Africans and the European Soul
July 20, 2005 12 Comments
Are the Formerly Colonised Set To Colonise Their Colonisers?
It has come to my delighted attention that African churches are increasingly sending missionaries to the United Kingdom. And that the declining number of British volunteers joining the Catholic priesthood – in Wales for instance – has meant that African priests are increasingly taking over rural parishes. This crisis of belief, if it can be so termed, is so pervasive that churches are closing daily which means that the trend of an Africanised priesthood is only likely to grow. In the cities, London being a fine example, African Protestant and charismatic churches are also growing apace, seeking to emulate their counterparts on the continent.
We are entering an era when the welfare of the European soul shall be in the hands of the African. Europe has always had a peculiar need for Africa as a guiding light to its self awareness. The two, African and European, in the latter’s mind at least, have occupied opposed sides of a binary divide for the last couple of hundred years: black vs. white; stupid as opposed to intelligent; savage vs. civilised; backward vs. forward; lazy vs. industrious…
That Europe has become more secular is public knowledge, as is the rise of state power at the expense of the church. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, recently argued that ‘christianity is close to being vanquished’ and has little influence on government or the public here.
One of the founding ideas of colonialism, and slavery before it, was the state of the soul: Africans were supposed to have none while Europeans were blessed with a hefty, healthy one. But this duality has been turned on its head. No sooner had some wise men in the late nineteenth century concluded that the African indeed did have a soul – a donor driven plot if there was ever one – that Europeans started denying the existence of theirs. As always, our opposed positions had to be maintained.
With its back to the wall, the Catholic Church is now speaking of the need to re-evangelise the West. A meeting of over 100 bishops in 2004, sponsored by the Vatican, discussed a strategy of clergy exchanges to address the crisis. Africans having plentiful manpower in their rapidly growing churches would fill the gap in Europe while small numbers of European clergy provision Africa with their greater pastoral experience. This of course merely represents the last gasp of a European church that is suffering from a colonial hangover and that imagines itself to be the center. The re-evangelising of the West shall not come under its auspices.
The Africans who shall increasingly take up pastoral duties here will be off-shoots of their home churches. They shall reflect a conservatism and syncretism that shall be unlike anything else the European Christian has ever encountered. Gone will be the sleepy little churches that dot the countryside and welcome to the drive to create super churches that lay claim to large areas of their parishioners’ lives. The Nigerian priest in Wales will look toward the African Diaspora in the cities first and then to Nigeria for inspiration of how to conduct his pastoral duties. The local church, low on morale, and the state secularised to the point of ignoring the Christian church as a possible source of opposition (all state eyes will be on the mosque), will offer no counter balance to the most potent African presence there has ever been in Europe. The African evangelist – many who are now being funded by congregations in Africa – will be here to lay claim to the European soul.
Let me try and extend this wild speculation.
Europeans have steadily transformed their institutions into rational-bureaucratic models that are far less reliant on charismatic power than they used to be. The church which historically laid claim to bureaucratic power on the basis of its hold of the charismatic-transcendental realm has seen the both these positions undermined fundamentally. The African church, on the other hand, whether Catholic or Protestant, is only in the early stages of its rise: its claims to domination of the charismatic-transcendental or the soul are unlimited and are supported by more people every year. Soon I suspect its boundaries will begin to bump up against those of the African state which being weak and lacking strong ideological or moral foundations shall be absorbed ever more into it. The church’s innate drive to expand, under the banner of evangelisation, will have a huge impact on Europe. The entry of African priests, immigrants and missionaries will be lead to their domination of the terms under which the soul and its salvation can be approached by individual Christians. No longer will the division between church and state be automatically assumed; no longer will the European state have a beaten and pliant church to co-exist with. It will be dealing with a dominant, dominating force.
Since this is an out-there speculation, surely there is no harm in extending it slightly.
Let us for a minute assume that the increasing pilgrimages by European Christians to churches in Africa is the leading trend of an amazing rebound in the European public’s desire for spiritual nourishment (just look at Madonna and Kabbalah, and the energy of the American southern Baptists). If this happens, as the African church grows in Europe, the binary nature of the two groups shall once again be on show. You will see on one hand an African led soul-revival that shall in effect be the anti-power to the bureaucratic-rational forms of European state power. It shall be power vs. anti-power; state vs. church; and utility vs. transcendence.
The image of Africa in Europe, as a place of darkness, has always relied on more than the image of death and suffering that has been such a large part of its historical experience. This image in the European imagination has been attributed to the African lacking a soul or possessing a perverted one. Now, the growth of the African church in the vacuum left by its European counterpart will overturn this idea of darkness. Africa’s problems, increasingly part of the European public’s ‘we can help and its not fair’ posture, will, in combination with the upsurge in the fortunes of the church, take on a kind of holy aspect.
Meanwhile, Europe’s secularism and tortured anti-materialist, you-can-believe-and-do-anything rhetoric has the effect of consigning it to spiritual darkness or nihilism. And at least one bridge to the light shall be provided by Africans and their churches. From the historical position of Europeans using African misery and ‘savagery’ as a measure of their affluence and ‘civilisation’, we shall move to a Europe whose definition of its fallen soul is reliant ona comparison to Africa’s enlightened one.
Though this will not necessarily mean that the tangible forms of Europe’s state power will be African or answer to Africa’s political institutions, it will nevertheless be a colonisation of the European in that part of the contest that has always mattered the most between this ying and yang relationship: the soul.
That brings this speculation to an end. I enjoyed it seeing as I was procrastinating all afternoon and had no ready access to other entertainments.