Listening to the African Anglicans

Akinola MinnsDon't get me started on the state of air travel these days. My wife and I had lots (and lots) of extra time yesterday in Logan International Airport during a trip north for parents day at Gordon College, and I spent much of that time digging really deep into the new issue of The New Republic. By all means, take the time to check out Jeffrey Goldberg's lengthy cover story review of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. The headline says it all: "The Usual Suspect."

But the mini-essay that really caught my attention was "The African War Over Homosexuality." It is, as you would expect, a commentary on the warfare inside the global Anglican Communion.

The byline was at the end of the piece and, thus, I was well into reading it before I said to myself, "Wait a minute. This writer has the ability to stay calm about a subject that is driving almost everyone else into journalistic craziness. Who is this guy?" I also wondered what the piece was doing in The New Republic, only that wouldn't really be a fair statement since the magazines runs a wide variety of excellent work on religious topics.

The goal is to try to understand why African Anglicans say the things they say, while defending centuries of Christian tradition about sexual morality. Here is one of the long, logical passages that caught my attention:

Why, then, did opposition to gay rights become so critical for many African Christians? The answer has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Christianity on the continent in a relatively short time. In 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians, representing around 10 percent of the population. By 2000, that figure had grown to 360 million, or 46 percent. As a result, most African Christians today are first- or second-generation members of the faith, and many are adult converts. Sociologists generally agree that newer religious groups tend to have more literal approaches to scripture. In practice, of course, literalism still leaves plenty of room for debate and interpretation; but, when the Bible specifically condemns a particular sin -- and same-sex interaction is repeatedly denounced in both the Old and New Testaments -- that makes it difficult for literalists to find wiggle room.

In other ways, too, the rapid expansion of Christianity has conditioned African views on homosexuality. African churches exist in a ferociously competitive environment, one where traditional groups -- like Anglicans and Catholics -- must fight to maintain their market share against newer Pentecostal denominations, with their enticing promises of miracles and healings. The last thing the older churches need is a suggestion that their commitment to scriptural truth is anything less than absolute or that they are any less rigorous than their rivals in condemning sin.

The other key rival -- and another factor shaping moral attitudes -- is Islam. Over the past century, African Christianity has grown much more rapidly than Islam, a fact that puzzles and infuriates Muslims who regard the continent as naturally theirs. In 1900, for instance, Christians accounted for just 1 percent of the people of what would become the state of Nigeria; Muslims made up 26 percent. By 1970, however, the religions had achieved parity, each having around 45 percent of the population. And some recent polls suggest that, today, the nation has a Christian plurality. Against this background of rivalry and potential violence, Christians cannot be seen to concede anything to Muslims in terms of their commitment to strict morality.

This writer is clearly not a conservative hardliner, yet he has paid close attention to what is actually happening in Africa. He notes, for example, that the harsh Nigerian laws on homosexuality that have been endorsed by African Anglicans are -- when seen in this context -- far milder than the other alternative, which is Muslim sharia law.

There is another factor that is often overlooked: Africans do not want to be seen as bowing to pressures from the all-powerful West and, especially, the United States of America. They cannot afford to be seen as American puppets, forcing changes that offend Africans.

And finally, there is this:

In the region later known as Uganda, Christianity first arrived in the 1870s, when the area was already under Muslim influence and a hunting ground for Arab slave-raiders. The king of Buganda had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms: On a single day, some 30 Bugandans were burned alive. Yet the area's churches flourished, and, eventually, the British expelled the Arab slavers. That foundation story remains well-known in the region, and it intertwines Christianity with resistance to tyranny and Muslim imperialism -- both symbolized by sexual deviance. Reinforcing such memories are more recent experiences with Muslim tyrants, such as Idi Amin, whose victims included the head of his country's Anglican Church. For many Africans, then, sexual unorthodoxy has implications that are at once un-Christian, anti-national, and oppressive.

So who is this writer, who is this man of the West who can hold two or more ideas in tension in his own mind?

It is, of course, historian Philip Jenkins -- author of God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis. Reporters need to follow this man's work, if they want to know what is happening in the Global South. One of the quickest ways to dip into his scholarship is to read his famous cover article from The Atlantic Monthly, the one titled "The Next Christianity."

So read his stuff. And try to stay calm.

Photo: Nigerian Archbishop Archbishop Peter Akinola, with missionary Bishop Martyn Minns of Virginia.

Please respect our Commenting Policy