If you ask Christians to locate the spiritual center of their faith on a map, Anglicans might point to Canterbury, Catholics to Rome and the Orthodox to Istanbul.
But ask Todd Johnson to locate the population center of global Christianity, and he places it somewhere in the neighborhood of Timbuktu, in west-central Africa.
Johnson, the director of the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., estimates that Christianity's "center of gravity" will creep even farther south before landing in northern Nigeria by the year 2100.
It's no wonder, then, that as the Anglican Communion wrestles with the fallout from last year's election of an openly gay U.S. bishop, all eyes are on Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and like-minded African prelates. The feisty archbishop has threatened an Anglican rebellion if the American church goes unpunished for its "revisionist" agenda.
A panel headed by Irish Archbishop Robin Eames will present recommendations Monday on how the world's 77 million Anglicans can live together despite deep differences on sexuality. Regardless of the recommendations, both sides agree that the future of the Communion -- and indeed most Christian bodies -- will be driven by the fast-growing churches in the "global South."
"The demographics are all there, and it's going to continue in that direction," Johnson said. "Over half of the world's Anglicans are African, and that could be up to 70 percent by 2025."
It's part of a 2,000-year counterclockwise trajectory on Johnson's map that started in the Holy Land and wound its way through Europe before taking a sharp turn south about 1900. By 1970, it landed in Africa and has inched southward ever since.
The figures speak for themselves. According to Johnson's research, between 1990 and 2000, the growth rate for Anglicanism in Africa was 2.95 percent, and in Asia it was 1.97 percent -- both higher than the global average. In Europe, the figure was 0.13 percent, and in North America, Anglicanism declined 0.33 percent.
Within a century, Johnson's figures indicate, the 2.8 billion Christians south of the equator will be more than triple the 775 million in the north, a lopsided prospect that has huge implications for the future of global Christianity, especially Anglicanism. "This is a global phenomenon for all of Christianity, and certainly it's the most important thing going on right now," he said.
American conservatives, enraged by last year's consecration of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, have looked to Akinola and prelates in Malaysia and Argentina for guidance. Akinola said neither his church nor American conservatives will abide by the church's embrace of homosexuality.
"We no longer need to look to Canterbury to become Christians," Akinola said during a stop in Fairfax City on Oct. 5 as part of a U.S. tour. "If they want to create a new religion, good luck to them, but we don't want a new religion. What we have already is good enough for us."
Akinola visited the area a few days before Robinson, who received an award Oct. 8 from the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay advocacy group, and preached last Sunday at Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW.
Akinola's 17 million-member Nigerian church is the largest Anglican province outside the Church of England, and nearly seven times the size of the Episcopal Church in the United States. As president of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, he is the titular head of 40 million Anglicans. And to the irritation of some U.S. church leaders, he has become a willing mentor for disgruntled Americans.
Three Southern California parishes abruptly left the Diocese of Los Angeles and removed "Episcopal" from their names, replacing it with Anglican. They now consider themselves missionary parishes under a bishop in Uganda.
Episcopal officials note, however, that the global South backlash has not been unanimous. While nine African provinces have declared themselves in "impaired communion" with the U.S. church, only three -- Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda -- have said they will no longer accept financial aid from the U.S. church. Indeed, the U.S. church has substantial alliances with some southern churches, notably South Africa, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Central America.
Last week, the United States Agency for International Development awarded a $10 million grant to an Episcopal-Anglican partnership to combat HIV/AIDS in southern Africa. The partnership includes the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which lobbied for the grant on Capitol Hill, and the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, which will implement education and health awareness programs in six countries or kingdoms in its jurisdiction, including South Africa and Mozambique.
The funds will be administered by a third partner, FreshMinistries, an ecumenical aid organization in Jacksonville, Fla., that was founded by an Episcopal priest. The grant is part of President Bush's $15 billion emergency plan for AIDS relief.
The Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said the burgeoning global South church has important lessons for the declining Western church.
"Do I believe that churches in the global South live with a deep awareness of being part of the gift of a worldwide family of churches? I think they do, and they do it better than we do," he said. "That's one reason why we got ourselves into this hot water."
"The American church is going to have to come to grips with the vitality and strength of the global South if it's going to survive as an Anglican entity in any meaningful way," said the Rev. William Thompson, pastor of All Saints' Church in Long Beach, Calif., who sought refuge in Uganda.
The global South dynamic is also felt in other churches:
* The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has 6 million overseas members and 5.1 million members in North America, with the largest growth reported in Africa and South America.
* At the recent General Conference session of the United Methodist Church, the shrinking denomination added 1 million members from the Ivory Coast, and nearly every delegate who spoke in favor of maintaining a ban on gay clergy was from Africa.
* In Sweden, conservative Lutherans who reject gay marriages formed a breakaway diocese overseen by a Kenyan bishop.
* In the Roman Catholic Church, there is speculation that the next pope could be African. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria is considered a front-runner.
In a larger sense, the increasing prominence of African churches mirrors an emergence of the continent as it shakes off its colonial past. Issues such as AIDS and global debt relief have become foreign policy priorities, coupled with a dramatic growth of Islam in Africa, particularly northern Nigeria.
Conservatives in the United States say the African churches embrace the essentials of Christianity that have become diluted in the open-minded West. Many note the irony that Africans who once received missionaries from the West are now mounting a counter-missionary effort of their own.
"One of the things the American church could use is to have some of those people who went to evangelize the Third World come back and re-evangelize us in the First World," Thompson said.
Staff writer Bill Broadway contributed to this report.
Bishop V. Gene Robinson, right, prepares for Communion with Rector Randolph Charles of Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW. Robinson visited Epiphany last Sunday.