Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour: A Church for all

If you drive or walk along the Bauddhaloka Mawatha, you cannot miss the BMICH. But there is another landmark building right next to the BMICH that you cannot miss - the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour.

The famous Church, inaugurated in November 1973, belongs to the Church of Ceylon which is Part of the Anglican Communion with Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev. Justin Welby as its Metropolitan and Rt. Rev. Dhiiloraj Ranjith Canagasabey as the present Bishop of Colombo. It is a church that welcomes everyone and people from all faiths and walks of life enter through its portals to participate in its regular events.

The architecture of the Cathedral is modern but it includes traditional Kandyan features such as octagonal walls. The Vicar says, “The Cathedral is about 43 years old. The Old Cathedral was at Mutwal. There is a lot of significance in its whole character and appearance. It has the appearance of being unfinished and there is a theological significance or message behind that unfinished appearance. Our work as the Church carried out by human beings will only be completed with the return of Christ. So that’s why it has that incomplete appearance. It also looks like an auditorium with a table in the middle and the altar area at an elevated position. It also gives a very important message that we are all equal.”

“When clergy take our place during the act of worship that we participate in, the people who participate and the clergy who lead, are all at an equal level. There is nobody higher or lower than the other. Those are some of the features in the architecture and the theological message behind its construction. It’s very simple yet striking. It has something in it that somebody may want to look at it a second time. It is very open.”

Home church

The history of the Cathedral goes back to the early 1970s. The Vicar says, “It’s only of late, in the last ten years that it has got more of a fixed community of worshippers, because it was for many years a place where people who were in transit came. People who did not belong to any Church came here for worship. That has been a part of the growing and evolving process for us. Today however there are people who call the Cathedral “their Church”. Having worked in other Churches around the country, I know the concept of a home church is quite new here because it’s only about 40 years, whereas St. Michael’s is over 150 years and St. Paul’s is more than 200 years. Those have been Churches operating for some time. This is a relatively new idea in that context.”

The Vicar explains that a Cathedral and a Church are both places where people come to worship. He says, “It’s a house of prayer and a gathering point for people in worship. The Cathedral is the place where the Bishop is, it is the Bishop’s Church where the Bishop is in charge. That could be one distinct difference.”

The Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour in Colombo has an interesting history because many people have played an influential role in constructing this building. The Vicar further explains, “We have a very interesting concept which is something that stems from the teachings in the Bible where one person comes and prepares the soil, another person comes and plants and waters, another person nurtures the tree, and another person comes perhaps and reaps the fruit. It’s a very similar story here. We’ve had bishops who have had a hand in laying the foundation, the building and the architecture. It’s a continuous flow of people who have had a hand in its construction.”

The area in which the Cathedral is built was originally called Kumbi Kele (ant jungle) because the land was infested with different types of ants and termites. The Vicar says: “I remember as a child this was a garage, a repair yard and all Government vehicles were repaired in this compound. This section of road was very narrow.”

The current congregation consists of people from Colombo and its suburbs. The Vicar adds, “We have a very mixed congregation and we have services in all three languages. We have a Sinhala service at 7.00 a.m., an English service at 8.15 a.m., and a Tamil service at 11 a.m. Every time we have a fifth Sunday in any given month there is a trilingual act of worship. That is a bit of a balancing act to keep the language balance in place. But we do it because we are also a Church in which all three languages are represented. We have a diverse congregation of Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers and a few expatriates from the West, Asia and Africa.”

The Cathedral has always been a place of refuge for people of diverse ethnicities. The Vicar adds, “This worshipping community here engages with people outside. We are very actively involved in a project that supports women who were widowed during the war. We have a very active project going on where we provide livelihood support for them.”

Every Church is known for its characteristic features, and the Vicar explains, “Of late, in the last five to six years we have gained a reputation as a place connected with music. We’ve had the opportunity to minister to people and to reach out to people through music. We’ve been having sacred music a lot, and our choir takes a leading role in conducting musical programs for charitable causes. We also have an outreach program where we teach English to underprivileged children.”

An exhaustive list of famous people including heads of state, presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and dignitaries have visited the Cathedral. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams visited the Cathedral in 2007, and bishops from different parts of the world have also visited. The Cathedral is a place that many people have passed through.

Central location

The Vicar says that there are no plans for refurbishing the Cathedral at the moment, but the old fittings have to be replaced. The Church compound has very old trees such as Banyan, Neem, Sandalwood, Red Sandalwood, Aralu and many more which enhance the picturesque setting. There are many weddings in the Cathedral. The Vicar says, “People choose this Cathedral because of its central location, it can seat quite a lot of people, there is ample parking and a nice setting.

Brides love to use the front lawn for photographs, and brides also love to use the setting of the Banyan tree for photographs. People have simple wedding receptions like a garden party in the premises. Lots of people from the Christian community use the Church and the compound.”

The Vicar emphasizes the importance of communal harmony: “I am happy that some kind of recognition and acknowledgement of places where communities come together for worship is being done. We are living in a day and age where very important values and principles that have held our society and community together are seriously under threat.

It’s time to preserve those values. I’m not saying that we should get stuck in time, and neither am I saying that we should become morose people, far from that. We have to live our lives, but we have to be respectful of people and their differences, and I think in a country, in a land of many differences, my plea to the people of our country is that it is time we start celebrating what makes us different than making it a reason to fight about.

We have to celebrate what makes us different. That’s my plea and my prayer for the people of this nation.”

Pictures by Kelum Liyanage 

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