Some joy and some history from UPS

John William Colenso caused a frenzy of alarm and opposition.

Image via Wikipedia

Today the brown UPS truck stopped in front of the house. The driver brought a little something I had been waiting for — an original 1874 Vanity Fair print of Bishop John William Colenso.

I sometimes give talks on Anglican polity, and I like to use a slide showing this man. I put up the slide and then ask if anyone knows who he is. Of course they don’t, so I add, helpfully, “this man’s actions helped to shape the modern Anglican Communion.” Again, blank stares.

Then I go on. This man is Bishop John William Colenso, late Bishop of Natal. He taught many controversial things, including the idea that the church — in its zeal to teach monogamous marriage — must not force African men to divorce their several wives when they convert to Christianity. Otherwise, women were left in abject poverty. Better to allow them to join the church as a family, but to take no more new wives. Morality is sometimes more complex that we might like it to be.
Anyway, Bishop Colenso was eventually tried in a local court and removed from office. He then appealed to the Queen’s Privy Council, who reinstated him. This unleashed a furore. What were the limits of orthodoxy in the Anglican churches throughout the world? Who had control? How were bishops to respect one another and their local teaching authority?

This led to the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. Bishops (a bare majority, by the way) gathered from around the globe for consultation and prayer. Mostly they focused on what united them, spending comparatively little time on mechanisms for adjudicating perceived heretics. Out of this fellowship grew stronger connections across nations and continents. Global Anglican identity began to shape up.

I think there are many lessons for us in these times, filled with much bitter rhetoric from those who would divide the church. So I’m delight to have Bishop Colenso’s likeness, which will soon grace my office, as a regular reminder of a time when the church moved through controvery and emerged stronger and more clear about its witness.

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5 Responses

  1. Peter says:


    I am currently reading the Michael Ramsey canon and am finding it helpful to build my own understanding of our Anglican Communion as well…

    Thanks for this post!


  2. “Colenso Corner”, Campbelltown NSW, Australia

    Bp Colenso was not invited to Lambeth (but then, many English bishops did not attend and Dean Stanley banned them from the Abbey!). Now the South African Church that excommunicated him is thinking of putting him in its Calendar. Among other things, he and his wife and daughters were great seekers of British justice for Zulu people. Some of his works have been re-printed in recent years, and the 150th anniversary of his consecration as Bp of Natal and of the founding of that Diocese was celebrated in Pietermaritzburg and Durban a few years ago (an Australian priest of the bizarre Diocese of Sydney, I had the great privilege of attending).
    Colenso is one of the greatest missionary bishops of the 19th century- and one of the most winsome.

  3. Should have made clear- it was the bishops attending Lambeth whom Stanley did not allow to hold a service in the Abbey.

    I too have that Vanity Fair print-it does not justice to Bp Colenso but there are some fine photographs of him available.
    John Bunyan

  4. As I recall there was something about Dr Darwin as well…

    The Archbishop of Upsala at the time was invited to the first Lambeth, but he declined because he actually agreed with Bishop Colenso on Darwin (don’t know about polygamy).

    So sister churches also are invited…

    My own bishop was invited in 1998. He thought some where incredibly angry – You can’t imagine how angry they were, he said ; = )

  5. Deacon Scott says:

    There also are several papers and other articles by and about Bp Colenso at Project Canterbury:, especially interesting is a collection of published correspondence between the Abps of Canturbury and York and the Bp of London, with Bp Colenso:

    An amazing person at an amazing time – not unlike, yet so unlike, our own!

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