Lay ministries in the Diocese of Colombo

1. Introduction, general background and scope of study

As a Catholic and a reformed church, generally Anglicans throughout the world have been making every effort to keep a healthy tension between lay and ordained ministries of the church.  Throughout the past two centuries, in the history of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, this global nature has been a visible reality in the mission and vision of this church. The story of the manifestation of this nature is a complex and a complicated saga, which needs to be elaborated to have an adequate knowledge.  Hence in this review it is anticipated to accomplish this requirement and to document this important subject for the furtherance of knowledge, wisdom and spirituality.

To discharge this purpose, as the primary sources, the official documents of the diocese were used along with other available relevant literature and some appropriate scholarly views to have background knowledge for the enrichment of evaluation. Wherever it was pertinent the writer of this appraisal made use of his living experiences and exposures to enrich the quality of this discourse. Mainly it is the intention of this appraisal to deal with the significant trends of the fulltime lay ministries and other momentous ministries performed by the laity of the Diocese of Colombo in the past 125 years giving special attention to contemporary 25 years.

2. Practical issues enriched by theology through catechists – Early saga 

As the Anglican Church was introduced to Sri Lanka mainly by the British people through the missionary societies such as The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), The Church Missionary Society (CMS) and Tamil Church Mission   [formally known as Tamil Cooly Mission] (TCM)[1] it became a practical need the get the services of lay people for the propagations of the gospel in the Sri Lankan society. In this particular background it was necessary to use some people in between ordinary people and the British expatriates to facilitate interpretations of the Christian gospel. In this specific context lay ministers called Catechist were appointed to enhance the necessity of mediating communication between ordinary people and the British ministers of the gospel. 

For instance, among these missions, TCM, which was “under the superintendence of the Church Missionary Society”,[2] was established in 1854 at the invitation of a few coffee planters. In the later part of the 19th century with the failing of coffee plantation and the introduction of the tea, this mission began to execute their services in the tea plantation areas through a system of pastorates. A report of a meeting held in Kandy in 1879 gives the following revised version of duties of a catechist, which highlights the ethos of the ministry performed by a catechist of that time. [3]


To visit each estate in his charge once every month, if possible.

To preach at muster, where permission is given

To visit the lines and preach, and do whatever else may further his work

To instruct servants wherever possible

To preach in bazaars, if opportunity and time permit

To examine schools connected with the Tamil Cooly Mission, if directed to do so.

To sell books and tracts

To search for Protestant Christians, and, if there be no obstacle, to enter their names in the mission register

To hold Divine Service on Sunday at places appointed by the Missionary, or wherever a few Christians can be gathered together.

To teach the Christians appointed lessons

To endeavour to correct any irregularity he may see in their conduct

To take notes of Inquirers and others interested in Christianity

To prepare candidates for Baptism

To keep a report of his visits to the Estates, and to obtain the initials of the Superintendent in verification of his report

To keep an accurate report of the Christians under his charge

To keep a journal of his proceedings

To deliver in person his reports to the Missionary once every two months, and receive such instructions and directions as may necessary.” [4]

Later the personal correspondences of these Catechists confirm that they had been fulfilling these duties reasonably well.

These correspondences give records of the details such as the places they have visited, services they have conducted and the meetings they have convened in various places under their care.[5]

During the period in some cases the role of catechist and teachers were intertwined.  Some teachers were catechists and some catechists were teachers, which highlighted the Anglican theological philosophy of the era. The Anglican Church along with other churches such as Roman Catholic and Methodists churches considered the “Schools” as “the nuclear” of the future church. When the cluster of “church and school” existed in the same locality under the supervision of a British minister these catechists were the live wires who kept the education and spirituality together in the languages of the people of the respective areas. Often these “catechist-teachers” were the persons who were able to have a sound training in a then recognised institution. Here is a statement on one such catechist from Moratuwa “ …was soon succeeded by (name given), Government Catechist, father of Rev. (name given). Born at Idama in 1822, (name given), after prosecuting his studies at the Cotta institution, worked there as an assistant teacher till his promotion.”[6]

Although a few in number, among these catechists there were some women who were called “Bible Teachers” at that time. Some of their personal correspondents highlight that they were performing duties such as conducting of worship, Bible studies and delivering instructions especially to women on various issues both religious and secular. During that era their ministries particularly became important as the many women of that time, mainly in rural areas, had little direct contacts with men to get instructions from them.

In this manner, in the process of adaptation of the Anglican Church to begin to get rooted in the Sri Lankan soil, it became obligatory to get the services of these fulltime workers. The services of these Catechists smooth the progress of necessary adaptation to transmit the Christian gospel among local people in Sri Lanka. This adaptation was an “an invention” which is sociologically defined as a new use of old elements of the culture.”[7] In this regard the typical example was the use of the old languages of Sinhala and Tamil for the new purpose of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Although here the previous work done by the Portuguese and the Dutch missionaries was an assistance, the fact that “Language is not merely the external covering of a thought; it also is its internal framework”[8] became a challenge and opportunity for these workers called catechists.

3. Recognition of fulltime Lay Workers 

When the category called Catechists was fast vanishing, from the late the 70s, gradually there emerge a group called lay workers in many ways to fulfill the ministries performed by the former category. But by this time the Anglican influence inside the school network was minimal due to the takeover of the church schools by the government in ears 1960s making the “catechist teacher” category a reminiscence of the past. Although the term catechist was fading away, the term Lay worker or more refined term “Daham Sevaka” was officially used only in mid 90s of the 20th century.[9] It is interesting to note that from mid 70s Bible Teachers were commonly called Women Workers in the official documents of the church.[10]

Sociologically speaking it is desired to investigate the nexus between the shift from Catechist to Lay Worker (or Daham Sevaka & Sevika) and the change of social order from “colonial capitalism” to more socialised social order particularly after 1956 political and cultural revival in Sri Lanka. In his thesis “The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism” Max Weber has clearly shown that theological ethics of Protestant denomination such as “Elect” created a fertile ground for capitalism.[11] Theological implications and repercussions of this sociological reality is well documented by Weber in the following statement,

“The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. But God requires social achievements of the Christian because He wills that social life shall be organised according to His commandments, in accordance with that purpose.” [12]

In the context of the order of the day, catechists were an integral product of the colonial Protestant ethics, which sustained capitalism. Therefore fading away of catechists and the rising of Lay workers could be sociologically analysed as a response to a social need created by the new social order in the country, which naturally influenced the church.

The shaping and reshaping of this then new group called lay workers into a recognisable category were an intricate process with discussions, debates, arguments and resolutions. Responding to this process in the latter part of the 20th century the Bishop appointed a Director of Lay Workers to coordinate the aspect such as tanning and formation and to bring forth their issues to the Bishop and other relevant authority of this category in the Diocese. Under this director Lay Workers started enjoying the privilege of having their own programmes in the similar way it is done for the clergypersons of the diocese.  

Even in the recent past Bishop of the Diocese in his address to the Council acknowledged the prevailing status and identity issues of this category in this manner “Some discomfort still continues about the status and   identity of our Lay Workers. Several conversations have revealed that this is best address through a clarification of the calling of the Lay Workers to a specific ministry and the Diocese’s obligation to ensure that they receive dignity and adequate space for fulfilment in ministry.” [13]

4. The place of fulltime Lay Workers in the mission of the church

The former reference by the Bishop on dignity and the specific nature of the ministry of Lay workers are integrally connected to the place of Lay Workers in the mission of the Church. This partially resolved issue has been on the agenda of the church very specially from the latter decade of the 20th century.

In the recent past the Bishop of the Diocese has been very concerned about the place of the full time Lay Workers in the mission of the Diocese. For instance the Bishop has been nominating a few Lay Workers from both genders and ethnic groups to represent all the Lay Workers of the Diocese of Colombo. This step was taken to facilitate these workers to raise their issues at the highest level of the consultation at the annual Diocesan Council.  This concern of the Bishop to clarify the place of Lay workers in the Diocese is highlighted in the following clear statement declared by him in one of his addressed to the council under the sub heading “ Faithful Co-workers”, “A period of dialogue with the Lay-workers of the Diocese has compelled the Diocese to review their status and ministries. Over several conversations and guided by Fr (name given) the Director of Lay-Workers, consensus is emerging regarding their designation, dress, training, service of induction and criteria for future ordination. In this task both, the dignity of our lay brothers and sisters well as the distinct nature of this lay order need to be affirmed.” [14]

As an Episcopal church with the natural emphasis of clerical importance more than the other Protestant churches this issue of the substantial recognition of this category remains a matter for the continuous attention of the people and the relevant authority of the Diocese.

5. Training and Formation of Lay Workers

In the 9th decade of the 20th century the Bishop of the diocese recognised the necessity of systematic training and formation for the fulltime Lay Workers of the Diocese. Regarding the training given to lay workers, in 2006, in his address to the Diocesan Council Bishop has recorded, “Our Lay Workers assist the clergy in the work of the Diocese. Most have received training either at the Cathedral Institute (CI) or at TCL (Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa). Refresher courses are run specially for them at the CI. They attend annual conferences and retreats and attend Chapter meetings. A Post-Induction Training (PIT) course for Lay Workers is being formulated.”[15]

Apart from this in some archdeaconries, deaneries and parishes training programmes were held to enrich the ministries of the Lay Workers of the Diocese.[16] Lay Workers with necessary qualifications have been encouraged to sit for the NCRK (National Certificate of Religious Knowledge) conducted by the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka. (NCCSL). Lay workers who complete this examination successfully are directed to follow the diploma course conducted by the NCCSL to deepen their knowledge and spirituality to enhance their ministry. Apart from these courses the relevant qualified Lay Workers are advised to follow the DipCS (Diploma in Christian Studies) Conducted by the Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa. The Senate of Serampore College, India confers the certificate for this course.[17]

This highlights a fairly descriptive yet concise account of the opportunities created for the formation and education of the Lay Workers of the diocese.  In his regard form the above statement of the Bishop it is clear that the intention of the diocese is to organise on going training and reflective programmes for the these Lay Workers to be better equipped to face the challenges and chances for the future.

6. Ordained Clergy and fulltime Lay Workers

At the beginning of the 21st century the voice was raised at the diocesan council to provide more recognition for the fulltime lay workers of the church. Yet after much deliberation the church recognised that it is a special ministry apart from the three fold ordained ministry of Deacon, Priest and Bishop. However it was observed that these lay workers often function in between clergy and laity filling the space created between two categories. In this natural dilemma some of these lay workers perform a ministry very close to that of a clergyperson while others have been performing their ministry very close to the ministry performed by catechists of the pervious era. Often this reality was determined by the quality of each Lay Worker with his or her education, formation and experience. Gradually some of these Lay Workers who have excelled in their life, formation and ministry were given the opportunity to be in charge of some congregations and institutions.

Some people are of the view that the fulltime lay ministry is an “order” by itself and need not to be a steppingstone for the ordained ministry. Others have been making efforts to facilitate suitable lay workers to be absorbed into ordained ministry with appropriate training and formation.[18]  However Bishop in one of the addresses to the council refereeing “ Caring for our pastors” has said “ Our Clergy and Lay workers serve the Diocese with dedication and often at great cost to themselves and their families. Ill health, at relatively young age, burn out and personal crisis is the price that some pay.”  This reference of the Bishop gives the impression that these two ministries are like two sides of the same coin and in no way one ministry is superior to the other.[19]

7. Voluntary Lay Workers in parishes

It is not an exaggeration to state that in almost every parish apart from lay officers and side people (Stewarts) there are voluntary lay workers involved in various ministries of the church. In rural and tea plantation areas where clergypersons look after more than one church these personalities have been performing valuable services to keep the congregations and activities together. In those churches very often the clergypersons and the parishioners lookup to these persons who have been executing an unassuming necessary ministry.

With the widening of horizons of the mission and vision of the parishes more space was created to get the services of these voluntary workers. In this regard the creation of interest groups such as worship committees, social responsibility groups and   the groups comprising people interested in evangelism have given these lay people the opportunity to get involved in the various branches of the mission of the church. Acknowledging this fact Bishop in his address to the council once said, “ Our laity play an important role in the life and mission of the Diocese. Some serve on our committees and boards brining a variety of skills and offering useful insights and advice…………Still others are called and engage in lay ministries through preaching, evangelism, social service and community activities.”[20]

Here it is imperative to state that according to the liturgical theology worship embraces the whole life in the context of the created world. The very word liturgy is derived from two Greek word called laos (People) and ergon (work). Therefore the liturgy means work of people and in this particular background Bishop’s observation illustrates the true nature of the worship of the church, which incorporates the ministries of the whole people of God in His world.[21]

8. Lay readers and people assisting at the Holy Eucharist

Although it is fast fading, traditionally, in many churches there were licensed voluntary lay readers who rendered a valuable service in respective churches. Apart from reading scripture lessons in churches these readers supplemented the ministry of clergy persons by conducting worship services such as litanies and intercessions. Often these readers were in charge of scripture reading in the divine worship and in certain cases trained    other people and children to read clearly and audibly. In certain cases these lay readers visited houses and prayed for the sick and infirm people in respective parishes.

In a way today this ministry has taken another shape as the people assisting at the Holy Eucharist as they are also given a license from the Bishop. It a visible reality that these people earn more respect than the former category of lay readers as they are allowed to distribute the elements at the Holy Eucharist. Often people consider this as a special and holy responsibility granted to lay people in parishes.

9. Observations of Distinguished ministries

Especially in the rural areas fulltime lay workers were involved in spreading the gospel in testing and challenging situations.  In the recent past in the context of the youth up risings in the south in early 70s and late 80s these workers were able to perform an admirable service in the worst affected areas such as Badulla district.[22] At the same time in the North and the East they were in midst of the civil ethnic war by performing a pastoral ministry for all the affected people of these areas irrespective of their class, code, ethnicity or religion. In many of these anxious situations these unassuming workers, who were among the common people were a “sign of hope” for the hopeless and helpless inhabitants.[23] Acknowledging this reality once referring to Our Clergy and Lay Workers Bishop made a statement to the council in the following manner, “ The informal pastoral and ecumenical ministries of our clergy and workers is significant in the churches’ wider mission. They have built fine community relationships with leaders of other religions, and civil society. They are often the first on the scene in disaster or crisis be it tsunami or war or community conflict.”[24]

In certain areas such as Tangalla and Hambantota they were able bring revival by making those then diminishing churches vibrant through introducing new believers from various neighbour areas. It is not an exaggeration to state that some of these churches today exist due to the tireless efforts of these lay workers. These Lay Workers were able perform a ministry of this nature mainly due to their common touch with the people of the respective areas. In many of these parishes the new comers along with some of these Lay workers who themselves are the first generation of Christians are in a journey of faith to recreate a new identity to become effective members of church and society.[25]

10. Conclusion with a projection to the future

Lay ministries in the diocese of Colombo have been going through various stages with the needs and wants of the mission and vision of the Diocese. Yet it is very clear that the Diocese as a living entity is being entrusted with continues responsibility to stabilize and grant due recognition to this valuable and necessary ministry to enhance the mission of the church. In this regard the history of the development of the fulltime Lay ministries has manifested the versatile nature of these ministries which should be taken into consideration. In due time, it may be necessary to evaluate the necessity of this ministry in the context of the total mission of the church to proceed to the next stage of this ministry.

To facilitate an effective and meaningful future of this ministry it will be useful to have an evolution of lay ministries in other Christian denominations in Sri Lanka and other countries very specially Lay ministries in the Anglican churches through out the world.  This would enable the Lay ministries to be formulated in our Diocese for the future   with a global vision and a local projection which could enrich the mission and vision of the Diocese to widen its boundaries to be a more inclusive church to carry out the services of our servant Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Beven, F.L.(Ed) (1946) A History of the Diocese of Colombo – A centenary Volume, Diocese of Colombo, Colombo. pp. 129-182.

[2] Tamil Coolly Mission reports, 1884 – 1903, Diocese of Colombo, p.5

[3] Tamil Coolly Mission reports, 1884 – 1903, Diocese of Colombo, p.5

[4] Tamil Coolly Mission reports, 1884 – 1903, Diocese of Colombo, pp. 7-8

[5] Personal correspondences of the catechists in the Diocesan archives in the Diocese of Colombo 

[6] Centenary Souvenir of the Holy Emmanuel Church, Moratuwa (1960)

[7] Horton P.B. & Hunt C.L. (1964) Sociology, McGraw–Hill Book Company London, p. 485.

[8] Durkheim Emile (1965) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,( Translated by  Swain Joseph Ward) Collier Macmillan Publishers, London, p.94.

[9] Green Book (1995-96) Diocese of Colombo, pp. 61-63

[10] Green Book (1973-74) Diocese of Colombo, p.38

[11] Weber Max - 1958 - The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , ( Translated by Parsons Talcott) , Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.