Roland Allen

"Common Saints" series: The missionary-theologian who paved the way for the renewal in 20th-century Global Anglicanism.

Roland Allen (1868-1947) is the most important Anglican theologian of the 20th Century. I make this assertion not only based on Allen’s enormous impact on missions theory and ecclesiology, but also because Allen’s life and writings were the bell cow for the revolution in 20th Century Anglicanism as a whole.

It is amazing to me that even to this day the majority of the West still does not acknowledge the shift in Global Anglicanism from the West to the Global South. We only have to look to the recent firestorm over the Church of England’s acceptance of women bishops: this was treated by the press, and more importantly, ecumenical partners, as the demarcation line between Anglicanism and other denominations. For many, as England goes, so goes Anglicanism. This is despite Nigeria having roughly 10 times as many practicing Anglicans as England.

Such lack of acknowledgement of the reality of Global Anglicanism is a validation of two of Allen’s principle themes: the need for indigenous, self-sustaining mission churches and the ways in which established churches tacitly dismiss such endeavors. These principle themes are evident in his appropriately titled The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It (1927) and in his assertion that the churches often patronized foreign Christians through the distinction between missions and churches:

“The first and most striking difference between his (Paul’s) action and ours is that he founded ‘churches’ whilst we found ‘Missions’… The theory is that the Mission stands at first in a sort of paternal relationship to the native Christians: then it holds a coordinate position side by side with the native organization; finally it ought to disappear and leave the native Christians as a fully organized church. But the Mission is not the Church … The Mission represents a foreign power, and natives who work under it are servants of a foreign government. It is an evangelistic society, and the natives tend to leave it to do the evangelistic work which properly belongs to them. It is a model, and the natives learn simply to imitate it. It is a wealthy body, and the natives tend to live upon it, and expect it to supply all their needs. Finally, it becomes a rival, and the native Christians feel its presence as an annoyance, and they envy its powers; it becomes an incubus, and they groan under the weight of its domination. In the early stages it maintains a high standard of morality, and in all stages it ministers largely to the advancement of the native community by its educational and medical establishments; but it always keeps the native Christians in check, and its relations with them are difficult and full of perils (Missionary Methods, Chapter 8).”

The spontaneous expansion of the Church did indeed happen in sub-Sahara Africa, and it was accomplished in part due to the relatively quick handing over of church authority from overseas missionaries to indigenous ministers. For example, from 1890 to 2010, the Ugandan Anglican Church went from having virtually no members to 10 million adherents. This astronomical growth, common in other sub-Saharan Anglican Churches (Nigeria and Kenya in particular) was otherwise unprecedented in the history of Christianity. In addition, this remarkable growth paralleled a remarkable withdrawal of foreign missionaries as the primary church authority: Uganda had virtually no European clergy by the 1960s.

Allen’s direct influence on such expansion is difficult to quantify—he is best viewed as a part of a larger corpus of Anglican missionaries and missiologists (such as Henry Venn and Alfred Tucker) whose labors came to fruition most visibly in Africa. Allen’s writings stand as the most enduring representative voice of late 19th and early 20th century Anglican missions, missions that would radically change the face of Global Anglicanism well into the 21st century. The rest of the world is still slow to live in this new reality.

Rather than offer a summary of Allen’s thought, I simply encourage readers to take an afternoon or two to read Allen’s seminal works Missionary Methods and The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. They are short, pointed treatises that will greatly impact your view of the church and of missions (they are also public domain and available for free online).

More posts in the “Common Saints” series:

– Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer
Queen Elizabeth I

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