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Out of Africa: What AMIA's Exodus from Rwanda Portends for Global Christianity

Break underscores the difficulty of shifting denominational power across cultures and continents.
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Divorce is messy, the lessons from a failed marriage often complicated.

Such is the case with this week's split of the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMIA) from its majority-world leadership in the Church of Rwanda.

Until the 11-year-old partnership crumbled, it seemed to embody the potential for Global South church leaders to rise up and provide spiritual oversight and direction in the developed world.

Now?

"It would be unwise to draw any general conclusions for the future from a dispute which is clearly about particular human relationships," said Brian Stanley, director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh.

Under the oversight of the Rwandan province, the South Carolina–based AMIA grew to more than 150 congregations in the United States and Canada, AMIA spokeswoman Cynthia Brust said.

But the 2010 retirement of Rwandan Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini—who had a strong connection with Bishop Charles Murphy, AMIA's chairman—precipitated a change in the relationship.

Suddenly, AMIA faced questions and accusations from Rwandan church leaders over the American association's finances, oversight, and long-term direction.

"All the Christian churches are becoming increasingly global, and as they do, these kinds of cross-cultural tensions—or perhaps these are better seen as cross-cultural abrasions as we sometimes just rub each other wrong—are likely to increase," said Douglas Jacobsen, author of The World's Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There.

AMIA claims it gave 12 percent of its collections to the Church of Rwanda over a seven-year period, but bishops there demand to know what happened to the money.

"That's not our question," Brust said. "That's a gift to Rwanda. We give the money with no strings attached." (Update: On Friday afternoon, AMIA officials issued a statement on the $1.2 million in dispute. Much of it, the organization said, went to travel-related expenses for Rwandan church leaders. "Approximately $800,000 was part of the tithe that paid expenses for the Province directly from the Anglican Mission or was designated to another need," it said. "The remaining $460,000 was a designated gift given to the Anglican Mission for special projects in Rwanda … and were given over and above the tithe.")

The dispute reached the boiling point last week (Nov. 30) with a letter from new Rwandan archbishop Onesphore Rwaje to Murphy, giving him a week to submit to the Rwandan bishops' authority.

Murphy responded by resigning his leadership position in the Province of Rwanda. In his resignation letter this week (Dec. 5), he said AMIA's relationship with the African church was a "voluntary submission" that would not be renewed at the association's upcoming winter conference.

AMIA launched more than a decade ago as an alternative to the Episcopal Church. The goal: to promote orthodox teaching and practice in the wake of infighting among American church members over sexual ethics.

"Americans entering into these relationships often described what was going on in the Anglican Communion in terms of the rising dominance of righteous and spiritually gifted Southern Christian leaders—and happily allied themselves with African and Asian archbishops who seemed to fit that mold," said Miranda Hassett, author of Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism and now an Episcopal priest in Madison, Wisconsin. "What's happening now with AMIA, on the face of it, seems like a renunciation of that logic or narrative."

AMIA's break from the Rwandan church illustrates the complexity and difficulty of shifting denominational power across cultures and continents, other experts said.

"There are real missiological challenges when you seek to move across cultures with ecclesiastical oversight, which is why most denominations do not function that way," said Ed Stetzer, Lifeway Research president and missiologist in residence.

"Finances, communication and leadership are exercised differently in different cultures and contexts," said Stetzer, who has been a speaker at AMIA conferences. "So, my perception is that the ascendancy of the Global South is real and coming, but we are in new territory in regard to polity here due to economic and cultural differences."

Nations such as Rwanda operate as tightly wrapped, authoritarian states in which democratic ideals and political freedoms are minimal at best, said Phillip Cantrell, who teaches world, Asian, and African history at Longwood University and has studied AMIA's relationship with Rwandan politics.

"Thus, when American church bodies, which are steeped in the Western liberal tradition of separation of church and state and are so deeply planted in an independent civil society that they don't even realize it, suddenly find themselves under the direction of a church hierarchy in an authoritarian society, issues and misunderstandings are bound to result," Cantrell said.

A majority of the world's Christians now live in the Global South—Africa, Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

Nonetheless, the incredible disparity in wealth makes it unlikely that African churches—much poorer than their U.S. counterparts—will make deep inroads in the American setting, Jacobsen said.

Such African inroads "will only happen if the American churches reach out to Africa (as was the case with AMIA) and that will happen only if developments within North American Christianity continue to move in an increasingly liberal direction," said Jacobsen, a church history and theology professor at Messiah College.

He hastened to add that defining "liberal" is a tricky proposition.

"So much of what is defined as 'liberal' today has to do with matters of sexuality, and younger Christians in America, including evangelicals, are much more tolerant on these issues," Jacobsen said. "It may be that as younger evangelicals age, they will see the African Christian churches as reactionary on these kinds of sexual matters, not prophetic, and the perceived spiritual status of the African churches will decline."


Related Elsewhere:

More articles on the Anglican Mission in the Americas are available in our area on the Widening Division in the Anglican Church.

January/February
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