Is colonialism good?

Is colonialism good?

There is a rule in journalism which says that the answer to any headline that asks a question is usually “no”. So before I ask you to get deeper into this blog post let me set the record straight now: colonialism is bad and British colonialism was bad.

If that is so clear, why is this blog post necessary?

It is necessary because an unfinished speech I gave to the General Synod yesterday [Thursday 10 February 2022] is being misconstrued as me saying that colonialism has its good bits.

That is not what I was saying – but I did quote a former Bishop of Kuching in north west Borneo, the Rt Revd Bolly Lapok, as saying that. He told me that the English should stop apologising for colonialism. He said that it wasn’t all bad and that if it wasn’t for colonialism, his people would still be head hunters.

Now his words are being condemned too. I do find it odd that people in England will say colonialism is bad on the one hand; and then say that a Malaysian bishop can only express an opinion if it is one that is approved by that same English person. That is colonialism. Bishop Bolly was entitled to his view.

I told the story because I was responding to criticisms of the Anglican Communion in a debate about whether Anglicans outside England should have a greater say in the choice of future Archbishops of Canterbury.

There are good arguments on both sides. But there are also bad ones – such as the one that says asking Anglicans outside England to contribute to the selection of Archbishops of Canterbury is harking back to colonialism.

Colonialism is not a good thing. But it happened, and because it happened England has a different form of influence and soft power in the world than if it hadn’t happened. What can be good is how that influence and soft power is used.

In, I think, 1984, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Robert Runcie, asked the then-Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Revd Keith Sutton (who years later would become my boss) to visit South Africa to stand alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu – the Arch – at some high profile funerals. It was widely thought that the South African authorities would attack the funerals and assassinate Archbishop Tutu.

The world’s media turned up – not because a foreign bishop was present; not because the Bishop of Lichfield was present; but because the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative was present – and it was standing next to Keith Sutton that made the Arch safe – “I may be small, but when I stand next to Keith Sutton I am tall, because when I stand with him I stand with the entire Anglican Communion at my side”, Desmond Tutu said.

This was possible because of the soft power and influence that Archbishops of Canterbury have. The Anglican Communion is a family of 42 independent-yet-interdependent autonomous churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is leader of just one – the Church of England. But his role as primus inter pares – first amongst equals – of the Anglican Primates is because of England’s colonial past and its effect on the spread of Anglicanism around the world.

Colonialism is not a good thing. But it happened. As a result of that history, the Archbishop of Canterbury has a figure-head role as a focus for unity within the wider Anglican Communion.

Inviting greater involvement of that wider Anglican Communion in the selection of future Archbishops of Canterbury is not harking back to colonialism. It is recognising that, because of the colonial past and the status that gives the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is right that voices outside England should have a greater say over who the person who occupies the seat of Saint Augustine is.

That isn’t colonialism. It is quite the reverse. And that is the point that I was trying to – perhaps clumsily – say in my hastily half-written speech which was half-delivered online while dosed up on drugs fighting Covid.