January 28, 2016

THE COLONIALS STRIKE BACK: African Bishops Against Sexual Liberation.

Africa is today an area of frequently bloody confrontation between Christianity and Islam. But south of the Sahara there is a strong Protestantism very similar theologically and morally to the one energizing the 1910 conference, even though the religious landscape of western Europe and northern America has changed dramatically since then. The former is now the most secularized region in the world. The latter still contains a robust Evangelical subculture, but with its mainline Protestant churches (including the Presbyterians who were hosts in Edinburgh) greatly liberalized both theologically and morally.

The slowly unfolding schism in the Anglican Communion can be seen as a late (and rather ironic) fruition of the great missionary success of Protestantism. The incipient schism, mainly pitting African bishops against those in the English-speaking world, has focused on what I Iike to call issues south of the navel (sexuality and gender). But there are underlying theological issues, especially based on different views of the authority of Scripture. The schism is on a slow fuse. But it has recently accelerated.

It is important to understand both the demographic and the financial resources of the two parties. The total number of Anglicans in the world is generally estimated as between seventy and eighty million. The website of the Anglican Communion tries to be very careful to distinguish between official numbers (that is, individuals formally on parish rolls, some of whom rarely if ever show up in church) and “realistic” numbers (those who participate in the life of the church with some regularity). Even with the best of intentions, the latter are quite unreliable estimates. There is no central headquarters comparable to the Vatican (though recent revelations about its finances do not suggest confidence in its statistics): Each national church is autonomous under its own “primate” (an unfortunate term, since zoologists use it to refer to the big apes); the Archbishop of Canterbury is no pope, but simply presides over meetings of all the other bishops; the mother church, the Church of England, is still a state establishment headed by the monarch (thus its membership figures mean very little indeed—you stay listed unless you make the effort to opt out); finally, many government censuses do not ask questions about religion, as for example in the U.S.). Nevertheless, the discrepancy between the main Anglican churches in Western countries and those in Africa (now the demographic center of the Anglican Communion) is instructive. The Church of England has 44 dioceses with 26 million official members, 1.2 million “realistic” ones. The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has 111 dioceses with 2.4 million official members, 800,000 “realistic” ones. Nigeria and Uganda are the largest churches in Africa, the website does not differentiate between the two categories of members; be this as it may, in Nigeria there are over 100 dioceses with over 17 million members, in Uganda 32 dioceses with over 9 million members. It’s clear who has the numbers. Needless to say, the financial resources of the Western churches are much superior to the African ones.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been trying hard to avoid an outright schism. A recent event, which he himself caused for this end, has made his task more difficult. The leaders of African Anglicans, along with those in other non-Western countries, have been particularly shocked as the Episcopal Church in the U.S. sequentially consecrated an openly gay bishop, then ordained gay and lesbian priests, and most recently authorized priests to conduct same-sex weddings.

Yes, the Africans now send missionaries to minister to the souls of the benighted heathens in Britain and America.

Plus:

But the new African elites who celebrated the end of the Victorian Raj had been successfully indoctrinated with Victorian morals—and those turned out to be very functional to poor people trying to get out of poverty (if you will, the Max Weber effect), even if the elite (like elites everywhere) only paid lip service to moral principles while enjoying the hedonism supported by the privileges of power. But Anglican bishops are not part of the elites in Africa: When they uphold good Protestant values, in the best Evangelical tradition, this is no mere lip service—they really mean it! And so the Archbishop of Uganda may by 2019 excommunicate the Archbishop of Canterbury!

The getting-out-of-poverty thing is key, and will soon (again) have a similar relevance in the First World.

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