In conversation with Bishop Duleep de Chickera

I clearly remember Bishop de Chickera at S. Thomas’ College, from around 25 years years ago. The fact that I hadn’t seen him in person for a quarter of a century hit me as I strode up to the foyer of Young Asia Television’s offices to meet him just before our interview, and for a moment, I was a student of 10 or 12 again. I remembered him walking around College, addressing us occasionally and writing behind his desk in his open office, visible to students who passed it on their way to assembly or class. Off camera, I once referred to him as ‘sabba‘ – our schoolboy term for Sub-Warden, which either he didn’t hear, or didn’t seem to mind. I was for that brief moment however frozen in terror, wondering whether he would pull me up not for a caning, but for that measured, calm questioning more fearful, and effective, than any fear of physical pain or punishment. Of course, our banter about the College of our memory moved on to his tenure, from May 2001 to December 2010, as the head of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka. By his own admission, they were long years, spanning three key phases – the Ceasefire Agreement, the tsunami and the end of the war, including the nature of its denouement and the challenge of reconciliation and a political settlement after it.

We began our interview by talking about why he became a Priest, when much younger, he wanted to become a lawyer or join the Army. In an interview published in the Sunday Times a while ago, Bishop de Chickera said that before he joined the ministry, he was a ‘superficial Christian’. I ask him what this means, and how it is different to the Christian he is today. The Bishop’s answer ends by saying that the role of the clergy diminishes the more the laity is able to lead their lives guided by an authentic faith.

We go on to speak about the Bishop’s take on sexual identity and homosexuality in particular, that has rent asunder the Anglican Church. Anchored to his sermon at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 (which around 200 bishops boycotted), where he noted that,

“There can and there must be no uprooting, simply because if we attempt this game of uprooting the unrighteous then, my dear sisters and brothers, none of us will remain. We are all a mix of the wheat and the weeds.”

and went on to speak of the need for an,

“…inclusive communion, where there is space equally for everyone and anyone, regardless of colour, gender, ability, sexual orientation.”

When asked to reflect upon his sermon, the Bishop underscored the need to keep an honest and open conversation about the matter, noting that gay and lesbian people must have the right to define their own sexuality. He said,

“Just as much as men ought not to be defining women, and the rich ought not to be defining the poor, heterosexuals must hold back, to define and then to judge gay and lesbian people. They have a right to say who they are.”

We then talk about his more activist voice, during the 10 years he led the Anglican Church, in going before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), issuing statement over, inter alia, the incarceration of Sarath Fonseka, the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil, 18th Amendment and the arson attack on the Sunday Leader newspaper in 2007. The response the Bishop received to some of these statements ranged from the unfriendly to, particularly in online fora, the downright dismissive and disrespectful. I ask him why he said and wrote what he did, and how he coped with the flak he and the Church received.

Given his submission to the LLRC, we go on to talk about the Bishop’s take on reconciliation in Sri Lanka, after the release of the final report of the LLRC as far back as December 2011, albeit only in English. The Bishop notes that every Sri Lankan, as compulsory reading, should have a copy of the LLRC’s recommendations. Noting that the LLRC’s Commissioners did well and surprised their critics, he said,

“The report of the LLRC was like a breath of fresh air in this country. It was one of the good things that happened over the past so many years. This is why it is imperative that it must come out in Sinhala and Tamil, not tomorrow. It must come out today.”

After speaking in more detail about the Bishop’s take on reconciliation post-war, I ask him about the nature of a God, as referred to by him in a statement over the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, issued in September 2010 to prevent what was a heinous constitutional amendment from coming about. In this statement, after noting that it is “imperative that Parliament rejects this Bill, and that all who value democratic freedom in the country voice their objection to it”, the Bishop ends with a call to “the God of peace and justice” to “hear our cry and bless and nourish our beloved nation.”

Given the passage of the amendment, I noted that there was either a miscommunication with God, or that the cries weren’t loud enough and asked the Bishop why the God he appealed to didn’t intervene. The Bishop gave an interesting response, though noting that there were no easy answers on this score even amongst theologians.

Towards the end of our conversation, we talk about the Bishop’s submissions, in October 2010, to the out-going US Ambassador Patricia Butenis during a bi-lateral meeting they had held. As reported via Wikileaks, the Bishop is purported to have urged the US Ambassador,

“not to remain silent in Sri Lanka, acknowledging the need to express U.S. views and to promote international human values. He emphasised, however, that the U.S — and the international community – should frame problems as universal learning opportunities, acknowledging their own histories and responsibilities, rather than criticising.”

The Bishop expands this point, and goes on to end our conversation with some vital observations on the state of human rights activism in Sri Lanka, the often vituperative nature of the debate over the protection of rights and reconciliation, and finally, how anyone engaged in reconciliation needs to, ultimately, embrace the enemy.

The full interview can be viewed below, and will be broadcast on TV over the course of the following days in Sri Lanka. The schedule of broadcasts can be downloaded here.

  • World View

    The Anglican Church in Sri Lanka has always been far more enlightened than it’s Catholic counterpart. Perhaps this is because Anglicans are a tiny minority in Sri Lanka and the bad apples are easily seen and removed. It must be noted that in contrast to the Catholic Church, there have been no child sex abuse cases involving Anglican priests, no ridiculous rules against using contraceptives and conversions, and no link to support of the Nazis (or the LTTE). However, let us hope that the issue of homosexuality does not tear the Anglican Church apart.

    • http://ravana.wordpress.com Jehan Mendis

      Let’s please avoid the one-upmanship – shall we? – lest we detract from the beauty and simplicity of this extraordinary message.

      • Against Humbug

        Jehan Mendis:
        “One-upmanship” my foot! Not enough criticism has been directed against the Roman Catholic hierarchy in this country, its Cardinal in particular for his blatant sycophancy which included using Rayappu Joseph, one of his own Bishops, as some kind of sacrificial lamb to the harassment of his “Lokka.”

        Bishop de Chickera always seemed, in the tradition of the “two Laks” who preceded him (in Kurunegala) to speak honestly and without mincing his words. I trust we will continue to hear his voice.

        As for those Roman Catholics who choose to defend their Sri Lankan hierarchy led by a Cardinal without conscience, I’d suggest they check out Romero and the Liberation Theologists of South America for alternate role models.

    • http://msn Nugera

      Strangely the SL Catholic church seemed to be loyal to situations faced by their community, Sinhala and Tamil perspectives.

      The SL Anglican church seemed to have been loyal to the core teachings of Jesus.

      The uniqueness is unlike Buddism/Sinhala or Hinduism/Tamil the Church cuts across these barriers…

      • World View

        Nugera, like I said earlier members of the Anglican Church form a tiny minority in Sri Lanka. They also tend to be from the upper middle class and upper class and hence from a more educated (often English educated) community. If the Anglican Church were as big as the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka and contained all members of the hoi polloi you could bet your bottom dollar that they would be in the same boat as the Sri Lankan Catholic Church – politicised, partisan, and filled with controversies. The Anglican Church “cutting across barriers” is negligible given its size in Sri Lanka.

  • veedhur

    A great interview of a great personality of our times. Well done Sanjanah!

    May be you should also consider interviewing his eminence MR – would be nice to see him justifying his sermons and statements.

  • Jehan Basnayaka

    I’m sorry but I do beg to differ in my opinion of this article, as the Bishop has clearly not spoken in line with what ought to be his heart on this matter! Surely then, we ought not to judge crime, murderers, look down on Pedophiles and incest too because they are defining who they are too?

    I think this Bishops is just playing safe and saying the popular thing. I do admire the Catholic Church by the way, for standing by its principles.

    However, this made an interesting interview and I did enjoy it

  • Sophist

    The irony of World View’s comment is almost as tragic as the inaccuracy of his pseudonym.

    • World View

      It’s pretty obvious to any impartial observer that the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka outshines its Catholic counterpart. I don’t think that there is anything wrong in saying this, because it is the truth. The Anglican Church in Sri Lanka is by all measures more liberal and progressive than the Sri Lankan Catholic Church. Don’t forget the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka:

      (1) Was against free franchise
      (2) Was against free education
      (3) Has pushed the SL government to ban books and films (eg The Da Vinci Code)
      (4) Penalizes those who convert out of Catholicism to not only other religions but also to other Christian denominations
      (5) Is absolutely political – playing a dubious role in the conflict, siding with the LTTE/government, using the pulpit to ask parishioners to vote for a particular party
      (6) Has been involved in excommunicating Sri Lankan priests who have spoken their mind and “offended” the higher ups in the Church.

      Contrast the above with the record of the Anglican Church. There is a big difference. Even the Anglican educational institutions in the island are superior than Catholic-run ones, producing articulate and liberal Sri Lankans like Kumar Sangakkara.

      • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

        Anglicans should worship people like Socrates, Albert Einstein, Voltaire, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton. They are certainly ignoring long passages of the Bible

  • resplendant

    Unfortunately, he will be profiled by the Sinhala majority as pro-LTTE and whatever god’s message he claim to carry will be dismissed from the ears of the majority. One of the main reasons for this is the church’s lack of a strong opposition to the LTTE when it was butchering innocent Sinhalese. If the reverend really wants peace in sri lanka he should initiate a dialog with the Sinhala Buddhist person on the street and reassure them that the Anglican church is not out to “get” them or “convert” them or make this island “un-Buddhist”. As long as these deep suspicions lay in the heart of the Sinhala Buddhist, they will oppose any form of devolution through democratic means. Appealing to the international community to intervene will only create a knee jerk reaction among the Sinhalese community to reject this wonderful holistic message he is giving, which is incredibly sad.

  • Dilky Joseph

    It was good to hear the wise words of Fr. Duleep again. I hear the “Christ” in you, advocating for the dignity of each individual, valuing the great freedom of choice that mankind has been bestowed with, for social justice and the hope of transformation, whatever the current situation is right now. Inspiring as always!

  • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

    “Just as much as men ought not to be defining women, and the rich ought not to be defining the poor, heterosexuals must hold back, to define and then to judge gay and lesbian people. They have a right to say who they are.”

    If the Bishop actually believes this, then he must probably be a secular humanist. Otherwise, how on earth could you believe that the Bible is the word of god.

    *******
    Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.(Leviticus 18:22 KJV)

    If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.(Leviticus 20:13 KJV)
    ********

    So either Bible was not the word of god, but a work of humans (men, not women), in which case you are free to interpret the Bible in any way you like, or it is the word of god and you must put homosexuals to death.

    I’m not making fun of a religion. I simply see the dilemma. The world would have a much simpler, clearer and consistent explanation if you get rid of religion.

  • http://ravana.wordpress.com Jehan Mendis

    Although the fundamentalists are the most vocal, it is a small minority of Christians who believe that every word in the Bible is the word of God. If they did, they would be in the ridiculous position that the writer of the letter below demonstrates:

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/drlaura.asp

    This ridiculous position appears akin to the position of Jehan Basnayake (commentator above) who appears unable to distinguish the moral difference between pedophilia, crime, murder and consenting love between two adults of the same gender.

    Bishop Chickera appears to have an advanced liberal interpretation of Christianity, in my view, which is akin to that of people like the Reverend Michael Dowd and Bishop John Shelby Spong, former professor of theology at Harvard. They attempt to look at a historically accurate reading of the Bible, and use the example of Jesus’s love to give some greater purpose to our lives. Many of those in the Anglican church in the UK and its sister Episcopal church in the USA have similar views.