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.