The imagined Anglican Communion: a response

By Adrian Worsfold

Frank M. Turner’s piece here on Anglicanism as an imaginacy community in the manner of Benedict Anderson’s understanding of nationalism (1991) is rather a two edged sword.

Anderson’s analysis is a response to the inability of Marxism and its class analysis to handle nationalism – a force Marxism expected to wither away but which has remained incredibly powerful, and more powerful than the actuality of communism and possibly commitments to democratic socialism. Nationalism is also a force that transcends racism; racism deals in (imagined) fixed concepts of exclusion but nationalism has a broader imaginary boundary of those who are out and those who are in with a clearer political project of governance. The argument about racism is important here because it involves identity that also cuts across social class. It all gets complicated by the argument about ethnicity, which involves more than race, as it introduces language, mythic history, space and place. If nationalism is closest to ethnicity then it is still ethnicity with a project for governing institutions.

I suspect that the fundamental human concept is the tribe. There just might be some sociobiology in this, that we are descendents of the chimpanzee social beings side of apes than of the isolated Orang Utans. Whatever may be a base cause, the social anthropologist notes the pervasive activity of ritual exchange (passing relatively useless tokens one to another) in a material effort or material sacrifice for the spiritual gift of reinforcing the community. Humans do look for collective conscience: we bind ourselves to one another through exchange that is economic and cultural and through additional relatively (on the face of it) pointless ritual. Indeed, the Eucharistic ritual is, in practical terms, a fairly pointless ritual exchange of tokens involving some material sacrifice (time, effort, presence, money given) for a spiritual gift (what it is said to involve within the religious outlook) via the actions of eating and drinking. But it is a central ritual that binds a community and regulates its outlook.

Thus ritual is a powerful reinforcement of collective identity, and any particular identifiable religion can reinforce ethnic identity through shared cultural content, and adds its organised and institutional power to creating national authority and power. In essence a national state is a castle wall and controlled gate around a broad ethnic identity. If the castle walls appear good and safe, the potential is actually to broaden the scope of ethnic identity, but if ethnic identity is divided to begin with then the national institutions will be weak at best.

The problem with applying the imagined community to Anglicanism is that it implies two contradictory things – an imagined community of identification that does not need and should not have an enforced reality (people imagine a Communion that is otherwise loose and made of of autonomous Churches) and then an imagined community that magnetically calls forth a project for governance. The Benedict Anderson analysis (transferred across) is clearly about the second. Both of these are in Frank Turner’s understanding, but he clearly sees an episcopal imagination at work pursuing the project for governance, and then a project with a particular edge:

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.

Actually, the imagined community, as with nationalism, does not have to exclude anyone in the development of its imagined insiders, for its self-limitation and its sovereignty as part of its project. What it can do is draw a geographical boundary and exclude all else outside: if people on the inside are then more loyal to an outside institution they risk excluding themselves. It becomes a question of perceived disloyalty to the new tribe in its nation state. But it does depend on the condition of ethnic relationships, and the danger is that narrow ethnicity is the driving force behind governance that will therefore exclude.

Did the British State in its development exclude? The issue is complicated because of the differences around the English State and other States in the British Isles. Homing in on England and its Anglican Church, its tendency to exclude has been because it was not born in ideology but has nevertheless had ideological periods, fringes and parties, and because it was set up to exclude the influence of foreign institutions. Roman Catholics were seen as loyal to something outside: a threat to the British State. Nevertheless, the British State was unstable through the Reformation and Restoration, and thus its Church did gain a habit of excluding those who had a distinct identity beyond its social, educational and welfare establishment. The feudal State had restored itself at a time of change, with many merchants and capitalists forced to work for political reform via non-conformity and their own parallel institutions. First local government and later national government was opened to non-Anglicans. One of the broader effects of the radical theological Essays and Reviews (1860) was to remove subscription to the Church of England as a condition of attending Oxford University.

Is Frank Turner right: that we see in this Archbishop of Canterbury an imaginary community of Anglicanism that draws on a tradition of an excluding Church of England, and who has generated an episcopal drive towards central governance on the basis of excluding gay and lesbian people because the Archbishop states that they cannot be representative of Anglicanism at any level of ministry?

It looks that way; and it is a very dangerous course of action. It means that the ethnic identity that drives this form of ecclesiastical nationalism involves the specific exclusion of a particular group of people. By so excluding, the walls of governance become thicker and the potential of control stronger. It is a very old tactic.

It seems extraordinary that anything like this should even be considered; the parallels with recent history simply illustrate the completely unethical nature of this course of action.

At this point I would mention a different imagined community. The Unitarian community is nothing if not dispersed and autonomous. Even its own ‘Churches’ are congregationalist where its centres are only advisory. But around the world there are new concentrations of congregations appearing in Africa which are virtually unitarian-fundamentalist and universalist, there is the Anglo-American tradition that is non-credal, a central European tradition that has a catechism, and an Indian collection of non-Christian theist village churches, and generally there are theological tendencies to rationalism or romanticism. This is all in the present. Go back in history, and the one label ‘Unitarian’ has content that would be at odds withe the present day, and also evolved from origins in trinitarian Puritanism, the very thing the Church of England could not contain in 1662. Yet Unitarians imagine all of these, in different spaces and times, as part of its imagined community and inheritance. It defies, however, creating governance: the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists does nothing more than process information and funnel money to those widely different groups called ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Universalist’. It cannot do anything else.

Cannot Anglicans, despite the purple, the doctrinal promises of clergy and above, maintain a looser ‘imagined community’ that does not demand moves towards governance, and certainly not governance that is based on exclusion? How can it do this?

It needs a different ecumenical vision. The one driving all this at present is the Covenant based mixture of reporting to Roman Catholicism, about institutional identity and consistency, mixed with a lowest common denominator of biblical interpretation – the fellowship of believers as narrowly drawn. The combination of Protestant and Catholic within the same Churches used to loosen them up, but under this central drive they have been inverted into a lurch for uniformity.

The breaking up of this project comes with dropping the Covenant. It fails and the project fails. Secondly, the ecumenical outlook has to look towards the Old Catholics and the Lutherans. Just as the UK and other once warring European powers have moderated their nationalisms by building the European Union, so Anglicanism can moderate its tendencies by looking outwards to these other episcopal and accountable groups. It also should consider how to merge and moderate itself by reincorporating the Methodists. Theologically too, it might reconsider legitimising such views as were expressed in Essays and Reviews (where there was clear Unitarian influence of its day!) so that a liberal view of the imagined ecclesiastical community is helped by having a place for liberal theology.

(To see footnotes, click Read more.)

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Anderson, Benedict Richard O’ Gorman (1991), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised and extended edition, first published 1983, London: Verso.

Goodwin, C. W., Jowett, B., Pattison, M., Powell, B., Temple, F., Williams, R., Wilson, H. B. (1861, first published 1860), Essays and Reviews, 8th edition, London : J. W. Parker.

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