SRI LANKA – On October 9 2022, the Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Church (CELC) consecrated its first Bishop, Rev. Arumanayagam Arulchelvan. Approximately 200 members from across the church were present for the event.
The consecration was conducted by Archbishop Joseph Omolo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), joined also by ELCK Bishops Kispin and Titus. Archbishop Omolo, who also serves as the Africa Region Representative for the International Lutheran Council (ILC), expressed great satisfaction at being able to participate in the event, noting “it was a good opportunity for the Africa region to have fellowship with the Asia region in same-saying the faith and strengthening one another in the Lord.”
Also present for the consecration were representatives of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), including the church’s Sri Lanka Mission Manager, Rev. Steven Mahlburg, and Regional Director for Asia, Rev. Charles Ferry.
The consecration was the culmination of a long process for the CELC. Plans for the election and consecration of a bishop were initially planned for May 2020, with the ELCK’s Archbishop planning to attend at that time. But the outbreak of civil unrest, in addition to the effects of the pandemic and an economic crisis, led the church to delay its Diocesan Assembly several times.
On September 27, 2022, the church was finally able to hold its Diocesan Assembly, gathering in Colombo. Representatives from every congregation in the church, along with CELC’s pastors and lay evangelists, formally ratified their new constitution and elected Rev. Arulchelvan to be their new bishop. They also elected a Diocesan Council.
The CELC also voted to seek membership in the International Lutheran Council (ILC). The Sri Lankan church previously held membership in the ILC but its membership lapsed in recent years as it attempted to restructure itself. CELC also voted to seek altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS, with whom it has historic ties.
The history of Lutheran missions in Sri Lanka, go back more than 150 years but the CELC traces its particular history to 1958 when Rev. James Fergin, an LCMS missionary from India, arrived to minister to Tamil workers in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. This eventually led to the formation of the Lanka Lutheran Church in 1978.
In 1983, civil war broke out Sri Lanka—war which would last for 26 years and put significant pressure on the church. The Lanka Lutheran Church’s government registration subsequently lapsed in the mid-2000s, though the church itself continued to function.
A few years after the civil war ended in 2009, the LCMS began to send resident missionaries to Sri Lanka again, helping the church to reconstitute itself. The church eventually obtained new government registration in 2017 under its new name: the Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Today, the CELC has about 15 congregations and mission stations; four ordained pastors; five lay evangelists; and an approximate membership of 2,000 people. The vast majority of people in the country are Buddhist, with Christians making up just over seven percent of the population, meaning outreach can be difficult. Historic tensions between Tamil and Singalese people in the country also create challenges.
The LCMS’ Sri Lanka Mission Manager, Rev. Mahlburg, encourages Lutherans across the world to remember the Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Church in prayer. “Though they’re small in numbers, there is a core group of Christians in Sri Lanka that are committed Lutherans,” he says. “They are proud of their heritage and are struggling to carry out the ministry there and reach out to people as they are able.”