Once upon a time, when the words "Africa" and "Christianity" were mentioned together in America, it was usually a conversation about the work of missionaries. But in the 21st century, that assumption is changing. These days the continent is described as the source of powerful allies for Episcopal Church conservatives outraged over their denomination's decision to confirm an openly gay priest, the Rev. V. Eugene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

The nation's 2.4 million Episcopalians belong to a global association of nearly 40 national church bodies, the Anglican Communion, whose African members have emerged as fast-growing powerhouses. Since Robinson's confirmation, Episcopal conservatives who regard homosexual activity as a violation of biblical teaching have discussed ways their church might be sanctioned, or even displaced, by the communion. And they have drawn highly public support from socially conservative bishops in some African churches who share a disdain for the ordination of gay men and lesbians as priests.

There's a danger here--one that has to do with perceptions, especially among Americans who know so little about that continent and its vital, complex, and fast-growing Christian population. From news reports, you might think that Africans are of one mind on the Episcopal decision (they aren't) or that this particular issue is dominant among them (it isn't).

Leading African Anglicans gained that reputation five years ago, when the Anglican Communion's bishops held their once-a-decade conference at Canterbury, England, which is the seat of the archbishop who is the Church of England's spiritual leader. Bishops from Africa and Asia were far more visible than at any previous meeting, owing to the fact that many new bishops had been created in those continents because of the church's growth there. Many of them threw their weight behind a resolution on human sexuality describing homosexual activity as "incompatible with Scripture." What's more, a number of African bishops were exceptionally good at backing up their votes with media-friendly sound bites. "To accept homosexuality in our church is for Anglicans to commit evangelical suicide," declared one Kenyan bishop.

All kinds of Christianity have enjoyed a boom period in post-colonial Africa, with memberships rising rapidly among Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians and others. Between 1975 and 1995, for example, Africa's Catholic population doubled to more than 100 million, a period during which European Catholics barely grew at all.

Authorities on world Christianity see the faith's center of gravity shifting south; with the dynamic growth there, Africa will become increasingly influential among churches worldwide.

But while many African bishops have made it clear they firmly oppose ordination of gay men and women as priests, there are other prelates who warn them to stay away from the fight within the Episcopal Church. Foremost among the latter is the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, who has bluntly criticized his fellow prelates for suggesting that the Episcopal Church has put itself outside the bounds of Anglicanism. In a recent newspaper interview, he called his fellow prelates "arrogant" and instead urged Anglicans to respect the Episcopal decision.

Although his remarks drew a sharp rebuke from the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, the South African prelate is not just another bishop. He carries moral authority that comes from his having once been a prisoner of South Africa's former white minority government. Arrested in the 1960s for belonging to an anti-apartheid organization, Ndungane did hard labor on the notorious Robben Island, the offshore prison where Nelson Mandela would later be incarcerated. "We were made to suffer there," the archbishop once told me. "We were forced to feel a need to abandon ideology and hope." But he didn't abandon hope - rather the opposite, as he underwent a religious conversion and emerged to pursue a life in ministry.

Ndungane isn't the only prelate urging African Anglicans take another course on this matter. His predecessor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and probably the only name in African Christianity that many Americans would know - signed a 1999 document called the Cambridge Accord, which affirmed civil rights for gays and rejected the idea that Christian teaching could be used to discriminate against them.

It would also be a considerable stretch to call gay ordination the dominant issue for African Christians. Ndungane, Tutu and their fellow Anglicans all deal with a host of other serious, even dangerous concerns. Ndungane has been outspoken in urging churches to educate people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Last month, Tutu appeared as keynote speaker at a conference on lung disease, declaring that African governments ought to devote more money to health and less to military spending. A month earlier, an Anglican bishop from Uganda had gone to London to ask the British government to help tell the world about atrocities committed by a tenacious guerrilla army plaguing Uganda's north, where it kidnaps children to serve as soldiers. In the meantime, Christian leaders throughout Zimbabwe were denouncing that nation's rulers as authoritarian usurpers of democracy.

In terms of its structures and rituals, Christianity in Africa is highly diverse. The continent is home to churches that trace their roots to Europe, as well as many denominations founded by Africans, and even independent, urban megachurches. This dynamic religious culture has encouraged a rich art scene, enough to draw the attention of some Westerners to Africa's new church music. A few years back, I attended a conference on a snow-bound campus in Michigan, where one church musician got attendees singing and clapping to new hymns he had brought back from Africa. In that crowd, the continent seemed a source of spiritual riches.

And why not? Whether one looks at Africa through a New Testament lens or through the experience of the early church, one sees vital contributions to the faith. Matthew's Gospel tells us that the infant Jesus's family fled to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous wrath. In Acts, an African is one of the church's first converts - the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip on the road to Gaza. In the five centuries thereafter, Africa produced priests, bishops, popes and the church's greatest theologian, St. Augustine.

What the continent has in store for Christians worldwide in the 21st century is something that remains to be seen. But chances are, it will be a great deal more than what the Anglican prelates there have to say about the West's ongoing cultural wars.

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