The 1998 Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops from throughout the worldwide communion represented a watershed in leadership for the Anglican Church worldwide. Anyone who had previously failed to notice the prominence of the African Anglican Church in particular could no longer help but note that Anglicanism is, for the most part, a black, Third World religion. Something similar may be said about almost any major Christian denomination or confession.
Most of us are familiar with this observation, but the deeper question is less frequently asked: why are Africans continuing to come to Christ? what comparisons with Africa can cast light on our Canadian context? and, most appropriately for good idea!, what can we learn from the Anglican Church of Kenya’s deep commitment to conversion and evangelism? into what mutually enriching conversation about evangelistic theology and method can we enter?
A deep kinship
Much of traditional African culture centers on the reality of clan relations. In a comparable way, we can begin by observing that Wycliffe College is kin to the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) in that they share the same nineteenth century evangelical parentage, both being the offspring of the spirit and theology of the Church Missionary Society. Both assumed from their very conception the presence of episcopal ecclesial structures, but, equally, both assumed that these structures did not suffice in themselves, but were, rather, the site for evangelistic renewal. This deep kinship makes facile distinctions of “our” and “their” brands of the Christian faith impossible: go (as we did one Sunday) to a church built of mud and sticks in the remote hills of western Kenya with Bishop Wabukala (a Wycliffe grad himself) and listen to the Moody and Sankey hymns sung by the local choir, accompanied by African drums, and any easy divisions evaporate.
During our time in Kenya, we had an opportunity to meet with John Karanja, an Anglican priest and historian who teaches at the University of Nairobi. He has written insightfully about the process of conversion by which the first generation of Kenyan Christians came to faith a century ago. He describes how their decisions often involved, quite literally, a move from their homes, often in circumstances of social conflict, to the mission station. There they learned the basics of the faith and experienced Christian community.
The cost of commitment
Karanja goes on to point out, however, that the truly decisive moment came only when they then went back to their home village, most often for a traditional rite of passage. At these critical moments the recent convert had to decide what parts of the old rite were benign and observable for the sake of respecting one’s elders, and which parts, most notably sacrifice to the ancestors, were now impossible for a Christian. The painful moments of witness to one’s closest kin which ensued had the most dramatic evangelistic effect. Our circumstances are radically different at one level, but what “evangelism in context” means is in its essentials quite the same: to find the culturally appropriate, symbolically fraught, moments (often around initiation) where the cost and the claim of the Christian gospel can be made clear.
Go to almost any ACK Church, and you will be greeted with the words “Bwana asifiwe!” (“Praise the Lord!”) This sentence is a signal in the churches of East Africa that the speaker is “born-again,” a child of the East African revival, one of “the redeemed” (waliookoka). This movement rose up in the 1930’s, and though subsequently institutionalized, it has continued to characterize East African Anglican piety. Its trademarks were an emphasis on the atonement, a stress on holiness of life, mutual confession in small groups (all of which are reminiscent of its older cousin, Methodism), along with an emphasis on overcoming racial animosities. The revival hearkens back at once to the evangelical Keswick conferences in England and to the early days of Christian martyrdom in Uganda. It allowed East African Christians to overcome a sense of “limping between” the old life and the new, and to feel at home in their faith. It also led, wherever it sprouted, to growth in evangelism.
Again, though our situation and history are different, one cannot escape the close connection between making the Gospel contextual, vigor in evangelism, and revival. At the same time, the Revival tradition has its own problems: a tendency to make evangelism decision-oriented, conversion formulaic, and discipleship as shallow as it is wide. For East African Christians (as for us), the on-going task of catechism, of follow-up teaching, is an enduring one.
Mutuality in the Body of Christ
At once similar and so very different, the East African church and ours need one another. One reason is that their strengths are in many cases our greatest needs, as if they were providentially suited to address a word to us today. We need clearer contours to the new life, a greater willingness to witness publicly, a more intensely Scriptural focus, and the East African Church has all of these features in abundance. Amidst enormous trials in everyday life, East African Christians convey a powerful sense that, having been “washed in the blood,” nothing that befalls them can deflect them from their heavenly destination. To meet such a witness leaves one changed. To be sure, their Church too has its corruptions and its weaknesses. But in this most important of practices, in their desire to witness to the faith, who can doubt that God has given them to us at this time, in these concrete circumstances, as a means of renewal?