Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A brief history of the Anglican Communion

The Archbishop of Canterbury is calling a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion (ie, the archbishops of the various provinces - so a smaller meeting than the Lambeth Conference, which is all the bishops). The aim, among other things, is apparently to discuss the future organisation of the Communion.

Since its a pretty core belief of mine that we should understand where things came from as a background to discussing them, here's the potted history of the way the Anglican Communion, and the Lambeth Conference, developed. This comes from my book The Essential History of Christianity (SPCK, 2012) - more specifically, from Chapter 10, 'Globalising Christianity: c.1500-1900'.

"The British Empire expanded across much of the globe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, superseding the earlier dominance of Spain, Portugal and the Dutch Republic. The work of the missionary societies ensured that the Christianity of the Church of England spread worldwide with it. At first, all colonial churches were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, but this rapidly became unsustainable and colonial bishops began to be appointed in the late eighteenth century. The first Church of England bishop outside of England was the Bishop of Nova Scotia, appointed in 1787. In 1814, there was an Anglican Bishop of Calcutta; in 1824, a Bishop of the West Indies; and in 1836, a Bishop of Australia. The pace of establishment of colonial dioceses quickly increased, and in 1841 a Colonial Bishoprics Council was established.

In some colonies initially the Church of England was the established church, but this was never universal. In 1861 it was ruled that (except where it was specifically established) the Church of England had the same legal position as all other denominations in the colonies. Thereafter, Anglican churches abroad were in a very different position to the Church of England, and evolved differently and independently. Generally speaking both the mission agencies and the Church of England bishops believed that local leadership was a good thing and was to be encouraged as soon as possible, and in time local bishops began to be appointed. As dioceses spread they became naturally grouped into provinces, under archbishops, and national synods began to legislate independently. The examples of America, Canada and Nigeria illustrate the very different histories of some of this family of churches. 

In America, after the War of Independence (1775-83) the Church naturally had to become independent of crown control. The Episcopal Church was therefore established to replace the Church of England, headed by the British monarch, with an alternative ecclesiastical structure. The first Anglican bishop in North America was Samuel Seabury, who secured his consecration from the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1784. Anglicanism was never, except in a few areas of New England, the established church; and even where it was the official religion, it was in practice only the religion of the elite. The proliferation of denominations in the Great Awakening meant that the American religious landscape was from very early on characterised by variety,diversity and choice.

After the War of Independence many of the defeated loyalists fled to Canada, and Anglicans were numerous among these. As a result, the Church of England became synonymous with the Church in Canada, despite the fact that Canada was not strictly speaking British territory. The first Church of England bishop outside England was one of these refugees, Charles Inglis, who was consecrated as Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1787. The anomalous position of the Church of England in Canada caused considerable unrest from members of other denominations, particularly over land privileges given to Anglican clergy. As a result, the Church in Canada was disestablished in the 1850s, giving all denominations equal civil rights. Until 1955, however, the Anglican Church of Canada was officially titled ‘The Church of England in the Dominion of Canada’.

In Nigeria, the first Church of England mission arrived in 1842, and a local church was quickly established. Henry Venn, Secretary of the Church Mission Society, was convinced of value of indigenous leadership, and championed the ministry of Samuel Crowther, a Yoruba freed slave who was already studying for ordination in London at the time. In 1864 hewas consecrated Bishop of the Niger. Crowther’s ministry was by all accounts a great success, but problems began when a different group of missionaries arrived in 1887 and began to evangelise in competition with the existing diocesan structures. These new missionaries were convinced that Crowther’s patient and gentle missionary work and dialogue with Islam were a disgrace, and after his death they campaigned hard (and successfully) for him not to be replaced by another African. When a European bishop was appointed, some Yoruba Christians were so incensed by CMS’s backtracking on its earlier commitment to local leadership that they formed independent churches; only in the 1950s was another African bishop appointed. Perhaps as a result of this in-fighting and loss of nerve, the church grew only slowly: in 1900, it is estimated that there were around 35,000 Christians in Nigeria, perhaps 0.2% of the population. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the church in Nigeria has become the fastest growing church in the Anglican communion, accounting for around 18% of the population in 2000. 

As new dioceses and provinces began to be established, and to develop increasingly independently from the middle of the nineteenth century, the question of what held the churches together began to be asked.

The only parameters of Anglican identity were the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and the 39 Articles, whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury was looked to for leadership effectively by default. 

The first Lambeth conference was held, in 1867, in the context of a widespread desire to condemn Bishop Colenso of Natal for his unorthodoxy. Colenso had been appointed bishop of the new diocese of Natal in 1852, a diocese that had been financed by fundraising by Bishop Gray, the first Bishop of Cape Town, and SPG. Bishop Gray was therefore horrified to discover that he had appointed someone he came to view as a heretic. Colenso threw himself into mission to the Zulu people, and was innovative in working to inculturate Christianity. He was assisted by a number of native speakers, especially William Ngidi, and was criticised for allowing Ngidi’s questions to shape his thinking. But most controversial was his commentary on Romans, which went beyond the bounds of accepted orthodoxy on sin and justification. In 1863 the Church in South Africa declared him a heretic, but Colenso appealed to the British courts arguing that his was a crown appointment not Bishop Gray’s. He won his case and remained in post, to the chagrin of Bishop Gray. 

The case of Colenso raised questions not only of orthodoxy, but of provincial autonomy. The Church of Canada, which had taken a lead in condemning Colenso, led calls for a meeting which would give definitive leadership. However, some bishops were reluctant to attend, fearing that it would become a legislative body and compromise their local autonomy. A commitment was made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, therefore, that the conference would be only consultative, and that any resolutions would be simply advisory. The Lambeth conference met again in 1888, and at that meeting made its most enduring statement, the Lambeth Quadrilateral. This set out the four bases of Anglican identity (the Bible, the creeds, the two sacraments of baptism and communion, and the historic episcopate, and was originally intended to provide a basis for discussions with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Incidentally, it established the most widely accepted parameters of Anglican identity."

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