The global face of Christianity

Mark Stephens on the election of a Sydney Anglican Archbishop from a non-European background, and the diversity of global Christianity.

In 1920, the writer and historian Hilaire Belloc said of Christianity: “The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.” That comment has not aged well.

100 years on, there remains a tendency to identity Christianity as white, Western, and European. This does not reflect Christianity’s Middle Eastern beginnings, and it no longer reflects Christianity’s present. As the historian Philip Jenkins puts it: “If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela.”

Even within the Western world, it is often immigrant communities where church attendance is most robust. Indeed in 2020, the think tank Theos found London was more religious than the rest of England, precisely because it is multi-cultural. It may well be the nonbelieving West which is the anomaly in an otherwise religious world.

This week, the Anglican Church of Sydney elected its first Archbishop from a non-European background. Kanishka Raffel is a Sri Lankan by birth, who immigrated to Australia at an early age. He brings to the job all the requisite experience, gifts and talents. But Raffel’s election signals a significant moment for representative leadership in the Australian church. In so doing, he provides a local instance of a more general truth. As the Ghanaian historian Lamin Sanneh once put it:

“Christianity is not intrinsically a religion of cultural uniformity, and…in its historical expansion it has demonstrated that empirically by reflecting the tremendous diversity and dynamism of the peoples of the world.”