Project Canterbury

The Christian Liturgy in Ceylon

The Thirty-Third Hale Memorial Sermon

By Lakdasa DeMel

Evanston, Illinois: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1956.

The Church of England in Article XXXIV states, "It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly alike; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word." Here we get an echo of the large-minded tolerance 'of the instructions given by Pope Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury as he started on the task of evangelising the English. The rather rigidly minded archbishop perplexed on his travels in Gaul by the variety of rites he discovered amongst those who professed the same faith with his home Church, was bidden to select from these whatever would most edify his converts. Nay further, he was encouraged to wean them from idolatry by transforming the pagan sacrifices into Christian observances, and where possible, to hallow their former holy places to the worship of the true God.

While glorious instances of the application of this godly commonsense are to be found in the early history of missions--influenced no doubt at the very beginning by the Pauline protest against a judaising policy--a hardening and Italianising policy grew up in the mediaeval Church against the freedom of local development. Among the causes we may list the intervention of the secular state bringing about wholesale conversions, the influence of the Canon Law in its rigidity, the influence of the False Decretals and later, the intransigence of the mentality of the Iberian powers during their most influential periods of colonisation overseas. A kind of cultural imperialism grew up which fitted the souls of very different nations into a Mediterranean mould. Canonical flexibility, liturgical adaptation, and the baptising of indigenous values were all ruled out, to the great loss of spiritual power, intelligibility and sincerity. There are indeed great dangers when a paramount power is entrusted with the preaching of the Gospel.

Against this rigidity came the reformation protest by the [5/6] northern Europeans, who having given a right expression to their own national personality had themselves to guard against two things:

(I) An excess of zeal in disregarding certain universal elements in worship and (2) The tendency to inflict on others whom they evangelised in their time, the very features against which they themselves had protested.

Let us now proceed to remind ourselves of the supreme values for which Liturgy stands. Liturgy is not primarily concerned with the expression of man's needs. It has to include this, but it is above all the offering of homage to God as His due. It is the performance of a duty by the creature to the Creator. It is the recognition of God for what He eternally is, even more than for what He does. Here let it be noted, man is raised not only to the highest function of which he is capable upon earth, but also schooled for the supreme activity of the soul hereafter in the heavenly places where they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy. Where man is not taught the true worship, he will worship the inadequate or the untrue. When he is not given an appropriate form of worship, his soul will be maimed, to the great loss of power in the Church.

How great a responsibility lies on the Church to provide an appropriate worship containing things both old and new, may be seen from a saying of Sadhu Sundar Singh's, "You seek to give India the Water of Life in a foreign vessel and India will not drink."

Further it is the duty of regional Churches to offer back to God the gifts He has given to various peoples with their differing qualities and according to their genius. Even so is the glory and honour of the nations brought into the Kingdom of God and of His Christ.

Further it is surely the message of the Incarnation that Christ has made Man in order to redeem him by stooping to the human conditions He came to redeem. The Church is therefore in ideal the perfect expression of the society of men. In any country the Church is able to take any culture and to transfigure it. The [6/7] perfection of the Church is incomplete in its richness till all mankind is under contribution to it.

Now let us come to the attempt to apply these principles in Ceylon where the Anglican Church has two dioceses in a land where our flocks live in both village and town.

[The reader is referred to an article in The Ecumenical Review (Oct. 1955) from which the following is excerpted.]

For over thirty years, under the stimulus of the movement for national independence the Church in our land has been increasingly conscious that it was not enough to produce Ceylonese Christians. They had also to be Christian Ceylonese. The task of adaptation to environment demanded a waiting upon the Holy Spirit by the local Christians whose vocation it was to bring the glory and the honour of their own nation into the Kingdom, for the missionaries had done the best they could according to their own heritages. Now was the time for the growing Church to do its own expression work; but imitation of the Western tradition had been inevitable, and for some converts betokened the break with the past without which the new man in Christ could not be put on. They looked on many things in their national heritage with suspicion, as incompatible with their newly-embraced faith. They loyally settled down to worship the Trinity in small churches with pointed arches and insufficient ventilation, wherein most of the pictures and ornaments were dutifully imported.

Gathering together at an hour sufficiently remote from the freshness of the tropical morning to give chronological unity with the 11 a.m. gatherings which had found favour with their brethren of the West, they attended services of a Western type, listening patiently to translations of the Holy Scriptures and to the preaching of the Word, in language which would have been, on occasion, quite excruciating had they known more of their own literature; and with a self-denial that turned their backs on the music of their own land, they proceeded in doubtful consonance with a well-intentioned harmonium to raise hymnal offerings to heaven, consisting of the combined immolation of a native language which [7/8] could not survive the metrical strictures therein demanded, and of a Western tune rendered at a tempo which doomed it to slow extinction. Nor had this worship produced in souls much more than a great respectability based on individualistic moralism. Those who received Holy Baptism found themselves alienated from their environment and culture to an extent far beyond the requirements of reason. Some Christian thinking was demanded on behalf of One Who came not to destroy but to fulfil. He challenges us to offer Him a truly Ceylonese expression of the universal Faith: and imitation is no substitute for self-expression. The missionary societies have long realised this, but with some of the older generation of our own nationals the desire to experiment is not conspicuous. Their children however think otherwise: therein lies the hope. Here is a brief summary and survey of some attempts already made to bring our heritage into the service of the Church, in a land where the Sinhalese and Tamil Christians live in fellowship with a domiciled community of Dutch descent and visitors from Europe and America.

The most obvious witness to the Church being indigenous is the employment of the national architecture. Here a start was made over thirty years ago when C.M.S. missionaries at Trinity College, Kandy, and at a Teachers' Training Institution at Peradeniya built Chapels in Sinhalese style. This lead has been followed by Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics. The new Anglican Cathedral in Kurunagala has been designed by a son of the soil who has made a careful study of our own architecture and experimented with the new medium of concrete. The village Churches now being built in this diocese all follow the style which is native to us. Our Tamil brethren have started using the building traditions of their own culture to Christian purpose and have produced some lovely edifices in Jaffna and elsewhere.

A great many of the floral designs in our art are capable of Church use without harmful association, and have been applied to carving in our numerous beautiful woods and in a lesser degree to brass and silver. Our chalices and patens are more and more of [8/9] local craftsmanship. In embroidery the movement grows slowly. The lac work of the country has adorned wooden candlesticks and crosses in some places, while communion rails are sometimes gaily painted in the same style. The mats we weave take the place of carpets in village churches, and then, for lights on the Holy Table the traditional oil lamps--a seven-lipped bowl of brass on a tall stem--are coming into use.

When we turn from the strictly functional to the more directly spiritual, much careful thought has to be given. There is the genuine fear of offending the elder brethren or against inherited Christian tradition; there is concern lest orthodoxy be compromised by involuntary error. But he who fears to make a mistake ends by making nothing. With a waiting upon the Holy Spirit the work must go on, remembering that the early Church was incredibly daring in baptising the national cultures into Christ. For there we find an undivided Church, conscious that man's religion had to enter into his environment and culture, taking over places, seasons and customs associated with pre-Christian religious observances, and with inspired intuition turning them to Christian profit. A site once given to idolatry would be claimed for Christian worship: the winter solstice is made the festival of our Lord's Nativity: the marriage customs of the Romans are raised to the moral requirements of Christ's teaching in the rite for Holy Matrimony. The scope in our era may not be so wide, but how different is the approach! Our divisions, with a sensitiveness to what separated brethren would say, or pre-occupation with minor matters of denominational law, all tend to timidity in the presentation of Christ's religion to the diverse races of mankind. The wide accommodating charity of primitive days as illustrated by the counsels of Pope Gregory to Augustine, has given way to a self-conscious dread of syncretism which testifies to the lack of spiritual power within. It is interesting to hear Cardinal Constantini when secretary of the Propaganda saying, "Let us ask what tactics the missionaries of the apostolic and post-apostolic age followed: do we employ the same method? The [9/10] methods we follow are totally different: they seem to us more perfect, but after four centuries of experience they have proved themselves all but sterile."

It is in music and art and above all in liturgy that the most responsible work remains to be done. Some of it has been attempted in Ceylon.

Both in Sinhalese and Tamil there are certain set forms of verse traditional to our literature. The music of the Tamils has had a great tradition in singing divine praises in the Hindu Temple and elsewhere. The compositions of the learned musician who performed chamber music at Court are also available, but too elaborate generally speaking, for congregational worship as we need it in Church. There remains the great body of living folk music which when carefully studied and purged of frivolity is just what we need. All Christians now use lyrics in varying quantity, and it must be confessed, with variations in musical good taste! But the movement is definitely on the march and for accompaniment the stringed instruments of the East are being introduced together with the flute, the cymbals, and in some cases the drum. Another development is the practice of reciting our public prayers in the manner natural to our people who normally use a recitative when reading prose aloud. The "saying" of prayers and psalms is a modern Western importation. Our tradition, like that of the earliest Christians, is to chant prose. The chant is a heightened form of speech which invests our language with an emotional content far more appealing than that evoked by what is called "reading". (Here the traditions of the Orthodox Church have greatly inspired us.) But this is still the linguistic side and a great principle had to be learned by us with our varying reliance on the Reformation emphasis on exhortation and edification, for however helpful the sermon-centered service may be, it places an unbearable weight on language and the moralistic approach. Vast spaces of our native temperament remained unsatisfied by this unbalanced spiritual diet. Whole areas of personality remained untouched, with certain emotions [10/11] uncatered for nor used as an approach to deeper spiritual understanding. The principle we learned was that worship in the Sinhalese or Tamil language was no guarantee that it was genuine Sinhalese or Tamil worship.

Our ancestors, Buddhist or Hindu, had had their deepest spiritual experiences against a background of beautiful architecture with frescoed walls illustrating religious tales and a noble sculpture depicting great sages and heroes, and in the case of Hinduism, divinities as well. They were summoned to the temple by beat of drum, which with the dance played a considerable part in worship. They took with them offerings in kind such as flowers or oil. They heard holy words chanted with an elegance and rhythm calling up deep responses from within. To deprive a catechumen of all this without a yet more appealing Christian substitute is to maim him spiritually.

The art of Ceylon expressed itself in frescoes on the walls of religious and other buildings. Religious tales and historical incidents were depicted for the edification of worshippers many of whom could not read. Skill in decoration outstripped the ability to represent the human form in our later periods. It is in sculpture and modelling that skilled attention was paid to figures, divine, human and animal. We have in Ceylon no one of the stamp or virtuosity of A. D. Thomas of India and we shall have to experiment on the decorative side with beautiful colours until a painter is raised up who is able to adorn the walls of our churches with frescoes genuinely in the idiom of our tradition. . . . So far figure representations mostly of our Lord as The Crucified or as Christus Rex and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have been executed in wood, plaster or concrete by a small group of Christian artists.

When one considers set forms of public worship, we inherit from the Church the Scriptures, including the Psalms. We also inherit certain ways of arranging this material. In Christian experience through the ages certain forms of prayer have proved themselves. An affected originality could not be permitted to [11/12] throw away riches belonging to the universal Church, for here there was great scope for a local self-expression. In some places without any great change in the pattern of certain forms inherited from the West it was possible to make the worship more natural and intelligible by the use of indigenous accompaniments, strongly reflecting the atmosphere of the country. This is the lesson Anglican liturgists learned twenty-five years ago when they were engaged in compiling a Communion Office of simplified structure and congregational emphasis, now known as the Ceylon Liturgy.

To pass to an illustration of the sanctification of time let us take the seasons of this country which with the two rice harvests provide us with real opportunity. On April 13th--a date strongly suggestive of spring festivals--the nation keeps its New Year. Like Independence Day--February 4th--it is an occasion for a national Day of Prayer. Our non-Christian friends, after visiting their elders and teachers and superiors from whom they ask pardon for transgressions in the past as they start upon another year, surround the first bath of the new year with some ceremony leading to an anointing of the head with oil. Here is a suitable field for Christian self-expression in local terms. The association of penitence, water and oil to which the Christian would add an act of faith provides a complex full of Baptismal allusions. Here is a situation worthy of liturgical exploitation. The other rice harvest in August-September is a time generally used by our people for Harvest Thanksgivings when offerings are made in kind and auctioned afterwards. It is much to be regretted that in far too many places offerings are reduced to the dull level of the coin or banknote! Especially at the Eucharist the Offering gives great scope for the paying of homage to God, not only with the setting apart of the Bread and Wine, but also with the presentation of other gifts in kind, such as oil for the altar lights, linen, mats and flowers. In the village areas first-fruits both of grain and of farm produce are brought up in addition to money.

As our people increasingly learn to hear the Word of God [12/13] and to worship in buildings reminiscent of their own history, with the suggestion of native art around them and uplifted by the chants and music which are part of their heritage, the whole texture of the country's life is brought to the feet of God, Who accepts, blesses, and communicates new power which they will need to face the new situations that affect our daily life. We do not see a Church or a worship which is primarily national so much as natural, with an atmosphere wherein life as we know it here can be lived fully and sincerely. Is this not the way not only to give God what is His due, but also to liberate new spiritual power in the worshipper whose whole spiritual being expands as he adores in an idiom which is congenial and uninhibited, for worship is not the half-apprehended imitation of others but the submission of all our nature and our environment to God, Who when we draw near to Him free of barriers, can quicken our consciences by His holiness, nourish the mind with His truth and purify the imagination with His beauty? As we take away the barriers in the hearts of our people they will open more truly to His love and there will come a fuller surrender of their wills to His purpose. The Wise Men from the East making their pilgrimage to the Christ with their gifts have something to suggest: it was when they had worshipped that they opened their treasures (Mat. 2:11).

Project Canterbury