In the news recently we had a case of Pope Benedict poaching Anglican priests. This is news only in the sense that it is the latest incident in the long history of the battle between the Roman Catholic Church and those it considers heretics. It falls into the pattern of the Roman Church trying to take religion back to the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation. But not back before 600 A.D., before the Bishop of Rome's claims of authority over all Christians began to take hold in Western Europe.
My focus has always been on the Catholic Church, with other Christian sects being secondary. The Protestants are less scary because they a fragmented. They typically have not been able to oppress people on a larger-than-national basis.
The Anglican Church (churches affiliated with the Church of England), known in the United States of America as the Episcopal Church, is an exception. In this essay I'll look at the big historic picture of this Church. I'll leave the controversies about homosexual and female ministers, as well as theological differences with other sects, until later.
The most important big picture item is something called the British Empire. It does not amount to much today, but starting around 1600 the British (England, Scotland and Wales) started expanding rapidly. They grabbed sugar islands in the Caribbean and cut into the Dutch spice trade with Asia as best they could. Eventually the empire included much of North America, Africa, and Asia, as well as Australia. It was the largest empire the world has seen, and by any reasonable standard (killing, raping, stealing, and oppressing) it was at least as evil as any empire in history.
The official theology of this evil empire was that of the Anglican Church. Of course men had other motivations, mainly greed and lust for power. Anglo-American apologists claim that religion was a mitigating factor. If the British had all been atheists, we are led to believe, the sins of the Empire would have been worse. But that is a phony analysis. If the Jesus doctrine of love sometimes caused an act of mercy, I don't want to discount that. But it is more important to understand how Anglican beliefs and culture contributed to the violence required to build the British Empire.
When the Anglican Church separated from the Roman Church around 1538, for the most part the basic theology of the Church remained intact. In addition to recognizing that the Pope was not the ordained leader of the early Christians, many of the practices added by Rome during the Middle Ages were stripped out of the mix.
Did the Anglican Church contribute to the brutal British Empire because it continued to hold so much in common with the Roman branch of the Christian Church? Both religions spawned brutal empires, so the answer, on the whole, has to be yes. The other fundamental question, would the British have established their global empire had they not been Anglican, is harder to answer. Marxists would tend to say yes. Like the Dutch, who the English lagged behind and then overtook, the British Empire developed alongside modern industrial capitalism. Marxists would typically argue that as the religion of the capitalist ruling class of Britain, the religion (a social superstructure, in Marxist terms), or the imperialist interpretation of it, simply comes to reflect the needs of capital. I think that is too simple.
Nationalism certainly played a role in the formation of the Anglican church. The combined forces of 16th and 17th century (merchant piracy abroad and industrial development within Britain) were reinforced by the idea that Jesus and his (in this case Anglican) Church were destined to spiritual conquer of the world. The missionary went arm in arm with the conquering armies, the slave traders, and the rapacious merchants. In the 1800's it seemed as if Anglican, and American Episcopal, churches would become the dominant Christian, and then global, religion.
The very idea that there is a God and a group of specialists (bishops and ministers) that know His will provides a cultural prop for Empire. Resisting native populations can be classified as uncivilized and heathen. Basic rights, like the right to their private property and to self-determination, can be denied in good faith. Attitudes of religious superiority tie in well with racism and cultural imperialism.
The crimes of the British against their colonial subjects are too numerous to detail in such a short essay. But it should be noted that the American empire (which began by killing native American Indians, eventually extended to the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and in its commercial and government-by-puppets current form rules the world) was largely a creation of men who belonged to the Episcopal Church. The elite of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant segment of the population of the United States were highly concentrated in the Episcopal Church. George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Chester Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush were all Episcopalians. [See also religions of U.S. Presidents]
The Episcopal Church is no longer the affiliation of choice for aspiring American politicians. The votes are just not there any more - Episcopalians number only about 2 million. However, on a global scale the Anglican church cannot be discounted, as it is still the largest of the Protestant churches, with about 75 million members.
I hope to develop this subject further over time. Anglican v. Roman Christianity is a classic compare and contrast subject that can illuminate the role of religion in global affairs. The question of how religion props up empires, or encourages oppression within a nation, has not yet been answered to my satisfaction.
See also: Anglican Communion at Wikipedia