on the rights of women, children, labour, the environment and nuclear issues. These may not have the force of law in most states. But these may be construed as a codification of the higher law referred to above conforming to values preached and espoused by adherents of Christianity and other religions. In affirming that we must obey God than men, we affirm this higher law. We may as well begin practicing this within the councils of the church before we preach this to state and society.
An Indian Isle
The manner in which the CSI authorities in Chennai have conducted themselves has one other dimension that has hitherto been overlooked. The fact that the Tamils of Lanka (historically the Ceylon Tamils or Ilankai Tamils) have close and intimate relations with India, does not give license to anyone across the Palk Strait to impose their will on the people here. This is a delicate issue in the relations between the two countries and has been handled mostly with care, though not without friction and serious errors. Ludowyk, the distinguished professor of English Literature in the University of Ceylon in its golden age, and a historian in his own right drew attention to this:
How should the story of Ceylon begin but by fixing its limits, first in place and then in time? … If Ceylon is not in Milton’s phrase ‘India’s utmost isle’, it is yet an Indian isle. Indeed, it is necessary to think of it as many other islands separated from the continents to which they once belonged. England and Japan come at once to mind. They instruct us how dangerous it is in recounting their stories to isolate island from the continent or to force them irretrievably together. (15)
The Chennai authorities under the former regime in their arrogance, ignored representations made. Totally insensitive to the vast majority across the sea, they blundered their way through. They probably never expected the resilience of the Jaffna church, small and powerless as it is, in resisting their hegemony. Nor were they conscious of the Lankan Tamil Diaspora and the tremendous support and goodwill the reformed Jaffna church had. Now that there has been a change among the officials in the Synod of the CSI it is hoped that wisdom will prevail. Any attempt to keep the Jaffna church captive will fail. The JDCSI, now in the hands of a mere rump, cannot survive even in a small way without legitimization and support from Chennai. One recalls Martin Luther’s famous essay “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” His primary concerns were with the sacraments and rituals practiced in the church in the context of the great debate that pitted faith over works:
By them we have been carried away out of our own land, as in a Babylonian captivity, and despoiled of all our precious possessions…On such a foundation of sand they base their applications, participations, sodalities, anniversaries and numberless other money-making schemes. (16)
Our concerns are with the structure of the church, its administration and the use of power and authority. Most of the bishops, presbyters and the laity in South India are not aware of the issues and of the intensity of feelings evoked by the insensitive, impolite, and one may even say the crude manner, in which the Synod authorities treated the representatives and members of the church in Jaffna and its branches in the Island. Letters, memoranda, and appeals went unanswered. There was not even the courtesy of an acknowledgment. Promises made through third parties were not kept. We, in our long history of the church here, have been accustomed to civilized norms in the conduct of relations within the church and with other churches. The breach with Chennai is now an accomplished fact and leaves a bitter taste. The union is over. With the founding of the Church of the American Ceylon Mission the Jaffna Church has freed itself from the attempted and short-lived ‘Chennai Captivity of the Church’!
For generations from the late nineteenth century to about two or three decades ago the fraternal relations were, intimate, warm and cordial. We looked up to Christian leaders in India for spiritual and intellectual sustenance. The list of names of Indian leaders who visited us is a long and distinguished one. Historical, linguistic and cultural ties being what they are fraternal relations can and should in the course of time be restored. A process of reconciliation has to take place and cordial relations restored. But that will depend on the emergence of a new and enlightened leadership and how a reformed CSI responds.
1. K.C.Abraham, C.S.I: Prospects and Problems (Dreams and Visions Shattered, people’s reporter Vol.20 Issue 19, October 12 –20, 2007). Rev.Dr.Abraham was former professor at UTC, Bangalore and recognized theologian in Ecumenical circles in Asia
3. Rev.Dr.Dhyanchand Carr, What the Church is For? & What the Church is., Published by Rev.Dr.Gnana Robinson for The Prophetic Forum for Life and Witness of the Church in India, Kanyakumari Peace Trust, Kanyakumari, 2006.
This vital document released by two very distinguished theologians, places on record how the CSI has acted in violation of human rights and normally accepted ethical norms in the conduct of its administration. Specific references have been made to what the church is in the Madurai-Ramnad Diocese, the Bishopric of Tuticorin and the making of a bishop in Jaffna. Also included in this publication is Rev.Dr.Dhyanchand Carr’s open letter to the Moderator, the officials of the synod and leaders of the CSI dated 29th August 2006. “I am writing this letter” he stated, “with a deep sense of consternation and sadness at the way in which the consecration of Rev.Daniel Thiagarajah as bishop for Jaffna, was carried out in great hurry and in clandestine manner.”
This letter and the follow up visit by concerned CSI leaders to Colombo, without doubt gave the moral support for the presbyters and laity in the Jaffna Diocese in the Vanni, Batticaloa, Jaffna and Colombo to launch and carry forward the reform movement begun in 2005 that finally resulted in the inauguration of the new congregational church.
4. Rule 3 Chapter XI: “All members of the Church hereby agree that they shall first exhaust all provisions available in this Constitution for the enforcement of their rights under this Constitution and for redressal of their grievances, before they seek legal remedy in a court of law. Members who violate this rule shall ipso facto lose their rights to participate in the government of the Church at all levels.” This condition was not implemented.
Contrary to promises made, Rule 37 Chapter VI of the CSI constitution was invoked, by the Moderator and the Synod executive (reflecting sycophancy of the worst type) in an irregular, most shameful and disgraceful manner and a Bishop was appointed.
Rule 37 Chapter VI: “If a Diocesan Council fails to fulfill the requirements of Rule 17 or Rule 36 within six months after the date of issuing of the Moderator’s mandate, the Board constituted under Rule 31 shall appoint a bishop for the diocese. Thereafter the provisions of rule 32, 33, and 35 shall apply mutatis mutandis.”
Our interpretation of this rule is as follows: The Diocesan Council meets to elect a panel of names of qualified presbyters - a minimum of two and a maximum of four names – each candidate receiving a minimum of 50 per cent of the votes of the members of the Council in several ballots. After several ballots if the Council fails to agree on a minimum of two names, then and then only may the Diocesan Council be considered to have failed to make the required nominations for the appointment of a bishop.
The failure to issue the mandate well before the retirement of the former Bishop, the court cases filed in Jaffna in April 2005 by one of the presbyters and the ruling given making it impossible for the Diocesan Council and the Executive Committee to function, have now been cleverly used to validate the resort to rule 37.
The predominantly elected Council of the Church and its executive committee were made dysfunctional by recourse to the courts. The right to elect nominees by the members of the church was violated. The hierarchy of the Synod had its way making a travesty and mockery of the constitutional rights of the members of the church. The fundamental rights of several presbyters qualified to seek nomination were violated.
This particular presbyter had been underage, and hence disqualified from seeking nomination when the incumbent Bishop Jebanesan retired in March 2005.
The constituent churches of the Jaffna Diocese, its clergy, the office bearers of the Diocese and that of the individual churches, including representatives in the Synod were totally in the dark as a Bishop was consecrated without any advance publicity. A consecration that normally takes place in a Cathedral in this instance took place in an office room, not even in a chapel or church. Some notable bishops of the CSI were not present; some of them were not even informed, among these being the Bishop of Madras in spite of the fact that the consecration took place within the precincts of his Diocese in Chennai (Madras).
The normal elective process by which nominations for the post of Bishop is made did not take place in spite of assurances given to a fourteen member delegation from Jaffna and Colombo that met the Moderator in October 2005, in Chennai and made written submissions. When fears were expressed that Rule 37, Chapter six of the CSI constitution may be used to appoint a bishop, the assurance was given that under no circumstances would that article be invoked and that the Moderator would visit the country and use his good offices to have the case taken to the courts by one presbyter on flimsy grounds withdrawn.
The issue on which the case was filed was easily remediable by a special meeting of the Diocesan Council. These assurances were never kept. Nor was the Diocesan Court convened to look into this matter. When the Moderator was asked why the presbyter concerned was not summoned before the Diocesan Court he remarked that this is the age of litigation and that the presbyter might go to courts on a fundamental rights case!
Litigation concerning churches with hundreds of cases before the courts has become endemic in South India. It was practically unknown in the JDCSI and its predecessors in Jaffna in their long history. Today this South Indian disease has spilled over to Jaffna and Colombo, making the last three years the most sordid and unhappy period in our history.
5. Victor Ivan, An Unfinished Struggle, An Investigative Exposure of Sri Lanka’s Judiciary and the Chief Justice, Ravaya publishers,Maharagama, Sri Lanka, second edition 2007. The book is respectfully dedicated to the two lawyers Suranjith Hewamanne and Elmo Perera and the two judges G.D.Kulatileke and Sunil Perera who stood up bravely and courageously against the extremely corrupt and vicious administration in the Judiciary of Sri Lanka, disregarding the losses their action might cause them. Elmo Perera, a product of the Student Christian Movement of Ceylon and subsequently leading layman of the Methodist Church is presently President of the Organization of Professional Associations in Sri Lanka.
6. Sabapathy Kulandran, The Word, Men and Matters, Volume II Matters, Subsection (1) Ecclesiastical. Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1985
A major controversy has now emerged regarding the composition of the Board of Directors of Jaffna College, where the JDCSI has representation and the Bishop – the position now occupied by the controversial appointee – is an ex-officio member. He is now secretary of the Board! Kulandran never functioned as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Jaffna College as long as he was in office. Jaffna College is an independent Christian institution, though having close relations with the CSI, a matter that will sooner or later have to be reviewed and rectified.
7. op cit. Abraham
8. An observation made in the Lanka of today is that some decades ago when people were harassed by village thugs (known as goondas in India) and anti-social elements they went to their member in parliament for relief and justice. Today one hesitates to approach a politician many of whom are thugs or are surrounded by hoodlums. To win an election it is said a candidate needs ten million rupees and at least fifty thugs. Naturally people turned to the clergy of the several religions. But then what do we have today but thuggery and unethical conduct in several religious establishments and some thugs actually in clerical and episcopal attire.
9. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, Scribner, New York 1985 (first published in 1952,
10. Norman Cousins, The Pathology of Power, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1987.
11. Michael Kinsley, “Why They Really Run,” Time Magazine, January 3, 2008:
12. John C. Bennett, The Church and Power Conflicts, Christianity and Crisis, March 22, 1965. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
13. Jurgen Moltman, The Power of the Powerless, SCM Press Ltd, 1983.pp.158-159
14. Ibid. p.160
15. E.F.C.Ludowyk, “The Story of Ceylon”, Roy Publishers, New York, 1962, in his prologue titled search for a clue. Subsequently published as “A History of Ceylon.”
16. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, (1483-1546). Project Wittenberg Online Electronic Study Edition. Translated by Albert T. W. Steinhaeuser. English Text Edited and Modernized by Robert E. Smith Originally published in: Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), pp. 167-293.
Note on the author:
Silan Kadirgamar was formerly Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of History, University of Jaffna. In the 1980s and 90s he lectured in several universities in Tokyo.
He was president of the SCM of Sri Lanka, Vice-president of the Jaffna YMCA, and Secretary for Political and Social Issues, Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Jaffna. Drawn into the struggle for human rights he was president of the Jaffna Branch of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (1979), and a founding member of the Jaffna Citizens Committee (1981).