Through a glass darkly – 35

Uniformity and diversity in church life

There was a story in the papers at the end of December about a London church where attendance has grown dramatically since they switched their services back to the Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 traditional Church of England Prayer Book. Denis Lennon, my training Rector at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, Edinburgh used to say that you could fill the church by targeting your services to appeal to, say, bikers in leathers with a passion for the Book of Common Prayer. People would travel a long way for such a niche product. But, he would add, that is not what church life is about; it is our job to build a congregation that reflects the community where the church is placed.

Anglican Church of Rwanda

When Susie and I moved from Christ Church, Duns, a welcoming but essentially mono-cultural church in the Scottish Borders, to the Lyon Anglican Church [now named Trinity Church, Lyon] we were immediately struck by the diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nature of the congregation. The majority of the members of the Church Council were [in 2000] expat Brits or native French, but the hundred or so people in church on Sunday morning would come from a dozen, and up to twenty, countries. In the early years we had a steady trickle of Nigerians; as well as Africans from Kenya, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. A few years later we had a steady trickle of new arrivals from Asia; from Hong Kong, from mainland China, from South Korea, and above all from Singapore. In [I think] 2006 there were five new people elected to the Church Council, speaking five different languages; from France, the United States, Nigeria, Singapore, and Taiwan. Very few of these people were Anglicans, which seemed to worry one of our bishops. And there was a constant turnover of members, as students and people employed on short-term contracts went home or moved on elsewhere. But the cultural and linguistic diversity was a great joy. And the congregation reflected, so I liked to think, the “people of God of every race, language, people and nation”,  of John’s great vision in Revelation 5.

That sort of ethnic and cultural diversity is something we miss at home here in Edinburgh. But I am aware that in Trinity Church, Lyon, and in St Nicolas of Myra in Ankara, and closer to home in The Old Church, Smethwick, there have been very significant numbers of Iranians coming to faith and to join in Sunday worship. There has been since 2019 an authorised Farsi translation of Common Worship.  When the book was launched at a service in Wakefield Cathedral, Bishop Paul Butler made the point that whereas on the Day of Pentecost there was no-one present who spoke English, there were undoubtedly people who spoke something very like Farsi. So, remembering Philip Jenkins’ insistence [see TaGD – 33] that it is dangerous for churches to invest exclusively in one ethnic or linguistic group at the expense of others, that “churches survive best when they diversify in global terms”; I thought it was time to read a little book on World Christianity.

Lamin Sanneh: Whose religion is Christianity ?

Professor Lamin Sanneh, who died suddenly at the beginning of 2019, was born in Gambia in 1942, grew up as a Muslim, but converted to Christianity as a teenager. He studied Islam and Christianity in Birmingham and in Beirut and in London, and taught mission and religious studies in the University of Ghana, and in Aberdeen, and then at Harvard. When he died he had been Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School since 1989. He wrote a number of books on Christianity and Islam in Africa, on the history of Christian Mission, and this quite small book on the cross-cultural expansion of the Christian faith in a post-colonial era.

Whose religion is Christianity ?

Many writers have assumed that because of irreversible secularisation we are living in a post-Christian culture. But Sanneh sees evidence of a worldwide resurgence of Christianity. He wants to bridge the gap between a robust secularism and a quiescent private piety. The book uses an interactive interview style. Sanneh wants to demonstrate that disagreement is not a barrier to dialogue. We are often “confused by the idea that difference is threatening, fanatical, harmful, and negative while uniform agreement is sound, inclusive, and enlightened”. 

World Christianity and Christendom

Sanneh defines World Christianity as “the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that were not previously Christian”. As opposed to Global Christianity which is “the faithful replications of forms and patterns developed in Europe”. This latter is akin to Christendom, which refers to the imperial phase of Christianity when it became a domain of the state.

In World Christianity western Christians can discover the gospel as it develops in futures not shaped by the Enlightenment. African Christianity brings together religious enthusiasm and a widespread disenchantment with political structures. Which is not dissimilar to New Testament Christianity. For organised religion state patronage has been a mixed blessing. In the West Sanneh detects a retreat into isolation; he evokes Sir Edward Grey and the lights going out all over Europe;  “the religious imagination seems to have been hit with a bout of melancholy as it labours with the strains of Abide with me, fast falls the eventide and The day Thou gavest Lord has ended”.

Mission in Africa

Sanneh concedes that the Christian church has a mixed record in Africa; white rule in Zimbabwe, and Calvinist-inspired apartheid in South Africa. But he argues that African Christianity has been significantly different from 17th and 18th century Christendom. Sanneh believes that revival has been driven by the end of colonialism; by mother tongue development and Bible translation; and by indigenous cultural renewal. He sees Christianity as building on the older religions, and their values. It is appropriated into local frameworks, but is still distinctively Christian. Thus the tribes of Namibia speak of Ndjambi Karunga, the God who owns the skies, and who loves everybody and who punishes nobody. Sanneh distinguishes between Africans coming to discover the gospel through the work of missionaries and indigenous people discovering the faith through mother tongue discernment and in the light of their own experiences.

Sanneh wants people to be converted to God rather than to other people’s experience of God. He doesn’t see how Europeans can continue teach the faith without paying attention to Christianity’s successful cross-border  expansion in post-colonial societies. The Yoruba draw on their own heritage of Ifa divination. The Masai speak of a journey of faith in a God who out of love created the world and us; and of how they once knew this God in darkness, but now know him in light. “He lay buried in the grave, and the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose …”.

Masai Community Church

Sanneh introduces us to Bishop Ajayi Crowther [c.1807-91]; sold into slavery in Lagos, set free by a British Naval Squadron, a convert from Islam who rose to a position of leadership in the church. He was a pioneer of the indigenous discovery of Christianity. His Yoruba Bible of 1851 was the first Bible in an African language. He promoted dialogue with Muslims. Bishop Crowther had a dual role as child of Africa and as commissioned agent of a global religion.

Christianity Reappropriated: translation and renewal

Christianity is unique as a world religion that is transmitted a language and culture other than that of its founder. The New Testament Gospels are a translation of the message of Jesus. In later centuries Christians became pioneers of linguistic development, with the creation of alphabets and dictionaries and grammars. All in total contrast with Islam where the Quran is preserved in its original Arabic. And where translations may not be used in public worship.

Traditionally religious language is used to mystify and to intimidate, to exclude people. But Jesus departs from that tradition; he uses clear and simple language. “Jesus rated spiritual deafness, not illiteracy, as the greatest impediment to receiving the gospel”. 

For the Church Fathers the Greek Bible was the authoritative scripture. Which was followed by Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, in the 4th century. The Council of Trent in 1546 authorised the Vulgate as the authoritative Catholic Bible. For English speakers that status was accorded to the Authorised Version, the King James Bible. Which “acquired an apocryphal reputation as the only Scripture that Jesus knew”. [I think I heard that comment in Duns in the 1990s !] Christianity has felt congenial in English, French, and Spanish; but less congenial in, for example, Tamil or Igbo or Yoruba. But Sanneh insists that “bible translation into the mother tongue has opened the way for worldwide Chrisgian renewal”.

Wycliffe Bible Translators

Sanneh wants to demonstrate that Bible translation stimulates the indigenous narrative tradition. “Bible translation represents a revolutionary concept of religion as something translatable and ambi-cultural”. And Bible translation gives power to ordinary [indigenous] people, including women and children. In Africa it has been a broadening experience for churches; and has facilitated ecumenical co-operation on an unprecedented scale. 

Sanneh concludes:  “Christianity is not a religion of cultural uniformity  …  Bible translation enabled Christianity to break free culturally of its Western domestication to create movements of resurgence that transformed the religion into a world faith”.


Lamin Sanneh is of course not the first person to write about World Christianity. The term had already been in use since 1945, perhaps earlier. And his distinction between World Christianity and Global Christianity is seen by other scholars [including Philip Jenkins, see TaGD 33]  as being contrived and unhelpful. But Sanneh has been influential in moving the subject away from the history of western mission, and focusing rather on the many forms of indigenous response to the gospel. And he has helped us to appreciate the post-colonial context of church growth in Africa, and also the importance of bible translation work.

How might this speak to those who are involved in [what the Church of Scotland calls] Home Mission ? I was very struck by his relating European Christianity to Sir Edward Grey’s ‘lights going out all over Europe’. [Which may not be entirely fair ?] And by Sanneh’s insistence that the gospel has to be communicated in a way that enables the learner to receive it in his or her cultural framework [preconceptions]. In our preaching are we attempting to convert people to to God ? Or simply seeking to replicate in them our own experience of God ? For me those are challenging questions.

January 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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