In the introduction to Christ and Culture: Communion After Lambeth – which is on a book shelf in the Bishop’s Court in Yola – Mark Chapman looks at the theology of communion laid out by Rowan Williams at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Chapman concludes that what is needed most in the Anglican Communion is a “Christ-like…ability to listen to and to love the other person.” But he adds that this will not be acceptable to all.
Naturally, there are many for whom this form of authority is an evasion of leadership and a betrayal of the gospel. But perhaps this is based on a fear of opening themselves up to the deep listening that comes with Christ-like vulnerability.
Reading those sentences in Nigeria, I’m struck by its truth. Nigerian church leaders – former primate Peter Akinola prime among them – are exactly the sort of people who would condemn this listening as a betrayal of the Bible. The vehemence of the reaction these last ten years or so makes it clear that there is something deeper going on. I think fear is a good explanation.
I’ve already written about how important the Pentecostal influence is in understanding Anglicans in Nigeria. There is a fierce rivalry between the mainline denominations and the “new generation” churches. Rivalry is one thing and may even be good for the church. But the more I talk with people about this, the more convinced I am that Anglicans fear the Pentecostal churches.
The rich and powerful in communities have long been either Catholic or Anglican. These people are critical for the church. They tithe the most and so generate the income that allows the churches to continue to improve themselves and continue to attract new members. (When you don’t have an endowment, what comes in in the offering plate Sunday after Sunday is crucial to your success.) But increasingly, the younger generation of rich and powerful people are not Anglicans or Catholics but Pentecostals. A bishop I met recently told me, “The next twenty years will be very significant for the Anglican church,” emphasizing “very.” The way he was talking, he made it sound as if the survival of the church was at stake as older rich people die and are not replaced.
This may be a bit of an exaggeration. The Anglican church in Nigeria is too well-established to just vanish in a generation. But the style of living, the position in society, and the status the church and its leaders currently enjoy may definitely be threatened by the Pentecostal explosion in Nigeria. As I’ve written, the Anglican church has become more like the Pentecostals so as not to lose members – in style of worship, preaching, etc. It goes without saying that as the Bible is centrally important to Pentecostals, so too will Anglicans be forever faithful to it. (“Faithful” being somewhat of a loose term, as we have seen.)
Into the mix comes the Nigerians’ global Anglican partners who all of a sudden – or so it seems – decide that they can be wobbly on the Bible, “ignore” bits of it they don’t like, and generally be a complete embarrassment to Nigerian Anglicans. The actions of Americans or Canadians hurt the church because it makes the Pentecostals able to say, “See, those Anglicans don’t really believe the Bible. They’re a gay church. Come to us.” Again, it is worth remembering just how many people here – Anglicans and not – know about the Anglican Communion. This is why there was a proposed amendment at Lambeth 1998 that said, “homosexuality is a sin which could only be adopted by the church if it wanted to commit evangelical suicide.” (To which Catherine Roskam of New York responded, “to condemn it is evangelical suicide in my region.”)
Moreover, the proposed response – listening – will never work in this competitive context. You can say all you want, “That’s what Jesus did” or “Jesus never cared about status” or whatever you like. The message won’t work here. I’ve also been looking at a little book lately called Religion and the Nigerian Nation: Some Topical Issues. One of the points it makes is that in the context of Nigerian Christianity, size and strength matter. People aren’t going to church to feel weak. They’re going for strength and security in the face of societal uncertainty. So if a Nigerian Anglican were to say, “Oh, no harm can come from talking and listening to our Anglican friends,” well, let’s just say, it wouldn’t go over very well. (In fact, a Nigerian archbishop did suggest just that. He got demoted.)
I don’t want to press this too far. Fear of lost status does not explain everything that is going on in the Anglican Communion. But I think it explains something. Just last night at our evening Bible study, we looked at Exodus 1 where pharaoh, in his fear of the Israelites, engages in some remarkably destructive behaviour. Fear is a powerful motivator to destruction.
How ironic that the most repeated message of the Bible is “fear not.”