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Racial solidarity and English Catholicism

Herewith the third and concluding part of “Reconciled Bodies: Recasting Race in Catholic Ecclesiology,” a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16.

The first part is here and the second part is here.

Let me make three broad points in conclusion.

One Blood

First, it seems clear that the fathers of Lambeth 1920 generally presume an identity between race and nation. Historically, for the English, and the Church of England in particular, this would have been obvious. By the 19th century, however, it had become a point of worry, precisely on the principled grounds of would-be Catholicism.

We may recall here a wonderful, if naively pre-ecumenical, sermon of John Henry Newman, delivered as an intended stake in the ground at the first opening of the London Oratory in 1849, entitled “Prospects of the Catholic Missioner.”[1] Four years into his Roman Catholicism, Newman here assesses the claims of Anglican communion, and notes that it may be “found in many parts of the world”; he mentions “establishments in Malta, in Jerusalem, in India, in China, in Australia, in South Africa, and in Canada” (p. 250). Anglicanism, however, is dogged precisely by establishment, he says, which exhausts its identity via state compulsion. “It has then no internal consistency, or individuality, or soul, to give it the capacity of propagation…. It is an appendage… of the sovereign power; it is the religion, not even of a race, but of the ruling portion of a race” (pp. 251-52). But this, of course, is not Catholicism. “A local religion is not from God” (p. 246).

Fair enough. But Lambeth 1920 may be read as a direct response to, if not exactly refutation of, Newman.

In a famous passage from the report of the committee on reunion, Weston and company narrate Anglican developments from the date of the first Lambeth Conference, 18 short years after Newman’s sermon:

[By the year] 1867, this Communion had taken the form of a federation of self-governing Churches…. Our missionary workers were then planting churches among nations very different from the Anglo-Saxon race and from one another, but as yet these had shown but little growth. In the interval between that time and the present there have grown up indigenous Churches in China, in Japan, in East and West Africa, in each of which the English members are but a handful of strangers and sojourners, some engaged in missionary work, some in secular business…. Consequently the Anglican Communion of today is a federation of Churches, some national, some regional, but no longer predominantly Anglo-Saxon in race, nor can it be expected that it will attach special value to Anglo-Saxon traditions. The blessing which has rested upon its work has brought it to a new point of view. Meanwhile, it might also be said that its centre of gravity is shifting. It already presents an example on a small scale of the problems which attach to the unity of the Universal Church. As the years go on, its ideals must become less Anglican and more Catholic. It cannot look to any bonds of union holding it together, other than those which should hold together the Catholic Church itself.[2]

As often in the texts of Lambeth 1920, to meet our Edwardian forbears is to meet ourselves, in the history of Anglicanism, for the first time. For one finds a hope of communion as yet unfulfilled, reaching out beyond itself, seeking to be of service to the whole; with, in other words, problems as yet unresolved: problems that we may seem to have made little or no progress in resolving.

Here I would highlight the question of human blood as basic. In a moving passage a little further on, the bishops say that they

look forward hopefully to the far greater variety in the expression of the one faith and of devotion to the one Lord, which must necessarily ensue when the Churches of men who are strangers in blood, though brothers in Christ, come to fuller age and to more characteristic development. We call upon our fellow-churchmen in every branch of our Communion to accept ever more fully the standard of the universal Church and its necessary inclusiveness, so that they will not feel strange when they are called upon to live in the fellowship of the re-united universal Church.[3]

The hope is unassailable; but its articulated terms show forth our problem of perduring “race” alienation. The challenge seems to be to find ways of speaking about culture, tribe, language — biblical peoplehood (genos or ethnos) or nationhood (gentes): Gentile commonality — without recourse to an essentialization of blood, which must be deemed an error both of anthropology and soteriology. In his book Race, Anglo-Catholic priest-scholar Kenneth Leech begins from the presupposition that race is “a biologically meaningless concept. Every human being shares over 99.9 per cent of her or his DNA with everyone else, while the tiny variations which remain differ more within ethnic groups than between them.” “No human population,” therefore, actually fits “the biological definition of a race.”[4] In keeping with our own prayer, disentangling blood and race from nationhood seems requisite: as we say, “you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth…: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh.”[5]

Black Lives Matter More

Second, on the missionary principle that Christians should “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), where we find ourselves should be determinative of our priorities: because we are called to service of particular peoples and places. This is a catholic and evangelical point that bears on race as a matter of moral solidarity.

Notwithstanding the corporate mind of Lambeth 1920 on race, Bishop Weston had already concluded by 1899 that, as his biographer recounts,

the great obstacle to real progress [in establishing a self-supporting African Church] lay in that consciousness of race superiority which is so characteristic of Englishmen. Missionaries had come to Africa to be kind to Africans, but they were inclined to treat them as children to be corrected and controlled, and they expected from them deference and service. This [Weston] saw to be the wrong attitude, for if a native Church was ever to grow, the native priests must be treated as equals. “We have,” he said, “always to remember that they, and not we, are the permanent leaders of the African Church.”[6]

Accordingly, for his part, Bishop Weston sought to “break down the barrier which separated black from white” by articulating, for his context, a “missionary ideal” of blackness, that is, “to become as the black man, and to identify oneself with black ideals” (p. 36). His biographer explains:

Frank believed that God had made of one blood all the nations of men, that our Lord had come to be the servant of all, had died for all, and had commissioned His disciples to serve and suffer gladly, that all might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He could not understand a missionary who adopted the attitude of a master with benevolent intentions; the missionary, he thought, should only be eager to serve. … For him there was only one way of service — it was the way of the Incarnation — a man must make himself one with those whom he wished to serve….

When race cleavage is so complete …, it is difficult to see how the gulf can ever be bridged. Frank saw a way and was bold enough to follow it. He found it “necessary to adopt as far as possible African ways in order to help his African priests to feel at home in his own house.” In 1919 he sent a circular letter to his staff, saying that in future he intended to live as much as possible with natives, and must not be expected to pay long visits to European Mission stations.[7]

In the United States today, if brothers and sisters of color need to press the point that black lives matter, then white Christians can only join them in a similar solidarity and service, especially when we all confess the same faith. In biblical terms, the question must recur to the moral norm of 1 Corinthians 12:22-23: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.” In the face of real or perceived white supremacy, white Christians will wish to respond by insisting that black lives matter more, and then find ways to live this out. That is, here, in this place, we should commit ourselves to clothing our indispensable black members — and their communities, schools, and churches — with greater honor, as a matter of mutual subjection in the body. We are doubtless a long way from managing such a thing, but we should take it as a worthy goal on grounds of gospel obedience: an implication of the character of the Church as a single body of Jews and Gentiles reconciled through Christ’s cross (Eph. 2).

The Ends of Englishness

Lastly, there can nonetheless be no escaping for Anglicans the interesting, difficult problem of Englishness. All would-be Anglicanisms, including Anglo-Catholicism, and the fragile, ever-nascent communion of Anglican churches, must face this fact, since its terms are built into our stories and structures, even as they shift.[8] If England — by which I mean its history, language, culture, and also the Church of England — are endemic to the project, this needs both explication and defense on the way to developments of a sort that all ecclesiology always presumes and enjoins, the Church being ever reforming.

To state a thesis, our structural struggles, tied to questions of authority and order, redound to a single, largely unaddressed but unavoidable question of Anglican identity. Its answer, if a persuasive one may be found, will consist in a narrative of families of churches set within a wider ambit of the Christian vocation to unity, as in the Anglican Communion Covenant.[9] But it will also explicate the place and historic sees of England as providentially given, as, that is, useful primarily for evangelical ends: for the Christian gospel itself and Christian faithfulness. It will, in short, vindicate the place of England, in however chastened a manner. It will not stop, per our recently adopted posture, with historical defenses-cum-apologia that mostly issue in confessions of national and imperial sins sans remainder.

Of course, post-imperial penitence is requisite — also for those of us (I speak as an American) not having yet arrived at the after party. We must continue to wrestle with complicated webs of economic, cultural, and military might, trying to speak an honest and true word about their life-giving and death-dealing aspects. But as we do so, we must mark the histories of war, conquest, subjugation, and colonization that have been the collective lot of our one race, the human race, since our original exile from the garden. We are, all of us, everywhere, at all times — semper, ubique, omnibus — complicit, thence judged and condemned, hence in need of saving. Accordingly, our sanctification, also as separated churches, must include confession, penance, amendment of life, and, I am sure, whenever possible, reparation and reparations, both personal and social. In this way, our second births by baptism may indeed, by God’s grace, move us beyond mutually assured destruction into new bonds and alliances, and renewed politics: leagues of nations and of churches, as in the last century; and, one hopes, new, pan-cultural, pan-racial solidarities in the present one, that for Christians will properly seek to be washed collectively in the blood of the Lamb.


[1] John Henry Cardinal Newman, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, new edn. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1897).

[2] “Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Relation to and Reunion with Other Churches” in Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion: Encyclical Letter from the Bishops, with the Resolutions and Reports (London: SPCK, 1920), available online: quoting here from p. 137; emphasis added.

[3] Ibid., p. 138; emphasis added.

[4] Kenneth Leech, Race (Church Publishing, 2005), p. 1.

[5] Second Collect for Mission in Morning Prayer Rite II, 1979 BCP (p. 100); emphasis added.

[6] H. Maynard Smith, Frank, Bishop of Zanzibar: Life of Frank Weston, 1871-1924 (SPCK, 1926), p. 30. Cf. p. 32.

[7] Ibid., pp. 262-63.

[8] See Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order, Towards a Symphony of Instruments, available online. Cf. Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (Cowley Publications, 2003).

[9] The Anglican Communion Covenant, Intro. §4: “In the providence of God, which holds sway even over our divisions caused by sin, various families of churches have grown up within the universal Church in the course of history. Among these families is the Anglican Communion, which provides a particular charism and identity among the many followers and servants of Jesus” (emphasis added). Cf. 2.1.4-2.1.5.


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