Saturday, May 26, 2007

Christianity in the Global South

On the blog, VirtueOnline, which is of a conservative Anglican persuasion, there is a recent presentation by Penn State Religious Studies professor Philip Jenkins on the rapid growth of Christianity in the global south, its effect on the Episcopal controversy, and its likely impact on the future of Christianity around the globe. It is a long article but worth reading:
Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2007 for the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.

Philip Jenkins, a Penn State University professor and one of the first scholars to call attention to the rising demographic power of Christians in the southern hemisphere, analyzed the ongoing schism in the worldwide Anglican church. While the dispute concerns attitudes toward homosexuality, Jenkins argues the core of the conflict lies in how biblical authority is defined.

Will the current alliances between conservative Western and African leaders endure? Will African leaders begin to press an ultra-liberal economic agenda? Are other mainline denominations in the U.S. headed for similar splits? Jenkins answered these and others questions, while offering a fascinating glimpse into the life of African Christianity.

Speaker: Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and History, Pennsylvania State University

Moderator: Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Event Transcript

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Welcome. There are about eight journalists who are advisors to this Key West project. We meet twice a year at lunch to talk about future subjects for this conference. One of the topics we talked about several months ago was the divide going on in the American Episcopal Church, but also in worldwide Anglicanism. Everyone in the room unanimously said Philip Jenkins would be the best person in the country to address the topic. I was delighted that, as busy as Philip Jenkins is - he writes a new book about every three months - he was able to fit us into his schedule. His new book is God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis He is distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, and Professor Jenkins is going to address our topic this morning on global schism. Professor Jenkins, thank you so much.

PHILIP JENKINS: The word schism means a split, and the great historical example is what happened in 1054, when the Eastern and Western churches had a tiff over such crucial theological issues as whether priests should wear beards. Everyone knew this was going to be resolved in just a couple of years; 950 years or so later, and counting, they're still divided into the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and it's not likely to be resolved any time soon.

Today I'm going to talk about the Anglican schism, but I want to look at the question of whether this is the first shot in a much larger war and whether instead of an East-West schism, we'll be looking at a North-South schism. I want to start this off with a quote you will find shocking or at the very least surprising. As you're aware, a number of Episcopal churches in the United States have placed themselves under the authority of African and Asian clergy because, basically, they don't trust the leadership of the Episcopal Church.

One of the African clerics they've turned to is a man called Emmanuel Kolini, who is the primate of Rwanda. When Kolini is asked why he is interfering in American affairs, he has a very simple answer: "Back in my country back in 1994, we had the genocide and the world stood idly by, nobody came to help us; we are not going to let that happen to you. We will not stand idly by while this dreadful thing happens to the Episcopal Church." Most of us, of course, look at that and think, "You're seriously comparing the 1994 genocide with the split in the Episcopal Church?" That seems astonishing. But I hope to suggest why some of the issues involved here are so very important for Global South churches.

Quick narrative: The U.S. Episcopal Church is not a huge body, but it's a very influential body. Realistically it has maybe two, two-and-a-half million members, yet its influence is far beyond those numbers. It's a very liberal body on issues of gender, sexuality; it's been semi-overtly ordaining gay clergy and carrying out gay marriages for a number of years. The turning point came in 2003 when an openly gay cleric, Bishop Robinson, was ordained. For some years before that, conservatives within the Episcopal Church had been looking to the wider Anglican world, and they'd had a lot of support from those Global South churches. Global South means, in this context, Africa and Asia.

In 2003, the skies fell in. Global South primates from countries like Nigeria and Uganda started using ferociously critical language about the ordination of Robinson. They called it a satanic attack on God's church. The U.S. Episcopal response here was, "Who are you to tell us this?" Then the primates in countries like Nigeria said, "Let us tell you who we are to be telling you this. There's two, two-and-a-half million members of you; the Nigerian church had, back in 1975, five million members, we're currently up to 19 million members; by 2025, we'll be at 35 million members. We're doubling every 25 years or so; what can you say to that?"

But of course, the Anglican Church is not just Nigeria; it's Uganda and Tanzania and Rwanda and all these other countries. Since that point in 2003 the Anglican Communion has developed an ever wider split. Most recently, of course, conservative churches within the U.S. Episcopal Church have placed themselves under the Episcopal authority of Global South churches. The most recent, of course, affected a number of very large, prosperous churches in Virginia, which are now part of a missionary diocese of the Nigerian church under its primate Peter Akinola.

The language, the sentiment and the depth of hatred in these events has been quite striking. We could have a competition as to which remark is the least conducive to Christian charity. (Laughter.) I have a couple of candidates. Candidate one is Akinola's remark that the U.S. Episcopal Church is like a cancerous lump that has defied all treatment, and the time has come for it to be excised altogether. Candidate two is from one of the gay pressure groups within the Episcopal Church, when someone said: "All I can say to you African bishops, is why can't you go back to the jungle you came from and stop monkeying around with the church?" We'll have a vote afterwards as to which is the more offensive remark. (Laughter.)

The big turning point is next year when we have what's called the Lambeth Conference, which is the Anglican Church's grand convention that brings all the primates together every ten years. The odds are at the moment that either the U.S. Episcopal Church will not be allowed to participate or that some of the American clergy under African churches will claim the seat of the U.S. Episcopal Church or maybe that the event will not happen, and that instead of Lambeth there will be a separate Anglican convention run by the African and Asian clergy.

The reason all this is so important is how the numbers are proceeding: Christianity is going south very rapidly in terms of numbers. I've give you a quick overview, and I'm going to talk about Africa a lot. Simple reason: back in 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians representing 10 percent of the population; by 2000, that was up 360 million, to 46 percent of the population. That is the largest quantitative change that has ever occurred in the history of religion. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all denominations have been booming. The Anglicans have done very well, and the Anglican Church is going to be overwhelmingly an African body in the near future.

Why are African churches so conservative?

First, I want to stress a couple of things. Some American media have made a mistake in focusing personally on Archbishop Akinola. Archbishop Akinola has got very definite opinions, but if he walked in front of a bus tomorrow, it would not change the equation within the Anglican Communion at all.

Among conservative Episcopalian congregations in the United States, it's almost as if each group has its own pet overseas bishop or primate. For instance, Pittsburgh is a big center of conservative Anglicans; they look to a man called Henry Orombi, who is the archbishop of Uganda. Some people look to the province of Rwanda. And others look to Singapore where you have, again, very conservative Anglicans. It is not a personal Akinola thing.

Fundamentally it's about authority, and this issue runs across different churches and denominations. Another important thing to remember is that most Global North categories do not work in the Global South. A classic example: if you talk to a Nigerian Anglican and you try to pin him down, saying, "I cannot figure you out, are you evangelical, are you Catholic, are you charismatic?" The immediate answer is yes. And they mean it.

The more fundamental division is about the authority of the Bible, and there are a lot of reasons for this. If you have ever read Akinola's statements, he makes clear throughout: "I know all this biblical criticism stuff; I know all these arguments made about homosexuality." But there's a more basic thing: if you're in a new church in Africa or Asia, the Bible speaks to you as a more immediately relevant, more direct text, than it does for many Global North people for whom the Bible is basically part of the wallpaper.

One big reason for that is the biblical world makes sense [if you're in the Global South]; the Bible reads like it is describing the world you know immediately. But for most Americans and Europeans, if somebody cites the prohibitions on homosexuality in Leviticus, the immediate answer is: "Leviticus also says you can own slaves from neighboring countries; why can't you own Canadians?" It's a good question. If you're reading a text like Leviticus in the Global South, the bigger problem is this: you have to be warned constantly not to take the Old Testament as more important than the New.

You're dealing with people who live in, in many ways, an Old Testament world. Many Africans may not know themselves a world that practices nomadism and polygamy and blood sacrifice, but their parents did. You don't have to go far down the road to see people who are still doing these things.

Just one example out of a great many: I was once talking to some West Africans about the bits of the Bible that made sense to them in ways that could not make sense to Westerners. They said, "We live in agricultural societies, so things like the Parable of the Sower made great sense." Just talking about it, they started getting teary eyed. Then they mentioned Psalm 126. Psalm 126 is a psalm that is widely quoted, and it goes like this: "The man who goes forth into the fields in tears weeping to sow the seed will bring the sheaves again in joy." You understand perfectly well why a farmer would bring the sheaves again in joy; he's celebrating harvest time.

But why do you weep while you're sowing? "It's obvious," they said to me. "Whoever wrote this psalm was writing at a time of famine, like we had a couple of years ago. You've got the corn that's left, and you can do one of two things with it. You can feed your family with it, but if you do that, you're not a farmer anymore [because you have no seeds left] and you have to migrate to the city and become a beggar, and what's going to happen to your children and so on. Or you can take the corn literally out of the hands of your hungry children and use it as seed corn and sow it. That's why a farmer weeps while sowing the corn. It's obvious."

As I said, it wasn't obvious to me, but there are any number of examples like that where the Bible describes a world that makes immediate, intuitive, documentary sense in a way it can't for us. It's almost as if every passage comes with - (unintelligible) - at the end. You have texts like the Book of Ruth, for example. The Book of Ruth is all about a society destroyed by famine where the men have left because they can, and the women are left behind with the children, and the world is held together by people being loyal to clan ties. Can't think of why that would be relevant in large chunks of Africa.

Point is, people [in the Global South] take the Bible very seriously as a source of authority. Yes, the Bible accepts the existence of slavery - this is true - but it doesn't order it or command it. And the Bible, as far as they can tell by superficial reading, does describe homosexuality as an evil, therefore it is wrong and therefore if you want to ordain gay clergy, you are running directly against the authority of the Bible. That's the reason for the Anglican split.

One other big issue people failed to pick up is there are lots of different countries in the Anglican Communion in Africa, but the ones who are most militant on the gay issue are the ones who were evangelized by the very evangelical wing of the Church of England, the Church Mission Society. The Church of England traditionally had two wings, high and low, usually called "high and crazy" versus "low and lazy" - (laughter) - there's also "broad and hazy," we can discuss that. Low-church evangelicals, who were very biblically oriented, took certain countries like Nigeria and Uganda. Those are the countries for which not only does the Bible makes sense to them, but they also have these strong evangelical biblical roots. This is one reason why the Anglican split is so intense.

My guess is that in 10 or 20 years, the Episcopal Church in the United States will be a fairly miniscule body. The Anglican Communion, however, will be flourishing. It will continue to be what it is today: the third-largest religious organization within Christianity, and probably pretty soon the second largest, because the Orthodox Church is in such steep decline. If you look at the Orthodox world, it meshes exactly with the countries with the lowest birth rates. So the Anglican Communion might well be the second-biggest organization within Christianity. It will also be overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly a black and brown organization.

Many people have paid attention to the split within the Anglican Communion. I want to suggest another important angle that is about to hit other denominations. In fact, it is going to hit most other denominations, certainly most liberal denominations, within the United States very soon. How soon? 2008. That is going to be the next Lambeth Conference within the Anglican world. It is also going to be the next meeting of the World Conference of the United Methodist Church. Over the last few years, most of the other denominations have had their heads up over the parapet watching what's happening in the Anglican Church and feeling increasingly nervous. They know it's going to happen within their own bodies.

The prize example of this is the Methodists. The Methodists, in numbers, are the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, behind the Baptists. Stop me if this story sounds familiar, but the Methodists have stable or declining membership in the United States but they are booming like crazy around the world, especially in Africa. When they next have the United Methodist World Congress in 2008, Africans alone will comprise about 25 percent of the delegates and a lot of others will be from Asia and Latin America. The Africans are extremely conservative on, and very concerned about, what American Methodists are doing about homosexuality. So that's going to be a major issue.

It will hit the Lutherans probably as well. It is hitting to some extent in Europe right now, where a lot of conservative Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia have placed themselves under the protection of a Tanzanian Lutheran bishop. Once again, so many of the labels that work in the Global North do not work in the Global South. One of the most important religious figures in Tanzania is a Lutheran bishop who is also a famous prophet and healer and charismatic figure. Obvious point, this is not the world of Garrison Keillor; this is a different kind of Lutheranism.

You're getting some of these splits within the Presbyterian Church. They're looking at what's happening in the Anglican world partly to see what kind of precedent is being set but also to watch for very specific legal issues. The only reason why the Episcopal Church is surviving at the moment is the Episcopal Church has a set-up, which they erected in the late 1970s after a lot of splits over women's ordination, whereby the dioceses own the property, so that if, for example, a particular church wants to secede and place itself under the archbishop of Uganda, you're very welcome to do it, but you can't take any of the property with you.

Philip Jenkins: That is a much bigger issue for Episcopalians than it would be for some other denominations. If you're an Episcopalian, particularly in the [American] South, if you've got eight generations of your family buried in the local churchyard, you are not going to go off and worship in a high school gym while you build a new church. That's a critical point. The control of property becomes very important. Different denominations have got different attitudes to church property and to the store they set on historic church buildings. The Episcopalians are at the extreme end of that scale.

There are lots of indicators pointing to different schisms, but let me look at a number of factors that haven't got as much attention as they might have done in the media coverage. One is, it's very hard to talk about a straight North/South division. The North is in the South in the forms of media, soft power, culture, education; the South is in the North in the form of people, through immigration. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.

It's been interesting over the last few years as I walk around big American cities to see how many Episcopal churches have taken down their signs saying "Episcopal" and put instead "Episcopal (Anglican.)" Why? Because you have all these African and Caribbean people wandering around looking for a home church. "Episcopal, what's that? Oh, Anglican, that's home."

That is even more true in Europe where the case can be made that African and Asian churches are laying a new foundation for Christianity. There is all sorts of evidence of that. The four largest mega-churches in Britain are pastored by Africans. You also have a lot of evangelical "low and lazy" folks in the Anglican Church in the U.K. who are white English people, but who are inspired entirely by ideas they picked up from Africa, from Latin America, from the Chilean pentecostal movement, and so on. So North and South is not a neat divide.

Here's one other big issue: just suppose for the sake of argument the churches do split over the issue of homosexuality. What happens next? People [from the Global South] who are conservative on sexual issues and gender and family issues are not necessarily conservative on other stuff. A lot of conservative [Northern] Anglicans and evangelicals are making the discovery right now that they're dealing with [Southern] people who are rock solid on morality issues, homosexuality issues, but who are way to the left of the Democratic Party on economic issues.

Here's another interesting thought: if you look at the growing centers of global Christianity, most of them lie between the Tropics. They are close to the equator. Why does that matter? If global warming is going to happen as rapidly as [is being predicted,] the closer you are to the equator, the more dramatically and the more rapidly you're going to be affected and the more of a vested interest you have in United Nations action and liberal socialist interventions. In some ways, global Christianity stands an interesting chance of being at the forefront of a clamor for globalized United Nations action. The religion which is most directly affected in the short term by global climate change is Christianity.

The global Christian churches that are very conservative on morality could be alarmingly left wing on some other issues, including economic issues. If you hang out in the office of an African bishop, it's very hard to tell the difference between them as spiritual figures and them as the local minister of development because they deal with all these economic issues in a very statist, interventionist way.

One reason these churches are so ferocious on sexuality issues is they are new, or at least newish, churches. They're still in that initial love affair with the Bible. What happens after a generation or two? Do they liberalize? How rapidly do they liberalize? And there are also a couple of significant Trojan horses in African Christianity, and the most important is South Africa. The leadership of the South African churches - I stress the distinction -- for instance, of the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church, tends to be progressive and left wing. The South African Constitution is, I believe, the most liberal in the world on homosexuality issues; the South African Anglican hierarchy is very liberal. That's important because South Africa is a vast center for publication and for the academic world; much of the theology done in Africa is done in South Africa and then re-exported to the rest of the continent. These are important factors.

That pushes towards the idea of a liberalizing [influence.] In the next 30, 40 years in Africa, Christian numbers are going to carry on growing in absolute terms; Africa is going to be the only continent with a very significantly growing population. It will be not so much liberalizing in a straight line as diversifying. In other words, some churches will become more liberal on, for instance, gay issues, morality issues; they in turn will spin off more conservative branches or rivals. Increasingly, African churches will look more like American churches in their diversity.

There are a couple of facts that will keep ordinary [African] believers on the conservative side. One is poverty. Barring some epochal change, Africa is going to continue to be at the bottom of the development tables for the foreseeable future. What that means in practice is most African Christian believers are going to be Christian because they are deeply invested in literal and charismatic interpretations of Christianity. They are deeply vested in ideas of the church as a healing authority. They have a great belief in a conservative interpretation of the Bible in that sense.

There's one other big thing that will help keep ordinary believers, and maybe many of the churches, on the conservative side, and that is the presence of Islam. Muslim-Christian conflict is going to be a leading factor in Africa for the foreseeable future. If you get your atlas and you trace the latitude 10 degrees north, you have a very nice, easy line of conflict between Christianity and Islam; if you like, the main battlefront.

If you're living in a society that is divided between Christianity and Islam, Christians are going to find it very tough to give ground on homosexuality. Why? Because one of the primary recruiting tools for Islam in Africa is Hollywood, American decadence, and "do you want your daughters to end up like those people you see on TV?" Christians have a vested interest not to give ground to Muslims on this issue; they must not be seen to be accepting Western decadence or Western promiscuity.

This also encourages African Christians to have a very rigid interpretation of the Bible, because after all they're competing with the Koran. "Our Koran was dictated directly by God; what can you say about your Bible?" "Our Bible's absolutely literally dependable, too." That kind of competition is going to be a big factor.

To pull this together: In the next few years, the very rapid growth of numbers of Christians in the Global South is going to be a significant factor in the affairs of global churches. That will be a powerful fact, particularly for conservatives in the Global North who increasingly are treating people like Akinola and Martin Minns, in Virginia, as near-messianic heroes of conservative Christianity. There's a very interesting book to be written on that.

African churches look like they're very conservative, but if you've idealized these churches that way, you'll find what you've actually got are very pro-state intervention, pro-United Nations groups. That poses some interesting dilemmas. That might be one reason why groups like the National Association of Evangelicals have recently become so relatively liberal on climate change and so interventionist, because they realize that is a key issue for a large part of the world.

It is quite likely that by 2050 or so there will be three billion Christians in the world; the proportion of those who will be non-Latino whites, people like myself, will be somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. Imagine a map of the Christian world as of 2050: Where are the largest Christian populations? It's an interesting list. Heading the list is the United States, though, of course, a lot of the Christians will be of Latino and Asian and African descent. Where next? Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia and China. What are the names that are not on the list? Oh, Germany, France, Italy, Spain - maybe the people in this room are old enough to remember something called Western Christianity - (laughter) - well, it died in our lifetime.

Thank you.
Update: The original post from the Pew Forum is here. The question and answer session is also excellent.

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

I had not thought about the fact that people in developing countries could read the Bible and relate to it in a literal way because they are living the same types of famine and other scenarios that are written about in the Bible whereas we in the industrial/post industrial part of the world can not relate to that so the Bible is not as immediately relevant to us. This was a fascinating article. Was this one of your professors at PSU liberal pastor?