Five summers ago, the lion of African Anglicanism roared. This week, it has bared its claws.

The summer of 1998 saw the every-ten-years Lambeth Conference of the worldwide Anglican communion absorbed with issues of human sexuality. At its meetings, African Anglicans led a campaign against the liberalizing of the church's teachings on homosexuality.

Joining in the African "roar" was Bishop John Rucyahana of Shyira, Rwanda, who issued this warning to the liberalizing contingent in Western Anglicanism: "We don't like your First World way of speaking ambiguous words and not being straight on the issues." Rucyahana and his colleagues were heard, and heeded: the conference passed a resolution (526 to 70, with 45 abstentions) that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture."

In the wake of Lambeth, liberals in American Anglicanism (the Episcopalian Church) resented this new voice of "African fundamentalism," while a conservative like bishop Jack Iker of Ft. Worth, Texas could observe with some satisfaction: "No longer does the United States or England speak for the Anglican Communion but the church in Africa and Asia does."

Baring claws
This week, one branch of African Anglicanism seems to be moving from rhetoric to action in the conservative cause. In a letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of the Nigerian Church (Anglican Communion)—a church representing 17 million of Anglicanism's 70 million members—has threatened to break communion with the worldwide body over the same issue that dominated discussion at Lambeth: Williams has supported the appointment of the openly gay Dr. Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, in England.

Said Nigerian Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola: "We cannot continue to be in communion with people who have taken a step outside the biblical boundaries."

The first African bishop
How did this lion of African Christianity come on the scene? The August, 2003 issue of Christian History will tell the story of sub-Saharan Africa's "Christian explosion" in the twentieth century—a century that brought Africa from the periphery to the center of the Christian world, largely through the efforts of native African evangelists. This untold story involves, at every step, tensions between Western and indigenous African Christians—none so vivid as those that beset Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Anglicanism's first African bishop.

Crowther was born in Western Africa in 1807. His original African name was Ajayi, and he grew up under constant threat of raids by slave traders. At the age of 13, he was dragged from his flaming village by Muslim raiders. He was sold several times, then rescued by the British and put ashore in Sierra Leone.

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There, as he later wrote, he became "convinced of another worse state of slavery, namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart. … I was admitted into the visible Church of Christ here on earth as a soldier to fight manfully under his banner against our spiritual enemies."

Trained at a college of the Anglican-based Church Missionary Society (CMS), Crowther showed skill as a linguist, and he was soon made schoolmaster. In Sierra Leone, schoolmasters functioned also as evangelists, and Crowther excelled in this role. He distinguished himself early in his courage as he confronted Muslims and ethnoreligionists—that is, the worshippers of the old Gods of Africa.

Then came the Niger Expedition of 1841, an investigative trip under Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton that was to prepare a religious, economic, and civilizing mission along the Niger. Crowther served as a CMS representative, preacher, and linguist. Soon he was in England, studying, being groomed for ordination. Returning to Africa, Crowther joined a mission party to Abeokuta, the state of the Egba people—a Yoruba group. There, in Yorubaland, Crowther was reunited with his family, whom he had not seen since his enslavement over two decades earlier. They became some of the first Christians in Abeokuta.

The website of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) recalls these people's first Christmas as servants of Christ: "With the untiring efforts of these evangelists [Crowther and the Rev. Henry Townsend of CMS], Nigerians began to believe in Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of the entire world. And so, on December 25, 1842 in Abeokuta, Nigerians were able to celebrate for the very first time the glorious annunciation that the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, was born. They gave glory to God Almighty, experiencing the peace and joy of the Lord; Anglicanism had been born in Nigeria."

Crowther became the lead translator on a Yoruba Bible—the first native speaker to take such a role. Then, in 1854, he headed an even more ambitious project. This was a second Niger Mission, whose mission force consisted entirely of Africans from Sierra Leone.

Western opposition, native ability
Throughout his distinguished career, Crowther joined Henry Venn, the British leader of the CMS, in promoting the "indigenous church principle." This was a creed of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation, under a fully indigenous pastorate. In 1864, through Venn's influence, Crowther was consecrated bishop of "the countries of Western Africa beyond the limits of the Queen's dominions."

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The later years of the Niger church were marked, however, by struggle and disappointment, as young liberal ministers opposed Venn's principles and bucked Crowther's leadership, firing many of his staff. Crowther died, a discouraged man, in 1891, and a European bishop succeeded him. Indigenization found itself in temporary eclipse while the European nations busied themselves carving up the continent of Africa.

But during the ensuing century, even in the thick of colonialization, African Christians took matters into their own hands. A veritable army of African evangelists covered the continent, triggering phenomenal growth in the mainstream denominations and founding new churches that now number in the millions of adherents.

Today the Anglican church enjoys the fruit of that army of African pastors who carried on the legacy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. In 1900, the Anglican church claimed 35,000 adherents in Nigeria—2 percent of the country's whole population. By the mid-1990s, this had become a stunning 14,800,000, or 17 percent of the entire population of Nigeria, prompting the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare the Church of Nigeria "the fastest-growing church in the Anglican Communion."

Today the denomination has 76 dioceses, each served by a bishop. Most of these serve churches in urban settings—thousands of villages remain to be reached by the gospel.

The wounded prophet
But the Nigerians have faced other challenges besides the still-crying need for evangelization. Nominalism—that is, half-hearted Christian faith and action—is not an exclusive Western preserve. African hearts, too, are prone to wander— "Many adherents pay little attention to Bible study, prayer and fasting," reports the denomination's website. "Although the Church has witnessed significant growth numerically, its spiritual growth rate in recent times has significantly declined." This lackluster spirituality prompted Archbishop Akinola to present, in March, 2000, a new vision for his Church of Nigeria—one committed to deepening members' "commitment to sacrificial love as exemplified by Jesus Christ."

Though it faces such challenges within its own fellowship, as all churches do, the "African lion" of the Nigerian Church is poised to join other voices in the developing world and bring a prophetic witness to a compromised Western church. In the words of one Lagos churchgoer, who had heard Akinola preach against the Jeffrey John appointment, "These white people, they are different. They are very funny. They have their own reasons for doing these things which are not African at all."

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The Western church would do well to listen to these new voices from afar off, with their "African reasons." They may turn out to come from our own Home.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Related Elsewhere

Recent news coverage includes:

Church leaders warn of gay split | Thirty-five church leaders urged openly gay Canon Jeffrey John to withdraw his acceptance of the position when they met in Oxford on Wednesday night (BBC)
Synod keeps gay debate off The Agenda | The Church of England's bureaucrats have drawn up an agenda for the forthcoming general synod meeting in York without finding space for any mention of the debate on homosexual clergy raging through the Anglican communion (The Guardian, London)
Dissent over gay bishop spreads around globe | Bishops from Nigeria, Australia, and elsewhere oppose recent actions (The Independent, South Africa)
Church of Uganda joins fight against gay bishop in London | Archbishop Livingstone Nkoyoyo says church will wait and see what happens before taking next step (The Monitor, Kampala, Uganda)
Sydney bishop does a U-turn on ban | Given the Archbishop of Canterbury's failure over the past 24 hours to condemn the appointment of a gay priest to the Church of England's episcopacy, blacklisting him from the Sydney diocese would be the logical thing to do, said Sydney's Anglican archbishop—but later said it won't be done for the sake of unity (The Sydney Morning Herald)
Williams: 'No objection' to gay bishop | "It is an appointment I have sought neither to promote nor to obstruct," says Archbishop of Canterbury (BBC, video)
Sex obsession must stop, says Archbishop of Canterbury | Gay bishop debate 'should not distract Church from its mission' (The Times, London)
Williams tries to calm row over gay bishop (The Guardian, London)
Williams attacked over gay bishop | Bishop Cyril Okoracha from eastern Nigeria says the views of many Anglicans elsewhere in the world are being ignored (BBC)
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Also: Nigerian church slams gay bishop | The Worldwide Anglican Communion may not remain a united body for long (BBC)
Anglicans torn over gay bishop | The division in the Church of England over the appointment of an openly gay bishop appears to be deepening (BBC)
Earlier: Pressure grows on Archbishop of Canterbury to break silence in gay bishop row | Rowan Williams is finding it increasingly difficult to stay out of a row between evangelicals opposed to Canon Jeffrey John being consecrated as bishop this autumn and liberal clergy supporting his appointment (The Guardian, London)
Gay bishop set to be ordained (BBC, video)
Church faces financial ruin from parish protests | Evangelicals claim to contribute more than 40 per cent of the £400 million raised for the Church by parishes each year (The Daily Telegraph, London)
Gay bishop and curate boyfriend bought flat together last year | Senior figures on the evangelical wing of the Church of England claimed that facts about the private life of Canon Jeffrey John, who has had a 27-year relationship with the Rev Grant Holmes, were being kept hidden in an effort to contain the row over his appointment as Bishop of Reading (The Daily Telegraph, London)
Bishop's report set to harden church's line against gay clergy | Working party verdict 'will be more conservative' than current guidelines on sexual relationships (The Observer, London)
New gay bishop unsettles Church of England | The appointment of the first openly homosexual bishop, coming after a similar move by Episcopalians in New Hampshire, has stirred a deeply divisive reaction (The New York Times)
Anglican bishops speak out | Sydney's six Anglican bishops yesterday called on the world's Anglican bishops to join them in opposing homosexual ministers and marriages (The Age, Melbourne, Australia)
New Bishop and curate are in love, say parishioners | The parishioners of the Rev Grant Holmes, the homosexual, celibate partner of the newly appointed Bishop of Reading, told The Telegraph yesterday that they wanted to "surround him in love" for the "sacrifice" he had made (The Daily Telegraph, London)
Overseas bishop intervenes as threat of global schism grows | Archbishop of the West Indies warned that division could not be avoided in the row over the appoint-ment of a gay priest as the Bishop of Reading (The Independent, London)
Diocese riven by revolt over gay bishop | The crisis in the Church of England over the appointment of its first openly gay bishop deepened yesterday when clergy and senior laity in the Diocese of Oxford rebelled against the decision of their bishop to choose him (The Daily Telegraph, London)
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Recent opinion and editorial on the debate include:

Church faces schism over gay bishop | The archbishop's statement settles nothing (Sam Jones, The Guardian, London)
Anglican unity under threat around world | There seems little common ground between the two camps, and the risk of a profound and lasting schism in the Anglican Church, with Sydney playing a leading role, is now real (Editorial, The Australian)
Calming the sees | Many people on both sides of the dispute over the nomination of Canon Jeffrey John as the first openly homosexual Anglican bishop may be disappointed by the irenic tone of the Archbishop of Canterbury's long-awaited letter on the subject, published yesterday (Editorial, The Daily Telegraph, London)
Sacred mysteries: Rowan Williams | For many, the great puzzle about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is how he can be so determined to preserve orthodoxy and tradition and yet accept the morality of homosexual acts between committed partners (Christopher Howse, The Daily Telegraph, London)
Hung up on sex | Gay bishop may be modern, but they may morally bankrupt the C of E (Richard Ingrams, The Guardian, London)
'We know who we are. We know what it is to discover love. We know that love is costly' | The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the appointment of an openly gay, though celibate, bishop. Here, a gay vicar from northern England, writing anonymously, describes his experiences of working within a system which appears set on destroying its gay brethren, one by one (The Guardian, London)
Nigerian Church threatens Anglican split in gay row (The Daily Telegraph, London)
'Evangelicals are fuelling bigotry' over gay bishop | So says the Bishop of Worcester (The Times, London)
Row over gay bishop threatens existence of the Church of England | Timing is wrong for this appointment(Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, The Daily Telegraph, London)
Does anyone really care about gay bishops? | Even those campaigning against him won't say they think a homosexual inclination is immoral (Andrew Brown, The Independent, London)

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

How John Wesley Changed America | His 300th birthday should be a red-letter day on this side of the ocean. After all, we're all Wesleyans now. (June 20, 2003)
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The Ancient Rise and Recent Fall of Tithing | Is yet another time-honored Christian practice fading from view? (June 6, 2003)
When World Leaders Pray, Part II | Tony Blair's spin-doctors worried when he recently "outed" himself as a Christian. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders? (May 29, 2003)
The Day the Ransoming Began | A gripping new book details the first American missionary hostage crisis, over 100 years ago. (May 23, 2003)
When World Leaders Pray | Some observers are upset with Tony Blair's recent public avowal of faith. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders? (May 16, 2003)
Got Your 'Spiritual Director' Yet? | The roots of a resurgent practice, plus 14 books for further study. (May 2, 2003)
Missionary Tales from the Iraqi Front | The modern Anglican mission to Iraq met with initial success, but its story sounds a cautionary note. (April 25, 2003)
The Goodness of Good Friday | An unhappy celebration—isn't that an oxymoron? (Apr. 17, 2003)
Top Ten Entry Points to Christian History | Some enjoyable ways to get the most out of the work of church historians. (Apr. 11, 2003)
Top Ten 'Starter Books' | Get rooted in the Christian past with these riveting reads of primary sources. (Apr. 4, 2003)
Top Ten Reasons to Know Christian History | War reports deluge us every hour. Why should we read "old news?" (Mar. 28, 2003)
Saint J. R. R. the Evangelist | Tolkien wanted his Lord of the Rings to echo the "Lord of Lords"—but do we have ears to hear? (March 14, 2003)