I presume that those unfortunates we lump into a net entitled “Progressive”, as opposed to the unspeakable we consign to the cage “Traditionalist”, believe in the essential unity of all humans, support the United Nations, its agencies, and a multitude of non governmental organizations that espouse an international cause and beg for our money on line. Traditionalists tend to be nationalists, suspicious of foreign entanglements and of organizations peddling what they believe to be immorality.
Two things prompted this blog. My older son recommended a book entitled Map of a Nation, by Rachel Hewett. It’s the story of how the British Ordnance Survey began. Every square inch of Great Britain is mapped, and in my day, school children were obliged to write down descriptions of what they “saw” as they examined selected views of a map – a church with a steeple just as the road turned left, with a steep hill to the right, two and a half miles north east from the ruins of an abbey. We estimated the distance by licking pieces of thread and placing them on that portion of the B 1234, making sure that we included every turn and bend, as it traversed the old bridge over a stream near a railway line. I don’t think we were taught about the rather sinister origins of the Ordnance Survey (that’s how it is spelt) or of the men who slogged along trails in the Scottish Highlands to map the place for the army.
The Highland Scots rebelled against the London government twice in the 18th Century. The governments of England and Scotland were united by the Act of Union, much to the satisfaction of Lowland Scots but not to their Highland neighbors, who tended to be Roman Catholics or Episcopalians, and gathered themselves into historic clans, led by autocratic noblemen who ruled the roost. Another distinguishing feature was the absence of roads. Once over the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands, often indistinct tracks led to castles or humble crofts. That is, until after the ’45 Rebellion when the army of the Hanoverian king, led by a relative, subdued the clans, slaughtered suspected rebels in their thousands and banned the tartan and the use of Gaelic. If you’ve noticed a similarity between these events and what occurred in America in the following century, you are right. To enforce the law, a series of forts were built. It became necessary to built roads to link these forts and so a very small group of lowland Scots were recruited to survey the area between fort and fort. This they did, extending their labors to most of the Highlands, and then, for fun, the Lowlands too. So began the process of mapping every inch, or whatever the decimal equivalent is, of Great Britain. These maps have become something of an obsession for hikers, armchair or walkers, and form the basis of the British GPS system. Ordnance surveys began as one of the means of uniting Scotland, and then Scotland and England.
Then I noticed that our Presiding Bishop was in London meeting with a group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and given the task of finding ways to restore unity, peace and concord to the Anglican Communion. Since the post World War 2 era, the Provinces and National Churches which have their origins in the migration of the English, and not a few Scots, across the globe. have grown in number. This wander-lust began with merchants in Turkey and what we now call India, became serious at Jamestown (I’m not mentioning Plymouth because supporters of the Massachusetts colony seldom mention Jamestown), and exploded in colonial exploits in the 19th end early 20th century. These people took with them goods, guns, diseases, map-makers and their religion. In Africa they drew arbitrary lines to delineate colonies, dividing tribes, or incorporated rival tribes. The last notorious act of map-making was an arbitrary line drawn between India and the new state of Pakistan. One of the results of this seemingly harmless endeavor was the slaughter of tens of thousands of Hindus and Moslems.
These peripatetic Brits built churches for themselves, often imitations of the medieval parish churches they left behind. They attempted, with varying degrees of success, to convert the “Natives”. Eventually they created colonial dioceses, headed by men, the products of Public Schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They also brought with them their religious tribes. Sydney, Australia was adopted by staunch Evangelicals, who believed in conversion, cold baths and muscular Christianity. Zanzibar’s bishops might well have been confused for Roman Catholics, to the fury of Catholic missionaries. The American colonies reproduced the religion of 18th Century England. in the South and middle colonies, the religion of Tenison and Tillotson propounded Latitudinarian moral virtues and sat lightly on doctrine,miracles and sacramentalism, whereas in New England, the faith of Cavaliers and Caroline Divines found new birth.
As the British Empire shuddered to an unanticipated halt, colonies became independent nations, and their local Anglican expressions evolved into autonomous churches, joining Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans who had gained autonomy in the preceding century and a half. So evolved the Anglican Communion. Until just after the Second World War, almost all bishops were white men, and except in the United States almost all were English, the product of the same class structure and education system, and despite deep differences in what we used to call Churchmanship, all were loyal subject of the King Emperor in London.
After independence most former colonies remained members of the “British” Commonwealth. Their post colonial churches remained in the Anglican Communion, a grouping of autonomous churches with a membership of around 80,000,000. The “roads” constructed between the Provinces and National Churches and between them the the see of Canterbury remained despite occasional tensions over the legacies of colonialism, muted perhaps by the realization that their existence is one of those legacies. As archbishops of Canterbury did their obligatory rounds of the Communion they continued to engender enthusiasm and draw crowds.
And then came sex. The Lambeth Conference, meeting roughly every decade, drawing together bishops invited by the archbishop of Canterbury, first discussed sex in a debate about contraception before the Second World War. They were against it. Then came divorce and re-marriage. There were differences of opinion, but not huge rows. Despite early attempts to turn the Conference into an international Synod, attempts that might well have succeeded had Canterbury not refused to cooperate, the Communion has no central body that can enforce a policy, however popular. National independence produced in it wake a wave of nationalism both in states and their churches. Yet an older national church, the Episcopal Church (of America) and its mini communion of overseas dioceses founded by American missionaries, became, for complex reasons, the leader of the anti-centralization pack.
As sexuality became the obsession of Western national cultures, divisions developed about just how far their Anglican churches should accommodate themselves to changing mores, or discover in these cultural developments an authority not immediately obvious in Scripture or the universal Church’s historical tradition. Nowhere was this more obvious than in North America. In the United States and Canada, campaigns to overturn systemic racism and sexual inequality expanded to embrace the rights of LGBT people, culminating in the legalization of same-sex marriage. The Anglican national churches in North America supported these cultural developments, but a minority vigorously dissented. Both sides in an often bitter dispute took to the expanded communication methods that developed in the sixties, and soon, via internet, the disputes which had led to schism in America and Canada were beamed across the planet. The proponents and opponents of “gay rights” took their fight to African cities, Asian internet cafes and South American barrios. Many African, Asian and South American provinces, evangelized largely by Evangelical Anglicans, reacted in dismay. The “roads” between these provinces and North American provincial head offices were barricaded, and three successive archbishops of Canterbury accused of not using an authority they didn’t possess to expel American Episcopalians on the one hand or Nigerian dissidents on the other, who with others, had created a rival communion within the Communion aimed at preserving traditional sexual roles and mores. American gold financed both sides.
Most social progressives advocate the creation of pan-national institutions in part to tackle issues such as poverty, modern forms of slavery and climate change. Most African and Asian political enthusiasts fight for nationalism and oppose vestiges of colonialism in both its British and American forms. However it’s not that simple when it comes to church. The American Episcopal Church has been forced to oppose attempts to create a Covenant, (although not quite dead, it’s life was threatened when, ironically, the dioceses of the Church of England failed to endorse it) or empower the Communion’s primates to discipline errant Provinces. Meanwhile the anti-colonial national churches of the Global South have been obliged to campaign for a beefed up central authority in order to defend what they perceive to be biblical religion.
Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, first among equals among the heads of the worldwide communion of Anglican (Episcopal) churches whose only authority is moral and whose only capital is a nostalgic affection for the see he occupies, managed to get his fellow primates to form a committee composed of leaders from both factions, men like Michael Curry of the US and Ian George of the Indian Ocean, with the task of unblocking the roads between the provinces and each other. The committee met in London last week. Their task seems impossible. There are some progressives and more than a few traditionalists who yearn for them to fail. They want to retreat into the safety of their own clans, sure of their purity. Like the cartographers who began work on the Ordnance Survey maps, the Primates’ committee is charged with mapping the scenery of the Anglican world in order to re-create unity. One can only pray for them.