Thinking about context in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere

Last week, a flurry of church leaders opined about legislation in Nigeria and Uganda that (further) criminalizes same-sex relationships. In particular, I am drawn to the article by Gay Jennings, president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies.

What appeals to me about this letter is the way in which it tries to set the current legislation in its historical context. She looks at the way in which the legacy of the mission period shapes some of these debates:

Europeans and North Americans bear much of the historical responsibility for this sad state of affairs. As Zimbabwean biblical scholar Masiiwa Ragies Gunda has written, it is “far-fetched to look beyond the activities of Western missionaries” when considering the role of the Bible in Africa.

Not all missionaries were evangelical Anglicans in the mould of the Church Missionary Society and its more conservative offshoots, but she is right in judging that some missionaries and colonial officials brought with them a particular approach to the Bible—as well as a Victorian-era sensibility about sexuality—that has had an enduring impact.

So one message that I take away from the Gay Jennings’ article is an obvious one: context matters. Understanding a church’s background and the environment in which they minister might help us understand the actions of its leaders today.

But Jennings hasn’t gone far enough. There’s a lot more to the context in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere, in particular the challenging religious environment confronting Anglicans today.

One dominant feature of African Christianity today is the rapid growth and spread of pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is a fascinating and complex phenomenon but one thing we can say about it is that many Anglican church leaders are threatened by its growth. I provide numerous examples of this in my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, but you can also find examples online, such as this article from the recently-deceased archbishop of West Africa, who last year lamented how his church was losing younger worshippers.

Jennings notes in her article that Anglican leaders in Nigeria and Uganda have been “enthusiastic supporters” of the anti-gay legislation. But they are not the only ones. Pentecostal church leaders in these countries are pressing equally as hard—if not harder—for the legislation to be passed. That is a piece of the context I have not yet heard reported in Anglican/Episcopal media.

We don’t often think of it like this but decisions to go to church are much like a market: the consumer is on the look-out for the best purchase and vendors are competing to offer it. When the consumer finds something he or she likes, another vendor can say, “Wait, I can match that price!” Or, “My product is just as nice as theirs!” Many Africans are making the decision that pentecostal churches are preferable to Anglican and other historic mission denominations. It is a competitive religious marketplace. Time and again, I have heard from African Anglicans about how other denominational leaders call them the “gay church” and use that as a reason why people should not go to Anglican churches. So Anglicans and others are put in a position in which in order to maintain “market share” they have to speak out against homosexuality.

(One conclusion we can draw from this is that African Anglicans might want to begin to think about ecclesiology: what does it mean to be an Anglican but not enjoy the quasi-Established status some African Anglican churches have long enjoyed? Are there resources that we in the Euro-Atlantic world might have to contribute to this conversation?)

That is the very short version of a much longer and more complex argument. I have written at length about the influence of pentecostalism on Nigerian Anglicanism not only in Backpacking through the Anglican Communion but also in an article in the Journal of Anglican Studies (which you can read for free). But understanding pentecostalism is crucial, I believe, to understanding the shape of African Anglicanism today.

Of course, the influence of pentecostalism is just one aspect of the religious context. There is much more to learn. And no amount of context makes the legislation any less reprehensible or the actions of Anglican bishops any less subject to reproach and challenge. Context does not help us defend actions which are indefensible. But it might help us explain and understand how these actions have come about in the first place. And that, for me, has always been a good place to start.

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