40th anniversary of the Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa : Towards a Sri Lankan Christian identity
by Rev. Keerthisiri Fernando
At the beginning of the twentieth century when the majority of Sri Lankans were getting ready for independence from the British Empire, many British Christian denominations had made no serious preparations for the new order in Sri Lanka and continued to enjoy the privileges of her close association with the British.
There was, however, a small group of Christians who had foreseen the need to think and act as in new ways after independence. Among them was the Revd. Lakdasa de Mel whose process of indigenisation launched at Baddhegama in the 1920s was an important step. His efforts eventually created what is now called the Ceylon Liturgy, using Sinhala folk music derived from sources such as the paddy farmers, cartmen and boatmen in rural areas of Sri Lanka.Pioneering activities such as this became valuable when the British left the Island in 1948. People who had become Christians through the work of missionaries were forced to rethink their identity.
Significant cultural and social changes did not begin to take place until the late 1950s, and especially after the 1956 general election. The coalition government headed by the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party set out to establish a new cultural identity. The English language was displaced by the use of Sinhala and Tamil for all official business as well as in education. The Church equally accepted the importance of local languages but saw its own future looking very bleak when the government decided to take over management of the school network.
In 1963 three of the Protestant churches in Sri Lanka, namely Anglican, Methodist and Baptist decided to form a theological college for the training of future ministers. After much discussion and consideration the founders of this college opted for the use of local languages and a localised cultural emphasis. Later, the Presbyterian Church in Sri Lanka joined with the other churches to formulate the training of their ministers. When the Theological College was founded in Lanka in 1963 it was almost unthinkable that theology should be taught in local languages, specially in Sinhala.
Education and formation
Lectures at the Theological College are held in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Sinhala and Tamil students are required to write in their own languages. The College is affiliated to the Senate of Serampore College, India and has been accredited by the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia. (ATESEA) The main subjects taught are Theology and Ethics, Ministry and Communication, Biblical Studies, the History of Christianity, and Religion and Society. In addition, Tamil students study Practical Sinhala and Sinhala students study practical Tamil, giving all students a practical knowledge of each other's language.
There are about ten full-time lecturers resident on the College premises and a number of part-time lecturers who teach various subjects, including languages and other faiths followed in Sri Lanka. There are also a few foreign lecturers who widen the students' horizons so that, as an island-dwelling people, they do not become isolated from the rest of the world. For this same purpose the College keeps links with England through the parishes of St. Mary's Goudhurst, Kent and Christ Church, Kilndown, Kent (both in the Diocese of Canterbury) and with St. John's College, York, a college of Leeds University.
Apart from classroom work, field education is taken seriously as an integral part of the students' tuition. The field education programme is divided into three main areas - weekend field education; long-vacation field placement and a research-and-an-extended essay on a subject chosen by the student.
First-year students are sent to parishes and circuits where they become involved with traditional forms of ministry such as Sunday School, Bible Studies and visits to church members in their homes. Second-year students taken an active part in caring ministries such as working in homes for the elderly, in homes for differently able people, and in running a youth club for children in the area of the College. Third-year students are exposed to frontier and emerging ministries such as workers' movements and tea plantation workers' groups.
In their third year theology students write research papers on current issues of their choice. Typical subjects might be street children, prostitutes, and inter-religious and cultural research. During the long vacation first and second-year students are sent in small groups students to various areas to become exposed to and study various socio-cultural and religious influences. This comprehensive field education programme enables students to learn from real situations and to discuss these issues in the classroom and challenge social theories and prejudices. Worship is at the heart of this community and takes place three times a day, morning, noon and evening, in Sinhala, Tamil and English with meditations and experimental forms.
The chapel is decorated with Sri Lankan woodcarvings. The congregation remove their footwear and sit on the floor. Indigenous musical instruments such as tabla, violin and sitar mainly accompany worship. Guitars are used where appropriate, without displacing the indigenous atmosphere of worship.
Sinhala students study Buddhism under a scholarly monk while Tamil students study Hinduism from an experienced tutor. Prior to this, both Sinhala and Tamil students are given an outline course on the major religions of the world. All students follow other courses such as one that covers social, cultural and economic issues. During their training students are encouraged to analyse how colonial philosophies were intertwined with Christian teachings as a means of propagating colonialism.
At Pilimatalawa students get the opportunity to evaluate how elements that are contrary to the Christian gospel were promoted through Christianity but with ulterior motives. For instance, when people were baptised as Christians so that they could qualify as teachers in Christian schools or to win an influential position in government. This was a total distortion of the serious meaning of baptism.
Cultural and community activities
The most notable linguistic and cultural events at the College are three annual festivals called Sinhala, Tamil and English Days. Students perform dances, dramas and other cultural activities. These events enable students to improve their knowledge and understanding of their own culture and extend their knowledge of others. The Basil Jackson Theological Society, which was formed in honour of the first Principal of the College, organises seminars and discussions to deepen students' theological understanding. Activities are organised to enhance the College's community spirit.
About twice each term the whole community comes together for a meal and some entertainment organised by the students. This gathering brings together lecturers, office and other staff and their families from Sinhala Tamil, Eurasian and Foreign backgrounds representing the Christian, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.
Once a year a sports meeting is organised where all members of the community can take part as members of one family. Once in every two years an excursion is arranged to a place of interest in Sri Lanka. During past years this has included visits to places such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Some Tamil students from the North and East these excursions have been enabled to visit these places for the first time in their life.
The Theological College of Pilimatalawa has effectively shown that Sinhala and Tamil students can study together in the same classes in their own languages. It is important to note that the importance of English is as a link language and not as the language of the elite.
When Sinhala lecturers teach in Sinhala and English, Tamil students depend on their knowledge of English and other students to understand what is being taught. Similarly, when Tamil lecturers each in Tamil and English, Tamil students depend on their knowledge of English and other students.
Sinhala and Tamil lecturers always try to give a summary in another language to make students from other ethnic groups feel comfortable. Although this way of teaching is not easy it has brought Sinhala and Tamil students together without abandoning their mother tongue. Students use English as a servant to knowledge without becoming slaves of the English.
The way in which English is used shows the importance of the English language for national harmony. This points the way to abolishing the old model whereby a few English educated people ruled those who lacked knowledge of their language. When students become involved in this learning process, they lose the Anglophobia caused by the 'superiority' of an anglicised, English-educated minority and learn pride in their mother tongue. This is in contrast to some in Sri Lanka who, being fluent in English, seem to despise their mother tongue.
In the College religious conversion is not understood as a matter of changing labels, from one religion to another. It is understood as a change of heart and mind according to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ. The former colonial concept that one religion is against another is itself opposed by the Christian gospel preached by Jesus. Students are encouraged to study other religions in order to deepen their faith in symbiosis with other religions.
Located in a predominately Buddhist village, the College has served Sri Lankan society for forty years, training Christian ministers who will work in the community with a sound understanding of Sri Lankan realities and make bridges between various socio-cultural and religious groups.
The College is proud of the fact that three past-principals, including the present Principal the Revd. Dr. Sarath Wickramasinghe and most of the present lecturers are former pupils. The two Anglican Bishops, Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chikera - Bishop of Colombo; Rt. Rev. Kumara Illangasinghe - Bishop of Kurunegala, the Methodist President, Rev. Noel Fernando and the Baptise President, Rev. Warshamanage, in Sri Lanka all studied at the College, as did a number of notable Christians working in various parts of the world, including the Rt. Rev. Roger Herft, the present Anglican Bishop of Newcastle in Australia.
We pray that the College will continue to be an institution with a pioneering spirit, developing effective models of learning, and promoting peace and harmony between various ethno-religious and cultural groups in Sri Lanka.