Interview with His Lordship Rev. Asiri Perera, Bishop of Methodist Church in Sri Lanka
By Sujith Silva
As part of our coverage of Old Schools in Sri Lanka under ‘A journey through Quadrangles’ we met His Lordship Rev. Asiri Perera, Bishop of Methodist Church in Sri Lanka to find out more about the establishment of Methodist Church in Sri Lanka and how the church got involved in education sector.
This is what His Lordship Rev. Asiri Perera had to say
The Methodist church in Sri Lanka is now 205 years old. Our first missionaries led by Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke set sail from England on 31st December 1813 to reach Ceylon. However they were struck with tragedy as Rev’d Dr. Coke died while on his voyage to Ceylon. Undaunted by this set back, the missionaries which included mostly young priests continued their journey and reached Ceylon on 29th June 1814. They arrived in Galle harbour but they had to anchor their ship about 2 to 3 miles out of harbour and they were put in two boats. As per records, there were two passengers with luggage in one boat and the rest of the passengers in the other boat. The boat with the rest of the passengers reached the Galle harbour safely but the boat with two passengers and luggage was swept away due to heavy tide and winds and they had landed in Weligama on 30th of June at 2.30 a.m. This took the villagers by surprise and those who spotted them had immediately alerted the Weligama magistrate, one Mr. Kennemen who came to the shores of Weligama to see the visitors. He immediately realised who these visitors were and he safely passaged these visitors to Galle through Governor Brownridge who had already made arrangements to welcome these Missionaries through local authorities. This is how the British Methodist Missionaries first arrived in Ceylon.
They had their first worship service at the Dutch Church at Galle Fort on 3rd July 1814, which is the first official service Methodist Missionaries conducted in Ceylon. Governor Brownridge meanwhile invited these missionaries to start schools for native Ceylonese which they gladly accepted. So instead of going around preaching or opening up churches, they decided to travel around and open schools across the Island. We should be very thankful to God for their wise decision where they reached all four corners of the Island and set bases and opened schools covering both Sinhala and Tamil communities. Which is a unique feature and to date our church exists in all these areas and later on had expanded to upcountry areas in Sri Lanka.
From the first missionaries to arrive, Rev. Benjamin Clough (1791-1853) decided to remain in Galle and started a very small school at the request of the government Mudliyar with five children and one adult which was the Mudliyar himself. They started this schools as an English School on 25th July 1814 and later came to be known as Galle Boys’ School. This school expanded in the most extraordinary way. As the years went by the school got upgraded to Galle High School and later on further upgraded to a College and the school had to be moved to Richmond Hill in Galle due to lack of space. This property at Richmond Hill was bought by the Methodist missionaries. The school changed its name once again and is now known as Richmond College Galle. When Rev. Benjamin Clough started off a school with just five students he would never have imagined that it would expand into becoming a great College later on. In fact, Richmond College which had two forerunners, is arguably the first School to be established in Sri Lanka in the established educational context as well as the oldest Methodist School in Asia and also in the World Methodist heritage.
Another missionary Rev. William Ault went to Batticaloa from Galle but he could sadly remain in Batticaloa for just one year as he passed away in 1815. However, during his short stay he achieved a remarkable feat. On the 29th of August 1814 he started off a very small school which is now known as the Methodist Central College. Then two other missionaries Rev. James Lynch and Rev. Thomas Hall Squance left to Jaffna and they established schools in the Jaffna peninsula, Jaffna Central College in 1817 which celebrated its bicentenary in 2016 and Wesleyan Mission Central School in Point Pedro in 1818 which is now known as Hartley College.
We also got to know that, Rev. Brownridge who arrived in Ceylon later had gone on to establish the first Girls’ school in Sri Lanka and Asia, in Negombo which is now known as Newstead College Negombo. They too celebrated their bicentenary last year. As the Methodist church celebrates 205 years (in 2019) in Sri Lanka you can see the schools which the church started also going through some significant milestones. We are very thankful to the missionaries and these schools as they have rendered a great service to Sri Lanka.
I must say, Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara, known as the father of free education in Sri Lanka, comes from an ordinary family in Ambalangoda and studied in an ordinary school which was called as ‘Pin Iskole’. When Rev. Darrel, the then principal of Richmond College went to this school as the Chief Guest for the prize giving, he spotted this brilliant boy C. W. W. Kannangara who grabbed every prize which was on offer. So, Rev. Darrel very kindly offered this child a free scholarship to study at Richmond College. C. W. W. Kannangara who had that wonderful education at Richmond College went onto become one of the great Ceylonese and earned the title ‘father of free education in Sri Lanka’. We should be thankful to God for all his work.
You can see that the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka, committed to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in this land, has done so right from the beginning. But it is not only religion, the desire of our early missionaries was to provide opportunities of education cutting through all barriers of cast, religion and ethnicity, in providing good education to our children.
Apart from these first four schools, we are glad to note that the High School in Moratumulla is a school which has been operating for 175 years, the Methodist College Colombo celebrated their 150 years in 2017, Wesley College Colombo is celebrating 146 years. They are also part of this journey in providing education. In 1962, when the Schools were taken over by government, the Methodist Church had 182 schools. Of course, the Church very gladly gave away these schools to the State and we were allowed to retain only two schools, Methodist College and Wesley College.
In 2017, we discovered that there was a school by the name of ‘Urugamuwa Methodistha Paasala’. We came to know about the existence of this school only when we heard about a boy, named Sithija who won the All Island Grade 5 scholarship is from this school. It was very exciting news to us as we never knew there was a school, named after Methodists in Urugamuwa which is a very remote village located beyond Dickwella. We were thrilled as, a boy from a remote school which also was one of the early schools established by Missionaries continues to provide good education and this little boy in Grade 5 became No. 1 in Sri Lanka with 196 marks.
We celebrated all these landmarks and achievements at the Annual Methodist Conference this year which was hosted at the Methodist College Auditorium. At the inaugural session we recognised our schools, which are the oldest in Asia started by Methodist missionaries. We also passed on a communique at this event to our mother church the British Methodist Church through its President to recognise Sri Lanka as part of the World Methodist heritage because Sri Lanka was the first outpost of World Methodism in Asia. We are also proud to say that we also have the oldest Methodist Church in Asia at Pettah (Methodist Church, Pettah) which also celebrated its bicentenary last December. We are thankful to God as we pass through these significant milestones in the history of Sri Lanka and the Methodist church. Through our Annual conference through the special envoy of the British Methodist Church, Rev. Rachel Parkinson we managed to send this communique of asking to recognise Sri Lanka as a Methodist Heritage where all these early schools and the church will be marked as Methodist Heritage sites.
In a way, looking back we are saddened about the fact that almost all of our schools were taken over by Government back in 1962. However, we have not stopped our commitment for education. Apart from the two schools we retained, we manage pre-schools through the Methodist church providing a sound foundation to children’s education. Who knows, in the future if we are allowed to expand our education or the government provides us the opportunity, we would be glad to get involved. We are still committed to see that every child in Sri Lanka gets a good education.
The fact that Methodist Missionaries came to Sri Lanka from Britain, tends to create an impression among some that we are foreign. I must say, our early missionaries were deeply committed to upholding traditional or cultural values of Sri Lanka. Some of these missionaries before they arrived in Ceylon, did study and learn about Ceylon and its native culture. Though they didn’t have access or knowledge of Sinhala, they learnt Portuguese which was a common language used during the 18th century in Ceylon. It is said, Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke while on his voyage to Ceylon was translating hymns and scriptures to Portuguese. Though he couldn’t complete the journey, all other missionaries who landed on the shores took great interest to understand and study the local culture. They spent time at local Buddhist temples, building relationships with Buddhist monks, learning Pali and Buddhism.
As time went by, the Methodist Church wanted to establish or root itself with Sri Lankan culture and traditions. Of course we have our own Biblical values and teaching. When you keep them in line with certain cultural values of our country there can be differences. We have acknowledged it. We always encourage anyone who embraces Christianity to give his or her loyalty to Jesus Christ first before anything else. But that does not mean, a person is removed from his or her cultural values or traits. Whatever that is acceptable or right in accordance with Christian teaching will be upheld. We are not a church that would ‘Americanise’ Sri Lanka or make our culture English. We want to see the emergence of Sri Lanka with its cultural values together with our beliefs. As a result of it, we have some wonderful hymns and lyrics written in our local languages, our early missionaries translated the bible into local languages. We always strive to retain our cultural values and we want to remain Sri Lankan.
Our Church is committed to encouraging the children and youth to engage in education and complete their education in order to fulfil their goals and uplift their lives. At the same time, we like to request our youth and the student population to value the education they are receiving today. It’s all free. Thanks to free education, they are receiving many privileges. But free education does not mean when you are faced with challenges or obstacles with administrators and higher authorities that students should resort to trade union type actions or rebel. My heart breaks when I see certain children who enjoyed free education, enter universities and get involved in strikes and protest campaigns where they are always on the road protesting and get beaten mercilessly, repeatedly. This is a very sad thing. They are missing their studies, more than anything they who came through free education and got their place are depriving many thousands of other deserving children who wanted to genuinely study but who couldn’t enter universities. We are having this debate, whether there should be government and private collaborations in providing higher education as government universities cannot alone meet the demand for higher education. My strongest appeal to our students is not to waste their time and precious opportunities but value the education they get and concentrate on their studies. As a church, we always stand for people of this land and we want to ensure without any discrimination on cast, religion or ethnicity, everyone growing up and taking up their place in motherland.
If I may recall my memories from Richmond College, as I studied there during the ‘60s where my formative years were filled with wonderful memories. I couldn’t imagine such a large space was made available for children, for education in a wonderful environment. We used to run up and down the Richmond Hill, with lots of space and freedom. This is one thing I really liked about Richmond College. My heart breaks when I see some of the modern-day schools where, little or no space is available and is surrounded by buildings. It was a time, just after the government had taken over the administration and there were a few issues, especially anti-Christian sentiments developing and some teachers and students who were Christians but had changed their faith back to their original faiths. However, the school and students maintained very good discipline. Our principal at that time was late Mr. D. G. Welikala who was a strict disciplinarian. When he walked around the school, I mean the entire school which is a big property, no one dared to walk in the premises. We stood straight whilst giving him way. He knew every child by name and where one came from. He carried the cane and was not hesitant to cane a student if he spotted one who misbehaved. At the same time, he was a very caring and loving educationist. He wanted to ensure that all students were educated as great all-rounders not only in studies but also in sports and extracurricular activities.
I must also say Richmond College very proudly took care of the late Rev. W. J. T. Small a saintly man who lived in that College until his demise. He came from England, sacrificing all his comforts and his life there to be at Richmond College as he took over from Rev. Darrel as the principal. He was a well-respected man and was an inspiration to me. He was a close friend of my father. He was well conversant in Sinhala and could read and write. He used to preach and converse with people in Sinhala. That was my first experience where an Englishman spoke in Sinhala. He was a simple man but was a great source of inspiration to many who studied under him at Richmond College. So my foundation for education was laid at Richmond College, which I really value and ever grateful for.