Posted by: Titus Presler | February 6, 2013

“[Africa’s] where I found faith” – Justin Welby, new Archbishop of Canterbury

“I owe Nigeria and Africa a huge amount.  It’s where I found faith, in Kenya.  Nigeria has nurtured me and it’s a country I love.”

So said Justin Welby to the BBC on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Monday, 4 February 2013, just after the Confirmation of Election service that is yet another step toward the March 21 liturgy in which he will be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury.

His testimony is confirmation of another kind, confirmation of the role that cross-cultural encounter has in engendering and deepening religious faith.  Welby was an oil executive who traveled a great deal to Africa, especially Nigeria, and evidently it was during those travels that encounters with African spirituality brought him to Christian faith.  He was probably a nominal Christian, and his point is that it was in Africa that faith came alive to him as a Christian.

Christian missionaries, especially since the mid-20th century, offer similar testimony – not necessarily that they “found faith,” but that the faith with which they went out in mission was deepened and transformed by their encounters with people in other cultures who “faithed” in other religions, with people who were already Christian, and with people who became Christian through their ministries. 

That is certainly my experience in three major contexts.  In India I grew up with expressions of faith from Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains and Sikhs, so I knew practically from the cradle that faith is deep and diverse.  Living and working in post-war Zimbabwe brought me in touch with powerful expressions of Christian spirituality and community life that permanently transformed my approach to prayer, preaching and church leadership.  Here in Pakistan the pervasive influence of Islam – and a very conservative version at that – is working changes in my approach to prayer, theology and inter-religious relations.

So mission is indeed two-way, whether by intention or inevitability.  One cannot be in a cross-cultural setting without being formed by it.

Notable about Welby’s comment is that the new leader of the Anglican Communion is saying not simply that his religious life was affected or influenced by his time in Africa, but that he “found faith” in Africa.  Church people in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India and Pakistan often note how “indebted” they are to the work of the missionaries who first proclaimed the gospel in their midst and catalyzed the growth of the church there.  Now the new Archbishop of Canterbury – very English, very white, very Western – reciprocates that gratitude and indebtedness: “I owe Nigeria and Africa a huge amount.”

The context of the comment was discussion about the new archbishop’s approach to divisions in the Anglican Communion about human sexuality.  The interviewer first asked him about how to avoid a split in the communion in view of how Anglican leaders in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya had denounced the Church of England’s affirmation last year of the ordination of gay bishops.  After saying he supported the CofE’s move, Welby continued, “I’m deeply committed to working right across the church to enable people to understand each other and to find ways forward in what is a very complex subject.”

Noting that Welby had visited Nigeria 75 times over the years, the interviewer then asked him, “Do you think you can build bridges with the Church in Nigeria over this issue and others?”  Welby responded, “I don’t think it’s so much a matter of building bridges.  I owe Nigeria and Africa a huge amount.  It’s where I found faith, in Kenya.  Nigeria has nurtured me and it’s a country I love.  So it’s not a case of building bridges, it’s a case of living out the fellowship that Christ has given us, the love that Christ has given us for one another.”

This is a wise response, though the past pattern of Anglican leaders in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya around the sexuality controversy make it unlikely that even such a simple and candid expression of Christian fellowship will make much difference to them.

Equally and perhaps more important, the interviewer then brought up Christian-Muslim relations and asked whether Welby would be active in Tony Blair’s initiative to address Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria, to which Welby responded, “Providing that the Nigerian church is happy with that, yes, very much so – something I feel passionately about is trying to avoid situations of destructive conflict.”

We pray him well.

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