‘African Christianity’ – Quantity v. Quality

Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion lecture explores African Christianity

Posted on: October 26, 2015 12:06 PM

The Canon Professor Joseph Galgalo with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at Lambeth Palace
Photo Credit: Church Mission Society

[ACNS] Christianity in Africa has benefited from sustained exponential growth, with numbers growing from about 10 million in 1900 to just over half a billion in 2015; but the diversity of the different forms of Christian practices and teachings on the continent means that it may be more accurate to see it as Christianities rather than Christianity – that was the message from Canon Professor Joseph Galgalo as he delivered the inaugural Mission Theology Seminar at Lambeth Palace last week.

The lecture by Prof Galgalo, vice-chancellor of St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, was the first in a new series of seminars organised by the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion project.

“There is no denying that Africa Christianity is increasingly vibrant and as the populations of the countries keep growing, the churches proportionately take their fair share of this growth,” Prof Galgalo said. “The growth is not limited to any particular denomination and increase in numbers often results into variety of Churches. To cite the example of Kenya, during the 2009 national census, 31,877,734 (82.98 per cent) out of the national population of 38,412,088 identified themselves as Christian (of Catholic, Protestant or other denominations). This translates to about nine points percentage increase compared to the result of the 1999 census.

“We acknowledge this amazing development but also take note of one common criticism that this impressive quantitative growth is by no means always matched by an equally impressive qualitative growth. Elijah Kim, for example, observes that although ‘the centre of gravity of the Christian faith has shifted from the West to non-West where the majority of the world’s Christians now live … [this] quantitative changes do not necessarily mean that qualitative changes have occurred.’

“Although this, and such other criticisms about African Christianity are, in as far as they are specific, not without merit, it is also true to say that African Christianity is for most part a deep, spiritual and authentic expression of the holistic gospel that celebrates and affirms the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ.”

In his lecture, Prof Galgalo explored the diversity and vibrancy of African Christianity; as well as the priority given to prayer; and the influence of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. But he said that nominal Christianity is a major issue facing the African church.

“Although Sunday services attract Christians in their thousands and churches are always full, there are increasing numbers of Christians who hardly attend church. In a survey by ACM-FTT Afriserve in 2004, it is reported that: ‘while Protestantism nominally accounts for 65 per cent of Kenyan Christians, only seven per cent of the population attends a Protestant or evangelical church on a typical Sunday.’

“The report also observes that the majority of Kenya’s 24 year olds and below is largely un-churched, although they would have received baptism in their infancy. Nominal Christianity, I would argue, is the main reason for practices of syncretism among African Christians. African traditional beliefs like witchcraft, magic and sorcery and blood sacrifices are, for example, common among members who identify themselves as Christians but are only nominal and are happy to be part of the social Christianity without giving any meaningful allegiance to its doctrinal tenets.

“Polygamy also persists because such Christians are not bothered to obey all or even any part of church teaching. There is a great liberal sense among uncommitted Christians that, ‘whatever serves man best, religion included, must be exploited.’ Nominal Christians are problematic for the Church because, as this category of Christians grows, the church has to contend with syncretism.

“Traditional religionists often have no qualms about carrying the Bible in one hand and their traditional beliefs and practices in the other. Our history of Christianity at some point closely associated ‘being Christian’ with reputable social status and class. This continues to influence the mentality that, after all, one could belong to a church for reasons of social standing but without serious commitment.

“Today we have many who would proudly identify themselves as Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics or any of such other established denominations, but may not tell the last time they were in a Church, and may not find any reason to go to Church, except when it may be socially beneficial to do so.”

Commenting on the lecture, the Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings, who was commissioned as the first Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion earlier this month, said: “I was very encouraged by this inaugural seminar. About 40 theologians, from a range of backgrounds, heard Prof Galgalo’s profound paper and joined in imaginatively with the discussion.

“The conversation continues online and I hope that theologians on the Anglican Communion Theologian Database will also participate in the dialogue.”

Prof Galgalo will give a second seminar on 10 November in Durham University, on “The Place of Theology in the Contemporary University.”

The Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion is a seven-year partnership between the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church Mission Society and Durham University to research, stimulate, connect and publish works of theology in the Anglican Communion, with particular focus on insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America, in their ecumenical contexts.

  • Click here to read Canon Professor Joseph Galgalo’s full speech; and take part in the online conversation.
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This is a refreshing insight into the reality of African Christianity as experienced today by an African theologian, Canon Professor Joseph Galgalo, Vice-Chancellor of Saint Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. Speaking to ‘Forty Theologians’ at a Mission Theology Seminar at Lambeth Palace, Professor Galgalo spoke of ‘Christianities rather than one Christianity’ in Africa today, dismissing the notion of a single,  coherent theology that might give rise to a triumphalist  ‘Global South’ versus ‘Western’ view of the progress of Christianity in today’s world. 

In Anglicanism, with the rise of confidence in the Global South – especially the Gafcon Provinces – there is a tendency to publicise the phenomenal growth of the Anglican Church in places like Continental Africa; whereas what Professor Galgalo has to say about that gives rise to a rather different picture – for instance about the dangers of syncretism: 

“The report also observes that the majority of Kenya’s 24 year olds and below is largely un-churched, although they would have received baptism in their infancy. Nominal Christianity, I would argue, is the main reason for practices of syncretism among African Christians. African traditional beliefs like witchcraft, magic and sorcery and blood sacrifices are, for example, common among members who identify themselves as Christians but are only nominal and are happy to be part of the social Christianity without giving any meaningful allegiance to its doctrinal tenets.

“Polygamy also persists because such Christians are not bothered to obey all or even any part of church teaching. There is a great liberal sense among uncommitted Christians that, ‘whatever serves man best, religion included, must be exploited.’ Nominal Christians are problematic for the Church because, as this category of Christians grows, the church has to contend with syncretism.” – Professor Galgalo –

All of this gives Anglicans around the world food for thought. As GAFCON Primates take part in the Primates’ Meeting of the Anglican Communion at Canterbury in January, those in the Western Provinces of the Church need to take into account the argument  of larger numerical strength that will be posited by the Gafcon Primates as proof of the effectiveness of their  conservative witness in the Global South, thus claiming a superior ‘orthodoxy’ for their Biblically-fundamentalist way of ‘being Anglican’.

If proof of the effectiveness of mission is to be found in numerical strength alone, then, although places like continental Africa can boast more church-going ‘bums on seats’, there may be a huge difference between the total number of Baptized Anglicans and those who actually worship on a regular basis. Not unlike Anglican anywhere else, in fact. While in the West, there is no longer any social advantage seen in ‘going to Church’, this may not be the same, say, in the Churches of Africa.

Perhaps it should be recognised that the true value of the Christian witness is to be located in the level of social justice that is proclaimed and practised by the Church in the local community. How effective, for instance, is the Church at proclaiming the equality of all people; regardless of race, culture, social class, gender, or sexual-orientation? This, surely, is contiguous with Jesus’ command to Love God and to love one’s neighbour as one’s-self. 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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