It's no secret, of course, that Christianity is an international movement. But it is an international movement that has been dominated by Christians in the developed West. Christians from Asia, Africa and Latin America (the region known as the Global South) have taken their cues from the settled churches of Europe and North America.
There are signs, however, that this relationship is changing. Take, for example, the recent debate in the United States and Canada over gay ordination and same-sex marriage. While mainline churches in the West have taken an increasingly liberal stance on gay and lesbian issues, churches in the Global South have not. With very few exceptions, they oppose the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.
The English newspaper, The Guardian, urged Anglicans in the developed West to "ignore the bigots" in the Global South and to continue to support gay and lesbian issues. But ignoring the Global South is increasingly hard to do.
At its triennial convention, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to postpone its debate on the approval of same-sex unions until 2007, even though the liberal provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia, already have approved same-sex marriage. The reason was the opposition of the Global South.
The case for postponement was argued by the Rev. Canon Gregory Cameron, speaking on behalf of the archbishop of Canterbury. Such a postponement could buy time for the beleaguered Anglican Communion and reduce the strains brought on by the unilateral decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as the bishop of New Hampshire. The Canadians grudgingly agreed to wait.
The Global South is hard to ignore because it is the fastest-growing area in Christendom. In 1900, there were only 10 million Christians in Africa. Africa now has 360 million, Latin America 560 million and Asia 313 million. There are at least 30 million Christians in China, perhaps as many as 50 million. Korea has a large Christian minority, and Korean missionaries can be found throughout Asia.
The figures for attendance at Sunday worship are even more striking. Archbishop Peter Akinola presides over an Anglican Church in Nigeria with more than 17 million members. But Anglican services in Nigeria can be attended on any Sunday by twice that number of worshippers. In contrast, the Church of England with 26 million members and the Episcopal Church with 2.3 million have an average Sunday attendance of roughly 800,000.
Christians in the West are well aware of the reaction against Western values by Islamic militants but seem far less sensitive to the anti-colonial thinking of Christians in the Global South. Africans in particular regard the imposition of the sexual morality of the West on their traditional societies as a new and insidious form of intellectual colonialism that must be resisted.
As painful as the cross-cultural argument between Christians in the West and Global South may be, it is unavoidable. One of the oldest tests for authentic Christian teaching is to ask whether it is universally accepted. The old rule was it should have been taught "everywhere, always and by all."
According to that rule, a theological opinion was thought to fail the test of universality if it could be embraced in Canada but not in Kenya, or in England but not in Hong Kong. On the other hand, it passed a crucial test if it showed staying power over time.
Even then, it could not be accepted as correct if promoted by only one sociological group -- by men but not by women, by whites but not by blacks, or by rich but not by poor. Christians thought truth was by definition boundary-transcending, or it was an error. "Local option" was another name for heresy.
Judged by the ancient standard of "everywhere, always and by all," the international debate in mainline Christian churches over human sexuality is a long way away from achieving a consensus. The temptation of the liberal West will be to give up on dialogue with the more conservative Global South, surrender any hope of consensus and fall back into the comfortable old ways of colonial thinking. We teach; they listen.
But falling into the bad old ways is a formula for disaster. Unless the emerging consensus of the churches over human sexuality is international, it will not last.
You can count on it.