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Missionaries in Northern Virginia

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

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 Rigid, outdated church bureaucracies are proving unable to adjust to the shifting market of world Christianity.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.

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.

Michael Gerson, a former assistant to President Bush for policy and strategic planning, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He will be writing a twice-weekly column for The Post. His e-mail address ismichaelgerson@cfr.org.

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