One percent can be a very powerful number. The enormous press attention to this controversy comes from three factors: Yes, it is the first historically large Christian denomination to move from tolerance to affirmation of gay sex; second, Episcopalians occupy a historic position as an elite and influential church in America, the church of the old WASP elite par excellence; and third, many rich and influential people are still Episcopalian, and media elites like to cover their own.
Missing from the coverage, which focused on the issue of homosexuality, is the larger undercurrent revealed in this debate. If traditional Anglicans in America do split off and place themselves under the authority of African prelates, it will represent the first visible, public example of what will likely be a large historical movement of reverse colonialism: the transfer of religious prestige and power from the dwindling West to the surging orthodox Christian communities in Africa and South America.
As Philip Jenkins points out in his seminal book, "The Next Christendom," the largest single block of the 2 billion Christians worldwide is in Europe -- some 560 million people. In 50 years that number will shrink to 555 million people, as divorce, abortion and low birth rates take their toll. Meanwhile, the number of Christians in Africa will grow to 633 million, just under the 640 million estimated in Latin America.
"In North America, at least, most visions of the coming century are based firmly on extrapolating familiar domestic conditions. The imagined future looks a lot like the American present, only with Western liberalism ever more in the ascendant," notes Jenkins. "Western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology."
In this vision (or delusion), the future inevitably belongs to the tastes of educated WASPs, who with much grace, tact, consideration and compassion must guide their backward, more primitive black and brown brethren step-by-step down the path toward the new moral righteousness. Instead of obeying this "progressive" script, the black church, both here and in Africa, is beginning to speak authoritatively on behalf of Christian moral tradition.
You can see some of the same tug-of-war going on for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party on the gay marriage issue. African-Americans are strongly opposed to gay marriage. Since the Lawrence decision, black support for gay civil unions tumbled more than from any other group: 23 percentage points, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports last week that since 2000, the proportion of blacks who identify as Democrats has tumbled 11 percentage points.
No doubt there are many reasons why, but I suspect the increasingly visible insistence by white liberals that fighting for legal affirmation of gay sex and relationships is the defining civil rights battle of our times plays a part.
What really happened last week among Anglicans in Minneapolis? When push came to shove, the remnants of the old WASP elites decided to snub the black folks in the Anglican communion in favor of the voices of people who are white, affluent, with post-graduate educations, just like themselves. Is anybody really surprised?