Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The Anglican Communion as imagined community

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Frank Turner, Professor of History at Yale, has a wonderfully insightful article on the Anglican Communion at Episcopal Café. His thesis is that a group of Anglicans, mainly bishops, have sought to shape the various independent Anglican provinces into a global ecclesiastical community over the past two decades.

Turner calls Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities into play here. The bare bones of Anderson’s theory is that a nation is a socially constructed community based on various presumptions of shared attributes: language, religion, skin colour, culture &c. The question it raises is why do I cheer on an athlete, whom I have never met and with whom I have little in common, at the Olympics just because her uniform says she is British? The question it raises is why it is considered a high ideal to die for ‘queen and country’.

Of course, social constructs are not unreal, but they are perceived realities: nationality is no absolute thing. It is fascinating seeing a ‘nation’ being built over the last score of years, but understanding the Anglican Communion as imagined community does much to help us understand the pressures it is under at this time.

I do have a soft spot for the Anglican Communion. Maybe it is because I am a priest in the Church of England, and there is the egotism to believe that this global church revolves around the See of Canterbury (one of the fearfully named ‘Instruments of Communion’). I have met Sudanese bishops in Salisbury, raised funds for Lesotho church projects in Durham and visited the oldest Anglican church in South-East Asia (in Penang, with its memorial plaques to governors, administrators and imperial clerks). I enjoy being part of global Anglicanism, yet recent developments alarm me: talk of a ‘Covenant’ and of a two-speed Communion. The latter sounds like a bad plan from Brussels, the former represents the Anglican love of using biblical language to disguise something’s true meaning: it is a set of ground rules of ecclesiastical ethics, by which a previously independent province is judged to be ‘in’ or ‘not quite banished’. I feel uncomfortable with an ecclesiastical denomination seeing itself as a valid ethical category.

If Anderson’s imagined communities are about understanding nations and nationalism, we are driven to consider the Anglican Communion’s relationship with imperialism and colonialism. The leadership of the Anglican Communion do not like to talk about how its history is tied up tightly with that of the British Empire, with its dissemination of ‘White Jesus’, ‘Victorian Morality’, educational deprogramming and religion as a means of social control in the colonies. The hiddenness of our past only helps accentuate the problems we face today. In the ‘Global North’ (I am not sure I like this terminology) we believe that the Communion suddenly turned itself into a global network of freedom-loving, joyful and equal churches during the dissolution of political empire; white bishops ceased to be appointed in the colonies and all was well.

The pain of colonial history finds its voice in Archbishop Peter Akinola, self-appointed Big Man of the Global South, who rails against the decadence and new imperialism of the North. However, when one examines his speeches and policies, they concur with many a political and moral conservative in post-colonial states. These post-colonial conservatives are not for overturning the colonial past, but actually uphold it by imposing a new, local ruling class to replace the white administrators of the past, and continue their policies. Akinola stands for the same religion as the white missionaries in a time when the Global North tries to discover new ways to live out discipleship. Perhaps a materialist answer would be to see ‘robust’ Christianity as a product of industrialisation, and seeing a resurgence in global development.

Tying this church empire ever more closely together should be denounced as just as wrong as trying to rebuild the British Empire.  The absurdity of it is that no one wants Rowan as their Queen Empress! The various provinces need their independence for their own development, the Church of England included. The post-modern (or ‘liquid modern’) problems facing our churches has caused internal fragmentation that cannot be helped by involvement of churches that face very different problems.

I love being part of this global Communion, I acknowledge the wrongdoing of its imperial involvement, and I oppose the designs of any box with which to contain the free determination of our several relationships and development.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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