The imagined community of the Anglican Communion

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By Frank M. Turner

One of the most fertile political concepts to emerge in the past quarter-century is Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community.” Anderson, now a retired Cornell professor of international studies, government, and Asian studies, contended that the emergence of modern nationalism involved the creation among various groups living in their own localities with no direct interaction between or among themselves of the idea of an imagined community with other people on the basis of supposed common histories, customs, language, and ethnic identity. The reality of the community resided in the imagination of those drawn to these ideas that circulated in the print media of the day.

Over the past twenty years proponents of what is called “The Anglican Communion” have sought to establish a similar imagined ecclesiastical community among various provinces around the world whose churches derived in some fashion from the Church of England. In the case of the Episcopal Church the derivation of Episcopal orders was not direct but through the Scottish Episcopal Church and its character was strongly influenced by its eighteenth century American setting. The so-called Anglican Communion exemplifies a religious version of Anderson’s “imagined community.” At its most banal, the Communion exists to justify bishops traveling about the world on funds contributed by the baptized. At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people. In this respect, it this ecclesiastical imagined community replicates in its drive to exclusion the persecution that ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of dominant nationalist groups from the early nineteenth century to the present day.

In his recent garrulous meditation on the General Convention of the Episcopal Church the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote of the Anglican Communion being important to “our identity.” He did not identify the antecedent to “our.” Certainly throughout the world the people who most identify with the so-called Anglican Communion are bishops. If one looks to the website of the Anglican Communion (the Internet being the equivalent of the print media within which early nineteenth-century nationalism emerged), what are described as the “Instruments of Communion” overwhelming relate to the various episcopates. The laity play little role and would seem to be intended to play little role. In this respect, the modern so-called Anglican Communion is an invention and ecclesiastical innovation of the clerical imagination. Indeed the term “Anglican” itself achieved modest common currency only in the l830s with the phrase “Anglican Communion” being first used in l847 by the American missionary bishop, Horatio Southgate.

One of the reasons for the use of “Anglican Communion” as part of what the Archbishop of Canterbury terms “our identity” resides quite simply in the hubris of the claim that the Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian denomination in the world after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is, however, important to recognize that the churches in this communion are not all the same, represent distinctly different histories and cultures, use different prayer books, different liturgies, and different modes of ecclesiastical governance.

“The Instruments of Communion,” now being given supposed histories and purposes different from their actual origins and being made vehicles for the controlled invention of identity, are of relatively recent origin. The Lambeth Conference, first convened in 1867 by Archbishop Charles Thomas Longley for providing “Brotherly Counsel and encouragement,” gathered amidst much controversy. Several bishops of the Province of York refused to attend, and Dean Arthur Stanley denied the group the use of Westminster Abbey. In neither its origin nor in its decades of meeting was the Lambeth Conference ever intended as a general conference of the whole church or as a legislative body. Not until 1969 did the Anglican Consultative Council first convene. Only in 1978 did the Primates begin to gather regularly, and they refused to define those meetings as any kind of higher synod. The Lambeth Conference of 1998 (Resolution 3.6) stated that the activities of the Primates should not interfere with the judicial authorities of the several constituent provinces. All of these gatherings were collegial in character designed to further communication and bonds of fellowship among the vastly different churches of what was evolving as an imagined worldwide Anglican Communion.

What most notably demonstrates that the so-called Anglican Communion is merely a still-emerging imagined community is the fact that only in the past few years (really the past few months) have some of its leaders decided that they must construct a covenant determining what beliefs and practices actually constitute its theological and ideological basis. That is to say, the Anglican Communion presumably having existed for its present proponents since the first Lambeth Conference in l867 must now actually figure out what holds it together theologically and ecclesiastically. What the effort to establish a covenant demonstrates is that the so-called Anglican Communion does not really exist but must be forcibly drawn into existence. Radical innovation rather than tradition hence drives the process.

The idea and the effort to establish a covenant that might at great cost of conscience and intellect call into being an actual as opposed to an imagined Anglican Communion unhappily recalls moments in the history of the Church of England that many people have chosen to forget. During most of the twentieth century spokesmen for the Church of England and for those various churches around the world in one way or another derived from that church have emphasized the reasonableness and moderation of Anglicanism, and thus the Church of England displayed itself for most of the past century. But in point of fact, throughout much of its earlier history the Church of England was an actively persecuting church. Under Elizabeth it persecuted recalcitrant Roman Catholics. After the Restoration in l660 the Church of England drove out the Protestant Nonconformists. Thereafter until the late l820s the Church of England benefited from legislation that prevented Protestant Nonconformists and Roman Catholics from participating in English political life. Over the centuries the authorities of the Church of England sometimes on their own and sometimes with government aid excluded or drove from its ranks the likes of John Bunyan, Philip Doddridge, Isaac Watts, eventually the Methodists, and John Henry Newman. In the second half of the nineteenth century the authorities of the Church of England led by its bishops and its Archbishops of Canterbury persecuted and took to court the liberal authors of Essays and Reviews, the pioneering work of Victorian English biblical criticism, and the Anglo-Catholic ritualists including the Reverend Arthur Tooth and Bishop Edward King. The essayists and the ritualists remained in the Church of England but only after intense experiences of persecution.

Knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or unconsciously, the present Archbishop of Canterbury seeks to revive this tradition of centralized arbitrary exclusion and chastisement. Edmund Burke, a great friend of the Church of England, wrote that most vices throughout human history were championed on the basis of plausibly attractive pretexts: “The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good.” The good that the Archbishop of Canterbury seeks to achieve is the unity of an imagined Anglican Communion that has virtually no existence in reality. In support of that unity he willingly sacrifices the ordination of women in some dioceses, the appointment of women to the episcopate in some churches, and the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from ordination and the episcopate. For the sake of unity of a communion that does not really exist, he has (perhaps unwittingly) fostered turmoil, dissension, and schism. He has urged the adoption of an ill-conceived covenant for the purposes today of excluding those churches who would embrace as part of the divine creation gay and lesbian people. But whom will the covenant exclude next year? The precedent for exclusion and persecution will have been established, and on the pretext of unity future dissidents and yet to be designated minorities could be targeted.

The Episcopal Church through its long established institutions of ecclesiastical governance, combining lay and clerical voices in equal measure, has chosen to tread the path of Christian liberty. Over the past decades the Episcopal Church has concluded that the perpetuation of unity with an imagined Anglican Communion being increasingly drawn into a reality for the purpose of persecuting and repressing gay and lesbian people is not acceptable and is not Christian. The Episcopal Church has decided to reassert not only that Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but that he has also made us free. In accord with St Paul’s injunction to the Galatians the Episcopal Church has chosen to stand fast “in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free” and not to be “entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Frank M. Turner is the John Hay Whitney Professor of History and director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Yale University.

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Lee Hughes
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Lee Hughes

The thesis that the Anglican Communion is 'imagined' is true so far as people need to buy into it for it to exist. The fact remains that many of us DO buy into it. Now, it is a very imperfect analogy, but one needs to look at the example of the Orthodox Church. Like the 'Anglican Communion', it is a very loose federation of geographical churches that in many cases maintain hierarchies in the same area. They are undergoing the same identity questions we are. Many use the same liturgies (St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil), but there are national variations (consider the confusion of a Russian at how many things differ in the Greek liturgy of the same name).

The idea is that the 'denomination' or 'communion' is defined by communities being in communion with each other. Covenants, agreements, joint statements really don't show communion. Real relationships do. For us to think that Anglicanism is 'imagined' ignores the fact that lay people from all over the globe find a common ground, even with our differences.

I guess the point of this ramble is that we really don't need a written covenant to be a communion.

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David Waters
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David Waters

An excellent essay on the Anglican Communion. I have always thought that it was a rather irrelevant idea. "At its most banal, the Communion exists to justify bishops traveling about the world on funds contributed by the baptized" hits the spot, I think. Any real unity is between my church fellowship (in England) and another church somewhere else - maybe the USA, maybe Nigeria. Bishops are mostly irrelevant to this process.

I have however come to the conclusion that all these debates with ECUSA or the CofE are irrelevant. Try as I can, I cannot see how a Protestant church can ever be Episcopalian. They just don't mix. The only reason why Protestant Episcopalians don't end up as "bottom up" congregationalists is the ownership of the physical assets.

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Erik Schwarz
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Erik Schwarz

I appreciate Frank Turner's scholarly and readable piece, though I have a few points of disagreement with him. Beginning with his opening paragraph. Not quite sure what Benedict Anderson's theory of "imagined communities" has to do with the Anglican Communion. Anderson's theory, as I understand it, is part of a historiographical conversation about when and how modern nation-states constituted themselves. If Turner's point is that our Communion is socially constructed rather than primordially ordained - and that therefore the Instruments of Communion are suspect and conditional - he ought to note that Anderson approves of the social construction of nations. If we are extrapolating from Anderson, as Turner implies we can, then the "imagined communities" theory would tend to support the proposed Anglican Covenant. But I think it is loose scholarship to extrapolate anything at all about ecclesiology from Anderson's history of the formation of nations.

I disagree also with the conclusion of Turner's piece. He writes that the Episcopal Church "has chosen to tread the path of Christian liberty...and not to be 'entangled again with the yoke of bondage.'" This is the kind of moralistic preening that enrages the rest of the world against Americans and constitutes an ecclesiastical equivalent of George W. Bush's language of triumphalism and exceptionalism. I give credit to the Episcopal Church for often trying to do the right thing, as our American nation often tries to do the right thing, but both our church and our nation tend to let their privileged status blind them, to conflate self-interest with divine right and to ignore history where it suits us. Here is one instance: we are far from being disentangled from "the yoke of bondage." Black Episcopalians tell us that our church has yet to acknowledge the ways in which it promoted and profited from slavery.

We tend to "tread the path of Christian liberty" where it serves our class interests but to walk away when it does not. Let us be honest: the Episcopal Church follows the mores of the American haute bourgeoisie. For some time now, this class has determined that sexual preference should be no bar to professional advancement, including advancement within the ranks of the clergy. I am an American bourgeois, and I am in full agreement, but I cannot therefore consider myself to be in the company of Gandhi, King and Mandela. Taking down the Anglican Communion does not constitute a principled stand, as Turner seems to think, but rather an abandonment of solidarity with and an evasion of responsibilities to brother and sister Anglicans, with whom we inevitably disagree on this and other issues but who also lead lives at great risk in failed and failing states. For them, liberty and bondage are not rhetorical flourishes but hopes and dreams bought only at great price. We need not sign on to the Anglican Covenant if it ill suits us, but let us not say, as Turner does, that the Communion "has virtually no existence in reality." Those African and Asian brothers and sisters of ours are very real, and they are legion.

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Peter Antoci
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Peter Antoci

Turner's article is the finest, most succinct, and historically aware treatment of our current situation. What also needs to be emphasized is that the instruments of communion should NOT be made synonymous WITH communion.

Communion is still an important goal, but we should not collapse this theological, eschatological and human phenomenon with an institutional one (that would be the Roman Catholic system). Institutional functioning is not the same thing as sacramental communion. I think the way TEC is pursuing this, with many others (eg. the international Anglican Women's groups) is much more organic and much more focused on building real communion, NOT virtual communion, and NOT institutional communion.

So yes, by all means, we should be seeking the highest degree of communion possible; however, we should never equate institutional structures with a robust, incarnate communion in the Body of Christ.

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Michael Russell
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Michael Russell

Thank you brother Turner for this fine essay. On the House of Bishops and Deputies' listserv I have maintained, since the Windsor Report came out, that the Instruments of Communion or Unity were fiction. Turner has ably defined exactly what sort of fiction it is.

Having no international constitution and no system for developing consensus the Instruments and the Anglican Covenant are nothing more than devices being created to shame and harm TEC and the Church of Canada.

We must remember that we existed in a state of impaired communion with many Provinces after ordaining women to the priesthood and then the episcopate. We did not too dramatically alter that landscape with our decision to be inclusive of glbt people.

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