A divisive debut by Africa's bishops

Panic inspires fear and bigotry, and there's plenty of that in the bishops' campaign
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The Independent Culture
UNTIL LAST week there were only two African bishops that anyone had ever heard of: the anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston (who is really English, anyway) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both of them offered impeccably liberal leaderships and represented the oppressed with a kind of epic dignity that defied criticism.

But this week, the massed ranks of Africa's clerics dropped a bombshell into the Lambeth Conference with their passionate denunciation of homosexuality. It was a smashing coming-out party for the church's chiefs in the continent, complete with an attempted exorcism of a gay campaigner on network television. You could hardly ask for more; except that you would have expected a posse of bishops to tell the real reasons for this campaign.

It was a curious outcome. The Africans had started the Conference complaining that the western bishops were too obsessed with homosexuality and paid too little attention to big questions such as debt relief and third world poverty. Yet at the first sight of publicity, they themselves were prepared to go into all sorts of contortions to make the debate over gay priests the abiding memory of the Conference. The insulting references to witchcraft in Africa by one American bishop should not prevent us from a proper examination of the claims of the African bishops to being the authentic voice of the continent. My own view is that they are not.

Anglicans in Africa are in a minority. People in the continent take their religion seriously, which makes the restrained pews of the Church of England a rather unsuitable home for their spiritual aspirations. Anglicanism was brought to the continent as part of the so-called civilising mission of the colonialists. The missionaries carried their bibles ahead of soldiers who carried their guns.

The Church of England (and the Church of Scotland in Malawi and some other parts of Southern Africa) was at the heart of the colonial adventure. Its adherents were among the apologists for the District Commissioners, and many of its communicants saw becoming part of the church as a vital part of climbing the ladder of the colonial administration.

This tradition of sucking up to the masters has transferred, without a breath of embarrassment, to the new elite in Africa. The bishops offer their flock red-hot rhetoric about the need to attack poverty and disease, and to demand more from the international community. Yet they still occupy their large residences with squads of servants, cooks and cars. And we hear little from them about two of the scourges of post- colonial Africa: corruption and Aids.

The African bishops' campaign is not motivated purely by the desire to correct the straying of their weak-willed western counterparts. It is also driven by fear. Recent decades have seen a resurgence in traditional beliefs such as animism. Even in the most industrially advanced nation - South Africa - the practitioners of the old arts are doing a roaring trade. The Anglican clerics have tried their best to incorporate some of the elements of the old into their practice. But the pallid imitation can never hope to compete with the real thing. And to add to the bishops' discomfort, there are new competitors.

One of them is Islam. Today, the most visible sign of the growing struggle between this ancient religion and the imported Christian faith is the grinding, nasty war in Sudan. It may be that the bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam this week are signs that this conflict is spreading out of the Sudan to other parts of Africa - there is certainly ample funding for pro-Islamic movements in sub-Saharan Africa.

The other new threat is the global reach of American Christian fundamentalism. Both by satellite and by missionary penetration, the tele-evangelism that has spread across the US is now taking its message to other parts of the world, notably Eastern Europe and Africa. They have plenty of resources with which to do it, and they will use their financial clout to persuade people looking for faith that the Almighty is on their side.

To combat fundamentalist creeds, the bishops are reinventing Anglicanism to be elemental, simplistic and populist. The face they now present to the world is attractive to those who think the way to hold back the tide of religious fervour now sweeping the world is to go back to some fire- and-brimstone version of Anglicanism.

In fact, what we are hearing from the African bishops is the last gasp of men who can see that the colonial and neocolonial establishment of which they are a part has been rumbled.

Panic inspires fear and bigotry, and there's plenty of that in the bishops' campaign.