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Why Western Christianity Needs African Leadership

African Congregation
Members of an African congregation in the middle of praying during a Sunday mass back in 2015 |

Testimony from former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano claiming that Pope Francis and other senior prelates knew about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's sexual predation has inflamed divisions between USA Catholic liberals and conservatives.

Many liberals have hoped and conservatives feared that Francis is steering the church toward more accommodation of Western individualism especially on sexuality. Others would insist that Francis is not changing core Catholic doctrine but only urging a more pastoral versus dogmatic approach. Vigano recalls Francis telling him: "The Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized! They must be shepherds!"

But much of whatever Francis does is widely interpreted in the West through the prism of debates over sexuality, including his recent revision of church teaching on capital punishment. If he can adjust church doctrine on that topic where else will he try to adjust, some have fretted.

American and Western Christianity is permeated by these debates with liberals pushing revisionism and conservatives by necessity in reactive mode. There's no doubt that most of Christianity remains orthodox on these issues even in the West. But the preoccupying debate is divisive and exhausting. It also ignores the concerns that dominate the majority non-Western world.

Christianity is growing fastest in Africa, which may now have 600 million Christians, more than any other continent. In 40 years it may have one billion Christians, Pew Research Center estimates. Christianity also is growing in Asia and Latin America, while declining in Europe and about even in America. African Christian growth is affecting the rest of the world. Churches in Africa dispatch missionaries. African immigrants plant churches, and some of Europe's largest congregations are African. African traditional beliefs are shaping debates in Western founded Protestant communions.

Thanks to fast growing Anglicanism in Africa, a majority of the world's 80 million Anglicans were represented at the June Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem. It has become an alternative structure to the Global Anglican Communion headed by the shrinking Church of England and that is divided over Western sexuality debates. African United Methodists are steering the once USA dominated 13 million member denomination towards global orthodoxy and away from North American Protestant liberalism. An August gathering of African United Methodists in Nairobi reaffirmed their denomination's traditional stance on marriage and sex.

African Lutherans and Presbyterians are growing while those churches shrink in Europe and America. Pentecostalism is the world's fastest growing religious movement and is thriving in Africa. There are about 200 million Catholics in Africa, nearly 20 percent of the church's total, a percentage that is fast increasing.

I've been praying as a Protestant that the next pope will be from Africa, which represents much of Christianity's demographic future. But no less importantly, African leadership will offer a needed alternative to Western individualism and self-preoccupation. African Christians like all people have their problems. But they aren't gridlocked by debates over theology and sex. They are confident and united about essentials. Cardinal Sarah of Guinea has been an especially strong Catholic voice for robust orthodoxy, and he's only one among many.

African Christians, many of whom I know, have survived famines, civil wars, poverty and pestilence. They are tough. And they are often befuddled by American and Western squishiness and squeamishness over Christian truths. They evangelize with hope and confidence because the Gospel is life, hence their churches grow. They also know how to live with Islam and other religions without compromising their own certain faith commitment. Unlike Western Christians, they aren't guilt-ridden or compelled to apologize for their faith.

An African pope would confirm to the world that Christianity is a universal and not a Western faith. Increasing African leadership in all the major Protestant communions will convey the same essential message. The Holy Family, when King Herod sought to kill Baby Jesus, fled to Egypt in Africa. Today Christianity, sorely divided and under threat in the West, needs restoration and leadership that Africa can provide.

Originally posted at IRD's blog.

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD's foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.

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