The former Moderator of the united Church of Bangladesh, Bishop Paul Sarker, reflects on 32 years of ordained ministry – including more than 10 years as Primate from 2007 until he stood down in December, ahead of his retirement this month as Bishop of Dhaka.
It is not easy to speak in brief about a 32 years ministry – as a Priest, Bishop and Moderator of the Church of Bangladesh. I was the youngest son of a primary school teacher and Reader of the former Anglican Church and brought up on the premises of the Oxford Mission monastery. However, it did not influence me to join the priesthood. In the 1970s, I was actively involved with the Student Christian Movement as a young student and I got immensely influenced by the Liberation Theology through many activities of that time.
After completing my university degree, I went through a cracking struggle within myself in choosing my work and livelihoods, and finally decided to join the pastoral ministry with our Church for three reasons: first, to study theology; second, to serve the poor and vulnerable; and three, to bring transformation in the life of ongoing customary Church.
The Church of Bangladesh was a rural-based small and fully dependent church nurtured by the missionaries since the colonial time. The Church was involved in rendering basic services like education, health and other charities targeting the poor. After independence under Bengali leadership, the Church started a few development programmes supported by foreign grants.
It helped the congregations with better education and improving their socio-economic condition, and thereby it also played a considerable role to witness Christ in our pluralistic society. But in the growing demands of the people the Church became more dependent on foreign aid from pastoral and development ministries. Truly speaking, the Church was not careful about the development of quality leaders and professional skilled people; and it had no plan to acquire solvency for a sustainable pastoral ministry. As a result, the total management of the Church has been remaining weak and is staying much behind the time.
There are many challenges for the small Church in pluralistic and developing countries. Congregations expect a lot from the Church. To me the main challenge is to be a self-reliant Church. Spiritual development is hardly possible for a dependent Church. Congregations should understand that along with their roles and responsibilities to meet that challenges.
When I took the responsibility as moderator of the Church, I started to suffer from financial crisis. Foreign donation declined, bank interests went down, but all sort of expenses increased. Despite all these limitations during my tenure we tried to continue the regular programme for the children, youth and women.
Church planting was carried out among the tribal people in north and south-east part of Bangladesh. School programmes improved well, and a new mode in generating income from schools was established against quality education. A reorganisation was undertaken for the social development programme in consultation with the partners. It was found any reformation was very tough for a Church to undertake.
A third Diocese of Barisal has been created to revive the pastoral works in south-west area of Bangladesh and to bring a stronger management to look after the properties of the Church.
With all our limited ability, I tried to respond to the needs of the poor in their crises in country and abroad. We tried to ensure proper use of our properties that we inherited. I tried to mobilise lay professionals in support of Church needs. But in many cases, that have rather created problems because of the vested interests of a few.
I am not worthy to be a priest and leader of a Church; but by God’s grace I got this opportunity. I am unfortunate that because of the internal conflicts the image of our Church has been damaged, though we have experienced this type of problems before. I became a victim of it mainly to protect the interests of the Church and its property. It might be because of my plain dealing and for the administrative weakness, and some sort of non-cooperation from my colleagues. Thus, I can’t say I am a successful leader as such; but I tried my best to embrace the Christian values with my honesty and sincerity, and tried to find ways to look forward.
I am fortunate as a leader of a small poor Church, and to come in touch with the distinguish scholars and talented persons who enriched and influenced my life a lot. Among them I should remember Pope Francis, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Archbishop Justin Welby, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykes Tveit, the former General Secretary of the Council for World Mission, the Revd Dr Desmond Vander Water, and many others.
I am delighted to recollect my memories of many events and meetings during my ministry such as Lambeth Conference 2008, the 50th anniversary of the Anglican Centre in Rome, Standing Committee meetings and Primates’ Meetings of the Anglican Communion, Conferences of SMS and USPG, participation in the inter-faith meetings with al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi and London. I also remember the Assembly of the Church of Scotland and my sharing about climate change in a workshop, representing to the Council for World Mission and taking part in its leadership, attending assemblies of CCA and WCC etc.
It was a special moment when I took part in the civic reception of Pope Francis in Bangladesh and prayed an inter-faith prayer. It was a wonderful time and experience for me and for my wife to staying couple of months in Adelaide, Australia at the beginning of my pastoral ministry. I enjoyed studying for my Masters of Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Kentucky, USA after 10 years of my pastoral life.
Thank God for all these opportunities and privileges in my pastoral life. I am grateful to all the friends in Bangladesh and in abroad those who have given and still are giving their moral support and praying for me and my family.
To me, stepping up and stepping down from any leadership both are equally important. There are hardship, joy and enormous God’s blessings in both of the processes.
As I am going to retire soon, I am encouraged by the words of psalmist: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . . they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Psalm 92: 13-14).
I pray that God will pardon my weaknesses and will lead me to a new horizon.
Wishing you blessings. Shalom!