Stranger things may have happened in the annals of church history, but the recent lopsided votes in several Virginia Episcopal congregations may qualify as among the strangest at first glance. Why? They voted in favor of leaving that denomination’s Virginia Diocese and coming under the leadership of two African Anglican archbishops: Nigeria’s Peter Akinola and Uganda’s Henry Orombi.
Liberal Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee, whose diocese has been diminished by the votes, was shocked. He is reported to have exclaimed that the Virginia churches were now being “occupied” by Nigerians. Is the whole affair simply bizarre, or is it merely the culmination of a startling reversal of roles between modern Western Christendom and the orthodox native African churches that the West planted long ago?
To answer that question, a short history lesson is in order. During the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century, Christian missionaries of all denominations (including the Anglicans) evangelized Africa in an effort to convert Africans to Christ. In most cases this meant that the converts had to give up traditional paganism and its religious, social and sexual practices because they were contrary to biblical teaching.
Many Africans who became Christians renounced local gods, polygamy and sexual cultish practices. Their spiritual descendants, the so-called “indigenous” African Christians, while often tempted by the tug of traditional paganism, have continued to take the Word of God seriously on the subjects of social arrangements and human sexuality. The Western missionaries of the past, especially the Anglicans, were intent upon raising up native church leaders who would be uncompromising where traditional pagan culture was in conflict with Scripture. They succeeded.
At the same time that Christian church leaders in Africa remained orthodox, many Western mainline church leaders gradually abandoned their biblical convictions and accepted portions of modern or post-modern views of social and sexual practices contrary to biblical teaching. Of course, the immediate cause of the Virginia congregational votes was the Episcopal Church USA’s official endorsement of practicing homosexual Gene Robinson for the office of bishop of New Hampshire. But the larger question is the authority of God’s Word in the face of cultural pressures. Ironically the “secessionist” Virginia parishes, which are resisting modern neo-paganism, found as their allies those African churches that have had a long history of opposing traditional paganism.
It is a matter for rejoicing that these Virginia Episcopalians have found new church leaders who possess strong spiritual backbones. On the other hand, it is sad that Virginia Christians have had to go half-way around the world to locate leaders who are willing to stand firm against anti-biblical cultural pressure.