Originally Published in the National Post: Friday, December 29, 2006
With interest in spirituality on the rise and church attendance in a freefall, a week-long National Post series considers the state of Canadian Christianity and whether the way forward may in fact be the way backward.
The most surprising thing for many about the international religious scene at the beginning of the 21st century is that there is an international religious scene worthy of investigation. Early 20th-century progressive thinkers thought that by now, religion would have long been shuffled off the main stage of history, relegated to the purely private sphere. There would still be religious believers, but religion would cease to be a major force shaping culture. It would be more akin to a hobby.
That turned out to be true for Western Europe, but not so almost everywhere else.
Religion has been a near dominant factor in world politics since 1979, the year in which Pope John Paul II made his epic visit to Poland, and the Ayatollah returned to Iran.
Since then, Islam has risen to a new prominence in the West, a sort of reverse missionary movement where religion from the East and the South is establishing a presence in Europe and North America. The Islamic phenomenon is oft-remarked, but the same thing is happening in Christianity, with the more orthodox and biblically faithful churches of the South, or what was known as the developing world, becoming the new centre of world Christianity.
The major religious story in the Christian world over the next two years will likely be the fracturing of the Anglican Communion. A formal schism is expected at the decennial Lambeth Conference in 2008, with the issue of homosexuality the proximate cause of the division. The more liberal churches in the North will be broken away from by the much larger and traditional Anglican churches of the South, led by Africa. Given that more Anglicans in Nigeria attend church on Sunday than the combined attendance in Canada, the United States and England, it is valid to ask who is breaking away from whom.
Indeed, the Anglican story could easily be told as the breaking away of dwindling heterodox churches from the more vibrant, orthodox mainstream — except that the mainstream is not Canterbury and Toronto, but Lagos and Kampala.
The same shift to the South can be seen in the Catholic Church. There is hardly a diocese of Canada that does not depend upon priests from Eastern Europe, India and Africa to keep parishes open that would otherwise be without a priest. In Europe, the situation is even more advanced.
“African dioceses have made gestures for the centenary or 150th anniversary of their creation by sending priests to the dioceses from which their first missionaries came,” explains Father Maurice Pivot, director of the French Pontifical Missionary Works office, calling it “a sign of the Church’s catholic dynamic” to return priests from missionary countries to the home countries of their evangelizers.
The number of foreign clergy working in French parishes increased six fold in the five years between 1997 and 2002. This year, the number reached 1,060, two-thirds of whom are from outside Europe, mostly from France’s former colonies in Africa and Vietnam.
The Catholic Church’s membership has already shifted to Latin America, Africa and Asia, away from the situation a century ago, when the majority of the world’s Catholics were in Europe. As those burgeoning Catholic populations develop their own schools, colleges and seminaries, they will increasingly assume roles of global leadership. Catholics in India, for example, are already more numerous than Catholics in Canada, have much higher levels of church attendance, far better catechical formation and a more evangelistic outlook. As religious orders of men and women die out in North America and Europe, the growing religious communities of Africa and Asia will fill the gap. It is indicative of the future that the largest new congregation of religious sisters in the 20th century was founded in India â€“ Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
The international picture also includes perhaps the fastest growing segment of world Christianity â€“ Pentecostal Protestants. Highly decentralized and loosely organized compared with Catholics or mainline Protestants, Pentecostalism (or evangelicalism) broadly understood is attracting thousands of converts daily. Commenting on this trend recently, The Economist noted that, “Los Angeles’ most successful export is not Hollywood but Pentecostalism.”
According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are an estimated 500 million “revivalists” in the world, including members of stand-alone Pentecostal and evangelical denominations as well as charismatics within established denominations. Revivalists now represent one quarter of the total Christian population of two billion, compared with just six per cent of the Christian total 30 years ago.
Pentecostals, who emphasize fidelity to the Bible along with the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, were thought to be, a century ago, an exotic eruption of religiosity in far-out California. Today, it has already made large inroads in the Catholic countries of Latin America, where it is generally agreed that Pentecostals emphasize personal conversion and upright living in a way that a lax Catholic culture does not.
More than one wag has noted that the Pentecostal explosion in Latin America – some 15 per cent of the population in Brazil, perhaps 30 per cent in Guatemala – is making good Protestants out of bad Catholics. An observant Protestant means a more robust Christian presence, if the alternative is a lapsed Catholic. In terms of global trends in religion, the phenomenon matches the experience elsewhere: The more demanding religious communities attract the new adherents.
In response, Catholics in Latin America, Africa and Asia have had to expand their own religious instruction programs and be more demanding in living up to the moral teachings of the Church. The result has been, in certain respects, a competition in orthodoxy and moral rigour – the exact reverse of the competition in the West between churches who outdid each other in modernization.
Given that the future of world Christianity is in the South, the striving for tradition and orthodoxy that marks many of those churches will have a major impact on the world Christian agenda. And if for several generations that agenda has been dominated by the varied questions of liberalization in doctrine, morals and liturgy, the rise of the South likely means new questions â€“ not about the latest novelties of a more secular culture, but about the old faith.
Â© National Post 2006