Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe

Sunday Times Nov 2 2008
Remembering a reconciler and bishop of the people

Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe

Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe’s 25th death anniversary was observed on October 23. His outstanding gifts and leadership qualities are remembered in this time of deep crisis in the life of our nation. While he was an outstanding leader of the Universal Church of God, he had his roots firmly planted in the soil and culture of his motherland.

Let us reflect on some of the high points of Bishop Lakshman’s life of service. Bishop Lakshman was a creative theologian, Biblically based, rooted in the tradition of the “one holy catholic church” and embodying in his personality a rationality balanced by a deep faith with understanding. He never wrote or published a book, but he communicated his thinking in his sermons, homilies, pastoral addresses, letters to “The Ceylon Churchman”, and his talks and lectures. His theology was characterised by penetrative social analysis and solid Biblical exegesis. For inspiration, he drew from our cultural sources, ancient and modern, and all that was good and beautiful and true in the teachings of the living faiths.

Bishop Lakshman’s teaching ministry is remembered and appreciated by many generations of youth, students and adults. He had a special concern for lay persons in the Anglican Church and beyond in regard to equipping them for their ministry in the church and in society. He stressed the importance of responsible political involvement and being socially conscious trade unionists. When he became Bishop of the Diocese of Kurunegala, he produced a booklet, titled “Kiriya Huruwa”, which was a guide to help lay people become agents of change in church and society.
Although “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”, Bishop Lakshman was committed to the struggle for justice, and empathised with the plight of the farmers, the working people and the minorities, and the poor and oppressed. He responded to the needs of the poor by initiating a series of development projects in his diocese in the late 1960s and the 1970s. He helped set up two farms-cum-training centres for youth, “Christodaya” in Kurunegala, and “Uda Gira” in Galgamuwa.

After the failure of the 1971 youth revolt, he became involved in the setting up of a “collective farm” at the Devasaranaramaya, in Ibbagamuwa.

As a radical young priest, Bishop Lakshman was instrumental in creating the Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF) in 1958, and he remained in close touch with this group of lay social activists until his death.

He worked tirelessly in the field of civil and human rights. He was a founder member of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), along with the late Bishop Leo Nanyakkara and others.

In the wake of the general strike of July 1980, Bishop Lakshman responded to the invitation of the CWF leadership and presided over a Workers’ Mass dedicated to justice for the workers. Some words from the Bishop’s sermon are relevant at the present time:

“We are reminded that if we want to build a new society we cannot do so successfully without sacrifice, without suffering, without facing up to a struggle and conflict.

“The breaking of bread is a challenge to us all. If we too want to participate and share in this liberation movement, is every one of us ready to sacrifice his/her life? Do we look forward to facing the struggle? Are we ready to face oppression, hardship and suffering? It is only by these means that victory can be won.”

From 1962 to 1983, he served as the second Bishop of the Diocese of Kurunegala. He had a natural gift for counselling people in distress, and he engaged in reconciling people and groups in conflict situations.

He often displayed his gifts as counsellor and reconciler beyond the boundaries of the church. Within the diocese of Kurunegala, he enriched the life of corporate worship by making a beautiful synthesis of the Sinhala and Tamil cultures in creative acts of worship. He gave splendid leadership as chairperson of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCC). He was a Christian leader who encouraged dialectical thinking. His intellectual honesty and humility were remarkable.

After a decade of service to his diocese, Bishop Lakshman launched out to make his mark within the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), serving on the executive committee for many years and within the inter-Anglican Theological Doctrinal Commission.

Bishop Lakshman contributed to the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism when he presided over a consultation process in 1980 to arrive at a consensus regarding the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. A year later a consensus document was produced and signed by leaders of all faiths and representatives of civil society organisations.

He was also a keen participant at the Christian Conference of Asia - Urban Rural Mission (CCA-URM) Race and Minority Desk meetings in Asia.

After the racial holocaust of July 1983, he returned to the island shocked and profoundly saddened by the events that had transpired and the sufferings of defenceless Tamils. He heard first-hand the stories of victims and refugees in his diocese and from the plantation areas. He also visited the Tamils in the North.

Bishop Lakshman’s final pastoral address, delivered in September 1983, is a classic document and served as a testament to a divided and broken nation. It is deeply relevant even today and deserves serious study. Shortly after the Diocesan Council Sessions, Bishop Lakshman had a massive heart attack and passed away. He was 55.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Revd. Jeffrey Abayasekera


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