Decolonizing hopes emerged at 1963 Anglican Congress—but Global North still dominates Communion, MRI at 60 conference hears

Participants listen to a session at the MRI at 60 Conference. Photo: Matthew Puddister
Published April 19, 2024

Held as a wave of decolonization swept the former British Empire, the 1963 Toronto Anglican Congress proclaimed the commitment of the worldwide Anglican Communion to a new spirit of “mutual responsibility and interdependence” (MRI). More than 60 years later, however, many Anglican scholars say despite some progress, these hopes have not been achieved—with richer developed countries of the Global North continuing to dominate the Communion.

The legacy of the 1963 Congress was the focus of MRI at 60, an international conference held April 12-13 at St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto to mark the event’s 60th anniversary. The Canadian Church Historical Society (CCHS) hosted the conference, which was originally planned for 2023 before being delayed. At least 40 attended in person and more than 67 online.

The conference was held in honour of Bishop Terry Brown, who was CCHS president until his death on Easter weekend. Brown worked as Asia/Pacific mission coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada from 1985 to 1996 and was bishop of the Pacific diocese of Malaita from 1996 to 2008. Canon Mark Chapman, professor of the history of theology at the University of Oxford and keynote speaker, said Brown “in many ways was a living embodiment of mutual responsibility and interdependence.

“He worked across different continents [and] helped make things happen very much in the spirit of Toronto 1963.”

A call prepared for the 1963 Congress, written by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay and the Communion’s 17 primates, explained the concept of MRI to delegates. “It is a platitude to say that in our time, areas of the world which have been thought of as dependent and secondary are suddenly striding to the center of the stage, in a new and breath-taking independence and self-reliance,” the document said. “Equally has this happened to the Church… It is now irrelevant to talk of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ churches. The keynotes of our time are equality, interdependence, mutual responsibility.”

Anglicanism and imperialism

Chapman’s keynote address put the 1963 Congress within a broader historical context by comparing it to the pan-Anglican Congress of 1908. Charting the shift in Anglican perspectives from the height of British imperialism to the era of decolonization, Chapman reflected upon the meaning of Anglicanism itself.

Unlike other global Christian denominations that grew out of the Protestant Reformation, Chapman said, Anglicanism did not develop a distinctive understanding of the Christian faith. The Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, for example, did not acquire the same status as the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of faith in the Lutheran Church, and were never binding on lay people.

Anglicanism’s identity came primarily from its status as England’s national church, the scholar said. But its absence of a confessional statement of faith became a problem as Anglicanism spread beyond England. “Instead of [having] a confession or a set of canons, to be Anglican was to be in relationship—relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury” as the primate of all England, Chapman said.

Canon Mark Chapman delivers his keynote address at the MRI at 60 conference, “A Tale of Two Anglican Congresses: London 1908 and Toronto 1963”. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Defining Anglicanism in this way “introduces an inevitable element of Englishness, and thus the legacy of colonialism, into the very heart of Anglicanism.” The effort by 19th century Anglican missionaries to spread Christianity, Chapman said, “was intimately tied up with a particular perception of civilization carried by the so-called Anglo-Saxon race who were populating the colonies.”

Such attitudes persisted to the 1908 London Congress, a massive event that for the first time included Indigenous laity and clergy from across the Communion.

A dominant figure in Anglicanism at this time, Chapman said, was Bishop Henry Montgomery, general secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and father of Second World War general Bernard Montgomery. Chapman described the elder Montgomery as “a kind of Anglican foreign secretary” and “undoubted apologist for the British Empire. He thought clergy were officers in an imperial army.”

Despite imperialist and racist language that pervaded the 1908 Congress, Chapman said, “there was already a strong degree of ambiguity about the relationship between Anglicanism and British imperialism.” On the one hand, figures like University of Cambridge master Stuart Alexander Donaldson displayed open racism, distinguishing between “higher” and “lower” races. On the other hand, Chapman said, there was also “a recognition that Christianity was not English and Anglicanism did not just present the God of Greater Britain.”

Susil Rudra, the first Indian principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, attended the London Congress and spoke about the need to “Indigenize” the gospel and for more Indian clergy and liturgy. Reginald Copleston, then bishop of Calcutta and metropolitan of India, spoke about the dangers of missionaries feeling superior and the need for greater humility in the presence of Indigenous peoples.

Dawn of a new era

The decades that followed the 1908 Congress saw massive changes including two world wars, the relative weakening of Britain and ascendance of the United States; the onset of the Cold War and declarations of independence by colonial countries across the world. Old bonds across the Anglican Communion, Chapman said, seemed inadequate in the face of rapid decolonization.

By the 1960s, Chapman said, many churches growing most rapidly were those in places that had or would soon become independent from Britain. The building up of local church leadership became a growing concern.

Figures such as Bishop Stephen Bayne, an American who served as the Anglican Communion’s first executive officer from 1960 to 1964, observed that mission could no longer be about “impressing the local population with riches,” Chapman said—which “amounted to an implicit questioning of the so-called civilizing impact of mission.” Bayne wrote an introduction to the MRI call at the 1963 Congress stressing the need for dialogue with churches in the ex-colonial countries.

A display presents images from the 1963 Toronto Anglican Congress. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Congress delegates spent August 17, 1963 discussing the MRI call. Bishop of Tokyo David Goto spoke about the liberation he felt facing what he called a great missionary task. Bishop Richard Roseveare, of the diocese of Accra in Ghana, said MRI repudiated every suggestion of “ecclesiastical neocolonialism” and that, as Chapman put it, “the one empire was the empire of Christ.”

In the end, the Congress endorsed and committed itself to the call for the Anglican Communion to grow in “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the body of Christ.”

Colonial legacy persists

The bulk of April’s conference saw presenters discuss papers they had written on the 1963 Congress, MRI and its impact. On Friday, participants heard sessions focused on the Toronto Congress itself and MRI’s reception in Canada and Australia as well as newly autonomous churches in Kenya, the Philippines and Pakistan.

Saturday sessions discussed MRI and missiology, interdependence and colonialism, and MRI and Anglican identity. During the latter two sessions, presenters said many key goals of the 1963 Congress had still not been fulfilled and called for a more thorough decolonization across the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Charlie Bell, college lecturer in medicine at Girton College, Cambridge, said the Anglican Communion had failed to address the legacy of colonialism, which he called a “scandal of history,” in its global structures. “We face an urgent need to reimagine our Instruments of Communion [in a way] that would allow the entire church to break free of the colonial mold,” Bell said.

He offered the example of the proposed Anglican Congress—a meeting of not just bishops, but clergy and laity from across the Communion, which the 2022 Lambeth Conference called on the church to convene. Bell said any such congress would need an intentional focus on who is present and why, on “whose voices are being listened to and on the ecclesiological positioning of that congress itself.” The Congress should take “an Anglican expression of relational unity in bishop, in synod, as a starting point and not the creation of unity as a goal.”

Former Bishop of Southern Malawi James Tengatenga, professor of global Anglicanism at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, said the Toronto Congress marked “the emergence of a decolonial Anglican Communion. It was suggestive of each region taking its rightful place and role in the obedience to the mission of God.” Yet, Tengatenga added, within the Communion today, “the hegemony is still northern and the tendency is schismatic.”

Former Bishop of Southern Malawi James Tengatenga discusses his paper on the Global South and the 1963 Congress. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Even after the 1963 Congress, Tengatenga said, both progressives and conservative Westerners in the Communion often viewed Africans as having no agency. He cited a 1998 article in the Church of England Newspaper on Bishop Jack Spong of The Episcopal Church, who had a reputation as an “arch-progressive.” The article quoted Spong as saying Africans were “just a step up from witchcraft”—a stance Tengatenga said betrayed a sense of coloniality even among the most progressive bishops and caused pushback from African bishops. Since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, he said, Anglicans in the Global South have increasingly viewed themselves as a distinct “theo-political” group.

The Rev. Rakgadi Khobo, chaplain at St. Mary’s School, Waverley in Johannesburg, South Africa, said despite widespread associations of Anglican Church with colonialism, in her view “Anglicanism is inherently decolonial.” She pointed to the origins of the Church of England in separating from the Roman Catholic Church, which showed “a church and society looking to create space for each form of existence in the one holy catholic church.”

Khobo drew parallels to African independence movements and local expressions of Christianity, as well as the Book of Common Prayer’s emphasis on the need for worship and scriptures in vernacular languages. Khobo also cited the shift of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa “from a servant of those in power to serving the powerless” in opposing apartheid.

“The climate of decolonization echoing the sentiments of the mutual responsibility and interdependence framework means that it is time for us to revisit it,” Khobo concluded.

Along with discussion on the 1963 Congress, MRI at 60 included a free public lecture at St. James Cathedral on Friday evening in which Chapman spoke on Anglican theological understanding of the laity.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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