North and South

Pondering the differing views of Christianity in different parts of the Communion
April 11, 2007

On a global scale, scholar and author Philip Jenkins says, Christianity is headed south.


While membership in churches north of the equator, particularly in mainline denominations, generally is falling off, pews in the so-called "global South" are packed with believers, according to the Pennsylvania State University professor.

But as the turmoil in the global Anglican Communion over Scripture and sexual ethics attests, differences between northern and southern Christians are anything but academic. In January, an Anglican committee met in the Bahamas to begin work on a covenant to bind its constituent national churches. That draft covenant was presented to the Primates as they met in Tanzania in February. Jenkins talked about faith in the global South and why it matters to northern Christians.

Q: You open your book The New Faces of Christianity with a discussion of the turmoil within the global Anglican Communion. Why?

A: The conflict between the northern and southern worlds' versions of Christianity is going to be a major feature of the next decade, and that is one case that is familiar to Americans, something they can understand and identify with. In the long term, though, I think things like that will happen in many other denominations.
Q: An international team of Anglicans met in the Bahamas to work on a covenant that would bind together the 38 national churches in the Anglican Communion. How important will the "global South" be to these kinds of endeavors?

A: They will be very important, I would say, for three big reasons. One is their overwhelming numbers. Secondly, it's the church's future because that's where growth will be for the forseeable future. The third (reason) may be most important of all. What gives credibility to the Anglican Church's claim to catholicity is that it has all these growing branches all over the world. If the American and English churches lose that connection, it's a devastating blow for them.
Q: The term "global South churches" casts a pretty wide net over cultures as diverse as Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. What does the Christianity practiced in these cultures share that justifies linking them under a single name?

A: There are huge differences in these regions, but there are a couple of features that do pull them together. One is poverty: They tend to be in the world's very poor countries. (Also) the churches are of more recent foundation -- they are much newer and expanding rapidly but still dealing with the problems of relative newness. Many of the most populous churches were not there 100 years ago. Also, in Africa and Asia, these churches are dealing with inter-religious contact in a very different reality than what we deal with in the global North.

Q: Some U.S. Episcopalians are bothered that a high-profile Anglican archbishop in Nigeria, Peter Akinola, has publicly supported anti-gay laws there. You've said the rise of Islam in Nigeria has put pressure on Christians to oppose homosexuality there. Can you explain that a little further?

A: A lot of Americans see that sort of issue as a kind of fundamental culture clash between global North and global South. In fact, the laws being proposed in Nigeria are almost identical to what England or America would have had 40 years ago.
One reason Africans don't want to change on this is they don't want to seem to be more morally lax than the Muslims who they are competing with for converts.
Q: Why did you decide to concentrate your book on how Christians in the "global South" read the Bible, instead of worship styles or ecclesiology?

A: For most churches, the understanding of the Bible is the best way of approaching these other issues. It's the best way of explaining to an American or European audience some of the difficulties they find more puzzling or alarming. What I'm arguing (in the book) is that many of the things that look so different in global South churches look different because they are harking back to a more biblical outlook. In a sense, they are looking at a more biblically centered view of reality.
Q: So are you suggesting that global South churches are closer to societies portrayed in the Bible than to those of the modern West?

A: In terms of some values, yes. I want to draw a distinction here: Obviously, many of the societies are urbanized, concentrated in mega-cities. I'm not suggesting that everyone in Nigeria lives in some sort of Galilean village.

However, on some issues, their worldview is similar to ancient values – (for instance) ideas of the supernatural, demonics, concepts of spiritual warfare.
Q: It seems like Anglicans in Nigeria could be considered theologically closer to American charismatics, like Pentecostals, than to Episcopalians.

A: Very much so. I quote a line in the book. If you ask a Nigerian Anglican, "Are you evangelical or charismatic or Catholic?" they will say, "Yes." In this country it would be: Chose one of three. But in that country you can be all three. The labels are different.
Q: So what makes the Anglican Church of Nigeria "Anglican"?

A: It's above all the historical tradition they claim. They claim a tradition that goes through the English bishops back to the time of Christ. It's the concept of the church, the sense of cultural identity.
Q: Your first chapter is titled "Will the Fundamentalists Win?" Does the Anglican Communion provide perhaps the most striking example of a "battle" or "contest" between the global North and global South?

A: Yes. Obviously, it's the one that's been in the headlines. It also provides a great story. You have your heroes and villains.
Q: Has Nigeria's Archbishop Akinola been cast in the role of villain?

A: Yes. But I believe that if Akinola dropped dead tomorrow, there would be another 10 to 20 primates across the world that would provide the same function as he does. The mistake is to consider what he does a personal power play, because I don't think it is. It's not just about him.

-- Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Next Christendom.

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