The Colenso Affair

Rodney Schofield launches our series on parts of the Anglican Communion

Present tensions within the Anglican Communion are nothing new. Its history is complex, and it seems that the expansion of the Anglican Church worldwide has always been fraught with legal, financial and doctrinal problems – which can be more fully explored in the excellent account by Dr William Jacob, The Making of the Anglican Communion Worldwide (SPCK 1997). Chiefly, the issue has been the relationship between the so-called ‘mother’ church in England and the many ‘daughter’ churches elsewhere in the world. Provincial autonomy is now the order of the day, but it evolved gradually under the pressure of events and is clearly being reviewed in this twenty-first century because it is far from being a satisfactory conclusion to the problems it was supposed to answer.

It is perhaps not widely realized that for two hundred years and more after the English Reformation there were no Anglican bishops outside the British Isles. It was only after the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 that this began to change, and even then reluctantly at first. Sixty years later there were 37 overseas bishops (27 of them in North America), but a significant increase in the middle decades of the nineteenth century more than doubled this figure. A key issue that took a century to resolve was the question of accountability: by whose authority did the rapidly growing numbers of Anglican bishops hold their position, and to whom were they answerable? The controversial figure of JW Colenso, Bishop of Natal from 1853 to 1883, helped to bring the issue into sharp focus; and the so-called ‘Colenso affair’ was one of the major factors behind the growing desire for a world-wide gathering of Anglican bishops, eventually staged (for the first time ever) at Lambeth in 1867.

Thanks to Henry VIII the issue was not simply a question of power being centralized or dispersed. It was complicated by the fact that bishops in the Church of England have always received their appointments from the Crown; and while in some overseas dioceses the Crown’s writ still ran large, in other colonies a local legislature had by now assumed many of its powers (or in independent America had usurped them altogether), and yet again there were bishops (such as Charles Mackenzie in the Central Africa of 1861) who found themselves completely outside British territory. In fact, as we shall shortly notice, in Colenso’s case there was considerable confusion about who held the reins of power in South Africa, which enabled Colenso to survive the various depositions and excommunications imposed upon him – by the expedient of appealing over Bishop Gray of Cape Town’s head , not to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Curiously, to this day, this latter body is still occupied for much of its time with legal appeals from those twenty or more Commonwealth countries which lack their own appellate courts.

Natal was one of two new dioceses (the other being Grahamstown) formed out of Gray’s in 1853. In that year Colenso received his appointment by letters patent from the Crown, but at the same time Gray spent much time and money (some ten thousand pounds in legal fees) to ensure that the Crown gave him immediate jurisdiction over Colenso. Ten years later Gray was sufficiently concerned about Colenso’s liberal views and his published writings that – supported by the bishops of the Church of England – he attempted to depose him. Colenso was in fact a follower of FD Maurice (removed from his London professorship for urging the non-existence of hell), and had embarked upon a serious project to re-examine Biblical interpretation ‘from a missionary point of view’ – a laudable endeavour, given his desire to win Zulu converts to the Christian faith. However, his study of Romans led him to the conclusion that there need be no subjective response to Christ’s definitive act of atonement on the cross, but that henceforth it was sufficient to proclaim Christ’s love as a model for all to follow. Given the contemporary controversy about Essays and Reviews published one year earlier (1860), his book was considered alarming by the English bishops, who invited Colenso to meet with some of them – an offer he rejected. He continued his studies with the Pentateuch, here (as a mathematician) aligning himself with the latest geological and Darwinian thinking: namely, in rejecting the early chapters of Genesis as a scientific account of creation. The response came both in England where a gathering of bishops summoned by Archbishop Longley challenged Colenso to resign, and in his own cathedral in Pietermaritzburg where the dean and chapter presented him to Gray on the charge of heresy.

Colenso refused to appear at the hearing in South Africa, and instead of bowing to Gray’s sentence appealed to the Judicial Committee for an order prohibiting Gray interfering with his episcopal rights. In March 1865 judgement was delivered in his favour, the court finding that in 1853 metropolitical status had not in fact been conferred upon Gray because by then Cape Colony had its own legislative assembly – thus rendering invalid the letters patent issued that year from London. Undeterred, Gray ‘excommunicated’ Colenso in 1866, but once again the latter’s appeals were successful in retaining both his stipend from the Colonial Bishoprics Fund and his control over church property in Natal. His unresolved duel with Gray thus contributed to the growing pressure (especially from Canada) for an international synod of bishops to debate Colenso’s ‘heresies’ and to clarify the legal situation in overseas provinces (as many had now come to be called)

In the following year the Archbishop of Canterbury did indeed invite all bishops, with the exception of Colenso, to Lambeth. It was to be, he insisted, deliberative, consultative and advisory; but not a legislative council with any binding powers. In the event only half of those invited actually attended, some failing to do so because of the impracticality of travel, others (including the Archbishop of York) fearing a weakening of church-state links that might, for example, be incurred if the Privy Council’s declaration for Colenso were to be contradicted, others yet again deeply suspicious of the Archbishop’s intentions. The declaration was made that the diocese of Natal was vacant, with the predictable consequence that Colenso – as was his legal right – continued in office, and was shadowed by a Bishop of Maritzburg consecrated by a frustrated Gray to administer much the same territory. The anomalous situation continued until Colenso’s death in 1883, at which point it took a further decade before the warring constituencies in Natal were more or less reconciled. Gray’s crumb of consolation was in achieving independence for metropolitans as a result of the Colonial Clergy Act of 1874, namely, the abolition of any canonical oath of obedience – even to the Archbishop of Canterbury!

 

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