Project Canterbury

For a Real Sri Lankan Church!

Colombo: Christian Workers Fellowship, 1984.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2008

Online reproduction by kind permission of Christian Workers Fellowship, 2008.

In profound thankfulness
for the prophetic ministry of
Metropolitan Lakdasa de Mel
Bishop Leo Nanayakkara
Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe
The Revd. Dr. Lyn de Silva
and all others who yearned
For a real Sri Lankan church

20th Sept 1984.

This pamphlet which reflects the present thinking of the Christian Workers Fellowship was originally read as a Paper at a Workshop on Theology and Ideology held in Chieng Mai, Thailand, from June 20th-24th 1983, by the Christian Conference of Asia--Urban Rural Mission. The Paper presented at the Workshop was entitled "Urban Rural Mission of the Church." Although at first issued for limited circulation in cyclostyled form, it is now printed as a pamphlet available to the public.

39, Bristol Street, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka.

[1] For A Real Sri Lankan Church!

[Sources used for this paper:

Aloysius Pieris: "Towards an Asian Theology of Liberation: Some Religio-Cultural Guidelines" Dialogue (Sri Lanka) New Series Vol. VI, Nos. 1 & 2 pp. 29-50.
_____. "Monastic Poverty in the Asian Setting" Dialogue New Series Vol. VII No. 3 pp. 104-118.
_____. "Spirituality in a Liberation Perspective" East Asian Pastoral Review 1983/2 pp. 139-150.

Raymond Panikkar: The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1964/1968.

Christian Workers Fellowship (Sri Lanka): Various writings.]

What precisely do we mean by "the Church"? How is the Church related to the world? And how do we see the role and mission of the Church in a predominantly "non-Christian" Asia, which is our part of the world?

Concept of the Church

Rightly seen, the whole material world of which we are a part should speak to us of God and lead us to Him (Genesis 1: 31). For the world of matter is essentially good and is meant to be viewed and used as the vehicle of our communion with God our Creator "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17: 28) and as the means too of our fellowship with one another as God's children. All life is sacramental and for us as human beings spiritual truths and inner meanings are conveyed and revealed through visible signs and outward symbols. We have here a meeting of the material and spiritual. The spiritual is comprehended and indeed transmitted through the material.

Looked at this way, the whole of humanity (not just Christians) is the faintly and mystical body of God: the. Church exists only as an outward sign and symbol of that truth and as an effective means [1/2] for its realization. Thus the Church does not exist for herself but I to serve human beings in building "the kingdom" or "righteous rule" of God among people, so that they all may truly live in brotherhood, justice and peace as God's family. In short, the Church is the Sacrament of the Kingdom.

The Church is also called the Body of Christ or the Spouse of Christ. But this does not refer to the point of time after Christ's incarnation in the world. The Church is said to exist since the beginning of the human race and since the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1: 4). Christ is said to have loved the Church so much that he sacrificed himself for her (Ephesians 5: 25). So if the Church was pre-existing, she was existing then in all the Saints who lived since the beginning of time, whatever their religious beliefs or credal affirmations. This would give the Church a much wider definition than is normally in use among us and link her inextricably with Jesus' concept of the kingdom or rule of God which the Church as Christ's Body is called upon to promote and which kingdom would embrace all who did the will of God the Father (Matthew 7: 21) regardless of their religious professions (Acts 10: 34-35; Matthew 25: 31-46). According to the Scriptures, Christ is the expectation of the peoples (Genesis 49: 10). His spirit is at work among non-believers (Romans 15: 21; Isaiah 52: 15) and is even found by those who did not seek him (Romans 10: 20). He is described as a hidden God (Isaiah 45: 15) and worshipped as an unknown God (Acts 17: 23). St. Peter was led to realise that nothing can be called impure that God has made clean (Acts 10: 15). In fact Christ claims that he already has other sheep that are not following the visible flock (John 10: 16) and other disciples who work miracles even if they are not accepted by his visible followers (Mark 9: 39). God has spoken from ancient days in many ways and by many means (Hebrews 1: 1).

The Christian Faith believes that God who has spoken through the prophets and sages of old--through the Buddhas and rishis--has finally sent His Living Word in Christ to demonstrate the dynamic truth that underlies all justice and all dharmas. Indeed if God has a universal providence over the whole of mankind and Christianity is the fulness of His revelation "in these last times" (Hebrews 1: 2; 1 Peter 1: 20), then there must necessarily be some link [2/3] between the traditional religions of Asia and the religion of His Son Jesus. There is thus a need to go beyond religious labels to discern the fruits of God's Spirit, which has been and is even now at work in the world, in "non-Christian" religions and in secular ideologies of liberation. This must lead us also to a recognition of our traditional Asian faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism as genuine vehicles of salvation given by God in their respective contexts. Otherwise we would stand condemned by the rebuke of the Korean Christian who asked: "Is our God an invalid? Was he absent from Korea until he was piggybacked into Korea by some missionaries?" It is important then for us to be alive to God's truth as revealed in our traditional Asian religions and see how they relate in fact to the Christian Faith.

There is however a more restrictive use of the term "the Church" when it is used to describe the whole body of Christians who profess Christ as Lord. And this is again to be distinguished from the words "a Church" or "Churches", which are generally used in connection with or to describe the different organizational forms, which "the Church" may take among Christians in their expression of her character i.e. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian Methodist, Baptist etc. These bodies are also referred to as "denominations" of Christians.

The Church is sometimes referred to as "The People of God", a term taken and carried over from the Old Testament where it is so used to describe the Jewish People in terms of their mission. In the New Testament, the Church is seen also as the first fruits of the new creation or age inaugurated by Christ and as the new Israel or People of God whose mission it is to witness to and promote the extension of the Kingdom or Rule of God. In both the Old Testament and in the New, the term "People of God" denotes and implies a social and corporate aspect that cannot be ignored. Salvation in the Bible is not offered primarily to individuals per se but to persons as members of the People of God. Even when God's People have been disobedient and failed in their mission, Isaiah sees the hope of the future in a righteous "remnant" (Isaiah 10: 21). But it is always a social and corporate solution that is envisaged.

This social aspect is also reflected in traditional Christian teaching such as the concept of "theosis" which occupies a very central place in the Orthodox Church. According to this teaching, [3/4] in the process of human redemption, the individual is touched not only by grace but begins to grow and mature as part of the People of God until he reaches the stature of Jesus Christ. The concept of theosis implies not only that a human being is redeemed as a person but also that the environment and circumstances in which he lives are important and must play a positive part in his growth in the image of Christ. In other words, the circumstances in which people live must be so transformed that all can continue to grow until they reach the level of Jesus Christ. The basic human needs required for the development of persons and of society must therefore be fulfilled and it is the duty of the Church to raise her voice in protest and opposition as part of her prophetic ministry whenever conditions militate against human growth. This old Orthodox tradition was greatly developed by some of the Fathers of the Church like St Basil and St. John Chrysostom and there has arisen the beautiful concept called the Sacrament of the Brother which is basically the Sacrament of the Poor. It is the Sacrament of the Poor because in the presence of the brother, who is at our side, we see the mystery of the presence of Christ challenging us to open our heart and to share in solidarity the struggle for the satisfaction of the human needs of the brother (Matthew 25: 31-46) and so to proceed towards transforming all social conditions that prevent and obstruct the satisfaction of such needs.

The Prophetic Role and Mission of the Church

When we consider the Church's role and mission in human society, there are two basic Biblical positions which need to be taken seriously. Firstly, there is the irreconcilable antagonism between God and Wealth (Mammon). God and Mammon are seen as two implacable rivals each demanding the total allegiance of Man (Matthew 6: 24). Mammon is a cosmic power finding organized expression in principalities and powers (i.e. authorities and potentates) creating inequalities and injustice among people (Ephesians 6: 12). Thus while Mammon as a psychological force operates within man in the form of acquisitive instincts and inordinate attachments described so expressively by Buddhists as tanha (insatiable craving for more and more), lobha (greed) and upadana (obsessive attachment to transitory things), the battle has to be fought at the level of systems and ideologies in politics and economics. Do we in our social and economic [4/5] life promote greed and egotism or do we advance human fellowship and the common good?

The second Biblical position is God's partiality for the poor--God's covenant-relationship with the poor. If the poor are God's Sacrament and He is mediated by them, the struggle of the poor and for the poor is indeed also God's own struggle against the principalities and powers that keep them poor. It is nothing less than a holy war ('Jihad') and revolution that clearly demonstrates God's justice. God Himself has taken sides and the victory of the poor is thus assured (Isaiah 3: 14-15; Matthew 6: 33; Luke 6: 20; James 2: 5-6).

It is abundantly clear that Jesus did not approve of a society where there was a class division between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and where forced poverty existed: the story of Dives and Lazarus is amply illustrative of this fact (Luke 16: 19-31). St. Paul denounced Christians who ate sumptuously, while others starved as guilty of a sin against the Body of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11: 21-27). Indeed the early Christians took Christ's position so seriously that they had their possessions in common and distributed to all according to their needs (Acts 4: 34-35), thus anticipating Karl Marx's definition of a communist society: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" (Critique of the Gotha Programme). Even though this experiment in primitive communism by the Early Christians failed, their common life was kept going in some of the monastic communities. It is interesting to note that at a much earlier age, the Buddha's rules for his community of monks stipulated that "even the morsel of food dropped into the begging bowl had to be shared among the brethren" to build up unity and solidarity (Samagama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya).

Significantly, it is precisely as a repudiation of Mammon that in our Asian religious traditions we have the concept of renunciation or voluntary poverty. This anti-mammon concept can well become a meeting point for dialogue and common action as part of mission in the world between Christians and the adherents of other faiths in Asia. Sri Lanka's foremost modern poet Mahagama Sekera puts across the Buddhist approach wonderfully in the following lines:--

[6] Sated heavy with food and drink
With clothes and home
And wealth and name
Only then we see it clear
True fulfilment is not here
Not this the end of suffering.

To search for true fulfilment
To search for the highest truth
This is the first step forward.
That first step you have taken
That first step I have taken
That step Siddhartha also took.

But the knowledge that directs us to Nirvana is complemented by the compassion that pins us down to the world. The poet continues:

After that step
Man ceases to sin
Ceases to hate
Ceases competition.
The whole world turns into a vessel for his love.
And having thus the whole world won
after that step
the world lie will not shun.

Out of love for those who suffer
most willingly he too will suffer.

Any use in becoming a Buddha
if no one's there to know the dharma?
If no one's there the truth to see?
if no one's there to savour beauty?

Where men will quarrel compete and fight
for a half-loaf of bread
or to rush into a bus
disciple bands can never rise.

[7] A world well satisfied
with food and drink
and clothes
and homes
is but a basic step towards
a full society
where dharma can be apprehended
where truth and beauty can be seen.
For that end do I stop.
Stopping is itself the movement
Samsara truly is Nirvana. [1] [(1) Translated from the original Sinhala work Prabuddha in Vandana the common worship of Sri Lanka's Christian Workers Fellowship.]

Here the Buddhist recognition of man's state as being anicca (impermanent), anatta (soul-less) and dukka (suffering) and the consequent yearning for the transcendent (Nirvana) leads not to a pre-occupation with individual salvation but to a creative participation in social life. Repudiation of the false self (anatta) results in selfless service. In this context too, the admonition of the Buddha to his Order of monks becomes meaningful: "Go ye now monks and wander, for the good of the people, for the happiness of the people, out of compassion for the world". (Mahavaggapali of the Vinaya Pitaka).

After receiving the baptism of St. John the Baptist in the Jordan river, Jesus is said to have had a decisive confrontation with Wealth, Power and Prestige--three temptations which he conquered through three renunciations (Matthew 4: 1-10). These renunciations were not narrowly individual but involved a direct confrontation with both the local and foreign exploitative structures of his day, thus having a relevance for our own situation in Asia at the present time. Jesus identified himself to the fullest with the poor in his unremitting war against Mammon. He was a worker (Mark 6: 3) who did not even have a place in a human house at birth (Luke 2: 7), who during his ministry had no place of his own to lay his head on (Matthew 8: 20) or even to be buried in at death (Matthew 27: 60). The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was certainly not for the rich (Luke 6: 20-26), for it is nothing short of a miracle for a [7/8] rich man to be able to enter this kingdom (Mark 10: 23-27). And Jesus' curses on the "haves" and his blessings on the "have-nots" in Luke 6: 20-26, are further reinforced and heightened by his parable of the Final Judgement where the nations of the world are to be judged through the poor--the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, the oppressed (Matthew 25: 31-46). Shopkeeping religion tied up with vested interests as a money-making business only roused Jesus' anger and provoked him to physical violence (John 2: 13-17). Jesus' mission was therefore a prophetic mission of the poor and to the poor--to awaken the consciousness of the poor to their liberative role in the new order that God wished to usher in. Making this point the Sri Lankan theologian, Aloysius Pieris, remarks: "This is the truth about evangelism which the local churches in Asia find hardest to accept . . . Jesus was the first Evangelizer--poor but fully conscious of his part in the war against Mammon with all its principalities and powers. And it was this mission that was consummated on the Cross--a cross which the money-polluted religiosity of his day planted on Calvary with the aid of a foreign colonial power (Luke 23: 1-25). This is where the journey begun at Jordan ended. When true religion and politics join hands to awaken the poor, then Mammon too makes allies with religion and politics to conspire against the evangelizer. Religion and politics must go together--whether for God or against God."

"It is, then not without reason that the evangelists related Jesus' first prophetic gesture at the Jordan to his last prophetic gesture on Calvary by using the same word to describe both: Baptism (Matthew 3: 13-15; Mark 10: 38; Luke 12: 50). Each was a self-effacing act which revealed his prophetic authority. At the first baptism, he was acknowledged as the beloved Son. At the second baptism, the evangelist heard even the colonial power that killed him, proclaim that he was truly 'the Son of God' (Mark 15: 39); indeed a prophetic moment when a humiliation gave birth to an exaltation capable of gathering the prophetic community, as the fourth gospel clearly teaches (John 12: 32-33). The Baptism of the Cross, therefore, is not only the price he paid for preaching the Good News, but the base of all Christian discipleship (Mark 8: 34)." [2] [(2) "Monastic Poverty in the Asian Setting" appearing in Dialogue (Sri Lanka) of September-December 1980, pp. 116-117.] It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, executed by the Nazis, who said: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

[9] We cannot and indeed dare not be blind to the fact that in most countries of Asia, the Christian Church was and is still seen as a foreign implant--as a product of colonial conquest and domination, linked up with power and privilege and alienated from the life of the masses. Our local Churches in Asia are for the most part still in ethos the local churches of former colonising countries. They still maintain their support of the status quo and of neo-colonialism in order to survive, thus causing class divisions in the Church. Colonial education carried out by missionaries in the past in our countries has now given way to "development projects" which for the most part are based on concepts of "development" advocated by developed countries and designed for their own advancement and that of their native agents, but which can only perpetuate underdevelopment here.

If the Church therefore is to gain credibility and acceptance among the people of Asia, if she is to regain her lost authority, she must unequivocally take the side of the poor and oppressed and repudiate all alliances with Wealth, Power and Prestige as Jesus did. This is what Urban Rural Mission in our situation demands. As Aloysius Pieris puts it, the Church "must be humble enough to be baptized in the Jordan of Asian Religiosity and be bold enough to be baptized on the Cross of Asian Poverty. Does not the fear of losing her identity make her lean on Mammon? Does not her refusal to die keep her from living? The Theology of power- domination and instrumentalization must give way to a theology of humility, immersion and participation." [3] [(3) "Towards an Asian theology of Liberation: some Religio-cultural Guidelines" Dialogue January-August 1979, p. 50.]

Just as the ministry of St. John the Baptist preceded that of Jesus, so the witness of our traditional Asian religions has preceded the advent of Christianity in our lands. To be baptized in the Jordan of Asian religiosity is to take seriously and accept the spiritual and cultural heritage and the thought forms of our .people and thus be able to discern and identify with the liberative aspects of Asian religiosity with its own antidotes against Mammon. It is in short, to discover and to link up with the Living Christ at work in the .religious traditions of the "non-Christian" masses. To be baptized [9/10] on the Cross of Asian poverty means essentially to identify to the utmost with the poor--the working people, the oppressed and the outcast--who are truly God's chosen people to carry through the struggle for human liberation, even to the extent of being reviled and persecuted and being looked upon as rebels and enemies of the existing exploitative social order and thereby suffering all the material disadvantages that such a position could entail. Only such an identification would enable the Church to be recognised as having a liberating role to play in the struggles of the working people and the oppressed. To take just a recent example from Sri Lanka, it was only when Christians led by the Christian Workers Fellowship and a few Church leaders boldly espoused the cause of the workers on strike, who were locked out in their thousands from June 1980 on a directive of the Government, that the organized working people really saw the Church as playing a creative and liberating role in their struggles.

Obedience to the Living Christ at work in the world makes it obligatory for the Church and for Christians to seek to discern his actions in human history. When those who profess to be "God's People" are disobedient and are not responsive to His will in given situations, the Lord of human history has necessarily to use other persons regardless of their beliefs or convictions as His agents or instruments to accomplish His purposes in the world. In a poem of sheer genius entitled The Twelve, the Russian poet Alexander Blok living through the events of the Russian Revolution of November 1917, sees Twelve Red Guards (like the Twelve Apostles.?) marching through a snowstorm in the Petrograd streets. The guards see an unknown person marching ahead of them with a red flag whom they take for an enemy and express alarm. But that enigmatic spectre is none other than Christ himself leading them along the battle road of revolution, invisible to them, invulnerable to their bullets and perhaps even hated by them:

"Something's moving! Who goes there?"
"Answer, will you! Who goes there?"
"Who's that with the red flag, flying?"
"Try and spot him if you can!"
[11] "Who's that dodging round the buildings
Like a convict on the run?"

"I'll get hold of you, don't worry
Whether you give it up or not!
You'll be for it, comrade!
Come on out or else be shot!"
.........Onward still the Twelve go striding;
In their rear--a starving cur;
And with bloody banner leading,
Hidden by the howling storm,
Safe from human hurt or harm,
In a chaplet of white roses,
Stepping through the pearly snowdust,
Shrouded in the snowy mist,
In the distance--Jesus Christ.

Ministry to the Dominant

If the Church is to identify completely with the "have-nots" and become the Church of the Poor, what then is the Church's ministry to the dominant social class--the "haves"?

If the struggle of the poor for liberation is in fact also God's own struggle against the principalities and powers that enslave them and keep them poor, the Church as part of her mission in both the urban and rural sectors has obviously to take sides unconditionally in the class struggles that manifest themselves in society. She has to uncompromisingly take the side of the workers and peasants, of the urban and rural poor against the rich and dominant social classes--the capitalists and the landlords. Thus the ministry of creative participation in people's struggles becomes also a ministry of judgement on oppressive social relations and structures and on the ruling class that upholds and seeks to perpetuate such unjust social conditions. Christ's ministry too in the world partook of both these elements of creative participation (John 1: 14) and of judgement (John 12: 31) and it cannot fail to be so in the ministry of those who profess to be his disciples.

[12] If the Gospel is good news to the poor, it must certainly be bad news to the rich. But Christian Love--even love of one's enemies--cannot be divorced from inter-human justice. The Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus was that of the God who is revealed in doing justice to the poor and oppressed. What has to be pressed then as a consequence of the Church's ministry of judgement is the ending of social and economic structures that put people into relationships of inequality, exploitation and oppression.

It has to be remembered, however, that even the rich-capitalists, landlords, owners and businessmen of all kinds need themselves to be liberated as human beings. They are as much slaves to the economic machine as those below, who are ground by it. The only difference is that they, as the dominant class, sit right on top of the machine even if they are chained to it. So while the "have-nots" need to be liberated from conditions that keep them poor and oppressed, the "haves" too need to be liberated from their burdens--especially their excess baggage (property and possessions) that weigh so heavily on them (Matthew 19: 23-24). The struggle of the poor and oppressed (which is also God's struggle) to overthrow the structures of injustice and oppression is therefore a struggle to free everyone--including those who are presently oppressors and to restore to all persons their full humanity. Of course such a process would inevitably involve social conflict. But it is important to recognise that the Biblical concept of "reconciliation" ("Katallage" in Greek--Corinthians 5: 18-21; Colossians 1: 20) may well include an element of conflict. Such a conflict is resolved in a dialectical synthesis--which is what reconciliation means. The resolution of this conflict is also a matter for politics. As Bishop John A.T. Robinson says: "The Christian enters politics rather in order to see that power is placed behind right. In politics he must take his stand not for the renunciation of power in love but for the subordination of power to justice." For within the context of politics as Brunner puts it "justice is the current coin of love, love's only legal tender." (Quoted in Social Change in Ceylon, CWF, Sri Lanka). Thus the demands and aspirations of the economically underprivileged have an even wider meaning and purpose which in the final analysis covers humanity as a whole. This position is clearly set out by Sri Lanka's Christian Workers Fellowship in its Fellowship Meal (Agape) as follows:

[13] We seek
a revolution
of mind and spirit
a revolution
social, economic, political,
an unceasing revolution
in human relationships.

Land to the tillers
Factories to the workers
leading to the realisation
of power
by the working people
in the interests of all.

In order
to help build
a new society
a new man
a new heaven
and a new earth.

The liberation sought is for all humanity but in God's plan, if the rich and powerful are to receive the Gospel, they must learn it from the people.--God's own poor (Luke 19: 1-10; James 1: 9-10; 2: 5). It is only they who are not fearful about the loss of their possessions--"who have nothing to lose but their chains", who "have the whole world to gain". [4] [(4) Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto.] It is only these who can help build a new society in the interests of everyone. Significantly, the secular Marxist vision of the future too is not just a liberation of the proletariat but of all humanity: "In place of bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free-development of all." (Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto.)


It was Archbishop William Temple who made the well-known remark that Christianity is the most materialistic of the religions. [13/14] In Christianity, God is revealed in and through earthly conditions in the life of the man Jesus. As God has approached Man in and through his earthly surroundings to show and direct him to his destiny, so by a right use of earthly things and a right relationship between God and Man and between human beings themselves dependent upon such a right use, Man fulfils his destiny on earth. The Christian conception of divine and human activity in the world could best be described as "sacramental" and indeed Christianity is itself a sacramental religion. In Christian worship too, the normal things of everyday life are done and used. We read, sing together, perform ordered movements like standing and sitting, we light lamps or candles, make a fire and smoke, we eat and drink before God--all these things are done to show that the corresponding actions in ordinary life are claimed for God.

Worship is not some cultic act or ceremony performed by church people as their exclusive duty. On the contrary, worship (i.e, worth-ship which implies recognition of God as the most worthy to receive the reverence and honour of his creatures--Revelation 4: 11), is something that the Church does on behalf of the world of which she is a part. For God is the God of the world before He is God of the Church and all humanity constitute His family and mystical body--a truth that is evidenced to and witnessed in the very existence of the Church herself. Similarly all human beings are God's priests and it is to witness to that truth that we have today the ideal of priestly democracy of the ordained ministry in the Church.

Sacraments, however, are not confined to the Christian Church. They have existed from time immemorial. While other religions have their own sacraments (e.g. Sanskaras in Hinduism and the Upasampada ceremony in Buddhism),* [*Footnote: see next paragraph] secular movements too may [14/15] not be exempt, for to give just one illustration--the demonstration, the meeting and the Red Flag can and do in fact have a sacramental significance in the working class movement today.

[Footnote: *Buddhism originated as a monastic religion in contrast with and in opposition to the sacerdotal-ritual path of salvation (Karma-marga) proper to Brahmanism. The main thrust in Buddhism has therefore been mystical (jnana-marga) rather than even devotional (bhakti marga) though it could be given the credit of developing the notion of Bhakti in the Indian world. Hence the emphasis in Buddhism is on the proclamation of the word (desana) its study (paryapti) and its practice (pratipatti) rather than on the celebration of sacraments. Specially in Sri Lankan Buddhism which is the nearest approximation to the early Indian version, this non-sacramental approach is in evidence except perhaps for the Upasampada Ceremony which is essentially an ecclesial act effecting what it signifies: the bhikkhu, who is the eschatological symbol of total liberation, the symbol which attracted the would-be Buddha himself on to the Path of Enlightenment. Pre-Buddhist and non-Buddhist rites and rituals which have been successfully integrated into contemporary Theravada Buddhism can pass for "sacramentals" at most. The situation in Mahayana Buddhism, however, is not within our purview here.]

We have already made the point that the Living Christ is at work in the faiths and movements for human liberation. Christ is the Word or expression of God, the Logos, the Dharma and the Dynamic of History, who provides all human beings coming into existence with the means of salvation, the path of liberation in their own religio-cultural contexts. Thus when for instance a Buddhist or Hindu finds salvation, it is by the grace of Christ as we would term it that this happens and he is incorporated then into the new life of God's Kingdom even if he knows nothing of Christianity. And it is through the sacraments of Buddhism and Hinduism, through the message of morality and the self-giving life that such salvation is normally transmitted and received. Our Asian societies have been basically corporate in their nature. This has been greatly influenced by their traditional religions and salvation has necessarily to be collective and social if it is to be understood and transmitted and have any meaning for the mass of the Asian people. That is also why in our Asian situation it becomes "crucial" for us to recognise the working of Christ's spirit within these religio-cultural traditions. And it is only when through the working of Christ, the spiritual treasures found in these ancient religious streams and Christianity merge in a single river, that we will discover the face of a truly Asian Christ. What the Church as the Body of Christ will look like then can only be a matter for conjecture. But we would do well to distinguish the present image of the Christian Church from the Asian Church that is yet to be!

It is important that we clarify what is meant when we talk about the dynamic action of Christ in our world. This dynamic action is described in St. John's Gospel as the "Logos" (i.e. "Word" in John 1 1-3, 14), which term has been rightly rendered in the new Sinhala (Sri Lankan) and Burmese Bible translations as "Dharma" personalised. In our Buddhist-Hindu tradition, Dharma ("rta") is essentially that which gives meaning to and holds all life together and which leads the world from darkness to light, from death to immortality. This can only be considered in terms of the great struggle for liberation ("vimukthi") of all beings. Dharma is basically, identified with justice and righteousness and the fight [15/16] against evil in all its forms. "Christ" is the Judeo-Christian account ("Myth") of this divine disclosure in the events of history (Exodus--Corinthians. 10: 1-4).

Although the Bible unfolds the story of "Dharmic" action in Jewish history, it recognises that the scope of the Dharma's liberating action goes far beyond the confines of Jewish and Christian history (Amos 9: 7; Isaiah 19: 24-25; Micah 4: 1-5; Romans 8: 18-23). Unfortunately, this profound insight has been by and large lost sight of by the Semitic-European religious traditions and their missionary endeavours. The true Asian Church in formation must therefore allow itself to be transfigured through and through until it shows forth the unparalleled beauty of the Dharma in its fulness.

Meanwhile, as part of the Christian Church's mission in the world and in the context of the mass struggles that characterise the world of the poor and oppressed, we have to emphasise the social and corporate nature of the Church's sacraments, which are also the instruments of God's grace. We may note at once that no real Sacrament is magical. But Sacraments do have a special strength because of their link with the will and action of God. Thus the efficacy of the Christian sacraments does not come from the sacraments themselves, but is in fact dependent on the action of God within them. And indeed, these Sacraments are only different aspects, signs and symbols of the only Sacrament of the New Testament, which is the Church as a whole and ultimately Christ himself (Ephesians 1: 4-10; 3: 3-6; Colossians 1: 25-27; 2: 2-3).


Baptism as the act of initiation into the Church, was in its original form a dramatic representation of being "buried" by immersion in water and raised up a "new man" or member of the "new creation". This rite represented the dramatic change which Christians felt lay between their past bondage and their present liberty. In Baptism, the candidate undergoes a death, burial and resurrection sacramentally with Christ. He is thus enabled to participate in Christ's death for the world and the new life that is seen in a life lived for others. It is in this way that we are incorporated [16/17] into the Body of Christ which is the Church. But baptism with water can have real meaning only if a person also receives the Holy Spirit of God and shows forth the fruits of the Spirit by becoming truly human and thus sharing in the mission of Christ--a life poured out for others.

St John the Baptist said "I have baptized you with water but he (Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1: 8). It is significant, that in the Early Church, water baptism was itself linked up with the Sealing of the Spirit through the laying on of hands and/or anointing with the Chrism, in one and the same ceremony as is the practice even today in the Eastern Church. Baptism was thus associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit and not just a sign of repentance or a rite of admission into which it would appear in practice to have been reduced subsequently in some places. And this reception of the Spirit is not for private spiritual fulfilment but as in the case of the Early Christians, for witness in the street--to share in the divine love for the world and so go out in Loving Service to all mankind. In this sense baptism is a missionary sacrament equipping us for mission in the world. It is also a commission to fight against all evil forces in the world whatever form they may take--be it class prejudice, racism, poverty or oppression.

But the reception of the Holy Spirit cannot be confined to those who are baptised as is evident from the New Testament itself--see Acts 10: 44-48. The gift and working of God's Spirit is not restricted to the Christian Church. Rather, it is open to all who demonstrate their solidarity with the poor and oppressed and also strive for justice and the liberation of their fellow men. Such persons could be said to have received a "Baptism of the Spirit" and thus form a part of the Church as the People of God or the Kingdom of God even if they have not received the Christian rite of baptism and are therefore not members of the Christian Church in her organized or institutional form.

Holy Communion

The action, however, which lies at the heart of the whole Church's life is the command given by Jesus to his disciples: "Do this in remembrance of me". Basically this action is about matter and society, food and the sharing of food. It was as they were eating [17/18] that Jesus took bread from off the table. And so in this Service, we take bread and a bottle of wine-- not raw materials but products--tokens both of God's creation and man's labour on it. Into that bread goes the whole of working life--all the complicated processes of production, distribution and exchange. And in the bottle of wine, we have the symbol of all human joy and leisure--everything that goes to make glad and free the heart of man. All that we are, all human life is given to Christ at this Service to be renewed in him. St Augustine teaching the Christians of his time about the significance of the bread and wine says: "There are you upon the table, there are you in the chalice". At the offertory in the Eucharist, we give "each according to his ability" to receive back at communion "each according to his needs".

Speaking of this Service, a Christian Workers Fellowship pamphlet (Sri Lanka) says: "The declared presence of Christ beneath the bread and wine of the Mass reveals the essential fact that in 'Him all things consist'. Christ becomes manifest when these representative products of God's earth--bread and wine--are presented on behalf of mankind by the Church and shared in Holy Communion. Similarly the whole world and its products will manifest Him in whom they consist when they are shared by all mankind in Holy Commu(ion)ism. Those who partake of the Holy Communion therefore are necessarily pledged to be Holy Communists." [5] [(5) The Christian Worker and the Trade Union (CWF) where the social implications of the Eucharist are highlighted. This is expanded on in Social Change in Ceylon (CWF--1963) in the chapter "The Church and the Sacraments."] (Significantly in the early days of the Labour Movement in England, Robert Owen and his group first called themselves "communionists and socialists''). The sharing of food done sacramentally cannot stop at this Service but has necessarily to be continued socially and thence economically and politically.

Again, it is worth noting that in this Service, the material products of bread and wine are transformed by the operation of the Holy Spirit so as to be received and shared by the people as the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is therefore essentially concerned with real change and not simply a representation. Furthermore, the breaking of the bread underlines the fact that change [18/19] comes only through struggle and conflict, for here we have the cross--there is pain and struggle. As Christ's body was broken on the cross for mankind, so our bodies must be broken and our lives shared in the common struggle for liberation against all the demonic forces of the old order.*

[*This position is also brought out by St Paul who speaks of helping to complete in human flesh what is lacking or still to be endured in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body the Church (Colossians 1: 24). God seeks those who will thus share in Christ's suffering--redemptive and vicarious suffering--for the sake of mankind.

In popular Buddhism, a man condemned to suffering would generally be regarded as one who so suffered on account of the effects of his previous actions--his karma in past lives. The Jews of Jesus' time too believed that anyone who was hanged and executed was accursed (Galatians 3: 13; Deuteronomy 21: 23). Commenting on this, St Paul says that "Christ bought us freedom from the curse of the law (in Buddhistic terms, the law of karma), by becoming for our sake an accursed thing" (Galatians 3: 13; 2[Corinthians 5: 21). It could be said therefore of Jesus' suffering and death by execution, that he carried our sins in his body on the tree (cross) and in this sense took on himself the karma of us human beings to liberate us from its seemingly inexorable effects. Similarly we as Christ's body are also called upon to bear the griefs and sorrows of mankind and heal them with our wounds by following Christ's example (1 Peter 2: 21, 24). Suffering for the sake of others even if not professedly to take on their karma (sins), is seen in Buddhism too as is evidenced by the very life of the Buddha and in the Jataka stories. It is also underlined in the Bodhisatva concept as found in the Mahayana tradition especially.]

The Holy Eucharist is thus pregnant with social meaning as indeed it must be as the symbol and foretaste of God's kingdom, which we as the Church are committed to promote. This reveals how inseparable Christianity and society, religion and politics must always be. For it involves a belief in a social order in which the means of production both agrarian and industrial--represented in the products of bread and wine--are used not for the private profit and advantage of a few, but for the common good of all, a society in which no owning and exploiting class stands between the people and their access to them. It becomes impossible for a Christian, who knows what the Holy Communion means, not to be involved in the struggle for human liberation, impossible for an earnest communicant not to be an earnest politician. The Eucharist or Mass thus becomes a powerful dynamic for social action--the like of which is not to be found elsewhere in society.

[20] In the experience of Urban Rural Mission (URM) groups such as Sri Lanka's Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF), there is evidence to show that the social implications of the Eucharist as the enactment in Christ of the drama of human life as it should be lived, is appreciated by "non-Christians" too. In Sri Lanka, the participation of such people in the Workers' Mass of the CWF, including the reception of communion by some of them, has become a regular feature and Christians have thus been led to humbly realise that even this most precious and intimate of Christian Services cannot be their exclusive preserve and privilege. The understanding of such "non-Christians" may not be exactly that of normal church folk, but it is nonetheless a real experience of Christ, the living Lord. God's spirit works among people in many ways and it is good for us to be always alive to this fact.

We have already stressed that God is the Lord of the world before he is Lord of the Church and it is the world He is concerned about rather than the exclusive privileges claimed by some who profess to be His People. In the face of the disobedience of Christians, their apathy and cowardly preference to live at ease with evil in society, it is not surprising that the Lord of the world and of human history has often to seek out other people as His agents to carry out His purposes in the world, regardless of the labels that such people may profess to have (Matthew 21: 43). It is for us, therefore, as Christians to recognise this situation with contrite hearts and seek to discern and identify with the outpouring of God's spirit in the world regardless of religious or secular labels. It is only such an openness on our part that will enable us to fully appreciate also the true meaning of mission and the life of the Church in our concrete situation today.

Structures of the Church

We have already made a distinction between the concept of the Church and the institutional church structures as we find them that have evolved in history.

Social and economic pressures, class interests and the desire to carefully preserve inherited forms and formularies have all contributed to the fossilization of church structures, to a cumbersome and rigid institutionalization that is often at variance with the Church's true nature and mission as the Body of Christ, as the [20/21] People of God or as the earnest of the New Age and the first fruits of the New Creation. Thus it is that from time to time, movements and groups from outside the narrow confines of existing ecclesiastical structures have arisen to show forth the marks of the new age or community which the Church is called upon to have and manifest. In this way, God is not left without witnesses whenever those who profess to be His People fail to live up to their professions and conform to the pattern of this present world (Romans 12: 2) rather than become God's agents for its change and transformation. In this sense it could well be said that the real Church of God may most often be found outside the structures of the institutional Church.

Thus it is that today we find new forms of an emerging and evolving "Church of the future" that is reflected in the emergence and growth of open venturesome communities of faith so rooted in their social and cultural contexts as to become effective vehicles or instruments for transmitting the energies of the New Age that is already at work through Christ in human history.

The first communities of Christians walked the liberating path of Jesus Christ proclaiming him as Lord. They were persecuted and martyred for their implacable opposition to Mammon, for their rejection of the idolatrous worship of the powerful of this world. Today many Christian communities of the People in the Third World have taken the same path in following Jesus. This Church that is reborn by the power of the Spirit among the exploited and oppressed, keeps alive the spirit of the rebel Jesus who was executed as an insurgent, an enemy of "law and order" (John 18: 30; Luke 23:14). She keeps alive the dangerous memory of the martyrs who laid down their lives as a sign of their great love (John 15: 13). She identifies with the poor and oppressed in their struggles and aspirations and exults with the Mother of Jesus that God brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the poor, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty (Luke I: 52-53). For these Christian communities to evangelize, means to announce the God revealed in Christ, the God who makes a covenant with the oppressed and defends their cause, the God who liberates His people from injustice, from oppression and from sin. And it is precisely here--in the liturgy of life--that the Paschal Mystery of Christ is continued in the lives and struggles, in the deaths and triumphs of his members. It is here therefore that Christ is united in his loyal [21/22] members and the real Church is gathered. It is in this context too that the true liturgy can take place and genuine spirituality lived. So the official or institutional churches would fail in their mission if they did not recognise the presence of Christ active in these communities.

The form and existence of these Christian communities constitute a challenge in a very real sense to the institutional churches. In interaction with these communities, the churches are called upon to make a positive response and to honestly clarify their own understanding of what it means to be "the Church" in our present age and situation. The distinctive quality of these new communities is their freedom to relate to all who are open to the values of the Kingdom--the classless society of the future where God would be All in all.

In the context of Asia, such venturesome communities of the Spirit would necessarily have to be especially open to the ancient religious traditions of the people as well as have a firm commitment to and identification with the aspirations of the poor--the working people and the oppressed. Thus it is that among the groups related to the Urban Rural Mission in Asia, we have the example of the Christian Workers Fellowship in Sri Lanka, which seeks to live out its Christian faith in the context of that country's predominantly Buddhist cultural heritage and of proletarian socialist ideology. To note the more prominent features in the development of this movement would therefore be of special interest to other groups in Asia, who are seeking to relate their Christian faith and commitment to the life of the people in their own contexts.

The first point to be noted is that Sri Lanka's Christian Workers Fellowship is an undenominational lay movement outside the institutional church structures (though recognized by the organized churches). The banding together of working people from below; within the CWF regardless of their church affiliations brought about such a sense of unity that "open communion" became the norm from its very inception. This unity from below also brought together clergy from different churches, who shared a similar commitment and for several years now clergy from all the major churches have joined together in concelebrating the CWF's Workers' Mass, which significantly has been drawn up and arranged by lay folk in a Sri Lankan cultural setting. Thus workers' solidarity has [22/23] led to a unity that transcends denominational barriers, so making real the "High Priestly" prayer of Jesus that we may all be one (John 17: 20-23).

Secondly, CWF includes in its membership not only Christians of different denominations but also those who are not "Christians" in any institutional sense. This has been the result of close dialogue and action with persons of other faiths and secular persuasions in the course of mass activity. It has led to a spirit of openness and to worship together that is inter-religious in character. The CWF's theology too has been enriched by Buddhist thought (and by Hinduism to a lesser extent) and its forms of worship have been greatly influenced by the religio-cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. The naturalness with which people of other faiths and persuasions are able to participate in CWF Services is itself confirmation of the power of Christ to draw and unite people when he is presented in a manner intelligible to their cultural ethos and thought forms. Significantly, from a cultural point of view the CWF's liturgies recognise the importance of silence as an essential part of our Asian heritage. In the Workers' Mass for instance, there is found a truly Asian harmony of word and silence, of stillness and movement. The ceremonial at the Mass too is essentially local in character. The national dress of the servers, the use of swath, incense burners of the type used in temple processions, the dancing at the Offertory, the prostration after the Elevation, the manual gestures of the clergy and people together with the musical orchestration and the blowing of the conch shell and sounding of drums--all contribute to making this liturgy a truly Sri Lankan product. It is the C.W.F.'s conviction that the Mass as the symbol and foretaste of God's kingdom--the new classless society of the future-must be celebrated with the utmost beauty of colour and movement, of sound and scent, and reflect all that is best in our culture (Revelation 21: 26). To emphasise that the whole earth is the Lord's and that he is encountered in everyday life, the Workers' Mass is celebrated most often in secular halls and homes though church buildings are sometimes used. The Mass ends with the Sri Lankan version of the Internationale, thus underlining the connection between the Mass and the struggle of the masses for liberation. Significant therefore is the presence of Buddhist monks and leading members of working class parties when the CWF Workers' Mass is celebrated on big [23/24] occasions such as May Day for it is evidence of the CWF's serious involvement in the working class movement and the on-going struggles of the oppressed. It may also be mentioned that the CWF has been able to enter into a meaningful relationship with socially oriented groups of other faiths such as the Sri Lanka Buddhist Congress and even been able to stimulate the latter's thinking on social matters to the extent of producing a joint publication in Sinhala entitled Buddhism and the People.

Thirdly, the CWF's efforts to combine participation in the Workers' Movement and the struggle for a socialist order with a deep religious commitment has led to new thinking and to a certain breaking down of prejudices on the part of people both in religious and secular circles. It is interesting to note that the CWF's Left Christian position goes right back to its origins in 1958,* [* It could be said that the formation of the CWF itself was partly a response to Sri Lanka's electoral upheaval of 1956.] which was long before the days of Christian-Marxist dialogue or the emergence of Liberation Theology in Latin America. This development was helped by a few members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)--Sri Lanka's oldest Marxist Party, who participated actively in CWF work. The presence of these Marxist Christians contributed greatly to the CWF acquiring at a very early stage its own distinctive ideological and theological stance which was refined in the years to come. This is seen as early as November 1958 in the publication of the pamphlet The Christian Worker and the Trade Union as representing the official position of the organization. As a movement therefore, the CWF has necessarily to be political in so far as the issue of human liberation poses basic political tasks. This however does not mean that CWF seeks to be a political party or the appendage of any such party. Convinced that liberation has to be achieved through the activity of the masses themselves, the CW F does not absolutise any given economic or political structure and firmly adheres to the position that "socialism is for man, not man for socialism". This becomes especially meaningful in the context of bureaucratic distortions and usurpations including the cynical dispossession of people's rights that have often followed or accompanied the attempts of comparatively under-developed countries to take the socialist road. The CWF's religious [24/25] commitment too has resulted in the devising, of Services like the Workers' Mass in which religion and politics naturally meet and combine to provide a powerful dynamic for social action and involvement. Other liturgies of the CWF all reflecting this social stance, include the Fellowship Meal (Agape), Vandana (common worship), Holy Week Observances, and Rites for Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals, Repentance and Healing. All these liturgies have arisen out of the need to have Services meaningful to the working people and their life and they have appropriately been arranged in a Sri Lankan cultural context. The existence of these liturgies and the regular worship which characterises CWF groups has however also led to a fear and criticism in certain Church circles that the CWF is now in danger of becoming yet another Church! What these circles have not seen, however, is that while the CWF is not and does not aspire to be "a church", it is to many who are seriously involved in the workers' movement and the liberation struggles of the oppressed, "the Church" in their situation. It is noteworthy too that in the course of the CWF's interaction with those of other faiths and persuasions, Christians have been led to experience Buddhist and Hindu worship. In fact quite some years ago, members of the CWF Working Committee engaged in Maithri Bhavana (Meditation on Compassion) at the foot of the Sacred Bo-Tree in Anuradhapura before the commencement of a CWF meeting and had a Buddhist monk as preacher at its common worship held in a church that evening.

In October 1980, the Christian Conference of Asia-Urban Rural Mission at a theological consultation in Manila, at which CWF representatives too were present, drew up a message to the Churches seeking to clarify the nature of mission in the context of present day Asia. This message sought also to clarify the relationship of URM to the Church in the following way:--

"The Urban Rural Mission is a movement to work out in thought and action the Church's mission of liberating man--the very icon of God--enslaved by the oppressive powers of this present sinful age. Our aim is to be an instrument in God's world enabling, strengthening and furthering by word and deed the liberating forces amongst our people that they may reach out and grasp their full humanity and have life in abundance.

[26] "The URM is therefore not a static concept but a dynamic and on-going process--it is a catalyst of the Kingdom. It seeks to awaken the people to God's will for them and equip them for the struggles ahead. It also seeks to be prophetic by discerning the signs of the Kingdom and directing the people to the crucial areas of involvement.

"In all humility and joy we recognise that God has other agents too for His work of human liberation. And so we endeavour to discover such movements, to dialogue with them and to enter into a creative partnership with them whatever their credal or ideological labels may be.

"If we--the URM--have spoken harshly about the Church, it is because we love the church and are jealous for her. But even more than that, we love God and share His immeasurable love and care for His people and also His deep indignation at what elites and powers of this world are doing to them. We plead with the Church to give in to the promptings of her heart and not allow herself to be inhibited by concerns of security, safety and mere maintenance of church structures or to be compromised, intimidated or subtly pressured by big business. Be free as our Master is, to serve the poor. BE THE CHURCH!"

The front cover depicts items symbolic of Sri Lanka's ancient cultural heritage as well as of present day mass activity. Behind the lettering at the bottom is an outline of the Nestorian Cross of a former Christian community in the island dating back to the early Anuradhapura period. Christian clergy of today are seen above on the left, joining in a celebration of the Workers' Mass. Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) discernible at the very top is of special significance since it is held in popular veneration as bearing a footprint claimed by Buddhists to be that of the Buddha, by Hindus to be that of Siva, by Muslims to be that of Adam and by Christians from Kerala to be that of St. Thomas. Adherents of these four world religions live together in appreciable numbers in Sri Lanka.


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Nedimala Dehiwala.

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