Mirage in the desert: the myth of the 'Global South'

October 25, 2007

Several assumptions need clearing up if current fractious discussions within the Anglican Communion are to turn productive. These include asking questions like: What really is the "Global South?" How representative are the rigid positions advocated by archbishops Peter J. Akinola of Nigeria and Drexel Gomez of the West Indies? Could the current Anglican Communion food fight be symptomatic of wider tensions produced by religious globalization?

"Global South" implies a monolithic body when in reality the group's membership appears to be porous, driven by a small number of special interest advocates primarily in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and their American franchise holders. Membership and financial data about the group is as difficult to come by as that of a Cayman Islands registered corporation. The organization projects a billboard slogan North-South divide. Northern churches are cold, dwindling in numbers, and ignore the Bible. In contrast, the growing South is energetic, biblically correct, and the home of ready judges waiting to declare what is acceptable practice throughout the Anglican Communion.

This slick North-South divide is no more accurate than numerous other discredited religious clash-of-civilization comparisons that have appeared and disappeared during recent centuries. Amartya Sen, the Pakistani-born Nobel-Prize-winning author, has warned about the dangers of such distorted religious reductionism: "The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division." (Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, The Illusion of Destiny (New York: Norton, 2006), xiv.)

Population growth numbers widely favor the South, but within most "southern" countries there is an amazing diversity of religious expressions. In the Anglican case, the range of religious issues present in any province is far more complex than represented by a few well-worn slogans about sex and structure.

The Anglican Global South faction and their American supporters so far have missed an opportunity to draw on the rich contributions of the African American religious ethos, Pentecostal, liberation and other post-colonial theologies. Asian, Latin American and African Christians have been in the forefront of developing such forms of religious expression linking eternal truths with local settings and cultures.

Reflections of global religious tensions
What this suggests is a wider issue -- the present difficulties facing the Anglican Communion reflect widespread tensions religious bodies are experiencing globally in post-colonial times. Where does power lie? What holds us together in what political scientists describe as an asymmetrical federation? How do we live with differences in an age of instantaneous global communication?

The church faces a range of easily identifiable globalization-related issues such as: living with sharply different political systems; differing concepts of human dignity including the place of women, children, gays and minorities in larger societies; environmental, health; and refugee challenges that cross country borders. Church historian David Hempton writes, "Religious cultures are not static, nor are they isolated from their social settings, rather they are made and remade by people who live them, and therefore hardly ever conform to the fixed boundaries commentators have designed for them."

Akinola not representative
Nigeria's Akinola does not represent the rich, creative possibilities of African Christianity. One example: in February 2006 Muslim-Christian riots broke out again in Nigeria. Akinola's widely circulated response said, "May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly on violence in this nation." As then president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, he added, if intimidation by Islamic fundamentalists continued, "CAN may no longer be able to contain our restive youths should this ugly trend continue."

On June 19, 2007, Nigerians voted him (72 to 33) out of the presidency of the umbrella group representing more than 50 million Nigerian Christians, the Nigerian press reported. Akinola's abrasive style had cost him support, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria was drafted to replace him. In what was traditionally an automatic vote to make the outgoing leader vice president, the Association's 300-member general assembly similarly rejected Akinola. Nigerians cited his rigidity and intransigence toward Muslims as reasons why new leadership was needed.

The vision of Christianity that Akinola and his supporters present does not represent the breadth and depth of religion in Africa. Scripturally and structurally, it mirrors the remnants of a colonial church tradition, one where African bishops rigidly follow in the footsteps of a departed generation of autocratic British mentors. The Roman Catholic Church in Africa has given the wider church imaginative liturgy, courageous political engagement with dictators, and heart-rending examples of the church operating at village levels, as have other Protestant churches, and the Anglican Church in many parts of Africa, such as in Southern Africa.

The literature and witness of African Christianity is extensive. The perspective of African women is available in the works of Mercy Amba Oduyoyue of Ghana, and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, a Kenyan Lutheran woman theologian. Others have written on subjects as different as the communion of saints in ancestor veneration and the unity of all creation in traditional African religion. The book list of a publisher like Orbis Maryknoll is a valuable point of departure for those willing to consider a broader, more comprehensive view of African religious experiences.

Gomez a curious choice
Gomez, soon to retire as Archbishop of the West Indies, represents a curious choice to head the Covenant Design Group for the Anglican Communion. A senior prelate in years of service, he has been an active participant in the ongoing episcopal poaching scheme that has produced a small number of white American bishops to supposedly lead "African" congregations in America. Before and during his chairmanship, he has been a consistent voice of anti-gay positions. On May 7, 2004, he wrote, "There is no small feeling amongst conservative members of the Communion that they are being asked to show restraint whilst the liberal agenda moves ahead… This is only likely to create a situation where the playing field is perceived as skewed -- conservative reaction is held back whilst liberal views are allowed to claim too much territory." He endorsed setting up a breakaway ecclesiastical structure of the Anglican Communion in the USA in 2006.

Gomez said recently, "We are determined to see that the Anglican Communion ends up on the right side of the debate" over homosexuality. He fears a liberal takeover at Lambeth 2008, and actively participated in the Anglican Church of Kenya ordaining two new American bishops. Speaking at the disputed July 2007 Nairobi ordination, he said, "The Gospel…must take precedence over culture. Homosexual practice violates the order of life given by God in Holy Scripture."

A case of conflict of interest
There is a clear conflict of interest here. Objectivity, neutrality and a judicious temperament would be the expected prerequisites for the leader of a covenant drafting group, especially as popular support for the idea is sinking fast. How can the same person combine the conflicting roles of supporting breakaway church factions and opposing homosexuality with leadership of the Covenant Design Group? Would it not be proper for Gomez to withdraw from the drafting group now for representing a clear conflict of interests? Can Anglicans expect a balanced, even-handed document to emerge from what is openly declared as an agenda-driven leadership?

In a legal setting "Conflict of interest would apply to the real or apparent incompatibility of the Archbishop's appointed responsibility versus his consistent partisanship and advocacy involving the core issues that the design group has been charged with addressing for the greater good of the Anglican Communion," chancellor Stephen Hutchinson of the Diocese of Utah has written. "Our traditional notions of fiduciary duty of loyalty and stewardship over the interests of an organization in which the person has accepted a leadership role" is in conflict with the public role the Archbishop has taken, attorney Hutchinson noted, adding, "Professing to exercise the leadership role assigned and accepted, while simultaneously working to subvert and thwart the objectives of the enterprise is described as breach of fiduciary duty, in this case of one of the most basic tenets of fiduciary obligation to the organization for which one has accepted the leadership role."

Ministry and witness in a brave new world
Despite present controversies the future is not bleak; we have the choice to move beyond the present narrow sex-and-power conflict to embrace the wider Israel of God, the New Testament's stated global terrain for mission and witness. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori presented a clear program linking biblical evangelization with the Global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in her 2006 inaugural sermon as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The MDG categories can constitute Gospel imperatives affecting the daily lives of believers, as Episcopal Divinity School Professor Ian T. Douglas has written in numerous settings.

Another basic issue facing the contemporary church at the local level across the world is how to respond to encroaching global change. This requires a missiological, not a structural response, and may account for some of the present Anglican Communion muddle. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist of modern religious institutions, expressed the dilemmas facing the modern Anglican Communion when he wrote, in a different setting, "A religion which would be catholic these days has an extraordinary variety of mentalities to be catholic about; and the question is, can it do this and still remain a specific and persuasive force with a shape and identity of its own?"

It is possible to harness the scattered energies of the present time in healing ways. None of us can claim to completely understand the Scriptures on our own; the present opportunity offers the possibility of sharing Bible, prayer, and service globally at every level. The scattered Christian bands alive with the Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles offer striking parallels to the modern church. An earlier Global Age focused on the Mediterranean litoral, with broad avenues leading to Africa, Asia, and eastern and western Europe. Today's church frontier is literally the whole world, the multitude of every tribe and nation described in the Book of Revelation. Rejected in his home country, Jesus proclaimed an expansive new Israel of God to all people, a place where all God's children are offered equal seating at the celestial banquet. Now can be the time to align the Anglican Communion with such a vision of the Kingdom, a place where:

The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice,
The desert shall blossom and burst into song. (Isaiah 35)