By Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden
The current debate about whether Oriel College should remove the statue of its major benefactor Cecil Rhodes has many lessons for the upcoming Primates’ gathering at Canterbury.
A young African Rhodes scholar, benefitting from Rhodes’ legacy, wants the statue removed since it honours someone who from a 21st century standpoint had a questionable understanding of race relations. “Rhodes must fall” in Cape Town and Oxford presents its campaign as a blow for racial equality or even recompense for past wrongs. Those who support the campaign are embarrassed by Britain’s colonial history and wish to apologise for Rhodes’ activities. The campaign wants to erase the past. There is no thought of forgiveness.
But neither the scholar nor Oriel College follow through by offering to forfeit or repay the spoils they received from Rhodes’ legacy. They continue to build on it.
Here lies the contradiction in the campaign. People build on history while sometimes seeking to erase it. This shows an inability to own history for what it is, and how it has shaped their present.
Owning history, yet forgiving its mistakes and building on it is key to dealing with history. This is a Christian insight.
Rudyard Kipling at the height of Britain’s imperial reach wrote:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
As we pray for the Primates as they meet, may they not forget.
First, the Anglican Communion did not spring newly minted from the minds of new converts to Christ in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was the creation of the Church of England. The first meeting of its global bishops was called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 19th century to address the problem of a renegade bishop in South Africa. The question was what were the bishops to do about liberal interpretations of the Bible espoused by Colenso.
This tells us that the Church of England, having created the churches of the Anglican Communion through the spread of the British Empire and its chaplains and missionaries, cannot just disown an ambiguous past as though it had not existed. We must take responsibility for it. Taking responsibility means giving a lead in addressing the challenges it faces.
Those who have urged that the Anglican Communion with its vast majority of poor, and often to their mind theologically undereducated, people, is holding the Anglican churches in Britain, Ireland and North America back from mission to their own people, are just like the dons of Oriel College, embarrassed by the past and too wimpish to own it and take responsibility for it.
By the same token, the African and Asian Primates should resist the temptation to be like the Rhodes scholar activist, who wishes to erase the memory of Cecil Rhodes while content to take his wealth to pay for his studies, and cast adrift from the Church of England altogether thus abrogating the historical reality that brought their churches to birth.
The concept of the Anglican Communion makes no sense if it is not integrally linked with the Church of England. What confirms the Anglican identity of any church is its communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. No other suggested options for defining Anglican identity have attracted even majority support.
A global communion needs to own its history, be united, and have a recognised gathering point. The church has always had gathering points. The first church council was held in Jerusalem (recorded in Acts 15) because though the issue was the admission of the Gentile Churches to fellowship the place from which the gospel and its messengers had gone out was Jerusalem. There have been successive gathering points throughout history, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Geneva, Canterbury. The succession was often a matter of a power struggle.
The current power struggle is about redefining and recasting the faith of the historic Anglican Communion. Post-colonial Great Britain’s influence declined rapidly after the Second World War but it took longer for the dominant influence of Canterbury to wane. And it has now waned in the Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church has tried to occupy that centre of influence in order to shape the Communion according to its vision of the Christian faith, untethered from the authority of scripture. Canterbury, under the previous leadership, allowed TEC space and even support with its Communion Changing agenda. We expect the present incumbent to resist that agenda and pressure and to restore the role of Canterbury in leadership of the Communion.
The battle is not primarily about a theological or ethical issue. It is really about resistance to a section of the western church who are redefining the faith of the Communion in order to be relevant in their context and acting like those who wish to erase and rewrite history; they are reinventing the faith that was protected and preserved historically so that it might be drawn on for the flourishing of the Church and its public witness.
Our call is to Canterbury to recognise that it still has a historic role and, rather than preside over endless confusion, to take a firm stand and move forward. The leadership of the Communion cannot deal with this challenge as a political issue in the way politicians might address it. We are a Church, the Body of Christ that is both part of history and also transcends history.
The Church has sought to live out transcendent realities in history and offer to every historical context these realities as its public witness. It cannot allow culture to replace its historical witness. The leaders of the Church must act prophetically, not politically. They must uphold what has been tested in history as their public witness.
The temptation for the African, Asian and Latin American Churches will be to cut themselves adrift from what they sometimes read as an embarrassing past and a compromised present.
There is the real possibility that the Communion could split between TEC and its dependencies (often financial) and allies, and the churches of the Global South unwilling to have what they see as TEC’s heresies thrust upon them. The result will be chaos, the end of the communion, and increasing independency among the churches.
This temptation must be resisted. Global South churches have long since come to terms with their colonial heritage and built on it faithfully and successfully as churches fully welcome in their own cultures, not as relics of the past.
Our prayer is that the Archbishop of Canterbury can stand firmly by the biblical and historic teaching of the church, adhered to faithfully by most of the churchgoing members not only of the churches of the Global South, but also of the British and Irish churches.
Our call to the leaders of Orthodox Anglicanism is to not follow the “Rhodes must fall” campaign by picking and choosing the history they are happy with but to embrace the whole history of this communion and work with Canterbury that has been at the centre of this communion which the Lord and not just human history brought about.