Into Africa

Here’s a fascinating piece of context for the decision of at least two Virginia Episcopalian congregations to seek inclusion in a much more conservative, Nigerian diocese. The shift was not driven so much by politics; and it wasn’t sudden. In some ways, it was the inevitable consequence of a thirty-year process whereby modern evangelicalism and pentecostalism came to dominate a previously more traditionally Episcopalian church. Money quote:

At least two-thirds of the worshipers [at Falls Church] are Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists, and there is no pressure on them to be confirmed as Episcopalians, said the Rev. Rick Wright, associate rector.

Wright said the diverse membership of both congregations illustrates one of the great changes in American religion of the past half-century: The divisions between denominations are far less important today than the divisions within denominations.

"I tend to feel very comfortable rubbing shoulders with folks at McLean Bible or Columbia Baptist … that are real orthodox, evangelical, biblical churches," said Truro’s chief warden, or lay leader, Jim Oakes, referring to two Northern Virginia megachurches. "We share core beliefs. I think I would be more comfortable with them than with anyone I might run into at an Episcopal Diocesan Council meeting."

They key divide in faith today is between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. The divide exists within most churches, including the lay Catholic population. As fundamentalism advances, the clash between the two may become so severe in the U.S. that more and more American churches will tilt to the developing world for leadership and clout. The orthodox Catholic hierarchy would have no future without reinforcements from Africa and Asia. And charismatic pentecostalists, with socially conservative politics, are going to find their worldview far better represented in Nairobi than New York.

But you also see in this story a shift from a traditional, ritual-based, small-c conservative form of faith toward a radical, modern, individualistic brand of fundamentalism. This is the strain within Islam as well. The Wahhabists – with their contempt for tradition, custom, conventional authority, and ritual echo the modern mega-churches of evangelical Christianity. Both strains hark back to the ideal of an original, pure faith – and deploy modern technology to advance it. They also more crudely but effectively answer the sense of personal loss and fear of "moral entropy" that tends to occur in periods of rapid economic and social change. They have the momentum. Whether they have the answer is another question.