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an essay for Anglicans Online
In Nigeria, the Anglican is on the endangered species list, gradually vanishing from the religious ecosystem. Unlike his relatives across the Atlantic in the Western world, Homo nigerianus anglicanus is not under threat because his natural habitat of practiced Christianity is vanishing; but rather due to rapid mutation into the Pentecostal variant of the species.
This writer remembers how things were several years ago when he was a boy at a British-style boarding school, where religious observance was strictly enforced. Distinctions were clearly drawn. Either you were a Muslim or a Christian. If you were Muslim, you had to attend Friday prayers. If you were Christian, you were either Catholic or otherwise. If the former, 6 o’clock Mass on Sundays was your fate, and if you were not Catholic, then you were officially classified as Protestant and in which case, it was off to the nearest Anglican church with you, willy-nilly. Memories of discomfited, neatly-blazered Methodists, Adventists, Presbyterians, Adventists, AME Zionists, the odd freethinker, non-conformist, animist or out-and-out pagan and assorted denominational mongrels and crossbreeds spluttering and grumbling in the back pews of venerable old Our Saviour’s Church are still vivid.
This was the mid-1980’s. Fast forward to the early 21st century, and the religious scene here is greatly changed. Pentecostal churches of every stripe, doctrine, and ownership litter the landscape, and the so-called established or “Orthodox” churches (the Catholics, Anglicans and other Anglo Protestants like the Methodists, Presbyterians, etc) are hemorrhaging adherents by the thousand. Said defectors and cross- carpeters are mainly the young, who believe that the Pentecostal message, which leans heavily on worldly prosperity and the benefits available to claim from God through faith, is the best for these perilous times; “…no more of that patience of Job stuff..”. It is tentatively predicted that by the time our parents’ generation (baby boomers to Western ears) is dying out, Anglicanism will be saying its last goodbyes too.
Not all Anglicans are lying back and passively bewailing this state of affairs. A few reverend gentlemen are doing something about it, amongst who is the Vicar of St. Andrews’ Church, located in Aladinma, a pleasant suburb of Owerri, a small town in Eastern Nigeria. To the annoyance of many a traditional congregationalist, the Vicar has modernized (read “Pentecostalized”, they snort) the form of worship, dispensing with collects and liturgies by the handful. If you were to pass by the church of a Sunday mid-morning, you might be startled into taking a second look at its signboard by the sounds issuing therefrom; firstly people speaking in tongues, a key hallmark of the Pentecostal faith, and secondly, the blaring forth of modern “gospel” music, accompanied by loud singing in English and the local languages.
The Pentecostals are characterized by the inclusion in their services of much vibrant African singing and dancing, where the worshippers are encouraged to sing loudly, shake their externals in the name of dancing, and generally make all kinds of uninhibited motions and noises. This stands in stark contrast to the restrained hymn singing and dignified hands-clasped-behind-the-back processing which is the hallmark of Anglicanism.
In St. Andrews’, the Vicar, trying to prevent youth flight to Pentecostal suburbia, has set up a modern band, solely manned by young boys and girls, most of who are heavily weighed down by metal ornaments. At first, the band was more an ad hoc arrangement, with much improvisation and fumbling, and hastily selected performers. Then they cleaned up their act, and the church gave them a regular place on the weekly program (tagged “Praise and Worship”, American style). In the beginning was the word that their exuberance more than outweighed their skill, but gradually they improved, and actually began to hire themselves out for events such as wedding receptions and the like.
Delighted, the Vicar enthroned the band members in state in a set of four pews directly facing their berobed foes in the choir across, who could be seen on Sunday morning launching dark glares (and death threats too, we believed) at the bandsters. A battle royal then ensued between the two musical units of the church, but the choir, (with an average age of some 50-odd years) was not as nimble as the bandsters, (who can count two vicarial offspring amongst their number) and they lost the opening skirmishes in the PCC, to the bandsters’ glee.
But then the choristers fought back. Led by their venerable organist and chief bassist, they launched a breathtaking pre-emptive strike, seizing two more of the front pews from the bandsters, forcing them to beat a hasty retreat to the last two pews where they are forced to cluster together tightly for want of space.
At the ensuing peace talks held at the PCC, the bandsters were hampered by not having a representative on the PCC, (while the choir director is a member of that august body), so they were excluded from the protracted negotiations, and this may have led to their failure to obtain favourable terms. By the terms of the ceasefire brokered at the PPC, the church made many concessions to the choir, including agreeing to buy spanking new equipment for them also, and giving more place to A&M hymns.
Trifling though all this may seem, it foreshadows the growing conflict between the old and the new in Anglicanism. Should we modernize things? What does modernizing entail? If things weren’t much changed between Henry VIII’s time and now, then why is change required now? Is there no more place for some of the comforting ritual we are used to? (Yes, you guessed it: the use of the first person plural here shows that this writer, despite being in his early thirties, is one of the “many a traditional” congregrationalists).
Maybe we’ll be able to suss all this out, if the Communion can keep itself together long enough to decide.