Charming and unapologetic: Sydney’s Anglican archbishop isn’t afraid to be out of step with the times

Aug 6, 2022 by

by Jordan Baker, Sydney Morning Herald:

Kanishka Raffel’s election as Archbishop of Sydney broke the mould. His predecessors are all of European descent; his heritage is Sri Lankan. Many of those who went before him were sons of Sydney’s Anglican dynasties, and attended its sandstone schools; he moved to Australia as a boy and went to Carlingford High.

But the most unusual thing about Raffel, in the annals of Christian archbishops, is that for the first 21 years of his life he was a Buddhist. He meditated, chanted Buddhist prayers, and went to the temple. He watched his mother – a doctor, who was widowed young – perform acts of charity to accrue merit for her late husband.

But that all changed one hot, sleepless summer night, when he picked up a gospel given to him by a friend. By dawn, he was a Christian. “In a sense, it was kind of unavoidable,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything else.”

We meet at Spiced by Billu’s in Barangaroo, the closest we could find to Sri Lankan cuisine in the city on a Tuesday. Raffel orders curries, dhal and chutneys, toning down the heat after I sheepishly admit to being a spice sook. Raffel lifts his foot above the table and hoicks up his trouser leg to reveal a sock decorated with red chillies. “I wore them for you.”

The 57-year-old is accustomed to heat, both in his food and in his job. He was elected as Sydney’s Anglican leader a little over a year ago, and is presiding over a diocese that is increasingly at odds with the views held by many in the city, and even the views of its fellow Australian Anglicans, when it comes to women, divorce and same-sex relationships.

Parents at Anglican schools are fighting an edict from Sydney’s synod – a kind of Anglican parliament – requiring principals to affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. Due to its view that men and women are designed for different roles in life, Sydney also remains one of the few English-speaking dioceses to refuse to ordain women as priests. Divorce is bad, too. A few years ago, a popular rector had to resign from his parish because his marriage ended.

Raffel is funny, charming and diplomatic. He has been described, even by some who disagree with him, as a nice chap. But he is also, ever so politely, unapologetic. Sydney’s Anglicans won’t be changing their interpretation of the bible to suit the times. “There’s no doubt we are at the counter-cultural end, rather than culturally accommodating,” he says. “This isn’t a matter of pigheadedness. We’re trying to follow Jesus.”

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