The World Missionary Conference met in Edinburgh in 1910. The delegates were in a triumphalist mood. The official purpose of the meeting was “Carrying the Gospel to all the Non-Christian World”. The twentieth century saw this project successful to a degree that could not have been foreseen by those who formulated it in the Scottish capital in 1910. If they could have foreseen this success, they might have heeded the advice to be careful what you wish for. Not that anybody gave them such advice.
Just what kind of Gospel was envisaged in this missionary project? First of all, it was uniformly Protestant; no Catholics or Eastern Orthodox attended. I don’t know the theological character of the assemblage, but I am inclined to think that it was broadly Evangelical among those from English-speaking countries, broadly Pietist among the continental Europeans. The Protestants from the different countries were not theologically monolithic, but they were probably Evangelical/Pietist in the main; the others were less ready to go to places with crocodiles and hostile savages. The theology meant taking seriously the Great Commission, supposedly made by Jesus himself just before he left this world, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). With the theology went a morality, taken just as seriously, which in English has been called “Victorian” and which in the United States reached its triumphal climax (soon to be regretted) with Prohibition. This kind of Protestantism still has a strong foothold in the United States, especially in the so-called Bible Belt—much less so in Europe; but remarkably so where it was established by the Protestant missionary enterprise in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America (no longer characterized by Catholic hegemony), and in parts of Asia.
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. Welby had adopted a relatively moderate position after the Westminster parliament legislated same-sex marriage. He said that this was now the law of the land, and the C.of.E. (unlike, he, implied, Rome) would not fight it. But it continues to consider marriage as between one man and one woman, and would only bless such unions. He pointed out that individuals wanting other arrangements would have no difficulty finding churches happy to accommodate them.
Unfortunately for Welby’s peace-making efforts, the General Convention (the annual legislative authority of the Church) made just this accommodation. (The Archbishop of Canterbury is not even a mini-pope in England!) The Africans were now fully enraged. Welby had already cancelled one Lambeth Conference (the body in which all primates meet every ten years) because he feared that the meeting would lead to the schism becoming unavoidable. He now convoked an extraordinary gathering of the same group, even adding the bishop presiding over the rather small group of American dioceses that had seceded from the Episcopal Church for the same reasons that troubles the Africans. Welby was in favor of remaking the international Anglican Communion into a much looser federation, allowing its member churches much wider divergences of doctrine. Only he did not persuade the majority of the assembled bishops, who instead voted to impose sanctions for three years on the Episcopal Church. It was made clear that this time limit was until the next meeting of the General Convention, giving it a (presumably last) chance to recant its vote on same-sex nuptials. The sanctions now imposed sharply limit the American participation in Anglican Communion affairs.
The chances of a recantation are slim; the Americans were put on probation—a kind of suspended excommunication. This did not please all the conservatives. Stanley Ntagali, the Archbishop of Uganda, walked out of the conference when it did not endorse his proposal to immediately demand that the Americans (and the Canadians who went almost as far as their coreligionists to the south) be required to repent and “voluntarily withdraw” (whatever that means). Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., predicted that his church would not reverse its decision on same-sex marriage, though he held out a signal of hope: “If this is of God, things will change in time”. Susan Russell, associate rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, was more unbending in her reaction to the majority vote for sanctions: ”As a lifelong Episcopalian and a married lesbian priest, I think [the vote in favor of same-sex marriage] it’s not only an acceptable cost, it’s a badge of honor in some ways”. After a week of meetings the primates ceremonially washed each other’s feet (I don’t think that this was a gesture toward Pope Francis). Now everyone can exhale with some relief that the worst was avoided, and then hold their breath until 2019. The Diocese of Massachusetts, ever in the progressive forefront, stated that “We re-affirm our commitment to the full inclusion of all Christian persons, including LGBTQ Christians, in the life of the church”.
There is profound irony in what is happening here. The Protestant missionary enterprise in Africa did convert large numbers of people to Christianity and with it to a morality which was then closely linked to the Christian message. The whole enterprise has in recent years been criticized as having been an exercise in cultural imperialism, directly or indirectly in the service of political and economic imperialism. Cultural influences from one region to another can, if one likes this term, be called “imperialism”. Was it “imperialism” when, starting with the evangelism of the Apostle Paul, early Christianity made ever deeper inroads into the Roman Empire (despite the many Christians who were martyred for refusing to pay obeisance to the imperial cult)?
As far as Anglican missions in Africa were concerned, the British colonial authorities had mixed feelings about missionaries, because the modus operandi of the British Empire was to be respectful of indigenous culture and religion as pillars of social order, and because the pukka sahibs suspected (with good reason) that the network of mission schools would make the “natives” uppity and eventually endanger imperial rule. And so it happened: As the Union Jack was ceremonially lowered and the flags of newly independent African nations fluttered in the breeze, the leaders of the resistance movements took over, dressed in business suits and speaking fluent English. (I imagine that colonial officials learned early to prefer untamed “savages” to Africans who quoted Shakespeare.) 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!
One way of looking at what is happening here is as an international extension of the American culture war. America is at the heart of the Anglican crisis. It is the Episcopal Church of the U.S. that is specially sanctioned by the angry African bishops; even the Canadians have thus far avoided sanctions (they have only allowed some local variations on same-sex marriage while the Americans have formulated a policy for everyone). The Church of England has offended the Africans by allowing women into the clerical hierarchy, but Archbishop Welby has been much more cautious on gays (he even said that the sanctions were justified to make clear that the consensus of all in the Anglican Communion must be respected; on the other hand he apologized to gays for any hurt they incurred by past policies). The American mass media, especially Hollywood, have weighed in heavily on the progressive side; sitcom after sitcom has portrayed gays in a favorable light, spreading this image of sexually liberated America throughout the world. On the conservative side Evangelicals have been active both in the U.S. and in Africa; Evangelical visitors from the U.S. went to Uganda and preached on the evils of homosexuality in a crusade that supported the draconic anti-gay legislation in that country. Evangelical theology emphasizes the continuing authority of the Old Testament, including the ferocious penalties for gay activities in Leviticus (mandating the death penalty for both men). I think that in an African contest between Hollywood and Nashville (headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention), Hollywood has the stronger hand.
It is instructive to compare the contrasting cultural developments in the Western and in the developing worlds. In the former the 1960s and 1970s saw a powerful sexual revolution that by now is largely victorious. In the same period the developing countries have been undergoing an accelerating modernization process. In the nightclubs of Nairobi and Lagos American films, music and sexual liberalism have been fully adopted. But there is a deep class divide: Most Africans are still poor; they don’t dance in classy nightclubs; they try desperately to get out of extreme poverty and secure a better future for their children. And here Hollywood is an elusive mirage of frustrated aspirations; Nashville is of more practical help in getting out of poverty—the “good old religion” is also the good old Protestant ethic.
The wider African cultural change is very relevant. Traditional African culture was certainly not ascetic, if anything hedonistic, but with men getting most of the fun. As long as this culture was polygamous, it put women into an inferior status, but even so it provided a certain order for them and the children. Modernization broke down this order, as it was based on kinship and tribe. This was enhanced by men employed in migrant labor in the cities, their families left behind in the villages for long periods of time–lives of these women certainly not enhanced by sexual liberation. Instead they wished, not for the old polygamous order (many of their men were already in serial polygamy), but precisely for the bourgeois family propagated by the good old Protestant ethic. Women play an important role in African Protestant churches in the cities, and they often succeed in “domesticating” their men. Using a lot of historical sources, Brigitte Berger has shown how what she calls the “conjugal nuclear family” (husband and wife living with their children in a household separate from wider kin) played an important causal role in European modernization (The Family in the Modern Age, 2002). She also argued that the same arrangement has a modernizing effect in developing societies today, particularly in Africa. This is the real liberation for women and children in the slums of what used to be called the “Third World”, and the ensuing domesticity can be attractive for men as well in the midst of rapid and tumultuous social change, where all the traditional sources of stability–village community, tribe and extended kin–have weakened or disappeared. The British sociologist David Martin has shown in a series of studies how the Protestant congregation, especially in its rapidly growing Pentecostal version, fills this gap.
I think that the African bishops understand this very well. This helps explain their visceral reaction against the sexual revolution as it has affected Anglicans, especially in America and the English mother church. Economic and political developments will certainly affect this particular contestation. But theological reflection in both camps could lead to some compromises. I don’t think that rigorous neo-Puritanism has a bright future: If you let children eat as much candy as they want, they will be furious if you take away the candy again. On the other hand, gorging on candy can become boring or lead to stomach troubles. Since Anglicanism originated historically in the sweaty bed of Anne Boleyn, it has mellowed and developed a culture of moderation – its legendary via media. It is conceivable that this genius will re-assert itself.