Colonial legacies, Anglican identities addressed at pioneering conference in Manchester

[Episcopal News Service, Manchester, England] Conversations about postcolonialism and the cultural and religious identities that have been shaped by the colonial past have seldom found their way onto the agendas of the Anglican Communion’s main councils and Instruments of Communion.

An international group of scholars in colonial theory and Anglican history, that gathered May 1-2 for lectures and discussions at the University of Manchester’s Lincoln Theological Institute, is intent on breaking that trend, saying such discussions are long overdue.

Church, Identity/ies and Postcolonialism,” said to be the first conference of its kind in the United Kingdom, was divided into two parts over two days, the first addressing colonial legacies and the second exploring what the postcolonial future might entail. The conference was intended as an opportunity to broaden, if not ignite, the postcolonial conversation in the Anglican Communion, said the Rev. Joe Duggan, a priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles and a doctoral research student at the Lincoln Theological Institute.

One of the conference’s main organizers, Duggan said that history “has shaped the theological questions we have asked about our faith identities but more importantly the questions we haven’t asked.” In Anglicanism, he said, these conversations have been markedly absent and the Manchester conference serves to introduce a postcolonial critique into the debate.

Postcolonial scholars attending the May conference included: David Joy, associate professor of New Testament at United Theological College in Bangalore, India; the Rt. Rev. Stephen Pickard, assistant bishop in Adelaide, Australia; the Rt. Rev. Laurie Green, area bishop for Bradwell in the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford, England; Anke Bernau, lecturer in Medieval Literature and Culture in the Department of English Literature and American Studies at University of Manchester; and Steven Shakespeare, Anglican chaplain at Liverpool Hope University, England.

Duggan hopes the conference will be the start of a more intentional critique of colonial theologies and ecclesiologies “to break down barriers between theologians and hierarchies; to collect thoughts and introduce concepts on colonial legacies and postcolonial principles; and to leave behind the glossed-over story that has sanitized and silenced colonial and postcolonial theology.”

Opening the conference, Bernau spoke on the theme of “Virgin Territories: Considering Colonialism and Ideas of Purity.”

Citing a Guardian newspaper article that compares a visit to a Ugandan village with a trip back to the Middle Ages, an interpretation she describes as “rhetorical,” Bernau said that medieval concepts, the West and colonialism are “intertwined in a narrative of European progress and civilization.”

The article’s comparison, she decries, “tells us nothing about 14th century Europe or 21st century Uganda.”

During the Medieval period, the world was largely conceived as tripartite, she said, with Asia, Africa and Europe as the three main global regions. “Asia was regarded as the central and largest. Jerusalem figured as the center of the world and maps are directed towards the east, not the north,” she said, using Hereford’s Mappamundi as an example of record that applies this representation.

The Christian West had promulgated negative images of the Orient, she said, adding that power and knowledge were interrelated in the imperial mindsets of the colonizers.

The Crusades, Bernau said, called for “a cleansing” of the Holy Land, which the crusaders believed to be about liberation rather than colonialism.

“Christian geography replicates imperial space,” she said. “What we see is an imperial dream of territorial expansion with a cause that completely refashions it; to be reworked reshaped and not easily erased.”

Bernau noted that for some commentators one of the drawbacks of the term “postcolonial” is that it implies a state where colonialism has comfortably been left behind, “glossing over the fact that global hegemony still exists, militarily and economically.”

During a series of parallel sessions, self-selecting groups heard from scholars and experts on topics such as The Church as a Colonial Institution; Post-colonial identities in Sri Lankan Anglicanism; Reel Discrimination: Cinema and Early Twentieth-Century Missionary Discipline in South Africa; Postcolonial theology and the rational justification of religious belief; Native American “Gaming”: A Postcolonial Challenge for The Episcopal Church; To what extent is the Three-Self movement developed by Bishop K.H. Ting shaped by forces of Colonialism?; The Ugandan Diaspora in Britain and Their Quest for Cultural Expression within the Church; Coloniality and Theological Method in Africa; The legacy of ‘missionary-colony’ in the unity of evangelical churches in Ethiopia; Reconstruction of Theological Thinking: a new stage of the development of Church in China; ‘Dark, dank, and musty’ — Criticism of the Catholic Church in ‘Bless Me Ultima’; and A Postcolonial Proposal: Second Generation Power Analysis.

In his parallel paper, Duggan argues that the absence of postcolonial conversations, both theologically and ecclesiologically, has fueled the current obsession in the Anglican Communion with issues in human sexuality.

“There needs to be a postcolonial investigation of the wholes and parts of the Anglican Communion,” he said, citing author and theologian Catherine Keller who argues that there has never been a postcolonial Christianity, “so all our concepts of Church are really branded in colonialism.”

Duggan cites an essay from Episcopal Divinity School Professor Ian Douglas who says the current Anglican controversy is largely about identity and power “and who has the power to decide who is included and excluded in the Anglican Communion.”

Duggan is concerned that an Anglican covenant, a proposed set of principles intended to bind the Anglican Communion, will “definitely solve the question of who is in and who is out but at the expense of an emerging postcolonial Anglicanism.”

The Anglican Communion must acknowledge the way that its churches have become self-contained, said Duggan, noting that the Windsor Report is inviting the 38 provinces “back to the whole, but there are various steps that are missing, such as the postcolonial conversation.”

The Windsor Report, which first proposed the idea of an Anglican covenant, was released in October 2004 with recommendations on how the Communion can maintain the highest degree of unity amid differing viewpoints on biblical interpretation and human sexuality.

“The Communion is impaired when any one Church seeks to privilege itself as the only true identity,” said Duggan. “The failure to include faith identities is a failure to include.”

Speaking about “A Postcolonial Reconstruction of Anglican Identities in India,” Bangalore’s Joy said “identities are very dynamic and broad in our ecclesial structures,” acknowledging that various deconstructions and reconstructions of such identities have occurred throughout India.

It is important for postcolonial reconstruction of Anglican identities in India to include a “representation of otherness,” he said.

Joy is a member of the Church of South India (CSI), a small ecumenical Christian community in India’s post-denominational era and on of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces.

India’s Christian communities in the Middle Ages were influenced by the arrival of Portuguese, but the mission of the Church of England began in 1614. By that time, Roman Catholics and Lutherans had already made an impact on Indian society. In 1850, missionaries from different parts of India began to work together and in 1947 the CSI was formed as a new ecumenical Christian association of Churches.

“Mission and colonialism had been intrinsically connected,” said Joy, noting that the missionaries saw themselves as agents for converting the colonies both religiously and spiritually.

To much opposition and anger, the missionaries “perpetuated a religious superiority [and] created a hegemonic ideology,” he said.

Joy described India as a complex nation of many diverse religions and cultures and one where the struggle for equality and freedom has continued in the postcolonial era.

“It is widely understood that great damage was done to local cultures and civilizations because of the coming of Christianity,” he said. “However, it also encouraged the growth of the resistance movement of the lower caste people” who were supported by some of the missionaries and encouraged to fight against their discrimination. The British government had supported the caste system throughout its colonial rule.

“Colonialism changed the Christian identity of faith [and] left out cultural elements of local people,” he said. “The impact of the missionaries inspired a fresh study of scripture…Interpretation was based on the superior status of Christianity [and the] Bible was used by missionaries to inculcate their values and customs.”

Focusing on colonial legacies in the worldwide Christian community, Kevin Ward, senior lecturer in African Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, facilitated a conversation with Joy, Green, Pickard and Amos Kasibante, Anglican chaplain at Leicester University, England.

Ward pointed out that some people feel that Christians who have become Anglicans have in some ways sold out to their culture. “They see Christianity as still trapped in a colonial legacy,” he said.

“In structures of the Anglican Church there seems to have been ways in which the voices of non-English people have been diminished,” he added, acknowledging that the Lambeth Conference has historically tended toward the “Englishness of Christianity” at the expense of the rest of the world. “Until the 1960s, the Lambeth Conference was an almost exclusively white group of bishops educated at English public school and at Oxford or Cambridge, and until 1998 there was an assumption that theology and ecclesiology was a Western agenda.”

Green said it was important to remember what the British Empire was doing to the working classes in Great Britain, noting that his grandparents raised a family of six children living in one room in east London with no running water in the building.

“In 1960, things began to change,” he said, but even as the British Empire was dismantled “there was a sense that, although we had no power as an international nation, we were still a superior culture.”

In the Indian context, Joy said identity cannot be defined without religion and in Uganda Kasibante said that Anglican identity is very important and the English colonizers played a huge part in that.

In Australia, it wasn’t until 1981 that the Anglican Church changed its name from the Church of England in Australia to the Anglican Church of Australia, Pickard said. “We struggled from 1850 to 1961 to get a common constitution for the Church in Australia. Talk about a colonial legacy and whether we were trapped. This demonstrates the sense of difficulty in moving beyond our entrapments.”

Understanding colonialism in Australia requires coming to terms with suffering, especially in the indigenous communities, Pickard said, recognizing a challenge for the Anglican Church of Australia to own its own history and tell the story of the people more intentionally.

During the second day of the conference, lecturers and participants explored possibilities for the future of the postcolonial world.

Steven Shakespeare, Anglican chaplain at Liverpool Hope University, spoke on the topic “Walking on The Wild Side: Church and Identity Beyond Western Humanism.”

Author of several publications, including Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction, Shakespeare argued that animality and humanity are intimately interconnected and influence human identity.

“The suppression of wildness” and fear of the other, he said, are part of the cause of current disputes in the church, including issues in human sexuality.

Sexuality has become a key aspect “to defining what makes us human,” Shakespeare said.

“It is not accidental therefore that sexuality has become one the defining issues that affects human identity,” he said, citing historical struggles concerning gender, race, class, power, and the human body. Shakespeare noted that sexuality has been reimagined in the past few centuries and is a large component of postcolonial struggle.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has compared homosexuals with animals, Shakespeare said, arguing that Mugabe’s opposition to homosexuality is a reaction to colonialism.

Shakespeare recalled that at the 1998 Lambeth Conference some African bishops insisted that homosexuality is not an African problem and that more recently the Anglican Churches of Nigeria and Uganda have issued statements opposing homosexuality and comparing it with bestiality and pedophilia.

“These associations…are not unique to the African context,” Shakespeare said, calling it a “resistance to imperialism. We have to understand that our talk of sexuality is a cultural discourse with Western origins.”

He called this association between homosexuals and animals as “a way of excluding gays from full humanity. Animals are devoid of culture and therefore devoid of human identity.”

Shakespeare suggested that a reimagining of the relationship with humanity and animality may provide a way beyond the current impasse in the Anglican Communion.

The conversation should bring people together to share different sides of their experiences of colonialism, he said, with hope that people throughout the Communion can learn to suspend judgment and live with difference.

Following Shakespeare’s paper, some participants questioned the validity of official position statements on sexuality from Uganda and Nigeria, noting that such documents have previously been drafted by conservative evangelicals from the U.S. who object to recent actions by the Episcopal Church. One scholar suggested that such action could be labeled as a form of neo-colonialism.

The nature of a shrinking global Anglican Communion is the basis for new forms of neocolonial alliances, Pickard said in his paper, “Can I Still Call Australia Home? From Colonial Space to Ecclesial Place Downunder.”

The notion of space and place has been integral to how Australian Anglicans see themselves in the larger context, especially through a sense of isolation in such a vast country, Pickard said.

“But in a shrinking world of globalization what happens to that place?” he asked. “Perhaps a loss of a sense of place,” he suggested, acknowledging that through modern-day communications “we are able to misunderstand each other more quickly than ever before.”

Recognizing that “all places are susceptible to alliances that disintegrate global contexts,” Pickard also said that “place” can become the site for creative recovery of global identity.

“Global emphasis on mobility and routes we travel does not necessarily displace the roots,” he concludes, saying that Australia’s vast distances explain why its inhabitants have tended to look outward rather than inward.

Using the metaphor of sitting on a veranda and looking outward, Pickard said that on the one hand this can be perceived as “one who gazes out upon another from a distance and thus appears problematic because of its association with colonial power,” but he drew attention to the variety of verandas in Australia and how they draw people together rather than separate. “Indigenous people have verandas too,” he said, “and they are tied to homes.”

Pickard said that recovering a sense of place has implications for Anglicanism. “Colonial space is subtlety transformed into ecclesial place,” he said. “Finding a different home with God in our part on the planet and recognizing indigenous culture requires a new journey of recognition and wonder of Christ in our midst.”

Speaking about postcolonial futures, Chris Baker, director of research, William Temple Foundation, and part-time lecturer in Urban Theology at the University of Manchester, facilitated a conversation about “Postcolonial Principles for Church and Identity.”

Baker proposes that a third space — “a creative space” — expands boundaries and deepens understanding. That third space, he suggests “is in the middle, between two binary opposites. It categorizes space and identities, often breaking out of entrenched mentalities into a more open space to create new structures and ideas.”

A hybrid space is where new forms emerge, which “can be counter-hegemonic [and] sometimes mimic hegemony,” he said. “It’s a hybridity that doesn’t assimilate but destabilizes the hegemonic pattern that resists a colonial legacy and future. For it to be destabilizing, genuine hybidity drives towards understanding our new identities and seeking new but albeit temporary solutions to our problems.”

Kasibante underscored the importance of opening space, establishing relationships and identifying the things that divide. “The debate in the Anglican Communion is carried on at completely different conceptual levels,” he said. “The language doesn’t communicate with many of the bishops. The conversation about sexuality has been debated in the West for several years, but most parts of Africa have not been engaged in this debate.”

In addressing postcolonial principles and Anglican identity, “it is important to ask to whom we are ministering,” said Joy. “Are we taking care of people on the margins or people already engaged in the church in leadership?”

“Postcolonial ecclesiology should offer space for everyone,” he added. “The Anglican Church doesn’t currently have the space for conversation; too many things are dictated. We are not providing the space. Applying postcolonial principles we should redefine mission and ministry of the church, which will be the binding factor that will keep us together in Christ.”

Shakespeare says that hybridity, the fusion of two cultures, remains incurable, “and that’s no bad thing. The church is a disabled body and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Shakespeare hopes the Anglican Communion will provide the opportunity “to hear different voices and accents from many different sides. That is important for any future of the Communion.”

Saying the Communion needs to think more carefully, listen more intently and “maintain respect for otherness,” Pickard asked: “What is the mode of God’s presence in this postcolonial world?”

Concluding the conference, Peter Scott, senior lecturer in Christian Social Thought and director of the Lincoln Theological Institute spoke about the need to redefine and rediscover the theological critique of power and idolatry, suggesting that language that uses “reign of God” or “kingdom” is related to empire.

Through exploring identities, the language of hybridity is important, he said, asking whether this involves the fusing of two separate things or if it “trades on notions of purity which we’re trying to escape.”

Scott posed many questions about when colonial legacies began and end; what shape they take; what activates legacies; are there specific Christian resources to encourage activations and deactivations; and what is the mode of God’s presence in colonialism and postcolonial theory?

“Love should have the first and not the last word in speaking about power,” he said, acknowledging the need for creating space for conversation.

An official Lambeth Conference “fringe” event on July 21, titled “Anglican Identities and the Postcolonial,” will be co-sponsored by the Lincoln Theological Institute and The Journal of Anglican Studies. The event will include a bishops’ panel and discussion and a keynote address by postcolonial theorist Robert Young, professor of English at New York University and author of Oxford University Press’ 2003 “Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction.”


— Matthew Davies is editor of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the Anglican Communion.



Episcopal Life Daily, May 5, 2008


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