Communion Matters XVIII: Communion and Colonialism

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I recently read an essay in which the author said that the Anglican Communion is a product of (in particular English) colonialism. Is this true, and in what sense is it so?

Yes, because the Gospel and so, in this case, the Anglican Church arrived in most of the countries where the English arrived. This is simply a fact, and so it does naturally raise the question of the nature of the connection.

No, if one means that the Church was an arm of the colonialists. The history is much more complicated. In the Pacific, the missionaries opposed the traders and the depredations. In India the raj found conversion fostered by the missionaries to be an annoyance, as where the changes to social norms they promoted (which we would now applaud).  They made easy governance harder. In east Africa the missionaries didn’t follow the colonialists, but goaded them into action, in opposition to the brutality of the slave trade. In the United States the Episcopal Church was formed once the colonialists were expelled.  With respect to native people the record is checkered: advocacy, well-intentioned cultural opposition, and abuse in the residential schools run on behalf of the government.  (We do well to remember that in the 19th century cultural assimilation into white cultural was the ‘enlightened’ liberal cause).

Furthermore one must recall that most of the actual evangelizing in the 19th century at the village level was accomplished by local catechists trained by the missionaries. In most cases the Gospel was first explained in a local language and dialect (which process itself led to a new resilience in the local culture, enabling it to survive, as the late Lamin Sanneh in particular taught us).

Yes, in the sense that the missionaries to the younger churches made the same economic assumptions as elsewhere. But this too is not simple- I served in Tanzania, where the government was socialist, and the mission societies served well there.

No, in the sense that the Communion is preponderantly made up of, and led by, Christians indigenous to their own countries.  It is made up of local people who were the recipients, in various ways good and ill, of the colonial era.  And today so much of the debate within the Communion may be understood as Global South leaders taking the helm of, and speaking up for, their own provinces over against direction from the North.

Finally, yes and no, for many older Christians in Global South Churches express their gratitude for the receipt of the Gospel, along with criticism for the missionaries’ errors. They have a nuanced and mature view. To such maturity of assessment we too are called.




Communion Matters XVI: Elements of (Anglican) Communion 4: Incompleteness

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The opposite of communion is, I suppose, the sense that we have of our need of it, or its lack.  We know the Church is really one and catholic (which means ‘whole’) though we experience these ‘aspirationally’ and ‘Christologically’ (as found in Him and not yet us).  So we might say that a dimension of communion is precisely our own present incompleteness.

This is particularly true of us insofar as we have never claimed that we are in fact, in ourselves, the whole of the Church or even the true Church. Rather Anglicanism has claimed it is truly a Church. And furthermore it has, from the time of the Reformation on, had a sense that of longing for a restored unity. Don’t get me wrong: there is in our history plenty of polemics, and even some regrettable persecution. But, like a person with the sensation of a phantom limb, we can feel that loss of communion with the larger catholic fellowship, and more specifically Rome. From the sixteenth century on we have had a fascination with the Christian East, our ancient cousins from the earliest Christian centuries. And there have been, in recent centuries, a series of efforts to restore visible communion with other Reformation Church. We can point to successful efforts in India, for example (though there was a failed on in east Africa) in the twentieth century. We are now in full communion with the Lutheran Church (though our conversation with Rome has stalled).  Some scholars wonder if we are not in a season in which ecumenical efforts need to be more ‘bottom up.’ Others debate whether common ministry is a better launch pad than reconciled doctrine. C.S.Lewis thought that the place to start is with what he called ‘mere Christianity,’ the basic doctrines the most share.

But the important thing is that we Anglicans have considered their own incompleteness as  part of our vocation. The most articulate spokesman for this was the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, in whose famous The Gospel in the Christian Church , a reconciliation of evangelical and catholic elements in our tradition, went so far as to say that Anglicans could imagine that their own hoped for future as the surrender of its own separateness into a reconciled Church. While there is no prospect of this on the horizon, at the very least the vision of incompleteness should challenge the notion that we are a self-sufficient enterprise somehow in competition with other denominations. And it may be that, in the challenges that lie ahead for the Churches in our time, by the ‘left hand of God’ the imperative of the ecumenical, of communion across denominations, driven by the vocation of incompleteness, will come to greater prominence once more.

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.