Last week the Anglican world was rocked by the decision of the world’s Anglican bishops to suspend the Episcopal Church of the United States from active participation in the Anglican Communion for a period of three years. The suspension was driven by the Anglicans in the developing world’s anger with the Episcopal Church’s formal decision last summer to validate same-sex weddings.
The politics of the decision are complicated. Unlike Catholics, the Anglicans do not have a unified authority structure. Each of the Anglican national churches are independently governed while voluntarily belonging to the Worldwide Anglican Communion. Put simply, the bishops of the developing world — led by African bishops — pressured the rest of the Anglican Communion to discipline the Episcopal Church. While this might seem a minor matter of Christians squabbling, in fact the implications for both Anglicans and Catholics are historic.
The center of gravity for worldwide Christianity is shifting away from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia and South America. This shift from North to South is cultural and demographic. Christians in the South are young. Their numbers are growing. They are dynamic in their faith and energetic in their evangelization. These trends mean that for the rest of the century and beyond we will see an increasingly visible leadership from church leaders in the South and their voices will not be able to be ignored.
The African Anglican bishops have flexed their muscles. They have told the rest of the Anglicans that same-sex marriage will not be tolerated. Whether you agree with them or not, their victory in last week’s decision is important for those who study future trends in the church. Not only has this been their first important victory in the global Christian culture wars, but their firm action is already being echoed in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic version of this North-South conflict was seen last year during the Synod on the Family. German cardinals lobbied for a relaxation of the rules governing divorced and remarried receiving communion while other European bishops brought gay-friendly language to the table. Among others, it was the African cardinals who spoke out most strongly in favor of traditional Catholic moral teaching.
When asked about the Africans, Cardinal Walter Kasper — a leading progressive — was dismissive. Many felt that he voiced the patronizing tone that has been all too common among Northern prelates. The Africans picked him up on the gaffe, and their voices were respectfully heeded.
What kind of Christianity should we expect to see as Africans take increasingly visible roles in the Anglican and Catholic churches? The culture shock for Northern Christians will be even greater than we have experienced with Pope Francis. Most of those who are disconcerted by Pope Francis have been thrown out of their comfort zone by cultural and communication differences. Pope Francis’ Argentinian world has radically different priorities and perspectives than the Catholic world of Europe and North America.
The African version of Catholicism will be far more alien to Northern Catholics than anything we have seen. Having been colonized by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, Latin American Catholicism is still very much a transplanted European culture. African Catholicism, on the other hand, is far less influenced by European culture and far more African in its spirit and expression.
If Francis has turned the Catholic Church upside down, we can expect an even greater culture shock from African leaders. While they will be conservative in moral matters, they are likely to seem “liberal” liturgically. They may go in for tribal dancing, indigenous costumes and a loud and joyful form of worship. Their stance on moral and doctrinal issues will be traditional, but their socioeconomic stance is likely to be critical of unfettered capitalism and have a radical edge demanding fair trade, opportunities for development and a preferential option for the poor.
The conflicts last year in the Catholic Synod on the Family and last week’s furor in the Anglican Communion are indicators of a global shift in Christianity which promises to be one of the most exciting and turbulent challenges ever faced by the Christian Church. Old orders will be overthrown as the established power bases of Europe and the North are supplanted by a new generation of Africans who have come to evangelize those very nations that first evangelized them.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Evangelical, then an Anglican and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website at dwightlongenecker.com to browse his books and be in touch.