Why the Next Archbishop of Canterbury Should Be African

Fifty years ago, Howard Johnson, a priest at the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, visited the nascent Anglican Church in Nigeria. He was distressed at the the unnecessary “Britishness” of the Church—“are cutaway coats and Gothic slits of the essence of Christianity?” he asked—and the Church’s inability to keep pace with the growth of Islam. “Unless we change our tactics and treble our efforts, Christianity may be doomed to play a diminishing role in the drama of African development,” he concluded.

But Johnson was wrong. Today, the Anglican Church in Nigeria is a central player in a vibrant and aggressive religious marketplace. Along with Pentecostal churches, other so-called “mission denominations,” and, yes, Islam, something like twenty million Nigerian Anglicans compete for attention. And they do so as part of a world Church. The church’s official name is Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), indicating the way in which they see themselves as part of the worldwide family of churches who look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as their “focus of unity.”

Nigeria is hardly the only African country where Anglicanism is growing quickly. In the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, the Episcopal Church of Sudan is a critical voice for peace in a divided and unstable nation. Nearly half the population identifies as Anglican, following rapid growth during the country’s recently-ended civil war. Across southern Africa, the Anglican Church, following the model of its onetime leader Desmond Tutu, continues to be a voice of reconciliation in countries like Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, of course, the opposite is true for the church in the Euro-Atlantic world. Johnson’s disappointment about the future of the Nigerian Church could best be applied to England, where fewer and fewer people attend church and surveys show young people don’t see the need for faith. The European Union’s constitution omits any mention of Christianity, the historic faith of the continent. Yet Europe still controls the leadership roles in the Church. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury—leaders of two of Christianity’s largest groupings—are European.

The World Council of Churches is headquartered in Geneva, even though there are probably more Christians in a neighborhood of Lagos or Nairobi than all of Switzerland.

It is in this context that the attention of the Anglican Communion has again turned to Canterbury. The bishop’s chair there will soon be vacant, even as Rowan Williams takes full advantage of the months preceding his December retirement. And while speculation as to his successor runs hot, most observers place their bets on current occupants of English sees. That would be a mistake. As the Anglican Communion continues its growth in the non-Western world, I believe its nominal leader must reflect that change: it is time for an African Archbishop of Canterbury.

But who?

Take Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of Cape Town, who sits in the chair once occupied by Desmond Tutu. Makgoba trained as a psychologist and is young (by the standards of bishops), educated, and eloquent. He has been outspoken on the continued deterioration in Zimbabwe and the persecution of the Church there by the Mugabe regime, as well as racial and inter-ethnic violence in South Africa.

Nigeria has more bishops than any other Church in the Anglican Communion and some deserve consideration for the vacancy in Canterbury. Cyril Okorocha, bishop of the diocese of Owerri, was a leading evangelist in the Nigerian religious revival that began after the Biafran War. In the 1990s, he worked for a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, coordinating the Anglican Communion’s Decade of Evangelism. Forgotten or derided in the Euro-Atlantic Church, where evangelism seems to have become a dirty word, Okorocha’s efforts are more fondly remembered in the non-Western Church.

Elsewhere in Nigeria, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, bishop of Kaduna, is a serious scholar of Islam. He has put his education to good use in his two decades as bishop of a diocese on the frontlines of tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. At one point, he looked likely to scale the hierarchy of the Nigerian Church until he criticized the decision by Nigerian bishops to boycott the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world. Idowu-Fearon has continued to urge senior Nigerian bishops to remain in conversation with Anglican leaders from around the world, and been excluded from the corridors of power in the Nigerian Church as a result.

(One candidate often mentioned as a favorite for Canterbury is John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. Sentamu is Ugandan but has a long history in the Church of England that has left him enmeshed in the current politics of the national church. Moreover, his public opposition to same-sex marriage in England is controversial.)

Anglicans have been consumed by sexuality-related issues for the last decade. The next archbishop’s past statements will be read closely for clues as to his views on the role of gay and lesbian people in the Church, though the archbishop’s role is best seen as one of holding space open for conversation, not imposing a single view (not to mention the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, lacking the authority of the Pope, has only “persuasion and good will” at his disposal, as Peter Stanford recently explained in the Telegraph).

The views of each of these bishops in this ongoing debate are not entirely clear, though Makgoba has said sexuality need not be a Church-dividing issue. More importantly, each of these men (and the next archbishop will certainly be a man, given the Church of England’s continued opposition to women in the episcopacy) has the potential to shift the conversation in the church to other significant topics—Church growth, for instance, or interfaith relations, global poverty or state-sanctioned violence—that have been neglected.

Any of these candidates—not to mention any of the young, educated, and inspiring bishops in South Sudan who are at the forefront of rebuilding that shattered and devastated country—could galvanize the attention of a global Church. 

None would be without his own set of difficulties—the role is famously thankless. None, certainly, would conform to the traditional expectations for the Archbishop of Canterbury. But that, perhaps, is precisely the point. The current pattern of appointing a grey- or no-haired white male as Archbishop of Canterbury has produced little in the way of progress for the Anglican Communion.

It is time for something different.