Cathedral Sunday – Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Jamaica

Theme: “Assessing the Past, Contemplating the Present, Strategizing for the Future”

It has become the tradition of recent years that, on the afternoon of the last Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, that this cathedral be filled with children from Anglican Schools, along with teachers, parents, specially invited guests, and members of this congregation and representatives from across the Diocese for a special service to mark Cathedral Sunday.  The coming of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying health protocols have made it clear to the Cathedral Chapter, within whose portfolio the planning of this service falls, to determine that it would be impossible for us to bring the children and the adults together in the usual manner.

As we deliberated on how we could retain some elements of the observance of Cathedral Sunday, we were reminded that there is another diocesan observance which has also fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic.  For more than a year, plans were laid for the observance of a year of activities across the Diocese to mark the 150th anniversary of Disestablishment and which was to commence in the month of June 2020 with a mass gathering of Anglicans from across the Diocese for a service to be held in the National Arena and National Indoor Sports Complex.  This was to be followed by a yearlong series of events.  Then, along came that life-changing event, the COVID-19 pandemic which changed everything and resulted in the shelving of all the public events which had been planned for 2020. 

In light of these two developments, the Cathedral Chapter at its last meeting decided to explore how, within the limits of the health protocols we could salvage these two diocesan observances, and use the technology available to us to reach as wide a community as possible   as we mark the observance of Cathedral Sunday, and the 150th anniversary of the disestablishment of the Diocese.

What is it to which we are making reference when we speak of the Disestablishment of the Diocese?  Disestablishment is a legal act or process of termination of official status when applied to a national or state maintained church.   This Diocese enjoyed privileges conferred by the state, having been established in Jamaica as the Church of England in Jamaica, and under direct jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.  Disestablishment of our Diocese took effect in 1870 with the passage of a law which made possible the instrument of disestablishment.  Accordingly, on 15 June 1870 the Island’s Legislature passed a law entitled ‘A Law to regulate the gradual disendowment of the Church of England in Jamaica and for other purposes’ (Law 30 of 1870).

The question has been asked by some persons, why should we want to have such a moment of observance around Disestablishment when the very prefix speaks of something negative?  Is this not something of which we should speak in subdued tones and in privacy? In answering that question I want to invite you to explore some words from the sacred Scriptures.

Ezra 1:1-4

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

These verses capture an important development in the life of the Israelite community that is of such a profound nature that it reverberates throughout the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah.  The Israelites are in captivity in Babylon where they have lost their sense of independence, dignity and sense of hope. From the prophetic perspective, this situation has come about because of the unfaithfulness and sin of Israel.  Some have fared a bit better than others but, conditions are not good all around. Having lost their temple and their priesthood, they find their religious life challenged as to how to find authentic expression under these different circumstances.

It is into this situation that God is about to undertake a new initiative with a new pathway to the fulfillment of the hopes and possibilities of which Israel could only dream thus far. The text sets out for us the nature of that initiative. What is interesting from the outset is the fact that this act for the benefit of the people of God does not begin with an initiative on the part of the leadership within the religious community after a process of internal deliberation, consultation, and the mapping out of a course of action. In reality it is being led by a gentile who happens to be also the current chief of their captors, Cyrus. Nevertheless, while being on the stage as the principal actor, he is however, not the one who is the lead actor, as he is part of a much larger narrative, in which the primary actor is God the Father, at whose initiative the whole drama has been scripted.  Who then is Cyrus?

Both the prophet Jeremiah and Isaiah help us to put Cyrus and his altruistic actions in perspective. (Isaiah 44 and 45, 2 Chronicles 36:22, Jeremiah 25:12, Jeremiah 29:10).Cyrus is a pagan political leader and yet he is being presented as God’s instrument/servant.  As a pagan political leader he is the instrument by which to right the wrongs done against Israel in Babylon. The divine seal is being put on Cyrus, a political leader, because of his commitment to a mission of justice, righteousness and mercy.  God’s choice of Cyrus reflects God’s lordship over the whole world and its political systems.  But Cyrus is the servant of God as long as he recognizes who God is.

In making this affirmation of the supremacy of the rule of God even in relation to political systems, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that today is also the feast of Christ the King, and that the celebration of this Feast of Christ the King means that for us as Christians, God the Father has enthroned Christ as king, the one who stands supreme over all earthly rulers and kingdoms, a rule which has begun with his Ascension and followed by an intervening period of rule within which there is the progressive defeat of all powers of evil, at the end of which he will come again to establish his universal and eternal reign. This reign of Christ means that the powers of this world do not exercise ultimate power over the people of God.

In 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 the prophet Jeremiah in speaking of the liberating activity of Cyrus in relation to the Israelite community of exiles speaks of it as the Lord stirring up his spirit Cyrus to action. From this perspective we can discern that the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, making it cleat that God governs the world by his influence on the spirits of kings, governors, and their kingdoms, and the good they do, God stirs up their spirits to do it.

 

God, having stirred up the spirit of Cyrus to action, it was now up to the people to embrace the new and liberating activity of God which he had initiated through Cyrus.  Further, God, having raised up the spirit of Cyrus to proclaim liberty to the Jews, took the additional step of raising up their spirits to embrace the pathway to their liberation.  But even with the clear window of opportunity for liberation and the creation of a new future and narrative for the nation, the temptation for some was to stay in Babylon; some were ambivalent about returning; while there were those whose spirits God moved by his Spirit and grace stirring in them, and who embraced the opportunity and prospect of liberation.

 

Jeremiah also captures for us the nature of the liberty and transformation which God had in store for those who allowed the spirit that was at work in Cyrus to work in them. (Jeremiah 29:11-14.)

11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

A journey form captivity to liberation at the hand of a pagan and the powerful leader of the system of governance.

The year 1870 was only one major point of transition for the Anglican Church in this nation.  The Church of England (Anglican Church) came to Jamaica as part of the imperial fabric of the British Empire and was to serve as a Chaplaincy to the English citizens who settled here as part of the plantocracy and the system of slavery on which it rested. From 1655 when the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish and until 1824 when the first Bishop of Jamaica arrived on the island, the church was served by clergy appointed by the Governor and the Assembly and few exercised any ministry to the slave population, and where there were exceptional initiatives on the part of the clergy to exercise a ministry to the slave population, it was opposed by the planters who saw such ministry as inimical to slavery and therefore disruptive of the system used to maintain order.  Indeed, there is evidence that there were individual leaders of the Church of England who owned or had investment in various slave plantations in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. 

In this historical moment with the reverberations from the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Reparations lobby occupying the spotlight, this must also introduce a sobering tone in our observance of disestablishment, an issue which we need to re-visit as a Diocese. Against the background of our text, we should note that Cyrus was not releasing the Israelites before Babylon had been enriched and augmented by their labour and their presence, even as some Israelites had experienced similar fortunes by their participation in the economy and culture of Babylon.  Disestablishment marked a similar transition from a state of being in which both the liberator and the liberated were beneficiaries of an unhealthy alliance.

The disestablishment of the Church in Jamaica was not an isolated development within the British Empire at the time, but a matter of political discourse in London in their 1868 elections in relation to the Church of Ireland. It is therefore no coincidence that Disestablishment of the Church in both countries occurred in the same year, and on the basis of similar arguments advanced for its justification.

Like the liberation of Israel from captivity, the liberation of the church which was initiated with the actions of the Island’s Legislature at the instigation of Sir John Peter Grant was not the result of consultation and action from within the community of faith, the Diocese, although it must be granted that there were indeed moments of conflict between the Bishop of the Diocese and the Governor over matters of appointment and related administrative issues.

The Governor was guided by pragmatic considerations in his advocacy and support for disestablishment:

  1. The Government could no longer afford to support the church financially.
  2. The Church was deemed not to be representative of the majority of the population.           
  3. There was longstanding agitation by other denominations for the ending of what was deemed a discriminatory system.         

These were the pragmatic considerations that informed the Legislature’s decision, but was this a tragedy or something of the divine initiative which was to have liberating and transformative consequences for the Diocese?  We know that in the case of Israel, there were those members of the community who had accommodated themselves to the system as exiles and had some misgivings about the move back of Jerusalem. Can you not see then how there would be those within the church who had misgivings about the prospect of the church’s advance without the support of the State.   Faced with a similar prospect of venturing into the unknown, both Isaiah and Jeremiah saw in this initiative, not just as an act of generosity of Cyrus but, the hand of God beckoning his people to a new and exciting adventure.

Isaiah 45:1-3 captures the release of possibility and potential which the Israelites experienced under Cyrus and which I believe reflects something of the experience of the Diocese with Disestablishment.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
    and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
    and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
    and level the mountains,[a]
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

 

Among the first things which disestablishment brought into being was the institutional structure to ensure independence and integrity of operations of the Diocese in going forward.  Accordingly, the law made allowance for specific provisions, among which are:

  1. It authorized a constitution to be framed and regulations made for the gradual management, discipline and good governance of the Church.  
  2. It made provision for the opening up of leadership roles within the life of the church by making participation open, not just to the privileged as existed in the political culture, but to the baptized membership.
  3. It made provision for a body in which church property could be vested by Royal Charter, namely, The Incorporated Lay Body.

As we have seen, the Spirit of God can stir the spirit of Cyrus, but if people would rather stay in captivity in Babylon, remain immobilized in a state of ambivalence, and not move to embrace the call to liberation, then nothing will change.

The question may be asked, what was the response of the Diocese to this action on the part of Sir John Peter Grant and the Legislature, and is it possible to discern in it the spirit of God at work for the liberation and transformation of the Diocese as experienced by the children of Israel under leadership that did not emerge from within the community of faith and its deliberations?

Bishop Courtenay led the response by calling a Meeting of clergy and laity to constitute a Synod which met in January 1870 “to discuss the necessary measures to be adopted for the reconstruction of the Church in this land”. The Synod met and drew up a Declaration and rules and regulations, but the Governor refused to recognize its legality since the lay members had been selected on the basis similar to what prevailed in other domains, namely persons from among the propertied and business classes, and not elected by the baptized members of the Church. He then proceeded to have legislation passed to provide the legal basis for Disestablishment. Here then was a move toward an inclusive church with the dismantling of some social prejudices.

The first Synod held under this law met from September 29 to October 10, 1870.  This was the first legal Synod from which subsequent Synods have been numbered so the 2020 Synod would have been the 150th.

While Bishop Courtenay did not use the language of liberation, I believe that his use of the term reconstruction is the theme around which to structure the narrative of what followed in the wake of disestablishment. Perhaps the first strategic move in the restructuring process was that of putting in place an administrative machinery that could direct and coordinate the mission and ministry of the Diocese in going forward.  That was achieved in various ways.

  1. The Diocese assuming full control over its own governance with an annual Synod as the policy making body.
  2. Involvement of the clergy and laity in the decision making process.
  3. The Diocese facing the challenge of becoming financially self-reliant and engendering a more responsible core of members. 
  4. The Diocese asserting and living out its prerogative to operate without the involvement of the Governor, thereby bringing to an end the friction which had surfaced at times between the Governor and the Bishop over appointments to be made.
  5. Control over the physical and material assets of the Diocese was ceded to the Incorporated Lay Body in which they were now vested.

But institutional structures, however well designed are not constitutive of the essence of the Church.  The essence of the church is that of obedience to the call of our Lord Jesus Christ to be active participants in the mission and ministry of God in Christ to the world. To this end, the Diocese, under the leadership of the Bishop shifted its focus to church growth and development by deepening and broadening its engagement of the people of the nation as an enlivened spiritual community, just as Israel was to become once it yielded to the promptings of the spirit of God to the call to liberation. The data coming from our historians and researchers indicate the following examples of this thrust toward growth and development of the mission and ministry:

  • The number of Anglican churches increased from 92 in 1884 to 212 in 1900.  In 1868, prior to Disestablishment, there had been 89 only”. (Patrick Bryan, The Jamaican People 1880 – 1902, p 61)
  • “In less than ten years after Disestablishment, the number of clergy had increased from 55 to 75, of whom as many as 44 were on the staff of the disestablished Church, supported and maintained by voluntary contributions (J B Ellis, The Diocese of Jamaica, 1913 p 12)

Other significant developments to follow include the following:

  • The contribution of the Diocese and its leadership to national development over the century and a half following disestablishment.  This includes the unparalleled contribution of Archbishop Enos Nutall to the restoration of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake, chairing the National Schools Commission that had oversight of schools in the island and facilitating the development of Trust School; involved in the formation of Mico and Shortwood Teachers Colleges, the formation of the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the Jamaica Farm School (later School of Agriculture), among a host of other contributions.
  • In subsequent decades there has been the voice of Bishop Percival Gibson a leading voice of his time and advocate for justice and righteousness.  He was followed in later decades by Bishop Neville deSouza and the Rev. Ernle Gordon, to name a few.
  • The indigenization of the ordained ministry of the church including the episcopacy, and becoming one of the first developing nations to have a native born bishop from 1947. 
  • The affirmation of the ministry of women through the initiation of the work of Deaconesses in Jamaica in1890 which led to the establishment of several high schools for girls, and the first Nursing Home in Jamaica which later became the Nuttall Memorial Hospital. Likewise it is numbered among the earliest group of dioceses to ordain women to the diaconate and then the priesthood.
  • The opening of the Jamaica Church Theological College (St. Peter’s College) for the training of clergy in 1893,
  • A significant deepening of the Diocese’s venture into the provision of educational opportunities for the nation in subsequent decades, leading to ownership and management of some two hundred schools ranging from Teachers’ College to Early Childhood Institutions,
  • The role of women in the Church was affirmed in advance of the pace within the wider society, thereby taking the decision at the 1917 Synod that female communicants should be eligible to vote in Church elections.
  • The establishment of Children’s Homes and Homes for the Aged,
  • The development of various ministries and organizations within the life of the church to serve men, women, young people and children.
  • An increasing move toward indigenous expression in worship, a process which has been slow in part and still in process.
  • Involvement in ecumenism through playing a leadership role in the establishment of the Jamaica Christian Council (Jamaica Council of Churches) in 1941 and the United Theological College of the West Indies in 1965.
  • Repositioning of the Diocese and its ministry to include the Cayman Islands in 1970.
  • By way of ministry to the people of this nation, we continue to fund several fulltime chaplains for some of our major hospitals.

But while it may warm the heart to delight in moments of nostalgia and the recounting of the glories of the past, we must with a sense of realism assess where we are in the present moment and determine what sort of future would we seek to carve out for ourselves and the next generation. The reality which confronts us today is multidimensional.  We must recognize that our society is at a different place from where it was 150 years ago or even a decade ago.  While there are undeniable signs of development in this nation, yet this development has been uneven and unequal, and so we are facing a society in which there are significant social and economic inequities which point to the fact that the issue of social justice has to be in the forefront of our mission and ministry.

It is one in which we must recognize that some of the things in which we have taken greatest delight need to be re-conceptualized.  For example, the soup kitchen and once a fortnight meal to the needy must be enhanced by focusing of programs that can empower and facilitate the independence of the most vulnerable and marginalized.  Another area of greatest contribution to this nation, and which is unequalled by any other religious tradition is in education.  We now have to face the need for a new and dynamic engagement in our partnership with the Ministry of Education and our own philosophy of education in order to address the many failings of the system at the moment.  We must promote and implement the development of a system by which there is the delivery of a quality and type of education which is relevant to the dynamic and changing world in which our graduates must live and compete; and promote the development of content and experiences within the curriculum and the culture of the school which address issues of character, values, and social responsibility.

Furthermore, our currently reality is one in which there are significant shifts in relation to demographics, the morality and values which inform the life of our society, and the changing place which is assigned to religious institutions in the life of individuals and the society, not the least being those identified with the historical mainline tradition, even as these have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.  So today the diocese is facing:

  • decreasing membership
  • the ageing of the congregations
  • diminishing finances
  • an increasing number of spiritually and financially challenged cures and congregations
  • shortage of vocations to the full-time ordained ministry
  • a reducing number of persons stepping forward for lay leadership in congregations
  • a diminishing cohort of young people,

These items speak to the institutional life of the diocese but, what of the wider national context within which we are mandated to exercise the mission and ministry to which God in Christ has called us?

As I indicated in the service of installation as Archbishop:

  • Prior to the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic there existed a  significant level of poverty and the widening inequality in the society which has serious social repercussions.
  • While economic prosperity must be a common national objective, and especially in going forward beyond the pandemic, not all the voices are being heard around these matters, even as some are being left behind or excluded from sharing the prosperity of the land and nation.
  • There is still the absence of any clear policy regarding food security and the protection of our limited fertile land and our physical environment, and a seeming willingness to buy into project proposals which seem to offer a short-term contribution to the public coffers.
  • There continues to be a pervasive culture of corruption which comes to light in every report from the Auditor General and which is contributing to the lack confidence of the population and which is probably being manifested in the lack of participation in the political process as was evident in our last General Elections.
  • The murder statistics, crime and violence continue to occupy centre stage in the life of most Jamaicans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight longstanding social realities which we have not addressed as a nation, even as it has provided new opportunities for exercising mission and ministry.

It has served to highlight:

  • the poverty under which a significant percent of our people live;
  • the lack of access to technology which has made online education a farce for a significant number of our children;
  • the single dimensional focus of our economy around the hospitality sector;
  • and the lip service paid to food security and the vulnerability of our society to external shocks.
  • In light of the above we must pursue a path of speaking truth to power to address some of these social problems.
  • At the same time the pandemic has opened up to us a new vista from which to look at church:
  • What is necessary for the continuing institutional life of the church?
  • How to use the available technology as a channel for mission and ministry?
  • How to retain the audiences, young and old, local and international who have been accessing our online platforms?
  • Assessing those things that are essential for maintaining the viability of the church in light of diminishing financial resources.
  • Acknowledging that this is a time for evaluation and transformation
  • All our decisions must be guided by the Five Marks of Mission.

It is not enough, for example, for us to simply join the bandwagon and say that we are going to do streaming of services and get on to various online platforms.   We must know how these things work and their effectiveness.  We must be guided by a philosophy which informs what it is we are seeking to accomplish through these channels, and we must understand the attendant risks and responsibilities, legal and otherwise.

The coronavirus pandemic is in many ways a game-changer, a crisis which has created sufficient unsettling for us to undertake some of the tasks which we have sought to avoid for decades.  It has forced us to re-examine the extent to which we have failed to cultivate a culture of spiritual growth and enrichment of the laity in ways that allow them to cope with the isolation and limitations of absence of physical contact in the context of a worshipping community. The financial challenges are forcing us to deal with issues of mergers and closure of some units which have now become unsustainable, primarily because of demographic changes and changes in the religious landscape of the island which we have sought to deny.

Likewise, the inability to gather for face to face worship in light of the various protocols means that there are new opportunities for ministry to which we must respond in a more nimble fashion than has been of the nature of the institutional church.

  • The prevailing protocols which preclude the conduct of funerals in the usual fashion, as well as the limitation of final rites to interment has created complications and presented new opportunities for the church to assist the bereaved in dealing with the process of grief.
  • The restrictions that have come with lockdowns and curfews have also brought to the fore domestic issues of violence and abuse of proportion hitherto unknown and which call for creative responses from the church, which still need to be developed in a comprehensive way.
  • There are also persons who are developing an alternate way of being church and we must find ways to restructure the institutional life of the church to address these realities.  The assumptions we have made about life in congregation may not look the same way as we move through and beyond this pandemic.

One thing that the pandemic has brought to light is that we will need to depend on more lay leadership at the congregational level to sustain congregations, even as there will need to be some re-thinking and re-shaping of the role of the ordained.

One of the realities about liberation is that it is never a destination to which a people arrive.  It is always an ongoing process with its challenges which must be confronted in every age.  It was true of the children of Israel in the time of Ezra as it must be a time for us.  To that extent, if we define disestablishment as an experience of liberation, then we must understand that the process is not yet completed, and the initiatives undertaken by our forbears cannot be the glories on which we hang with nostalgia.  We must bring to bear on the process our distinctive contribution in our time.

May we as people of this Diocese be open to the spirit of God which stirred the spirit of Cyrus and subsequently the children of Israel toward a path of liberation.  This spirit was active in the movement for the disestablishment of this Diocese and stirred within the Bishop and the faithful of the day a response of reconstruction.   May that same spirit may now stir us in our time to be responsive to the vision for mission and ministry to which God is calling us in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

AMEN.