By Mark Michael

Archbishop Justin Welby has appointed Dushanta Lakshman Rodrigo as the 16th Bishop of Columbo in Sri Lanka. It is a rare use of his metropolitical authority over the Church of Ceylon, one of the Anglican Communion’s five extra-provincial churches. Welby expressed confidence in Rodrigo and thanked local church leaders who had participated in the consultation process, but also indicated his discomfort with the role, which “carries too many reminders of a colonial past.”

Rodrigo, the vicar of St. Paul’s, Kynsey Road, Colombo, received the most votes of the four candidates nominated to succeed Columbo’s outgoing bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dhiloraj Canagasabey. An election council held at Columbo’s Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour began on the morning of August 15 and lasted until nearly midnight, but neither Rodrigo nor runner-up Perry Brohier, Columbo’s archdeacon, were able to secure the 60% majority among both the clergy and laity necessary for election. Rodrigo came close, receiving 67% of lay votes and 54% of the clergy vote, but lacking a decisive result, the diocesan council appealed to Canterbury.

The failure to secure an election has not been an uncommon result in the Church of Ceylon, where three of the last five bishop elections have been indecisive. Archbishop Rowan Williams appointed Canagasabey’s predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera, as well as a bishop for the Church of Ceylon’s other diocese, Kurunegala.

But the contest between Rodrigo and Brohier, according to some, pointed to significant divisions within the diocese. The Columbo Telegraph’s Mario Palihakkara noted that Rodrigo has been a significant critic of Bishop Canagasabey’s policies in recent years.

“Among the issues that Rev Rodrigo expressed concerns about in recent months were the increasing influence of money and financial considerations in the life of the Diocese and the church’s weak positions on national issues including human rights and reconciliation issues in the north and east,” he said. Rodrigo had also criticized a previously unscheduled ordination service for ten priests organized by Canagasabey and Brohier just weeks before the election council. One of the new priests, the critics claimed, was a businessman who lacked theological training, and the other nine had not completed the standard yearlong probationary period.

Palihakkara said some of Rodrigo’s supporters had responded to the failed election with outrage and refused to read the pastoral letter Cangasabey wrote to explain the council’s results to their congregations. Some were also concerned, he said, that Archbishop Welby would bypass the usual process of discerning “the mind of the diocese,” listening instead to Brohier’s supporters, who would only “portray Rodrigo as a troublemaker and polarizing figure.”

The process Welby used to discern about the appointment was so lengthy and in-depth that he felt a need to apologize for having taken so long to make a decision. Welby said, “I am most grateful to all those who have expressed their views to me so clearly and candidly – not only the members of the formal Consultative Body but also members of the Diocesan Standing Committee, former bishops, and many more.

“All have given me invaluable insights, and I am confident that in reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, Father Dushantha will find the strength he will need to lead and reconcile this lively church ‘at such a time as this’ in united witness to the love of Christ amid all the social, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity in the communities that will be in his care.”

Rodrigo aimed to sound a note of unity in his message in response to Welby’s statement, saying:  “As we look to the next decade in the midst of new realities our lives must reflect what God is doing in our midst at this point of time. To a God who has been gracious and merciful we need to sing an unending hymn of praise and extend to one another a magnanimous gesture of kindness that will carry us through to be faithful in the midst of many a challenge. Our people who are so diverse live side by side and strive to bring meaning to every moment and we are truly blessed to be part of that life-giving diversity.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury also suggested that the Church of Ceylon’s extra-provincial status was a problem in need of resolution. “I should say that although I regard it as a privilege to have been entrusted with this important function in the life of the Church of Ceylon, as its ‘Metropolitan,’ it is not a role I have sought, or feel comfortable having to exercise. In my view, it carries too many reminders of a colonial past. I have therefore sought and obtained from Father Dushantha his assurance that he will give urgent priority to enabling the Church of Ceylon to take its proper place as a fully independent province in the life of the wider Anglican Communion.”

The Diocese of Columbo dates to 1845, but the Church of Ceylon has only been an extra-provincial Anglican Church since 1970, when the colonial-era Church of India, Burma, and Ceylon was broken apart in response to the establishment of post-colonial national borders.  The name of the island nation 34 miles off the coast of India was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka two years later, when it became a republic.

There was an expectation in the 1970’s that Sri Lanka’s Anglicans would follow their colleagues in Northern and Southern India and in Pakistan in forming a union church with other Protestant denominations. Because it was widely assumed that the new union church would be called “the Church of Sri Lanka,” the island’s Anglicans decided, as a temporary measure, not to change their colonial-era name. But interest in the ecumenical project seems to have waned within the Church of Ceylon, which had a longstanding high-church tradition. With about 50,000 members, the Church of Ceylon is Sri Lanka’s second largest group of Christians, second only to the Roman Catholics, though membership is declining. Roughly 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 23 million people are Buddhists.

The natural way forward, as Welby implied, would be a request to be recognized as the Anglican Communion’s 42nd province. But this would require the creation of a third diocese, a contentious issue among Sri Lanka’s Anglicans. The Diocese of Columbo, with 121 churches, is about four times the size of the Diocese of Kurunegala. The significantly smaller Diocese of Egypt, in the process of moving toward becoming the Province of Alexandria, divided into four dioceses in early 2020, some of which have only a handful of parishes.

But some Sri Lankan Anglicans worry about the expenses associated with a third episcopate. By a quirk of colonial geography, Anglicans in far northern Sri Lanka belong to the Church of South India’s Diocese of Jaffna, and some hold out hope for an inter-provincial transfer to bring Ceylon up to the required number. Consultations about forming a province were held in three locations within the Church of Ceylon in January, and the most recent meeting of the Anglican primates noted progress toward forming a province.

The Church of Ceylon is significantly larger than the four other extra-provincial churches. Two of these, the Diocese of Bermuda and the Church in the Falkland Islands, are in British Overseas Territories, which lack full national sovereignty. The other two, the Lusitanian Church of Portugal and the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain, are small churches founded through 19th-century Anglican mission efforts, and have only a single diocese each.