By David Goodhew
There are around 100 million Anglicans. And two in every three Anglicans worldwide are African. So, as the Anglican Communion attempts to gather at the 2022 Lambeth Conference, the character of African Anglicanism matters massively.
This article looks, first, at the large number of Africans who will boycott the conference, then at the eclipse of the once central South African Anglican church, then at the new provinces emerging in the most unlikely parts of the continent. Americans and Brits may or may not realize this truth, but to understand the Anglican Communion, we have to start in Africa.
The Lambeth Boycott
The Ugandan, Nigerian, and Rwandan primates are boycotting Lambeth 2022. Other provinces may well do the same. There is uncertainty as to the precise size of these three churches. Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity led by Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo is widely seen as the “gold standard” of religious demography. Johnson and Zurlo estimate that these churches constitute around two-thirds of African Anglicans.[i] That means they represent over a third of the entire Communion.
These provinces are active members of the conservative Anglican bloc, GAFCON. Whatever readers of this blog make of GAFCON, it constitutes a key segment of the Communion, too large to be ignored. While there is longstanding debate over whether or not the Lambeth Conference carries (or should carry) any binding authority, it has typically been taken as expressive of the mind of the Communion. The size of the Lambeth boycott, though, means that any decisions taken at Lambeth 2022 can be neither.
One possible olive branch lies, ironically, in the ongoing tragedy facing Nigerian Anglicans who have been harshly persecuted by Islamic militants for decades. Archbishop Welby has shown commendable concern for their plight. TEC has been far less vocal on the suffering of Nigerian Anglicans than the suffering, for example, of Palestinians (aside from protest at the abduction of the Chibok girls, which happened eight years ago). Were TEC and the wider Communion to give more solid support to persecuted Nigerian Anglicans, this would both be morally right and act as an olive branch to the Nigerian church. It would show that, though absent, Nigeria’s Anglicans remain of concern to those attending the Lambeth Conference.
The Eclipse of South Africa
In 1970, around one in six African Anglicans were from South Africa; by 2015, that figure had plummeted to one in 20 African Anglicans. South African Anglicans have grown numerically in the last 50 years, but far more slowly than most of African Anglicanism, meaning they are rapidly being eclipsed. Whereas in many parts of Africa congregations, dioceses, and provinces have proliferated in recent decades, in South Africa little such dynamism has been seen or seems likely to be seen.
South African Anglicanism is highly conservative, in the sense that it remains defined by the fight against apartheid which ended nearly 30 years ago. The church’s struggles against the apartheid state were hugely commendable. But the country achieved democratic rule in 1994 and has long wrestled with different issues.
And many Western Anglicans are at least 30 years out of date in their thinking about South Africa (and Africa). They continue to view South African Anglicanism in terms of its work against apartheid and ignore decades of relative decline (and the advent of new centers of Anglicanism elsewhere in Africa). The rise of new centers of African Anglicanism means that South African Anglicanism will be pushed further toward the margins in coming years, unless it can discover some of the ecclesial dynamism present elsewhere on the continent.
The Rise of New African Anglicanism
African Anglicanism is changing fast as it expands fast. Among the most rapidly growing areas are Sudan and South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sudan and South Sudan grew from 300,000 church members to 2,230,000 church members between 1970 and 2015. Prior to 1972 Congolese Anglicans could not be directly present at Lambeth, as the first Congolese diocese was only formed that year. Before 1972 the church was governed by the Church of Uganda. Now Congo is a province with 14 dioceses and over 500,000 members. Sudan, South Sudan, and Congo are some of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries on earth. Yet Anglicanism has taken root and flourished there in the midst of great suffering. Congolese Anglicans talk of the value of “utaratibu,” “order.” There is a sense in which the structures in liturgy and church life have been a great blessing in a context where so much is chaotic.
Even more recent are the two new provinces of Alexandria (covering North Africa and the Horn of Africa) and of Mozambique and Angola, created in 2019 and 2021 respectively. Archbishop Mouneer Anis, the first Primate of the Province of Alexandria, has been a key figure in the Global South group of primates. The Global South grouping acts as a broader conservative block in the Communion, less vocal than GAFCON, but similarly opposed to Western liberalism.
What is striking is how African Anglicanism has moved far beyond the areas covered by the former British empire. It is now pushing into areas whose lingua franca is Portuguese, French, or Arabic — rather than English.
Where is African Anglicanism going? This is a huge and complex movement.
Over half of African Anglicanism is so vehemently opposed to the current direction of the Communion that it will boycott Lambeth 2022. And the bulk of Anglicans who do attend Lambeth are strongly opposed to the dominant stance of TEC. The one African church which has consistently drawn closer to the liberal agenda, South Africa, is a much-diminished force within African Anglicanism. Alongside this, the consecration of women bishops in Kenya and South Sudan is a sign that conservative African Anglicanism contains considerable variety.
African Anglicanism has expanded in many parts of Africa at a phenomenal pace — often faster than the rate of population growth. It is expanding way beyond the former territories of the British empire. This is a heady, unpredictable mix. It would be unwise to assume such expansion has run its course. African Anglicanism continues to grow at pace, even as Western Anglicanism in many places is declining.
[i] Johnson and Zurlo estimated that, in 2015, there were around 57 million Anglicans in Africa. They calculated that 22 million were in Nigeria, 14 million in Uganda and 1.4 million in Rwanda. That number will certainly have risen significantly since 2015. Andrew Mckinnon in the Journal of Africa Studies endorsed the Ugandan figures but argued for a much lower figure for Nigeria. However, the Mckinnon research was striking for relying on general surveys of the population and did not consider any evidence from, or concerning, Nigerian Anglicans themselves. It needs to be read alongside studies of actual church life in Nigeria, some of which can be surveyed in, for example: Richard Burgess, “Nigeria” in D. Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present, (Routledge 2017). Johnson and Zurlo’s work combines both non-church and church data and is widely seen as the best available data. For more data, see their World Christian Database.