African Christianity: Its Public Role

by Paul Gifford 1998. African Christianity: Its Public Role. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. A sophisticated political and social analysis of the various Christian groups is allied to a most original, consistent exploration of their different theological positions and thinking…. An interesting, important critical assessment of the extent to which the churches are playing a major role in the emergence of a civil society…. Gifford’s overall analysis and his four case studies are so fresh and so important that… they cry out for immediate publication.” —Richard Gray

In the 1970s and the 1990s, British Africanist scholars produced two groups of outstanding studies on Christianity in Africa funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Two works by Adrian Hastings (1979a, 1979b) and one by Edward Fashole-Luke et al. (1978) were in the first series. This volume as well as another by Gifford (1995) comprises the second set. Although they are the result of intellectual collaboration, each volume stands on its own. The 1970s, works situated Christianity in newly-independent sub-Saharan Africa. For many Africanists, they were the first introduction to the transition [End Page 228] of Christian churches moving from mission status to local leadership and autonomy, and above all, to the vibrant New Religious Movements (NRMs) or Independent Churches.

Gifford (1995) looked at the role of Christian churches in the democratization of sub-Saharan Africa. The present study has two goals: to analyze the interrelation of Christian church bodies in Africa, using the methodology of political economy, and to explore the public role of Christianity in Africa. After two chapters that describe changes in the African context from the 1970s to the present, the bulk of this book is devoted to four case histories: Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, and Cameroon. Each in its own way is fascinating.

The introductory chapter deftly sketches social and political pat-terns that have developed since independence. In each of the case studies this is repeated in detail, covering the present situations of Protestants, Catholics, and NRMs. Showing the network of elites, including clergy, who benefit from and contribute to patrimonial systems, Gifford outlines the ambiguity of the Christian churches. On one hand they are participants in clientism and are similar to the other institutions of the elite rul-ing system. This is illustrated by the examples that pepper the case studies: the anointing ceremony in Lusaka’s Anglican cathedral when Frederick Chiluba became president of Zambia in 1991 (p. 197); the episcopal praise of Idi Amin as “our redeemer and the light of God.” (p. 118); the close relations between Christian churches and President Paul Biya of Came-roon that opened the north to Christian evangelization.

On the other hand, religious values urge Christian leaders to take stances on justice, corruption, and the plight of the poor. The churches’ activist role often has tragic consequences, such as the murders of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum at Idi Amin’s behest, of the Jesuit intellectual Engelbert Mveng of Cameroon, and of Catholic Archbishop Elias Mutale of Zambia—all after strong protests against government misuse of power.

Where Gifford’s book is at its strongest is in the analysis of the internal politics of the individual churches—their decision-making processes, organization, finances, and relationships. Ethnic tensions and strains between expatriate missionaries and local clergy are particularly well outlined, with an objectivity that is refreshing in comparison with much of the religious literature emanating from Africa today. One can only admire Gifford’s thorough and systematic analysis, based on both his familiarity with existing scholarship and his careful field work. His treatment of corruption, tribalism, and financial irresponsibility within the Christian churches is balanced and frank, but never demeaning.

Table of Contents
1. The Context: Africa Now
2. African Churches: Their Global Context
3. Ghana
4. Uganda
5. Zambia
6. Cameroon
7. Conclusion
Select Bibliography

Paul Gifford is Lecturer in African Christianity at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His previous books include Christianity and Politics in Doe’s Liberia and The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of Africa.