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Harold T. Lewis

If it is difficult to pinpoint when and where the Afro-Anglican movement began, it is because there is no such time or place. Afro-Anglicanism can be described as the gradual coming of age of Anglicans of color, who realized that while they have readily and enthusiastically embraced traditional expressions of Anglican polity and liturgy, they have nevertheless believed that their peculiar history compelled them to tell a story uniquely theirs, which would complement and provide a corrective for what had masqueraded as the sum total of Anglicanism for four centuries. As I remarked at the second Afro-Anglican Conference in Cape Town in 1995, Afro-Anglicans wanted to tell the world that Anglican theology did not come to a grinding halt when Hooker’s pen ran out of ink! Afro-Anglicanism, then, was an inevitable consequence of and the ecclesiastical counterpart to the overlapping struggles for justice and racial equality in the United States, Central and South America, the West Indies, the African continent, and elsewhere, which dominated the world stage during the second half of the twentieth century. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to describe Afro-Anglicanism as Anglicanism’s contribution to the corpus of liberation theology.

For me, the concept of Afro-Anglicanism may well have crystallized in the autumn of 1983, in the admittedly unlikely place of Spokane, Washington. I had just assumed the directorship of the Office of Black Ministries for the Episcopal Church, and at the urging of my friend and mentor, the late Walter Decoster Dennis, bishop suffragan of New York, I hosted a gathering for all the black bishops who were in attendance at the annual meeting of the House of Bishops. In addition to “domestic” mitred leaders, I had also issued invitations to bishops of color from the so-called overseas jurisdictions of the Episcopal Church. I shall never forget the words of the late Luc Anatole Garnier, bishop of Haiti: “I am extremely grateful that the Episcopal Church has finally recognized the fact that I, too, am black!” The bishops of the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica added their assent. On this occasion, the bishops began the important process of eschewing the arbitrary identities--geographical, linguistic, cultural--conferred upon them by the church, and began to celebrate instead their common roots and shared experiences.

The bishops in Spokane, and bishops, clergy, and laypersons in attendance at Afro-Anglican gatherings since then, achieved nothing less than forging a new identity, a new understanding of themselves. It is no wonder, then, that the theme of identity is one to which the speakers at the Third International Conference on Afro-Anglicanism repeatedly returned. This is why Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane could proclaim that “for those whose ancestors were wrenched from their homes, there is a different pain of loss of identity, and a different search for an authentic past to call one’s own.” This is why Canon George Brandt asserted that “much of our history as Afro-Anglicans is bound up with being in the church of the slave holders and the slaves.” This is why Dr. Kortright Davis observed that in the American lexicon, “black,” in the days of the civil rights movement and for some time afterwards, referred only to those people of color born in the United States, and not to those “blessed with ebony grace, but not with American birth.”

Afro-Anglicanism, however, has not been a navel-gazing exercise through which black Anglicans could come to grips with their identity. While the inaugural conference in Barbados set the agenda and goals of the movement in its theme “Present Issues, Future Tasks,” the two successive gatherings have concentrated on what Afro-Anglicans have brought to the table, and how Afro-Anglicans have enriched the Anglican mosaic. It was altogether fitting and proper, then, that the Cape Town conference--held three years prior to the first Lambeth Conference at which bishops of color, especially from Africa, outnumbered for the first time bishops of Anglo-Saxon stock--should examine Afro-Anglicans’ “identity, integrity and impact in the Decade of Evangelism.” And recognizing that such contributions had become universally recognized, the Toronto conference held up as its theme “Celebrating the gifts of Afro-Anglicanism.” The papers and sermons that follow speak of those special gifts.

Father Michael Clarke, a priest from the Virgin Islands, held up for his fellow conferees the gifts that young Afro-Anglicans bring to the church. For many of us, it was a sobering fact that the large complement of teenagers in Toronto had not yet been born when the first Afro-Anglican Conference took place in Barbados. This means that they embrace Anglicanism quite differently than the “old guard.” Indigenous (as opposed to colonial) leadership is a given in their parishes and dioceses. Contemporary and locally-inspired liturgical forms, formerly understood as not conforming to the Anglican rubric of “decently and in good order,” are now de rigueur. This means that as young people assume the mantle of leadership they will have fewer “hang-ups” to shed. They are well equipped, according to Father Clarke, “to stand firmly on the stage not only of the local communities, but at a level that can have the greatest effect for change in the world.”

Esther Mombo, one of the leading theological voices on the African continent today, offers a critical assessment of how the Windsor Report has affected Afro-Anglicanism and vice-versa. That report--promulgated in the wake of the consecration of Anglicanism’s first openly gay bishop--when seen in connection with subsequent documents issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Global South Primates, and others, has in many ways presented a serious challenge to Anglicanism. There now seems to be emerging a polity which is more rigid than supple, more contractual and covenantal, and more curial than collegial. Dr. Mombo looks at how these new tensions, which did not exist to the same extent at the beginning of the Afro-Anglican movement two decades ago, will affect relationships among Afro-Anglicans as well as between Afro-Anglicans and their sisters and brothers throughout the Anglican Communion.

Barney Pityana’s keynote address serves to remind us that there is a world outside our stained glass windows in which we move, live, breathe, and have our being. As Principal of the University of South Africa and professor of international and indigenous law, Dr. Pityana is uniquely qualified to describe the effect of the “principalities and powers” who largely set the agenda for our society. As a priest, he is uniquely qualified to describe the role of the church as a moral conscience in the world to which we have been called to preach and show forth the gospel, as we labor to combat AIDS and to make poverty history.

Kortright Davis’s paper is an assessment of the Codrington Consensus, the document promulgated by the first Conference as the apologia of the movement. Written twenty years ago in “the crucible out of which our cultural and ecclesiastical fires were burning,” the document seems to have stood the test of time, precisely because its framers refused to accept as its premise what Dr. Davis calls the “hegemonic tripod of Scripture, tradition and reason,” and opted instead to predicate its argument upon “a more liberated class of theological categories” better suited to those writing and experiencing theology from the vantage point of those who, historically, have been among the class of the oppressed. It can be said that the Toronto Accord, the successor document to the Codrington Consensus and the Cape Town Summation, builds on their foundations, while giving needed attention to matters that were not at the fore ten or twenty years ago, such as “Anglican concerns” (a euphemism for the unprecedented turmoil in the church today), human sexuality, and the Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, the late Canon Frederick Boyd Williams, preacher at the closing Eucharist, emphasized to the congregation in St. James Cathedral that one of the greatest gifts that Afro-Anglicans bring to their sisters and brothers is the very history of oppression that they share. “We are endowed,” he declared, “with power to endure, even when persecuted, insulted or derided.” Canon Williams pointed out that such gifts are especially useful to all Anglicans today, as we are all beset with the “issues” that divide us, especially race, gender and sexual orientation. He reminded those present that Afro-Anglicans are uniquely qualified to insist that such issues are different from the essentials of our Christian faith, and that it is “our prophetic and pastoral task to separate the wheat from the chaff . . . and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, whether it is popular or not to do so.”

In many ways, Canon Williams was echoing a hope expressed in Archbishop Ndungane’s opening sermon, that Afro-Anglicans might be “a prophetic icon of God’s creative diversity, held together in Christ’s redemptive unity.” Indeed, I would suggest that the common thread that holds together all the contributors to the Third Conference on Afro-Anglicanism is that they cherish the belief that Afro-Anglicans are called by God to be “a vision of hope for our church.”

I invite you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

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