An epoch-dividing event recently took place in the religion that brought us B.C. and A.D. Too bad hardly anyone noticed.
For years, a dispute has boiled between the American Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion it belongs to, with many in the global south convinced that Episcopalians are following their liberalism into heresy. This month, Archbishop Peter Akinola, shepherd of 18 million fervent Nigerian Anglicans, reached the end of his patience and installed a missionary bishop to America. The installation ceremony included boisterous hymns and Africans dressed in bright robes dancing before the altar -- an Anglican worship style more common in Kampala, Uganda, than in Woodbridge.
The American presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, condemned this poaching of souls on her turf as a violation of the "ancient customs of the church." To which the archbishop replied, in essence: Since when have you American liberals given a fig about the ancient customs of the church?
Such conflicts used to be decided in the Church of England by the king putting someone in the Tower of London. That does not appear to be an option in this case.
The media, as is their habit, reported this story as another front in the American culture war: conservative Anglicans seeking refuge in the arms of like-minded African opponents of homosexual marriage. Those debates on sexuality are real enough -- but this explanation is far too narrow.
The intense, irrepressible Christianity of the global south is becoming -- along with Coca-Cola, radical Islam and Shakira -- one of the most potent forms of globalization. When I visited Martyn Minns, the missionary bishop installed by Akinola, his first reference was not to St. Paul or to St. John but to St. Thomas: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. "The Church is flat," Minns told me, paraphrasing the title of Friedman's bestselling book. Rigid, outdated church bureaucracies are proving unable to adjust to the shifting market of world Christianity. "People used to pronouncing from on high," he said, are now "gasping for air."
In 1900, about 80 percent of Christians lived in North America and Europe; now, more than 60 percent live on other continents. There are more Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland. The largest district of the United Methodist Church is found in Ivory Coast. And many of the enthusiastic converts of Western missions have begun asking why portions of the Western church have abandoned the traditional faith they once shared. Liberal Protestant church officials, headed toward international assemblies, are anxiously counting African votes, because these new voters tend to take their Bible both literally and seriously.