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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Development Of African Theology

Studies have suggested that in the twenty-first century there may be more Christians in Africa than in any other continent (Barrett 1970). Already there are more Anglicans in church every Sunday in Nigeria than in all of England, the U.S.A. and Canada combined. With growth rates in African churches generally exceeding those found anywhere else in the world this is not surprising. As Lamin Sanneh has observed, "the irruption of Christian forces in contemporary Africa is without parallel in the history of the church."(1989, 188). This fact alone should be reason enough for westerners to take a look at what is happening in African Christianity, but even if this were not the case the very dynamism and vibrancy of African church life shows promise to a western church which, at best, often seems to struggle merely to survive in an increasingly secular culture.

Of further interest to sociologists, anthropologists and theologians is the fact that although Africa is now recognised to be the poorest continent, economically, theologians in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) have not generally embraced "Liberation theology", rather, most have chosen to go their own route, for the form of oppression which they feel most keenly is not economic oppression, but rather a cultural oppression; the derogation of African people and things African. This is what E. Mveng and the other African theologians have referred to as "anthropological oppression" (Fabella and Torres, eds, 1978).

Signs of African Christian disenchantment with the style of white missionary activity were already visible as early as 1821 in Sierra Leone, with the formation of an African Independent Church (AIC) there. In Nigeria, Independent churches began forming in the 1890s. The United Native African church formed as a break away movement from the Anglican church in Lagos, Nigeria in 1891. From that time to the present there has been a great proliferation of new independent churches, each with its own particular emphasis, and each attempting to preserve the African flavour, to become more authentically African than churches planted by the European and American missionaries. In 1970 the AICs claimed 15,971,000 adherents in 5,980 denominations (Barrett 1982, 815) and their growth rates averaged 4.33 % per year between 1970 and 1985 (Barrett 1982, 782). Today, these churches number well over two thousand in Nigeria alone. In some countries, notably Ghana, it is projected that members of Independent churches will outnumber those of either Protestant or Roman Catholic churches by the year 2000 (Barrett 1982, 323). The experience of these Independent churches may be called, in one sense, the first phase of African theology,(1) for apart from the churches of ancient Ethiopia and Nubia, here was the first articulation of a Christian theology by sub-Saharan black Africans on their own terms. There is great body of literature on the African Independent churches, and the African theologians in the denominations planted by mission churches from the west often refer to them as one source of African theology. However, the focus of my attention in this book shall be primarily upon the expression of this type of feeling from within the existing mainline churches planted originally by western missionaries. Reference to the Independent churches shall be made when it is necessary in order to understand developments in academic African theological discourse.

Within the Roman Catholic church in Africa the most significant early questioning of western Christianity was a collection of articles entitled Des prêtres noirs s'interrogent penned by a group of nationalistic African priests in 1956. They expressed some of their questions and doubts about the very European and alien manner of their church life and theology, and argued for "adaptation" of the church to the African context. When similar feelings existed in the Protestant churches they often had issued in the formation of independent churches, but voices within the mainstream Protestant churches also began calling for a new type of Christianity in Africa at this time. In 1958 an inter-church conference of African church leaders was held at Ibadan, Nigeria, which gave expression amongst the widest range of denominations thus far to the new desire for an Africanized church. This conference led eventually to the formation of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) in 1963 at Kampala, Uganda.

This period coincided with the appearance of new works from anthropologists such as E. Evans-Pritchard (1956), Marcel Griaule (1966) and scholars of religion such as G. Parrinder, (1954) which sought to examine African Traditional Religion (ATR) in a more positive and sympathetic manner than had previously been the case. At the same time Présence Africaine began publishing in Paris, with an agenda very much consonant with the new, more sympathetic approach in anthropology. With the convergence of these developments and the rise of African nationalism in the 1950s a "new wind" was blowing.

1: First Phase: "Adaptation"
The major concern of those writing and directing the course of African theology in the first phase was "adaptation". The thrust of this movement was to make Christianity adapt to its African environment. This was usually conceived of in terms of such practices as wearing African clothes, using indigenous African music in liturgy, and the indigenization of the clergy: the work of evangelization and pastoral care was to be shifted to Africans. This in itself was not a new idea; indeed, it was the goal of Henry Venn, General Secretary of the Anglican Church Missionary Society from 1842 to 1873, whose guidelines for missionaries stressed that the new churches in Africa must be "self-planting, self-supporting and self-propagating" (Kalu 1978, 348). But Venn's guidelines were largely ignored in the field, and the result was that the new churches in Africa remained very European in nature. In fact the 1880s and '90s saw the decline of African agency in Christian missions due partly to the increased effectiveness of malaria prevention, which enabled Europeans to enter the African mission field in much larger numbers. European management of missions insured a very European style of church life, which continued until the pressure for "adaptation" began to mount in the 1950s and '60s.

The first documented use of the term "African Theology" appeared in the context of a debate between Zaïrean theologian Tharcisse Tshibangu and his theological teacher Alfred Vanneste, held by the «Cercle théologique du Lovanium» at Kinshasa, Zaïre in January, 1960. The proceedings of this debate were published in Revue du Clérge Africain in that year. In the "Débat Sur La «Théologie Africaine»", Tshibangu posed questions as to whether certain aspects of African traditional religion might be used as points of contact with Christianity and argued that a distinctly African theology should be possible. Vanneste argued that Christian theology is universal, and therefore an African theology was neither possible nor desirable. At this time, Tshibangu, as he did in the Des prêtres noirs s'interrogent, stayed, for the most part, at the level of posing the question of whether an African theology might be possible.

Following the independence of most African nations in 1960, there was increasing acceptance of the agendas of the adaptation movement, by the European missionaries (some of whom were primary advocates of it) as well as by African Christians, who were beginning to see it as the measure of the maturity of Christianity in Africa. In 1963 the All Africa Conference of Churches was formed at Kampala, and in 1966 it sponsored the first Consultation of African Theologians at Ibadan, Nigeria, which stressed the need for an African theology. This conference was key in the development of African theology as a distinct movement. The papers from this conference were later published in the volume Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs (1969).

Following the independence of most African nations in 1960, there was increasing acceptance of the agendas of the adaptation movement, by the European missionaries (some of whom were primary advocates of it) as well as by African Christians, who were beginning to see it as the measure of the maturity of Christianity in Africa. In 1963 the All Africa Conference of Churches was formed at Kampala, and in 1966 it sponsored the first Consultation of African Theologians at Ibadan, Nigeria, which stressed the need for an African theology. This conference was key in the development of African theology as a distinct movement. The papers from this conference were later published in the volume Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs (1969).

In the Roman Catholic church Vatican II (1963-65) brought great changes in Catholic attitudes towards other religions. Increasing acceptance of African identity was indicated when in 1969 Pope Paul VI, visiting Uganda for the canonization of the Ugandan martyrs, told the Roman Catholic bishops: "you may and you must have an African Christianity". Aylward Shorter reports however, that despite the great volume of talk about "adaptation" and "Africanisation" in the Roman Catholic church in the years between Vatican II and 1975, in practice it had only amounted to: "the production of vernacular liturgical texts and the creation of local musical settings for these texts." (Shorter 1975, 146).

In the Protestant churches the 1970s saw the introduction of African musical instruments and African musical styles in most of the Protestant churches, including the evangelical churches, many of which embraced Africanized worship most enthusiastically (see Olson 1971). The Africanisation of the clergy became virtually complete in most Protestant denominations: by 1976 it had become rare to see a white missionary acting as an evangelist or pastor of an African congregation in Nigeria. But in terms of serious attempts to make the church African at the core, "adaptation" had gone very little further than in the Catholic church, and Shorter's comments that little had been done to grapple with traditional religious ideas, or to create typically African Church structures is almost equally applicable to the mainline Protestant mission churches. One exception was the Methodist Church of Nigeria, which adopted a new "Africanized" structure with a "Patriarch" at the head of it, Bolaji Idowu. He tried to move the church towards African structures and thought, a move that was praised by many of his fellow African theologians, though it caused a split in the ranks of the Nigerian Methodist Church.

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1 comment:

Helesee-lese said...

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