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A question of authority

22 September 2017

Janet Traill explains the Colenso affair, which was the trigger for the first Lambeth Conference


Eye of the storm: John Colenso (1814-83), Bishop of Natal

Eye of the storm: John Colenso (1814-83), Bishop of Natal

IN FEBRUARY 1867, invitations were sent around the world to all Anglican bishops to attend the first Lambeth Conference, in Sep­tember. Although the Archbishop of Canter­bury, Charles Longley, earnestly hoped that all 144 bishops would attend, only 76 arrived.

The Archbishop said that he was confident “that nothing would pass but that which tended to brotherly love and union, and would bind the Colonial Church, which is certainly in a most unsatisfactory state, more closely to the Mother Church”.

The problems to which he referred had been caused by the recent publications of John William Colenso, the Bishop of Natal in Southern Africa, and subsequent events had thrown the whole Anglican world into uproar.


COLENSO was born in 1814. At Cambridge, he proved to be an exceptional mathematics student, and, in 1837, he was elected a Fellow of St John’s. Two years later, he entered deacon’s orders.

Colenso’s religious thinking followed ortho­­dox lines until he met his future wife, Sarah Bunyon. Through her reading, she had come to believe that God was present in all people at all times, whether or not they knew about Christ. Under her influence, and that of her intellectual friends, Colenso began to believe the same.

After their marriage in 1846, Colenso was appointed rector in a Norfolk village. Although out of mainstream affairs, he edited a missionary newspaper; and, when the Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, visited England, Colenso impressed him. Gray offered him the bishopric of the new diocese of Natal, and Colenso accepted with enthusiasm. He was consecrated in 1853, and shortly afterwards set sail for a preliminary visit to Natal.


HE WAS to be a missionary bishop: he divided his time between serving the English settlers and working with estab­lished mission­aries among the Zulus.

Almost immediately, he came into con­flict with conventional ideas on the treat­ment and teaching of Zulus. His main concern was the Church’s ideas on poly­gamy. He wrote: “The usual practice of enforcing the separation of wives from their husbands, upon their con­version to Christianity, is quite unwarrant­able, and opposed to the plain teaching of our Lord.”

Colenso felt it best to let the man retain his wives, but to forbid unmarried converts to take more than one. He found that other Churches operated this system successfully.

On his return home, Colenso published Ten Weeks in Natal, followed by The Proper Treat­ment of Polygamy. Both these works caused controversy, and the bishop was ac­­cused of advocating polygamy.


IN 1855, Colenso returned to Natal with his family, and settled near Pietermaritzburg. He immediately set about learning Zulu, and, over the next few years, wrote reference and text books. He also began the substantial work of translating the Bible.

This was done in consultation with Zulu con­verts, to get the right meaning and idiom. They raised many questions that Colenso found hard to answer truthfully. He also found much in the Bible which was at odds with new scientific discoveries, and, although he had been taught that “the Bible is none other than the word of God . . . absolute, faultless, unerring, supreme,” doubts began to creep in.

At the same time, he began a detailed study of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In the situa­tion between the Jewish converts to Chris­tianity in Rome and the Gentiles there, he saw a similarity with that of the English settlers in Natal and the native Zulus. Like Paul, he pointed out that the former were not superior to the latter. He was growing to love the Zulus. They in return called him “Sobantu”: “Father of the people”.


FROM his studies, he came to the conclusion that the body and blood of Christ were given “to all the human race, not only in the sacra­ment, but at all times”. He also came to doubt the accepted belief in eternal punishment.

Colenso preached on these topics, bringing him into conflict with some of his clergy, who complained to Gray in Cape Town. Until then, Colenso had had a good relationship with Gray, but things were about to change.

In 1861, Colenso published his Comment­ary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, enrag­ing Gray and his supporters, who called it “a revolt against the faith of Christendom”. Their fury saw no let-up when Colenso fol­lowed this with the first part of his Critical Examination of the Pentateuch. He wrote to a friend that, although he believed wholeheart­edly in God, “the Pentateuch, as a whole, can­not personally have been written by Moses, or by anyone acquainted personally with the facts which it professes to describe, and, further, that the (so-called) Mosaic narrative, by whomsoever written, and though impart­ing to us, as I fully believe it does, revelations of the Divine Will and Character, cannot be regarded as historically true”.

Colenso’s book was first published in South Africa, and Gray was determined to stop its publication in England. He arrived there, intending to persuade the English bishops of the detrimental effect it would have, particu­larly on the Church’s influence over the laity.

Colenso travelled to England to defend him­self, but refused to meet the bishops at what he believed to be a tribunal. “I entirely believe that what I have taught in that book I am permitted to teach within the liberty allowed me by the Articles and Prayer Book of the Church of England,” he wrote.


IN 1863, Colenso’s first book on the Penta­teuch was published in Britain, and caused an immediate outcry from both clergy and laity. Letters to the press, pamphlets, and articles appeared, condemning him as a heretic and holding him up to ridicule.

He received a letter from the majority of bishops, calling on him to resign. He wrote to a friend that he had no intention of doing this: “I intend to fight the battle of liberty of thought and speech for the clergy.”

Despite the outcry, Colenso received sup­port from many quarters. After visiting the Contin­ent later that year, he wrote: “The contrast between the reception which I met with from really learned Hebrew and Biblical scholars at Leiden, and that which has been my lot in England from an un-
learned and prejudiced clergy is very strik­ing.”


WHILE Colenso remained in England, Gray returned to Cape Town. In December 1863, he assembled a court to try the absent bishop on a charge of heresy. Gray’s right to do this was disputable, at a time when the legal rela­tionship between colon­ial dioceses and the Church of England was in the process of being established through the English courts; but his fury with Colenso for not bowing to his authority as the senior bishop in South Africa knew no limits, and he was determined to oust him from his see.

Colenso was also accused of breaking the vows that he took at his ordination, and incit­ing other clergymen to do likewise. Underly­ing these charges was the question whether clergy of the Church of England had the same liberty of thought in South Africa as they had in England. Bishop Gray declared that this was not the case.

The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Having excommunicated and deposed Colenso, Gray forbade him the right of appeal, except to the Archbishop of Canter­bury in his personal capacity.

Colenso ignored this and appealed to the Privy Council in London. It eventually decided in his favour, declaring that Bishop Gray had no authority to oust Colenso. Al­­though he lost financial support from the missionary societies, Colenso continued to receive his stipend, and, after three years’ absence, he returned to Natal.


COLENSO continued working among the settlers and Zulus, and Gray persisted in his opposition. In 1868, Gray found William Macrorie, a High Churchman like himself, to be bishop, and the South African bishops elected him. After negotiations with the Colonial Secretary, Lord Buckingham, it was agreed that he could be called the Bishop of Maritzburg, and a new cathedral was built for him.

But Buckingham’s reluctance to acknow­ledge Macrorie helped to delay his conse­cration until Longley had died and Archibald Campbell Tait had succeeded him. Longley must have been saddened that the Lambeth Conference had not resolved the problems in the Church or led to much brotherly love.

Colenso continued minutely analysing the books of the Bible for similarities in style which would indicate the same author. His work eventually ran to seven fat volumes full of tables and comparisons, and helped to pave the way for modern theological studies and theories.

The Colenso family, unlike most of their neighbours, treated Zulus as equals. In the run-up to the Zulu War, they supported the Zulus, and felt that the British government treated them shoddily. When, in July 1879, the Zulus were finally defeated, the Colensos were appalled at King Cetshwayo’s capture and exile. The Bishop helped him to regain some of his former kingdom, but the King was killed on his return, in July 1883, and thousands died in the ensuing violence.

Colenso never heard this news. He had died quietly at home the month before, and was buried in his cathedral church of St Peter. His children were left to carry on his work — but that is another story.

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