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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: July 2017

5 - An English Institution? The Colonial Church of England in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

Summary

Including the Church of England in a discussion of the formation of an ‘English Diaspora’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might, at first glance, seem highly problematic. Most of the literature on nineteenth-century Anglicanism has, after all, argued that the Church became less English as the century wore on. Classic Anglican theory held that ‘Englishness’ and ‘Anglicanism’ were coterminous: to be a citizen of the English state was to be Anglican. While a contemporary in 1800 might reasonably have coupled English and Anglican, from the 1830s onwards two developments challenged this relationship. First, constitutional reform in the late 1820s confirmed that one could be both a citizen of the United Kingdom and a Roman Catholic or a nonconformist. Secondly, the worldwide spread of the Church – facilitated by missionaries from the seventeenth century onwards – resulted in a global and diverse Anglican faith characterized by multicultural and multi-ethnic churches that were not colonial facsimiles of the English Church ‘back home’. The Church of England had, by the time of the Lambeth Conferences of the later nineteenth century, become the global ‘Anglican Communion’. Consequently, one might argue that a multicultural and global institution such as the Church has little relevance for discussions about a putative English ‘world’ or ‘diaspora’.

There is, however, another story to tell about the nineteenth-century Anglican Church, one that allows us to make the case for its inclusion in discussions about a ‘hidden English Diaspora’. This story argues, contrary to the account given above, that the nineteenth century was a period when the Church attached itself more firmly to ideas of Englishness. The constitutional reforms of the late 1820s did not mean that the Anglican Church suddenly renounced its historic claim to be the Church of the ‘English people’. Although surprisingly little has been written about the relationship between the modern Church and Englishness, a recent article by Arthur Burns points out that the various challenges confronting the Church after 1832 – the threat from dissent, the loss of its constitutional privileges, a ‘free market’ in religion in which denominations fought for adherents – stimulated the Church to make a renewed bid to be a national and English institution. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Church consciously positioned itself at the forefront of national ceremonies, including coronations, commemorations and state funerals.