Anglicanism expanding faster in Africa, Asia than in West Growth of Christianity shifts away from nations that had sent missionaries

August 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CANTERBURY, England -- As the world's Anglican bishops are gathered in this historic cathedral city for their once-a-decade meeting, the Lambeth Conference, a major trend can be discerned.

For the first time since these conferences began 130 years ago, the bishops who are heads of dioceses in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Churches of Canada and Australia -- which historically sent missionaries abroad -- are outnumbered by their counterparts from the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia, the continents to which so many of those missionaries were sent.

It is a sign of something larger, say some bishops and academic experts who study religious trends, that among the 37 churches that make up the Anglican Communion (and within other branches of Christianity as well), the center of gravity is gradually shifting toward the Southern Hemisphere. The faith there is growing rapidly, while memberships of many churches in North America and Europe increase slowly or even decline.

Within Anglicanism, "the growth takes place mostly in the south, in the developing churches," said Bishop Simon Chiwanga, a leading prelate at the conference, who is head of a diocese in east-central Tanzania.

The bishops from Africa and Asia have helped set the tone of discussions at this conference, which might be described as economically liberal and socially conservative.

The conference, for example, has expressed deep concern over foreign debts carried by developing nations, declaring that these impose a burden that keep poor countries mired in poverty.

At the same time, some African bishops have sided with church conservatives against any attempt by liberal bishops from the United States and Europe to adopt a more welcoming stance toward homosexuals in the church.

About 800 bishops are attending the three-week gathering, which ends next Sunday.

As late as 1978, a majority of the world's Anglicans lived in Britain, said David Barrett, a professor at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., who is editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, a compendium of statistics about churches around the globe. But today, he estimated, the British constitute only about 35 percent of 73 million Anglicans worldwide.

The Anglican population is increasing in Africa and Asia "while in Britain, it's declining very slightly," Barrett said. Similar patterns prevail among Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals and many independent churches, he said.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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