They Call Themselves the “Saved Ones”

May 12, 2010 • Features • Views: 1350

by Deirdre Dlugoleski:

“In 1905, that’s when the Anglican missionaries arrived in our village, in Bor. These missionaries came to our place. One was Archibald Shaw, but we know him as Matuor; it’s a nickname given to him by my people, the Dinka people.” The Reverend John Chol Dauu, a Sudanese priest, told a story typical of many African countries whose churches retain the legacies of foreign mission efforts: Western missionaries founded and gave direction to new congregations. Within the Anglican tradition, however, spiritual guidance and authority have begun to flow in the reverse direction. In the wake of controversial reforms in the Episcopal Church (the branch of Anglicanism in the United States), many African dioceses are now training American missionaries — and sending them to the United States.

Conflicts over reforms within the Episcopal Church — including the introduction of a new prayer book, the 1989 ordination of the first woman bishop, and the 2004 ordination of an openly gay bishop — have caused conservative Anglicans to break away and seek legitimacy from external sources. Since 2000, the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Church of Nigeria, the Church of Uganda, l’Eglise Episcopal au Rwanda, and the Episcopal Church of Sudan, among others, have supported disaffiliated conservative churches and dioceses in the United States. Initially, they ordained American bishops in Africa and sent them back to the United States as missionaries, providing conservative Anglicans with an alternative to the Episcopalian reforms.

With the help of African churches, the Anglican Church in North America is now able to ordain its own bishops. (Courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons)

When the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson, began his ministry in 2004, disaffected Anglican groups formed their own movement, which evolved into the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2008. In a reversal of colonial patterns, the organization immediately found itself dependent on African churches for recognition and legitimacy. Though it now has its own seminary and ordains its own ministers, the ACNA relies on African churches to continue its development; their support keeps conservative Anglicans part of a global church. “It makes it hard for the rest of the Anglican Communion to ignore us,” said Rev. Peter Frank, ACNA director of communications. “They’re speaking for a group that is essentially powerless within the community.”

African churches have had a “direct impact on all of the Anglican clergy,” noted Archdeacon Donald P. Roberts of the Anglican Diocese in New England, who received his credentials in Kenya. According to Roberts, “very close connections” bind African churches and the Trinity School for Ministry, which trains American priests in the conservative Anglican tradition.

African and American Anglicans unite around their disagreement with the Episcopal Church, whose interpretation of the Bible and acceptance of homosexuality they consider sinful. Daau’s view of scripture stresses that marriage “is a divine gift from God” meant only to exist “between a man and a woman.” Many struggling churches in Africa share this opinion and have refused financial aid from “liberal” churches in the United States.

Scripture and tradition carry particular weight in areas like Sudan and Rwanda, where Christianity represents one of very few stable institutions. “In Sudan, we have gone through so much suffering,” Daau explained. “We have no other hope.” To him, the ACNA stands for the religious values that many of his people have died for in the sectarian violence which has ravaged South Sudan. For Daau, the most important thing is to stay true to original interpretations of scripture — “remaining focused,” as he hopes the ACNA will do in future years.

Barely two years old, the ACNA’s future is far from certain. While it has become a stable organization in the United States, the Anglican Communion has not yet recognized it as a member church. But one thing is clear: the influence of the African churches is here to stay. “They call themselves the ‘saved ones,’” reflected Archdeacon Roberts. “There’s a sense of holiness about them that I’ve seen a little bit here and there but much more in the African Church than in the American…They show us how it’s done.”

Deirdre Dlugoleski ’13 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at deirdre.dlugoleski@yale.edu.

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