Bishop NT Wright's "spirit of cultural superiority"

I greatly respect the theology of NT Wright, Bishop of Durham, although I don’t claim to understand all of it. I have referred to it several times, mostly positively, on this blog.

However, a letter from Dr Vinay Samuel reported by Anglican Mainstream alleges a different side to Wright’s character. Samuel, a well respected Indian theologian and evangelical Anglican, is a director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. In his letter Samuel was responding to a commentary by Wright in the Church Times, which can be read here. In this article Wright attacks the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), concerning which he refers to

the small group represented by Chris Sugden, Martyn Minns, and Peter Jensen. It is clear that they are the prime movers and drafters, making a mockery of Canon Sugden’s claim … that GAFCON is about rescuing the Churches from Western culture.

Samuel responds firmly to this. He writes that Wright

has suggested in particular that that this whole movement is now following the lead and the agenda of three white men, Bishop Martyn Minns, Archbishop Peter Jensen and Canon Chris Sugden.

I am part of the leadership team of this movement. I have known and worked with Archbishops Akinola, Kolini, Mtetemela, Nzimbi and Orombi and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali for many years. I have to say that if the scenario were as BishopWright imagines it to be, neither I nor any leader of Christians in the non-western world who have stood for years for the identity, selfrespect and dignity of Christians from the “global south” and their right to self-theologise and organise their own networks independent of influence from the former metropolitan centres of power, would have anything to do with it.

I have worked for years in global Christian networks, and more recently in theglobal corporate world. In these two worlds, the equal partnership and interaction of people from different cultures and economic backgrounds is a daily reality. If there were any sniff of cultural superiority that assumed that the involvement of white people meant that they would inevitably take the leadership role, or exercise dominant power, these movements would have died. Those who display that spirit have no place in the new global realities. That spirit is one of the reasons for the demise of the British Empire.

To see GAFCON primarily as a product of manipulation and power-play is an offence to those who lead Churches with millions of members faithful to the Christian faith and growing in the midst of the most difficult challenges in the world. What drives them is the desire to continue to make the gospel relevant and accessible to a needy world. This is the motivation behind the calling of this global gathering. This same gospel encourages them to believe that the relationships between people of different cultures can be transformed from power-play to partnership.

Samuel closes by referring to

the spirit of cultural superiority that marks Bishop Wright’s article.

Strong words indeed!

The best that I can say in Wright’s defence is that he was educated in a British public school system which in the 1960s still operated under the assumption that white men, indeed the very class of white boys it was educating, had a natural right to rule the world. It is hard for someone like Wright to shake off these presuppositions formed in his childhood. Archbishop Rowan Williams may have been brought up with similar presuppositions, but concerning him Samuel writes:

It is my hope that his superior distances himself from the spirit evidenced in Bishop Wright’s remarks.

0 thoughts on “Bishop NT Wright's "spirit of cultural superiority"

  1. Peter,
    As someone who finds N. T. Wright’s historiography both compelling and exemplary, I appreciate your review of Vinay Samuel’s important critique. You may be on to something in your defense of Wright (and let me add that your perspective, as an insider to Wright’s culture, is most important). Thanks for concluding with “hope,” even if it’s Rowan Williams’ hope for someone else about Wright. I hope that all learners and scholars of Jesus, whether from the class of white boys educated in the public schools of Great Britain or from very different cultures with very different spirits, embrace his grace to repent and to grow.

  2. Kurk, thanks for your comment. Technically I am not an insider because I did not attend a public school. Nor, I think, did Williams, but Wright did. But I have had enough close contact with insiders to know how they tick. Even the generation leaving these schools in the 1990s, although not racist, seemed to assume that they were destined for world leadership. Not a bad idea in some ways, for the world needs confident competent leaders. But it is if it leads them to denigrate the leadership of others.

    I hope that Wright will take good note of this challenge from Samuel and see his mistake, although I don’t expect that to convert him into a GAFCON supporter.

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  4. Peter,

    I have heard Tom Wright speak here in Australia. I don’t think that he has a “white men know best attitude” even though he does speak thru the medium of Western culture (like just about every other person whose main heritage is European). When he came to Australia the last time, he was invited by the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane.

    The Sydney diocese headed by Peter Jensen has a particular view of themselves which has been encouraged by him, firstly as the principal of Moore Theological College for many years and now as Archbishop of Sydney. They seem to imply that “conservative evangelical is better”. There have been rumours for some time that the Sydney diocese would like to leave the present Anglican communion if practising homosexuals are allowed to be serving priests. The diocese also does not approve of female priests. The big problem is that the Sydney diocese has huge assets in land and buildings as it was the first diocese in Australia in the first area settled by white men. Does it all belong to the Sydney diocese or is it only held in trust by them for the Anglican Church in Australia as a whole. If they leave the Anglican commune, what will they be able to take with them? Maybe only their faith in Christ?

  5. Thank you, Naomisu. Well, those of European heritage (I assume that includes you) tend to be much less sensitive to such things than do Africans and Asians. I’m sure Wright’s attitude is not so strong that it comes out every time he speaks, but apparently it has allowed him to misunderstand the situation over GAFCON.

    I was generally aware of the situation in Sydney diocese, but not of the property issues involved. Rowan Williams’ position is clear, that each diocese is an independent unit of the church.

  6. I think perhaps Peter that your blog concedes too much truth to Dr Samuel’s opinion about +Tom’s sense of cultural superiority. I don’t find that at all in the original article. Dr Samuel exaggerates Bp Wright’s statements and then interprets them in an extreme manner. The whole thing is not very edifying, but to then introduce the racist cultural stereotypes of the English Public School system is a to me somewhat over the top. Bp Wright’s specific point that the GAFCON initiative has been drafted by a small group represented by Sugden, Minns and Jensen has not even been addressed, let alone contradicted.

  7. Well, Peter, I simply reported Dr Samuel’s opinion, and put forward a possible explanation of why Bishop Wright gave the impression he did.

    But Samuel clearly stated that it is not true that Sugden, Minns and Jensen are the prime movers for GAFCON. And he is in a better position to know than Wright is, for he is one of the GAFCON leadership team, and Wright is not. So your words “let alone contradicted” imply that you do not believe Samuel’s account of what went on at a meeting which he attended.

    It is interesting that the allegation that the GAFCON website seeks to address is the opposite one, that this is a Global South initiative. The critics of GAFCON can’t have it both ways. Clearly Sugden, Minns and Jensen are influential in this movement, but so are Akinola and the other African leaders involved.

  8. I note that Bishop Wright’s article is also available on the Fulcrum Anglican website and there is a forum discussion on it. See also this article by Graham Kings, one of the leaders of the Open Evangelical Anglican group Fulcrum.

    I should point out that I am not taking a stand for or against GAFCON, I just want it to be accurately reported. But I would ask Kings whether he believes the Reformers, including the first Anglicans, were right to reject the authority of the Pope. For his argument implies that they should not have done however far the Pope might have strayed from sound theology.

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  13. Excuse me for stepping in at an untimely point. Am I not correct in understanding the situation differently? It seems that Wright is only suggesting that GAFCON (which seeks to rescue the church from Western culture) makes a mockery of its goal in that it has orginated from the minds of three western culture men—Chris Sugden, Martyn Minns, and Peter Jensen. Samuel contradicts Wright by assuring him that no such mockery is being made, despite the cultural makeup of GAFCONS leadership and originators. Wright appears to be looking out for ‘cultural diversity’, not ignoring it or holding to a ‘white man knows best’ maxim. Thank you.

  14. B.A., it seems to me that Samuel contradicts Wright in a different way, by correcting the facts about “the cultural makeup of GAFCONS leadership and originators”. I note that today Archbishop Henry Orombi confirms Samuel’s view of the situation:

    GAFCON was conceived by the Anglican Archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, the Southern Cone (South America), and Sydney (Australia). Evangelical Anglican Bishops from the UK and the USA were also involved in its organization.

    That is, two from western culture (Jensen and Venables) and five Africans, with the UK and US bishops only helping (and no mention of the non-bishop Sugden). Wright’s error is that he assumes that the lead is being taken by white men when the evidence suggests a majority of non-whites.

  15. Thank you for clearing that up, I see your point now.

    However, rather than suspecting Wright’s upbringing as the source of error, there must have been something about GAFCON that came across to Wright as being quite suggestive to the point he was making— concerning the leardership of GAFCON. His remark “It is clear that they are the prime movers and drafters”, appears quite confident. I think that it is this confidence which muddled my understanding of the point you were making above. Being as familiar with Wright as I am, I find it hard to believe that someone who always advocates that we each recognize our prejudices and biases–since we are all bound to have them–allowed such a statement to go under wire, if it was indeed expressing some sort of prejudice.

    Thanks for your response!

  16. B.A., you may be right. Basically I was only reporting what Vinay Samuel wrote. Whether it is accurate or not I cannot be sure. But I can I think be sure that he didn’t make this kind of accusation without some basis for it.

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