Last month the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, Canada, approved the blessing of same sex unions; and the following week a priest performed the first such ceremony in Vancouver. This month the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected the first openly homosexual bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion; and a British newspaper reported that the most recently appointed Anglican bishop “had been in a gay relationship for decades.”
Roman Catholics who favor a more liberal policy on homosexuality and sexuality in general can be forgiven if they draw hope from these events as harbingers of change in their own, much larger church. But the controversy that these changes have provoked suggests instead that world Christianity, Catholic and Anglican traditions included, is actually growing more conservative.
Following the authorization of same-sex unions, 13 Anglican provinces (or national churches) declared themselves to be in “impaired communion” with the Diocese of Westminster. They were Nigeria, the West Indies, the Southern Cone of South America, Central Africa, Kenya, India, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Uganda, West Africa, the Indian Ocean, Congo and Sudan. Please note, if you haven’t already, that all of these churches are in the so-called Third World.
From this group has emerged the most prominent critic of liberal church policy on homosexuality: the head of the Church of Nigeria. Yesterday Archbishop Peter Ankinola told BBC radio that his church might split with the Church of England if the latter goes ahead and consecrates Canon Jeffrey John, a long-time gay rights activist, as the Bishop of Reading.
“We cannot be seen to be doing things clearly outside the boundaries allowable in the Bible,” Akinola said. “This is only the beginning. We would sever relationships with anybody, anywhere… anyone who strays over the boundaries we are out with them. It is as simple as that.”
The Church of Nigeria has 17.5 million members, making it the second largest Anglican province, after the Church of England itself. Like its fellow churches in the Third World, it is growing while branches in Europe and America shrink. According to the religious historian Philip Jenkins: “By mid-century the global total of Anglicans could approach 150 million, of whom only a small minority will be white Europeans or North Americans.”
This is also the trend among other Christian denominations, as Jenkins wrote recently in the Atlantic Monthly. Less than 25 years from now, almost 70 percent of all Christians will be in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The percentage of Catholics on those continents will be even higher. People in the Third World have more babies and are more likely to raise them as Christians. Already, the “annual [Catholic] baptism total for the Philippines is higher than the totals for Italy, France, Spain, and Poland combined.”
Third World Christians tend to be far more conservative than Europeans and North Americans on matters of theology and ethics. And they are beginning to dominate their richer brethren. Asian and African bishops were responsible, Jenkins says, for a 1998 Anglican statement against same-sex unions and actively homosexual clergy. Forty percent of the cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope are from “Southern” countries, and in a few years they’ll be the majority, making it hard to imagine that John Paul II’s successor will depart from those of his policies that liberals find so discouraging.
“The cultural gap between Christians of the North and the South will increase rather than diminish in the coming decades,” according to Jenkins, increasing the possibility of a schism. Largely owing to the influence of information technology, he thinks, “Northern communities will move to ever more decentralized and privatized forms of faith as Southerners maintain older ideals of community and traditional authority.”
By this reasoning, the spread of the Internet could conceivably impede or even halt the conservative trend. Once everyone in Sudan and Papua New Guinea is online, many there might find the alternatives to tradition impossible to resist. For now, however, all those American and European editorialists who keep telling the Vatican to change with the times should make sure they understand what they’re actually demanding.