I have recently begun a lecture tour that will last until mid-August, taking me around the world. In this column, during the next few months, I will attempt to describe the state of Christianity in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I introduce this series with an analysis of what has become a popular theme in conservative religious journalism: namely, the presumed shift of the center of world Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere.

The word "shift" in this analysis may well not be the best choice, but that is the one normally employed. Christianity in Europe and in nations of European descent has fallen on difficult days statistically, while major growth is occurring in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and most spectacularly in Africa. It is not the accuracy of this data that concerns me; it is, rather, the way conservative voices, normally from the First World, interpret this data. They are the ones who have chosen the word "shift" as a part of their analysis.

I saw this interpretation first employed in the reports from conservative Western journalists covering the Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom in 1998, a once-a-decade meeting of the world's Anglican bishops. At this conference, for the first time in Anglican history, bishops of color outnumbered bishops of English or Anglo-Saxon origins. The daughter churches of the Third World had reached a new level of strength.

These bishops of color, however, overwhelmingly reflected the evangelical background and style of the English, American, and Canadian missionaries who brought Christianity to the Third World during the past two centuries. The great majority of the African bishops, for example, appeared unaware of the past 200 years of critical biblical scholarship. They had also either not yet engaged or were resistant to new learning that had countered the old traditions on such great social issues as race and ethnicity, the emancipation of women, and the new understanding of homosexuality.

Indeed, when those issues were raised at the Lambeth Conference, the majority of the Third World bishops responded with biblical quotations designed to prohibit any further debate, just as their evangelical mentors had done generations earlier in the West. It was like listening to people caught in a time warp. They seemed not to realize that this same strategy had been used in the West to undergird slavery, segregation, and apartheid, to say nothing of protecting the divine right of kings, and asserting the flatness and centrality of the earth inside a three-tiered universe.

While I am not impressed with this response in the 21st century, I have no trouble understanding why the Third World bishops were led to adopt it. The Third World has for centuries endured colonial domination, which was used to keep the people of those nations in servile backwardness.

My impression at Lambeth was that a new form of theological colonialism was now being tried by the American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealander conservatives who encouraged their Southern Hemisphere allies in these failed tactics. In the West, these conservatives were part of the defeated backwater in each of their national churches. They had lost the battle to save the literal Bible. They had lost the battle against segregation, against evolution, against science, against birth control, against the equality of women, against abortion, and against justice for gay and lesbian people. In their own faith communities, they were resorting to splinter and schismatic tactics. The Lambeth Conference, with so many Third World bishops in attendance, gave them, they reasoned, a final chance to reverse history and restore their own premodern values to the Anglican Communion. So in reporting on Lambeth, they gloried in what looked like a revival of yesterday's values and spoke of the "shift" in Christianity's center to the Southern Hemisphere.

I saw this same theme next in Roman Catholic circles. It has become a major subtext in the rash of speculative pieces by conservative Western Catholics about the successor to Pope John Paul II. These speculations are written against the backdrop of serious church decline in Europe. Despite the long and reactionary reign of this pope and his arbiter of orthodoxy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the decline of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe has not been reversed--rather, it has reached crisis proportions. The only place this church is growing is in the Third World, amid populations where education is not yet universal and where modern scientific knowledge frequently clashes with traditional values--making the claims of a premodern Christianity appealing to a fearful people.

So these writers suggest that since the center of Christianity is shifting to the south, Vatican politics ought to reward these burgeoning churches by choosing one of their leaders, like Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, as the next Bishop of Rome.

Finally, this same theme was broadcast across the nation in a recent feature in Newsweek, written by its senior religion editor, Kenneth Woodward. In this article, the rising numbers of Third World Christians were once again interpreted as positive, in that it augurs well for a return to biblical authority and traditional values. This, of course, means that such a return will support the continued Roman Catholic negativity toward such women's issues as ordination, birth control, abortion, and the right to get a divorce from an abusive husband without losing status as a communicant in good standing. It would also keep the homosexual issue from even being discussed, since that is the current pattern in Catholic practice.

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