July 17 – Daniel Thambyrajah (D. T.) Niles, faithful servant

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Daniel Thambyrajah (D. T.) Niles, faithful servant

 Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (affectionately known as “D.T.”) was a gifted Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) Methodist minister who became internationally famous as an ecumenical leader, prolific author and public speaker. He delivered the keynote address at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948 and also spoke at the Second Assembly held at Evanston (USA) in 1954 and the Fourth in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968. Niles was a giant of the ecumenical movement, holding high offices in the World Council, the National Christian Council of Ceylon and the East Asian Christian Conference (EACC). Though an ecumenist of global significance, he firmly believed that those involved in ecumenical work should maintain firm roots in the local church. At the time of his death when he was both a President of the WCC and the Chairman of EACC, he was also the Superintendent minister of St Peter’s Methodist Church (Jaffna) and Principal of Jaffna Central College.

Niles is probably best known today for the large number of hymns that he wrote, including the popular, “The great love of God is revealed in the Son” and “Father in heaven, grant to your children”, both of which are included in the Australian Hymn Book and Together in Song. Perhaps it is less well known that he was the author of many popular aphorisms: “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.” And then there is his startling challenge to complacent congregations: “The answer to the problems of our world is the answer that Jesus Christ provided, which is the Church.”

Niles lived simply and always considered his primary calling to be that of an evangelist and preacher—a witness to the living Christ as saviour. He challenged those who doubted that evangelism by the spoken word could still find a response and insisted that those who minister must judge their success not by how much service they have rendered but by how many have been led to God. He was explicitly Christocentric in faith and practice, insisting that those who speak about Jesus must learn to keep quiet about themselves. “The object of evangelism is conversion”, Niles declared, “conversion to Christ and personal discipleship to him.” Also involved in Niles’ understanding of conversion, was conversion to the Christian community and conversion to Christian ideas and ideals. The normal order of mission priorities, he explained, was threefold: a welcome to community, an invitation to discipleship and a transformation of values. “The pilgrimage of the individual Christian”, he insisted, “is held within and nurtured by the pilgrimage of the Christian community.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Niles quoted approvingly Karl Barth’s familiar pronouncement, “One cannot hold the Christian faith without holding it in the church and with the church.”

In one of Niles’s first books which he titled, Whose I Am and Whom I Serve (1939) he wrote “One of the primary needs of the Church today is to rediscover this mood [of hopefulness], not merely to rediscover our faith as such, but to re-discover it in its original mood of exhilaration, of challenge and high adventure, of expectant hope and triumphant deed.” Niles lived such a life of joyous commitment. In one of the last sentences he penned before his death in his memoir, The Testament of Faith (1972), Niles expressed this fundamental characteristic of the Christian life, “I rejoice in the Holy Spirit, His power, His assurance, His guarantees, His teachings, His fellowship, His guidance and His mission; we live by His gifts.” Perhaps the real measure of the man was his humility. It is best expressed in his book, Preaching the Gospel of the Resurrection (1953), “The work we do, during our life on earth is always that which somebody else has done. We begin where they have left off…There is a placard with the sign, ‘Move on’ which hangs over all our work.”

William W. Emilsen