Jonathan Zimmerman: The long road Africa took to the split with the Episcopal church of America

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

HEY, the Africans are trying to impose their culture on us!

That's what Episcopalians in the United States are saying about last week's summit in Tanzania, where global Anglican leaders urged Americans to bar homosexuals from becoming bishops and to stop blessing same-sex unions. As The New York Times reported, Episcopalians condemned"meddling" foreigners for"imposing their culture and theological interpretations on the American church."

In a sense, the Americans are right. Episcopalians in this country shade to the left, in theology as well as politics, while their African brethren tend to be more conservative. So it's not surprising that the African leaders would oppose gay marriage or that they'd demand that the entire Anglican communion do the same.

What is surprising, in light of history, is that the Africans are imposing on the West, not the other way around.

For nearly 500 years, Christians from Europe and the Americas tried to foist their own language, culture and religion upon Africa. Now the tables have turned.

To understand why, we need to return to the era immediately following World War Two. As anti-colonial movements swept Africa, sympathetic Western missionaries began to question the arrogant and ethnocentric assumptions that had marked so much Christian effort on the continent.

Decrying prior campaigns to" civilize" the Africans, liberals from the West substituted the language of culture. Every people had a culture, the argument went; no culture was inherently better or worse than another; hence Westerners should take special care to respect and even defend the cultures they encountered in Africa.

But how could you preserve African culture, even as you converted Africans to your own religion? For some missionaries, the answer lay in new syncretic forms of worship that fused indigenous traditions to Christian doctrine. For many Western liberals, however, the rise of the culture concept cast the entire missionary endeavor into doubt.

"We questioned what right we have to intervene in the education of people of another culture and what our motives are in desiring to intervene," wrote two American missionaries, in a typical statement."Do we want to 'domesticate' the people in one way or another, make them like us, convince them to adopt our culture?" The question contained its own answer.

To shed their ethnocentric baggage, indeed, liberal Americans increasingly abandoned the term"missionary" itself. One mission renamed its project"overseas service"; other missionaries simply called themselves volunteers, echoing the Peace Corps and other secular agencies."The very word 'missionary' calls up notions of superiority," explained one American.

And in an era of culture, that was the one thing nobody wanted to be.

Into this breach stepped a confident new generation of conservative missionaries, seeking to convert new souls to Christ. Conversant with African history and traditions, they did their best to couch their message in culturally appropriate terms. But they never wavered from the message itself: Jesus was Lord, Scripture was literal Truth, and anyone who believed otherwise was destined for hell.

Today, nine of 10 Westerners who call themselves"missionaries" hail from a conservative or evangelical church. And they have done their job well. That's why African Christians stand so far to the right of their brethren in the West on a host of religious and cultural questions: abortion, gay rights, female priest ordination and more.

And that's why they're starting to evangelize us, to the chagrin of many Americans.

The battle inside the Anglican Communion is only the first of many struggles that we can expect in the next few years, pitting Third World conservatives the against liberals in the West.

For almost half a millennium, Christians from the West told the rest of the globe how to think, behave and believe. Now, for the first time, we're getting a taste of our own medicine. For liberals, especially, it might be a very bitter pill to swallow.

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More Comments:

Jim Williams - 2/27/2007

Zimmerman's commentary hits the nail on the head. The irony is amusing.
As a former Episcopalian (a descendent of the first Episcopalian bishop!) who left the church two decades ago for a more evangelical one because the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Gospel and the Great Commission, I wish to rebut Bangs' assertion of Nigerian interference. The archbishop of Nigeria merely offered the churches in the United States which seceded (including churches of my near kin) a means whereby they can affiliate with the worldwide Anglican Communion when the U.S. church has abandoned its historical faith and calling. The churches in the U.S. have taken the secessionist initiative, not Nigeria, and the crisis has been building for decades - a split between clergy educated (brainwashed?) in seminaries to accept humanists' views of the Gospel and Jesus (e.g. John Shelby Spong's rejection of the Virgin Birth and the resurrection and the views of the "Jesus Project") and lay people in whom there is a deep reservoir of Christian faith.
The Anglican primates' resolution asks for a moratorium on such affiliations, but they also ask for the appointment of a "primatial vicar" in the U.S. to represent the perspectives of evangelical Episcopalians and a moratorium on litigation against churches that secede. I will be surpised if Ms. Schori, primate of the U.S. church, allows either. If she does, it probably won't work; oil and water don't mix.
I anticipate that the willingness of the Episcopal church's humanist elite to peacefully coexist with this growingly assertive evangelical minority (Horrors! They actually believe the Bible!) will be limited and that in the near future there will be a moribund Episcopal church (it's withering on the vine now!) alongside a flourishing evangelical Anglican church in the United States.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 2/24/2007

Professor Zimmerman's observations can be amplified in two directions. One is described in this, which examines the politically significant funding involved:

The other direction is simply the recollection that the principle of the autonomy of diocesan provinces, intended to protect them from
interference from other diocesan provinces, is an essential part of the sixteenth-century rejection of Roman dominance, and as such it is being breached by the Archbishop of Nigeria when he involves himself with issues that are the concerns of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. The historical basis for this essential aspect of the Church of England and its colonial off-shoots is explained in Foxe's Acts and Monuments (Foxe's Book of Martyrs):

Jeremy Bangs