Fast growing African Christianity, both evangelical and Catholic, is transforming global religion and affecting American Christianity, particularly its debates over homosexuality. The U.S. Episcopal Church, of course, has been prominently roiled by controversy since its 2003 election of an openly homosexual bishop, now joined by a newly elected openly lesbian bishop. African Anglican bishops, overwhelmingly conservative, have steadfastly encouraged the global Anglican Communion to sanction U.S. Episcopalians for their heterodoxy. But the Anglican Communion’s authority is mostly symbolic, and the Episcopal Church governs itself. A new communion, the Anglican Church in North America, is largely for orthodox former Episcopalians, many of whom have placed themselves under the authority of African bishops.
Considerably less publicized but no less significant is the United Methodist Church, which now almost uniquely among liberal-led, old-line denominations continues to affirm orthodox teachings on marriage and sexual ethics. The traditionalist stance, dismaying to its liberal elites, is thanks partly to the denomination’s growing African membership. Unlike the U.S. Episcopal Church, which is almost entirely U.S. members plus some small dioceses from Latin America and Taiwan, United Methodism is more fully international, with about one third of its members in Africa. Amid growing United Methodist churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, among others, and a U.S. church losing about a 1,000 members weekly, the 11.4 million denomination likely will soon be majority African. At the church’s next governing General Conference in 2012, probably 40 percent of the delegates will come from outside the U.S., even further diminishing liberal hopes.
Liberal church activists are reluctant to acknowledge that African Christianity has a firm mind of its own, preferring condescendingly to portray it as primitive and easily manipulated by conservative U.S. religionists. It is true that much of African Christianity is new, somewhat similar to fast growing, early American frontier revivalism in its earnest faith, populism, and strong sense of the supernatural. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia of 2001, Africa was less than 10 percent Christian in 1900 but was over 45 percent Christian by 2000. (This compares to Islam’s growth in African from 32 percent to 40 percent.) About 20 percent of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, and rates of active church attendance are higher in Africa than in much of old Christendom. One Congolese bishop estimated that more Congolese are in a United Methodist Church on a typical Sunday than in all the United States.
But liberal U.S. church activists usually sorely underestimate the depth and richness of African Christianity, including its intellectual traditions, some of which date to the early Church Fathers. Infamously, revisionist retired U.S. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong once derided African Anglicans for having “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity,” while condemning Third World “religious extremism” and “Pentecostal hysteria.” In the patronizing spirit of Bishop Spong, some liberal activists claim African church leaders, in their opposition to liberal U.S. church trends, especially about sex, are merely U.S. pawns. A recent example comes from a Massachusetts watchdog of conservative groups called Political Research Associates, which commissioned a Zambian clergyman from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to expose the supposed manipulation of African churches. His report of last year, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia,” outlines the conspiracy, which claims more or less that African Christianity’s opposition to homosexual causes essentially originated in America. California mega-church pastor Rick Warren is one of the identified conspirators, as is my own Institute on Religion and Democracy.
“Just as the United States and other northern societies routinely dump our outlawed or expired chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, and cultural detritus on African and other Third World countries, we now export a political discourse and public policies our own society has discarded as outdated and dangerous,” breathlessly intoned the report’s introduction. “Africa’s antigay campaigns are to a substantial degree made in the U.S.A.” The report views debates over homosexuality through the American and Western left’s own secular political prism and its preoccupation with endless diversity, obsessive individualism and resistance to transcendent authority. It does not even try to understand African Christianity’s own worldview, rooted in Scripture, orthodox church teaching, and responsibilities beyond the self.
Condescension towards African Christianity guided a recent United Methodist attempt to sideline growing African churches by creating a new, U.S. only regional conference that would potentially create its own rules while excluding the Africans. Ostensibly this exclusion would empower the Africans by releasing them from concerns about the U.S. church. Endorsed by the church’s Council of Bishops and a two-thirds vote at the denomination’s governing General Conference in 2008, the restructuring required ratification by two thirds of the voters at local annual conferences last year. Mournfully, the bishops released the voting results early this month. (See my assistant Connor Ewing’s article.) Almost without precedent, over 60 percent of the nearly 50,000 United Methodist voters at conferences around the world rejected the bishops’ plan. Most revealingly, over 94 percent of African voters, evidently not wanting this kind of “empowerment” by exclusion, voted no.
Undoubtedly United Methodist liberals will craft new attempts to marginalize the growing African churches. And U.S. Episcopalians will largely ignore the protests of the nearly 80 million member Communion, now dominated by large African churches that increasingly dwarf the dwindling U.S. denomination’s 2 million in both numbers and vitality. How persuasive will the emptying old-line churches of New England and California be against the arguments of hundreds of millions of African Christians?