The Defeated Rise To Leadership In The Church Too
By Christopher James Pereira
The Church of Ceylon Diocese of Kurunegala has appointed the Ven. G.S.K. Francis as the fifth Bishop of Kurunegala. However, many have come to question the appointment because the appointee did not secure the necessary two-thirds majority votes at the formal Bishop Election held in April this year. Three other clerics too contested for the position at the election and failed.
According to reliable sources within the two Church of Ceylon dioceses in Sri Lanka, Colombo and Kurunegala, and also some senior members of the Church of Ceylon in England, the potential candidate for the position had been the scholar-priest, the Rev. Dr.Ruwan Palapathwala. According to these sources, Dr. Palapathwala had been the eminently qualified nominee under consideration for the position of Bishop of Kurunegala by His Grace the Rt. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Metropolitan Bishop of the Church of Ceylon.
The Rev. Dr.Ruwan Palapathwala was educated at Trinity College, Kandy, and trained for the priesthood in the Diocese of Kurunegala. Currently, he lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he is a parish priest, a world-religions lecturer, an interfaith and theology scholar, a prolific author and the senior chaplain of a leading university.
A senior Church of Ceylon clergyman from Colombo, who has opted to remain anonymous, said: “as soon as the word got around that Father Ruwan Palapathwala’s name was under consideration for the bishopric, instead of welcoming their learned colleague with out-stretched arms, a few ill-informed and narrowly-opinionated clergymen in Kurunegala lobbied against him and labeled Father Ruwan an “outsider”. “Subverting on this ‘outsider’ bandwagon,” the senior clergyman added, “it is the view of some laity in Kurunegala that, these clerics successfully appealed to the Archbishop to appoint apema kenek (one of our own) as Bishop,” While some consider that Archbishop Williams has succumbed to the pressure exerted on him by these few small-minded clergymen in Kurunegala, moderate clerics in Colombo think that the Archbishop may have decided on a “compromised appointment” to curb the threat of destabilisation of the diocese by these negative forces if “apema kenek” was not appointed to the post of Bishop.
“If Dr. Palapathwala had been appointed the Bishop of Kurunegala,” I asked T. K. Samaranayake, a Melbourne-resident and a contemporary of Dr. Palapathwala’s at Trinity College, “what may have been his contribution to the church in Sri Lanka?” He said: “based on my first-hand experience of his work in Melbourne, I can say that a deeply pastoral and theologically sound leadership; a superiorly esteemed, but practically grounded education; and, an internationally informed, but locally refined vision of the future church would have been the hallmarks of Pala’s (as he was fondly known to his friends at Trinity) ministry.”
Samaranayake also said: “considering Pala’s extensive international exposure and academic credentials, he would have also freed the diocese of Kurunegala from the clutches of its deeply-engrained parochialism and placed it on the world stage of contemporary church life and made the diocese to stand in-par with any progressive diocese in the world.”
So far, Bishop Duleep De Chikera of Colombo and Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe of Kurunegala, have not made clear the role they had played in the appointment process. The Rev. Neil Wasantha Wimalaratne of the Diocese Kurunegala, who filed a case in the District Court of Kandy in May this year challenging that certain procedures have not been adopted for the election of a new bishop, too has been silent on the appointment of Ven. G.S.K. Francis. At the time of writing this article, the two Bishops and Rev. Wimalarathne have not been available for comment.