An overview of indigenous African churches in Britain:
an approach through the historical survey of African pentecostalism
Jerisdan H Jehu-Appiah
I find it difficult to talk about African churches because Africa doesn't exist as a unitary body of people. We are talking of several countries, more than three thousand ethnic groups, each different from the other, and several thousand more sub-cultures, religious practices, views of the world, of life, and so on; and so any attempt to do that - talk of Africa as such - would contain too much by way of over-generalisation, inaccuracies, and I think abuse in the long run. I have therefore chosen to concentrate on the West African scene, and even there to perhaps talk more about the experience in Nigeria and Ghana. What I want to do is not try to describe the African church scene, but to construct a historical basis that will help us to understand why the churches of African origin do things in the way that they do them today. I thought that would be the only thing I can do within the time we have, and that will be the only fruitful thing I can do now.
Why do we do things in the way that we do them? And when I say we, that is not to say that even in the two countries that I have selected, that is Nigeria and Ghana, all the churches there do things in the same way. There is as much difference and disagreement between and among the Ghanaian and Nigerian churches as there is perhaps between African and European churches. Somewhere along the line I will be looking at definitions of terms because I think that is very important. For the present I prefer the term 'Indigenous African Churches'. I dislike 'independent' churches, Black churches, and other descriptive terms like these. I have chosen 'Indigenous African' to differentiate them from other African churches which are not indigenous but which have been transplanted from North America and elsewhere. So you can find that I am trying to limit my field more and more. At this point let us go to the scriptures and read from the Apostle Paul from the book of Acts:
'From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us' (Acts 17: 26,27).
I wish to underline the second sentence, that God did this so that men would seek him and reach out for him, and to start by saying that the people of Africa, from the beginning of creation, have also been seeking after God and perhaps God allowed them to find him in the same way that the people of Europe and of America and elsewhere have been seeking after God and have perhaps been allowed by God to find him.
I have chosen to start from this quote because what I want to suggest is that when we talk of the human quest for God we are not talking about events in Europe alone, or even events that started in Europe, the way you would be led to conclude when you read the history of missionary activity. 'The whole earth' is what the scripture reading says, and that includes Africa. The quest for God, the quest for a relationship with the supreme Creator, and for understanding his dealings with his creatures, including the performance of ritualistic and symbolic practices as expressions of this understanding and relationship, has been going on in what is described as worship in so many different forms in different parts of the world. When some Western European explorers and missionaries recorded in their reports after their visits to Africa that the African peoples had no religion, we can, in the light of what we know and understand, only conclude that some of those missionaries and explorers who were said to be 'bringing light' to the natives of the 'dark continent' were indeed uneducated, simplistic and shamefully ignorant. The African people have always had a religion. What was lacking was knowledge on the part of those who were commenting on what the African people were doing. Everybody who has studied the African people would also come to the same conclusion, that anybody who said they had no religion was very simplistic.
Yet we cannot ignore what those people said and wrote about Africa and African Christianity. This is because Christianity in Africa has been seen, even up to today, largely in the context of, and with reference to, these missionaries. I am not into missionary bashing here. What I am trying to do is to say that, yes, a lot was achieved on behalf of and for the people of Africa and other part of the world in some areas of missionary activity. Though debatable, one could say that missionary Christianity clarified for the Africans certain statements and truths that they had held for centuries but which had become too deeply enmeshed in the multiplicity of cultures on the continent to retain its Christ-distinctiveness. However, in the areas that I am discussing a lot was destroyed, and that is what I wish to look at. Let us start with one clear statement here: the missionaries did not introduce Christianity to Africa. One of the statements which is wrongly made and which, disappointingly today, some European missionary and evangelical colleges still teach their students, is that it was the missionaries who took Christianity to Africa. Any who are honest about what they know will tell you that this is not so. Some people (eg Parrinder) record that Christianity was established in Egypt and Ethiopia in about 600 AD, ages before the first of the modern missionaries entered Africa. But I would put it even much earlier than that.
Part of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, became part of the Roman Empire about 150 years BC. For this reason there was a lot of communication, travelling, trading and so on between Africa and the part of Europe that the Empire covered, including Palestine. Alexander the Great's trade routes also passed through Africa and there was a lot of trading between that part of the world and further west into Nigeria and the Niger delta, to the eastern parts of Africa, Ethiopia and so on. This is historically verifiable. During the time of Jesus Christ, therefore, traffic between Africa and Palestine was common. A Roman general, Suetonius Paulinus, is said to have come as far south across the Sahara as the streams flowing off the Niger; this is dated as 50 AD. The ancient Mali, Songhai, and Ghana empires, the places occupied by modern Nigeria, Ghana, Chad, Mali, Senegal etc, as well as the places further East to Sudan and Ethiopia, and to the north Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, all had active trading links with Rome and Palestine. The evidence is the finding of ancient Roman beads in the graves of Asante chiefs in Ghana, in Hausaland in Nigeria, of the same sort dug up in the Thames, and in the ashes of Pompeii (See Harry Johnston: A History of the Colonisation of Africa). That should tell us that they were trading about the same time. I am making the historical point that there was contact and traffic between Africa and Palestine even as far back as the Old Testament times, and during and after the period of Jesus Christ into the start of the Christian church in the first century AD.
The Book of Acts records that on the day of Pentecost, among those present were 'Jews from every nation under heaven'(2:5). We may ask, 'What does this refer to?' It refers to the world that they knew at that time; and that world they knew included Africa, as we have shown earlier. Both in the Bible and elsewhere there are accounts of people 'with Jewish blood' in parts of Africa, in the Senegal area in West Africa, in Ethiopia in the East, and in the Northern African coastlands. I do not think I am in a position to, nor is it essential, to discuss how they came to be there, but it may be sufficient here to suggest that Jews from Palestine could have fled and lived in those places following their failed revolt and subsequent persecution; in the period before Christ, and certainly following another failed revolt, the Cyrenaican revolt of AD 113. The point is that they were there. And the Book of Acts tells us further that the Jews present at the Day of Pentecost were: Parthians, Medes, Elamites; people from Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2, 9-11).
So, we see that the Africans were there on the Day of Pentecost. And this was not 600 AD or in the 14th century. This was in the first century AD. There is also a record of an African from Ethiopia coming to worship in Jerusalem on the anniversary, of a Cyrenian (Libyan) forced to carry Jesus' cross, and Eusebius records that John Mark established Christian churches in Alexandria (Egypt). The account of twelve Christians led by a young woman by the name of Perpetua being martyred in AD 180 confirms the early presence of Christianity in Africa, much, much earlier than the missionaries came to Africa. Today there is a chapel said to be dedicated to St Perpetua in where Carthage (in Tunisia) used to be. I don't think I need to go any further than that.
Following the events of Acts 7 (the martyrdom of Stephen), the Acts again record that all Christians apart from the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. It is not inconceivable to suggest that those from Africa would have gone back to Africa, especially following the hunting for the Christians in which Paul is the most famous campaigner, in order to continue their trade and business, and that they would have continued the practice of the new religion in some form and attracted others to it. The case of the Ethiopian eunuch is an illustration that this actually happened.
Let me branch off at this point to discuss some aspects of African Traditional Religion, to suggest how the Christian religion could have been planted and practised in Africa by those who came into contact with it in Palestine. In African Traditional Religion, one may go to the seat of a deity, say 'Tigari', which would have gained a reputation because of the credits accorded for it, for some help. If one was impressed with the practice, because of the potency of the particular deity, they would acquire an icon of the deity which they would bring to their own town or village. They would set it up with all the necessary paraphernalia, and perform necessary rites as they had learnt; they would bring in their whole family, and as others heard about it and benefited from its potency, they would pledge themselves to it. They would say, 'Ode Tigari aba' (he has brought 'Tigari' here). He becomes the 'Obusumfu' (fetish priest), and his family become the custodians of the shrine. So one would find several Tagari shrines, each autonomous, and heavily influenced and shaped by the particular subculture; only certain elements would remain identifiable as Tigari to the outside observer. There is no allegiance to the seat of the Tigari shrine itself. There is only a notional relationship between this local one and the shrine itself, because 'Ode Tigari aba' does not suggest a branch of Tigari, especially as there are no founders of primal religions, but means that Tigari himself has come into town in his fullness. So one gets a Tigari here, and a Tigari there, and another Tigari there, which don't relate to each other in any way, except that there may be one commonalty, one strand of something that one found in them all including the fact that they regard themselves as a Tigari practice.
In course of time, the practice takes on a unique and changing form, particularly in practice and symbolic representation, according to the particular locality where it is located. This is possible because African Traditional Religion is not based upon credal statements and therefore there is nothing like heresy or anything like an aberration. Since African Traditional Religion does not have a founder, it emerges and so everybody starts it, and nobody claims ultimate authority over it or its practice. Only the deity itself is the authority. This practice persists to today. These religions are very dynamic, and are shaped and influenced in interaction with other cultures or religious practices through contact, and assume particular local characteristics. This would have happened to Christianity. It would have influenced and shaped, and itself been influenced and shaped by, the local religious and traditional practices of the African peoples. The symbols of the new religion would be transmuted to local culturally identifiable symbols.
I have dwelt on this because I want to demonstrate how it could have been that the Africans could have brought the Christian practice and teachings, once they had encountered them in Palestine, to their own towns and villages and communities. This would be especially so because the event of Pentecost was a conversion experience; a conversion experience burns in the heart and there is no one who could have been there who would not have been impressed by the communal life of the community built around the Apostles' teaching and prayers, who would have gone back to their own communities and not tried to practise what they had found there in Palestine. I submit that this is what happened to the earliest Christian practices in Africa. What went wrong, then? Nothing went wrong but what happened was that they practised some of the teachings and the new things they had learnt in Palestine, heard in Palestine, seen in Palestine, but continued them in a form so clothed in their own customs and cultures that an outside observer would have struggled to recognise it. It is not surprising that European Christians failed to recognise what they met and saw and heard in Africa.
There is a very strange thing happening here, further suggestions that this might have been the case. In many African cultures there are stories very parallel to the stories one finds in the Christian Bible. Many people would know that the Bible is a collection over a long period of time. Yet from legends and myths of the African peoples, they have their own accounts of the incarnation, of the God of the sky coming down in the form of a person, or spirit-filled persons, on earth. These people lived and worked among men imbued with power from their fathers who sent them here. I am not talking of the dealings of God or the deities with human beings, stories you find in Greek mythology and other parts of the world; these are particular legends about particular people. There are stories of particular vicarious sacrifices, and for instance among the Fante, there is the story of a famous man, Ahor, who, the legend has it, was killed so that his blood would free all the nation from the curses that were due to come upon them from the deity on account of their offences, and so on. Among the Akan of Ghana there is a tree which branches out in threes at every point, and they have given it the name Nyamedua (God-tree) and is commonly called baasakor (three-in-one). The God of the Fantes was a three-in-one God with three attributes (Obudamankoma, Osun, Odapagyan). One could cite many similar developments in Nigeria, in Cameroon, etc. Could these be attempts at describing the trinity? We are talking of a different kind of theologising as for instance involves a 'tree of life', which is accorded so many attributes that a Christian can recognise, but can recognise only through the culture and the customs and the traditions of the people.
Now, what is happening here? One of two things could have happened. Either that we interpret these stories of creation, of the incarnation, and of the vicarious sacrifice for the saving of sinful people and so on as happening about the same time these events were happening in a different way, through a different man, through a different ethnic group, in Palestine. That is one possibility - I would like to call that the theory of parallel development. But I think a more likely and more plausible possibility is that it is these same Palestine, Jewish, Hebrew, Christian stories, however one may call them, that were brought to Africa and told in these kinds of way in such a way as would make sense to the people. I think I need to conclude this part by repeating that the above suggests that the African people had been practising Christianity; they were teaching the universal attributes of God; they were preaching the creation, the Easter story, the incarnation and the atonement, the eucharist, and the doctrine of the Trinity, but these were subordinated in their enmeshing in their own folklore and legends. They did not explicitly call it Christianity, and perhaps did not use the name Jesus Christ. The fact that they were practising Christianity cannot be denied.
If that was the case, why didn't the missionaries know? There are several reasons. One is the absence of a desire to learn from the Africans once the Europeans had concluded that the Africans did not have a religion. The other was a product of a missiological approach which went for conversion, even if that meant coercion. So people had to be forced to accept the so-called new religion. When the two cultures met, the European and the African, one had to give way and the one to give way was the African 'whatever-it-was'. This approach is in practice even today in many parts of the world. There was also too much commercial interest at stake in the perpetuation of the notion that the Africans needed christianising. The Christian practice and message that they brought to Africa was not purely biblical, as we all know. For instance, the Africans were taught that Jesus was born on Christmas Day, that Jesus was killed at Easter; nothing was said about the pagan origins of the festivals. If it was European, it was to be accepted without question as Christian. Yet we all know that this is not true. Many other things were forced upon them, such that to be a Christian one ceased to be an African. In many cases people could not even wear African clothes to attend certain worship services. With the inducement of formal education, medical healthcare, and offers of scholarships to people to study overseas, the African people were persuaded to believe that everything African was evil and paganistic and heathen, and everything European was good and lovable and salvific. My own grandfather who was a Methodist catechist as recently as the beginning of this century, was expelled from the church because he dared play African drums in the church; yet he was alright playing pipe organs and pianos and violins. It was alright to summon people to church by the tolling of a cast-iron bell imported from Europe, but not acceptable to do so by the use of African talking drums. People converted to the faith were given Christian names, as were children to be christened, so one could be called Mensah Aborampa at home and among friends everywhere, but at school, at church, and in official documents, such a person would be called Peter Wellington Mensah.
The effect of this was to rob the Africans of their personhood once they became Christian; one could not be a proper Christian and an authentic African at the same time. The two were not compatible, and therefore it was one or the other. You would notice that when I use Christianity in this way, I am referring to Missionary Christianity, which is the kind of Christianity which is enmeshed in a lot of European myths and legends, customary, traditional and pagan practices, but forced upon the people of Africa as essential for the salvation of the soul, and which the people of Africa accepted obediently. When I talk of Missionary Christianity in Africa, I am distinguishing it from practices of the Christian religion by African peoples. And by their practice of the Christian religion I am not talking about congregational worship; I am not talking about hierarchical ministry; I am not talking about systems of doctrines and credal statements or great academic theological debates that construct these statements; I am not talking about organised and structured churches. I am talking about the core of the message of Jesus Christ; the experience of the life of Jesus Christ; the experience of the sacrifice and the meaning of the sacrifice to the people of the world - and all these were present in the Christian practices of the Africans clothed and infused with African customs and cultures, and absorbed into the African view of the world and way of life, lived and practised in folklore, myths and legends, in a way that spoke to the African soul and in a way that fulfilled the Africans' need for religion as an expression of a desired relationship with the Creator who provided their daily needs and regulated their lives. It is in this sense in which one would distinguish, for instance, a practice of Christianity in Britain before Augustine stepped on these shores. To deny that there was any Christianity in Africa before the missionaries came is like saying that there was no form of Christianity in this country before Augustine came here. But we know that this is not true.
The beneficiaries of the romanisation of parts of Africa which led eventually to the christianisation (as we understand it today) of those parts of Africa were the landlords, the bishops, the professors; some of them even became emperors - Roman emperors, and, significantly, these people spoke Latin and acquired Roman citizenship. They felt like higher citizens than the rest. The majority of the people, however, felt deprived and denigrated, exploited and robbed. Following after the same tradition, the beneficiaries of the missionary activity in Africa were, in the main, city dwellers, the rich who aspired to a higher lifestyle, the educated, and the powerful. Many of them spoke European languages fluently, some even made their children speak them at home. They were the people who joined the historic churches, the churches set up by the missionaries. They felt very much at home in those churches, as being Europeanised in manner and way of life, and the denial of their Africanness was for them a worthwhile ambition. The close relationship between missionary activity, trade and commerce, slavery and colonisation means that for most Africans there was nothing to benefit therefrom. However, there were a few Africans, the rich, educated and powerful and the rest that I have referred to, who benefited from these activities. They found them temptingly attractive, at least for personal gain and self-elevation.
This was the state of affairs until the beginning of this century. The persons of influence were the educated ones. They were the rich ones; they were the powerful ones; they were in the missionary churches. The practice in those days was to send people over to this part of the world on scholarships to study and go back home and help their folk. And when they came here they always went to the traditional universities, universities of very high repute. They went back to Africa in most cases completely robbed of their Africanness. They became de-Africanised, artificial Europeans. They adopted foreign lifestyles, and it was very easy for them to accept the theology of the missionaries. In any case that is the theology in which they would have been trained. They were the educated ones and they could push that down the throats of the other persons there who, because of minimal education, had no way of challenging them or debating with them. The result was that everybody who aspired to a higher lifestyle had to go to church. In any case going to church was the route to going to school, and so on. Eventually African theology came to be corrupted.
Today many people would read many African theologians and believe that because they are Africans what they write is African theology. But let us look at the backgrounds of most of those theologians to see if theirs is indeed theology from Africa - they are in the main Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists etc, educated in Europe and in America. As Africans they may be well qualified to do theology in the way Africans would like to do theology. But I am suggesting that they would see things through the eyes of their own particular acquired practice of the Christian religion. In terms of theologies emerging from the African people's own indigenous practice of Christianity, they may very well be outsiders, as much as European writers on African theology would be. They would often know nothing or very little, and have wrong and mistaken understandings of the theology and religious practices of those Indigenous African churches. As far as the writings about these churches are concerned, a lot needs to be clarified. Often they write about things they don't understand. I know this is a very controversial statement, so I wish to explain it with this brief illustration. A Ghanaian theologian visited the Musama Disco Christo Church in Ghana and witnessed a ceremony and went back to write a book, and it says that the Musama Church baptises by sprinkling, a point that has later been quoted by one or two European theologians. The point is not that there would be anything wrong if they baptised by sprinkling; but the point of the matter is that he saw something which looked to him like baptism, because he looked with the eye and mind of a Presbyterian, and wrongly interpreted what he saw, by forcing the rite into European Christian liturgiology. In fact what he witnessed was not baptism; it was a service of 'anointing for cleansing' of a mother after childbirth.
The Indigenous African Christian Churches
The Indigenous African Christian Churches emerged out of this theological and sociological context. It is sometimes said that the emergence of African churches in the beginning of this century was a a new phenomenon. What I have been trying to say all along is that this is not true. This may be true when we talk in terms of organized churches. But when we talk in terms of Christian practice, I submit that it is nearly two millenia old. The practice of indigenous Christianity even during the time of the missionary campaign was always present among the Africans. The Africans in the missionary churches never abandoned their particular practice of the Christian religion - only that they did not practise it within the context of the church. It was common, for instance, therefore, as is still the case with many Africans in the historic churches, for people to go to church and perform all that the Europeans had taught them and was required to be done, and then seek 'spiritual help' elsewhere outside of church, for protection from evil spirits, for fertility of land, safety at sea, childbirth, healing, guidance etc. They still believed in witchcraft, juju, other malevolent spirits etc, though they did not (do not) in the main indulge in them. Many African Christians still believe in superstitions and traditional beliefs, perform customary rites, such as those for the dead, hold certain taboos, and hold specific views and usually respect certain rites in relation to certain local or national customs though in most cases they did not worship other deities but God Almighty. They were living with a dichotomy of the minds and souls, which was the result of the attempt to supplant the core of their values of existence and beliefs with foreign ones. So people became quasi-Europeans on the Sunday morning and evening, returning to their homes to become Africans most of the time. When you consider that to Africans religion is a way of life, and centrally a part of life, you can begin to understand the immense tension of the situation.
As I have shown above, the practice of indigenous African Christianity was always there. It was bubbling beneath the surface. At some point in the history of Africa, at the beginning of this century, it burst out in the form of the crusades and evangelistic endeavors of people like Wade Harris, Jehu-Appiah, Samuel Yankson, Oshitelu, and others. Why was it that it became noticeable only at the beginning of this century? The disappointment and humiliation of leading Africans in the historic churches may have been one reason (for instance in Nigeria the case of Ajayi Crowther). But generally, as people felt more and more confident about the Christian churches of which they were members, and as they began to apply, perhaps less dogmatically, the teachings to their daily lives, they discovered some missing link between the words they preached and taught, and the Africans' world-view and daily experience of life. A new vibrancy and relevancy was needed. I could say more, and also about slavery and its abolition, but I will leave it here.
When William Wade Harris started his itinerant preaching along the west coast of Africa, he became so successful because there was a certain sharpness to his preaching. He accepted beliefs in witchcraft and evil spirits, and a belief in the continued relationship with the spirits of the dead and their influence on the living, something the missionary churches denied. When Jehu-Appiah started his preaching, he also addressed the same question of witchcraft and evil spirits. For instance, he held a personal belief in the existence of spiritual diseases and other spiritual affliction; he believed in juju and the demonic curses; he accepted that malevolent spirits inhabited certain objects such as rivers, trees and rocks; but beyond all of that he taught that faith in Jesus Christ was necessary to free oneself from all these forces and powers. The difference there was that like Harris he was not denying these, the way the missionary churches were doing. He was not saying it was irrational or primitive to believe in witchcraft. He did not dismiss or ignore this reality. But he affirmed a belief in a greater power, the power of Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus Christ they persuaded people to surrender their talismans, icons, shrines, etc to be burned, and to trust in Jesus. He performed divine healing, even though the missionary churches taught that the gift and practice of healing ceased with the Apostles. In fact, Jehu-Appiah took Paul seriously, who said that we wrestle against principalities and powers and the rulers of darkness.
Other people, such as Garrick Braide, followed in similar vein, drawing to him several people (one account says one million people) in Nigeria; Samuel Yankson, who is said to have inspired Jehu-Appiah, preached in similar vein, mainly along the Fanti coast of Ghana. All of them operated within the missionary churches, but those churches could not contain them or accommodate their emphases and teaching. Wade Harris for instance, even though highly successful in drawing people into the missionary churches, was largely repudiated by those same churches. He did not start a church, but many of the other movements emerged as churches. In 1919 Jehu-Appiah founded the Faith Society, which later (in 1922) became the Musama Disco Christo Church. Moses Orimolade Tonulase founded the Cherubim and Seraphim Church (1925) in Nigeria, and around the same time (some date it earlier) the Precious Stone Band emerged from the Anglican Church in Nigeria, and other churches such as the Church of the Lord (Aladura), the Christ Apostolic Church and the Aladura movement flourished around this time.
Why did these churches come about? Only one generalisation can be made - they were a natural development of the meeting of the Christian message with the cultures of the African peoples. All the leaders of the major movements - Wade Harris, Jehu-Appiah, Braide, Yankson, Tonulase, Oshitelu, Shadare, Wovenu, etc., preached two themes: complete trust, dependence and reliance upon God; and the abandonment of fetish relics and practices. They preached that the fetishes were no more necessary for a relationship with God, and for asking from God. All that the deities were believed to do God could do for them, and do it better if people trusted in him only and avoided the double life they were used to as members of the historic churches. This is where the indigenous churches are springing from.
The Indigenous African Churches in Europe
African churches started in the UK in the sixties, the first said to be the Church of the Lord (Aladura) in 1964. Many more were started in the mid-seventies, and quite a lot in the last ten years. There are three groups of African churches: branches in the UK of churches originating and operating in countries in Africa; churches started in Africa but which have since moved headquarters and operation to Britain, or which were started here but have since opened branches in Africa; and churches started in Britain which are completely autonomous and without any formal links with Africa. The churches of the first two groups tend to be more traditional in the sense that they have close roots and links to Africa; the third group tend more towards north American new-charismatic practice and teaching.
Over here people look at the indigenous African churches at worship and ask themselves, "Are they really Christian?" A Nigerian church shared the use of a church in South London for worship. After using the premises for a few years, they were asked to leave. It turned out later that they had been evicted because they had celebrated what they called a 'new moon festival', something the host church did not accept as Christian. Another church, a Ghanaian church worshipping also in South London, was asked to leave immediately after about a year or so because they had celebrated a harvest festival the way they do in Ghana (even in the missionary churches), and this caused offence to the host church. The fact is, there are many things that the churches here may be doing because that is the way they have known how; again, because their relationship to God is very different. Somebody told me the Africans have gone beyond religion. And he meant that Africans do not any longer believe in worshipping God for the sake of worshipping him. This also may not be a true observation. The thing is that the abstract is removed from African religion, and it is understandable to expect that in those churches of indigenous African origination, abstract themes and ideas do not have much place. As I have said above, religion to the African is an active expression of living in relation to the invisible, supernatural. You can see that even in their songs. One will find in European Christianity songs of the type:
My God how wonderful Thou art;
Much as it is sung also by African Christians, who share in the spirit and images conveyed by this hymn, they tend to see God more in relation to what He does, than what He is, because who, or what, God is is taken for granted. Africans ask, "How do I experience God?" rather than, "How do I understand the nature of God?" They would talk about practical, day-to-day things - because to them God is in everything. God is in childbirth, God is in passing examinations, in succeeding in gaining employment, etc. And He is in whether it rains or shines. God is therefore central in the way they do things, and they do not do anything consciously outside of the God parameter, with a strong God-dimension to it. Sometimes it is said of them that they escape into God. The only truth is that they see God in everything.
Therefore the African churches here in the UK. are different because firstly, as I have said, they are coming from a generation that has been suppressed for a long time, that has emerged from it only in the last hundred years and that is still seeking clarification. They are needing also to be re-defined because sometimes they are told they are not even Christians at all. In fact, here I come to the other so-called Black Churches (I hate the term Black Churches); I am referring to the Afro-Caribbean and North American Black churches: the Pentecostal churches of North American origin for instance say to the African churches, "You are not Pentecostal, because you do not speak in tongues." Sadly, many of the African churches have acquiesced in the face of this groundless, flawed definition of Pentecostalism, and some of them have taken on the term 'Spiritual Churches'; I think that the use of 'Cherubim and Seraphim' as a strapline or parenthesis appended to the names of most Nigerian churches may be a sub-conscious attempt at self-definition. I dare say that Pentecostalism itself is therefore seeking to be re-defined because I resist any attempt to define it in terms of the insistence on the primacy of the glosolalia. And then we come to the new-Charismatic movements. I use 'new-charismatic' as hyphenated because I want to pre-empt the hijacking of the term 'charismatic' by these churches, the North American or North American-type Pentecostal churches of the recent type. The term charismatic has been used as a description of the so-called "prophet-healing churches" (the Indigenous African Churches) for nearly a century. Now, what do the 'new-charismatics' say? "Because you use candles and incense and other elements, you are not Christian." To them, not only this, but it seems that everything that is indigenously African is still devilish. I thank God that in this case the European White churches appear to have accepted the African Indigenous churches much more than the Afro-Caribbean and North American Black Pentecostal churches and the new-charismatics have.
In a state of flux, I speak unashamedly, the Indigenous African churches are seeking re-definition. They are seeking clarification. The second thing is that their theology is needing to be clarified. I have already said that they did not practise their religion by the formulation of doctrines and credal statements. But they are now being compelled to systematise their theology. But that development has to come from inside the African churches. The African churches tend to be very small congregations who do not have sufficient money to allow their ministers and members of their churches to have the benefit of formal theological education so they can look at what they are doing and so express them in the forms that others can take seriously. The result is that the researchers into these churches come from the other churches rather than their own and they can put their own interpretations to what they see. What is the way forward? I think the way forward is that they should be allowed space and time to re-define themselves. When people place labels upon them when they do not understand those labels, they are usually quick to accept those labels. They should be allowed to offer their own definitions and their own interpretations.
Church life is the last thing I want to touch upon. There is a concept of an extended family in African societies and that appears to be brought into the church. The Pastor of the church is like the elder of the community. He must be a repository of wisdom who has the answers to all the problems of their members. When people go to them for counselling, they want answers, not explorations. But above that, because of the trust they have in their pastors, their pastors have to be equipped at all times. In many cases they resort to the help of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it appears that their resort to the Holy Spirit has been taken as an indication of inability or unwillingness to think seriously. It is not that they do not want to think. Often they do not have the answers, and only the Spirit can give them answers.
Another reality (and that goes across the board, to Caribbean and North American Pentecostal churches as well) is that racist experiences are part of the daily lives of Africans and all Black people. We are talking of experiences people endure because of their skin colour. Because they experience it at all times the church cannot help but address it, even though it has been sometimes said that it is challenged with excessive force, whatever that means. But more importantly, when people have no peace or respect at work, when they are under pressure constantly, when they are under constant surveillance because they are distrusted, when they are constantly trying to find a reason for existing, constantly needing to reaffirm their humanness, and they cannot find it because they are treated like less human wherever they go, when people are denied the best services, of homes, employment, career choices, when the society they live in constantly tells them they are irrational and primitive because of the world-views they hold, when their look on history and the present predicament saps away their hope and ambitions, in the tension where they are always expected to become something other than who they are, and so on, there must be a place where they can say and sing, "Now I am in my Father's house I can rest and enjoy His peace." And when I say that, I am not talking about the Negro Spirituals which talk about "I will be alright on the other side", or "The gospel train is coming; it'll take us over to the other shore", or worse still, "I will be a slave in this World and when I die I'll go to heaven". I am not talking about that at all, but about a here and now, and that the churches have therefore become the place where people can come and feel important, and feel valued. When you go to some of the churches and you see how the people are dancing and screaming and jumping and rejoicing, you are tempted to ask, "What are these people doing?" They are expressing their humanity; they are expressing and celebrating their thanks to God. They are saying, "I thank God that He gave me the church where I can go and be myself and not be ashamed of it".
This has to be taken forward, because we are facing new challenges we didn't have before. Thirty years back we talked of the people who came from the Caribbean and Africa. Now we are talking of people who were born and have grown up here, who are therefore strictly speaking not Africans or Caribbeans in the sense that they have any 'back home' experiences. They are very 'European' in their thinking, outlook on life, and behaviour. That means that the African churches have to look at some modifications because I said when the Europeans came to Africa they brought their customs and traditions with their religion. The African churches can be accused of the same, as bringing a church here, filled and loaded to the brim with their own African customs, traditions, and practices, and they need to recognise that some of the persons who are coming to their churches do not share those customs and practices. There are lots of things the African churches need to do. Beyond all, I am looking at a situation where they meet to think of how they can develop an authentic African theology that is relevant for the time and place they are in.
(The author is Minister of the Musama Disco Christo Church in London)