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The Missionaries' Position: Polygamy and Divorce in the Anglican Communion, 1888–1988


Timothy Jones is a Lecturer in History at the University of Glamorgan, Wales.


This article explores the Church of England's engagement with polygamy through a survey of policy debates about plural marriage that took place from the 1880s to the 1980s. With few exceptions, nineteenth and early-twentieth century missionaries refused to allow men in polygamous marriages to convert to Christianity. This decision was formalised at the 1888 Lambeth Conference, but reversed one hundred years later at the 1988 Conference. The article uncovers factors that led to the recognition of alternative forms of marriage, and begin to expose the dynamics of repression and toleration in Anglican marriage discourse. Following recent postcolonial feminist scholarship, it argues that the church's inability to resolve its parallel but conflicting oppositions to polygamy and divorce formed a paradox which implicitly provincialized British Anglican gender understandings, and that the 1988 Lambeth Conference decision represents a tacit acknowledgement of the fundamental epistemic divide represented by this paradox.