Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Michael Gerson in WP on African Episcopal missionary outreach to the US

Michael Gerson, a new columnist for the Washington Post, has an important and insightful column, Wednesday, May 16, 2007, Washington Post, on the installation of the missionary bishop of the Nigerian Anglicans to northern Virginia, and the movement of the global south to re-Christianize the global north. This article is about the United States; my sense, however, is that a historically much more important re-evangelization will eventually take place in Western Europe, led by Africans and African immigrants.

On of these days, when I get a moment, I will write something about religion here. I suppose I might respond to part of Chris Hitchens' new book, but I'm more interested in the sensibility about religion at this moment.

I was once a Mormon missionary, many years ago, in Peru. I am a long lapsed Mormon, but unlike a lot of lapsed Mormons, I hold no ill-feelings for the Mormon church. Most of my family is still devoutly Mormon, and I have enormous respect for how they live they lives, and well as a great fondness for Mormon culture, even if I don't count myself as a Mormon believer. I don't write about the Mormon church very much, although I wrote two long review essays about the Mormons some years ago - one in the Times Literary Supplement, on the intellectual and spiritual roots of Mormonism in gnosticism and the radical religious reformation, here, and a second in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, when under the editorship of the great Steve Wasserman, here, on a new journalistic account of the Mormon church.

Excerpted from Gerson's column, midway:

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.

This emerging Christianity can be troubling. Church leaders sometimes emphasize communal values more than individual human rights, and they need to understand that strongly held moral beliefs are compatible with a commitment to civil liberties for all. Large Pentecostal churches are often built by domineering personalities promising health and wealth.

But the religion of the global south has a great virtue: It is undeniably alive. And it needs to be. A mother holding a child weak with AIDS or hot with malaria, or a family struggling to survive in an endless urban slum, does not need religious platitudes. Both need God's ever-present help in time of trouble -- which is exactly what biblical Christianity claims to offer.

Some American religious conservatives have embraced ties with this emerging Christianity, including the church I attend. But there are adjustments in becoming a junior partner. The ideological package of the global south includes not only moral conservatism but also an emphasis on social justice, an openness to state intervention in markets, and a suspicion of American economic and military power. The emerging Christian majority is not the Moral Majority.

But the largest adjustments are coming on the religious left. For decades it has preached multiculturalism, but now, on further acquaintance, it doesn't seem to like other cultures very much. Episcopal leaders complain of the threat of "foreign prelates," echoing anti-Catholic rhetoric of the 19th century. An activist at one Episcopal meeting urged the African bishops to "go back to the jungle where you came from." Not since Victorians hunted tigers on elephants has the condescension been this raw.

History is filled with uncomfortable turnabouts, and we are witnessing one of them. Serious missionary work began in Nigeria in 1842, conducted by a Church Mission Society dedicated to promoting "the knowledge of the Gospel among the heathen." In 2007, the Nigerian outreach to America officially began, on the fertile mission fields of Northern Virginia. And the natives here are restless.

No comments: