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.

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."

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."

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.

Read other readers' responses to this article