Those Anglican Hitlers in Africa

An Episcopal bishop could not find a more natural place to preach than on National Public Radio.

Long ago, witty commentators called the Episcopal Church the "Republican Party at prayer." Today, "NPR at prayer" would be more like it.

So Bishop Charles Bennison of Philadelphia picked a great place to air his views about current tensions between his church's hierarchy and Third World Anglicans, especially Africans. While it's true that African churches are much larger than the Episcopal Church, he told NPR that numbers are not everything when it comes to faith.

The bishop was quoted saying that "just because there are millions of conservative Christians who rally around issues like homosexuality, that doesn't mean they're right." Adolf Hitler, he noted, had many followers as well.

Bennison immediately tried to clarify what he was saying about conservative Episcopalians and their Third World allies.

"Please, I'm not saying the people in this country or my colleagues in the episcopate in Africa are necessarily gathering people around something as dastardly as Adolf Hitler," he told NPR. "I am trying to make the point, however, that growth and truth are two different things."

Outraged conservatives noted the use of "necessarily" in this clarification.

Either way, this was clearly the most candid quote by a First World Anglican since the Rt. Rev. Richard Holloway of Scotland said he felt "lynched" when bishops gathered in Canterbury overwhelmingly passed a 1998 resolution affirming ancient doctrines that all sex outside of marriage is sin. He blamed African and Asian bishops.

"They live in Islamic countries and, therefore, Islamify Christianity, making it more severe, Protestant and legalistic," he said.

This kind of angry language is especially shocking since Episcopal bishops and other mainline leaders have long proclaimed the need for racial harmony and dialogue with other cultures. But today the politics of sex, money, evangelism and power have created a painful dilemma for First World elites.

"The liberals basically spent the last 40 years saying, 'Let's hear the voice of the Third World,' " said historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, addressing a recent Anglican Mission in America conference. "And now they've heard it and they'd like the Third World to shut up for several decades."

Episcopal leaders are livid that African bishops are backing the Anglican Mission in America, an evangelical network that is building -- without permission from local bishops -- scores of new U.S. parishes and providing a haven for disenfranchised traditionalists. This network has even begun consecrating its own bishops.

Meanwhile, African and Asian bishops are shocked that their brothers and sisters in America are poised to approve formal rites to bless homosexual unions, a step that could take place next summer at the church's General Convention in Minneapolis.

While these events grab the headlines, Jenkins believes this split is rooted in an emerging global reality -- the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere and the decline of more liberal Christian churches in the North.

A few stunning numbers show the big picture, argues Jenkins, in his book "The Next Christendom."

By 2050, there will be 3 billion Christians in the world and only one in five will be a "non-Latino white." In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa and, today, there are 360 million -- nearly 50 percent of the continent. There are between 40 and 50 million Anglicans in Africa.

There are 25 million Anglicans in England, but 800,000 frequent the pews. The Episcopal Church claims 2 million members.

In a few decades, said Jenkins, the heart of Christendom will be Africa, not Europe or North America. So it is understandable if leaders in these lands are experiencing shock and denial. They are losing control.

"If Christianity is going to be centered in Africa," he said, "what that means is that in 50 or 100 years Christianity will be defined according to its relationship with that culture. If might be that Americans will point to it and say, 'But that's not the Christianity that we know. That's not what we are used to. It's not what it's meant to be.' "

Christians in Europe and North America may want to cry out, "It's OUR Christianity," he said. "But it isn't anymore. You lost it."