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Lambeth 2020 and African Anglicanism

By David Goodhew

The first in a series of articles exploring different parts of the Anglican Communion. The second considers the growth of Anglicanism in Asia

For an updated analysis based upon more recent data, please see “Lambeth 2022 and African Anglicanism.”

Nearly 60 percent of Anglicans worldwide are African. But African Anglicanism is frequently misunderstood. Bishop Jack Spong memorably referred to African Christianity as “a very superstitious kind of Christianity” just before the 1998 Lambeth Conference.[1] Such post-colonial condescension did great damage. But alongside this, starry-eyed depictions of African Anglicanism need tempering with realism. African Anglicanism has great strengths, but also significant problems.

Moreover, African Anglicanism has been changing fast in recent decades. Many statements made about it, especially by people from the Global North, are dated or plain incorrect. As we look towards the 2020 Lambeth Conference, new research will help us find deeper understanding and, potentially, a healthier Anglican Communion.

The North’s Mistaken Views of Africa

My favourite spoof video features a group of youthful Africans glowing with health, appealing for aid to help rather shabby looking Norwegians! It is a glorious satire of the average British or American aid appeal, which routinely depicts vigorous white people assisting supposedly helpless Africans (an expression of the “white saviour complex”).

Those in the Global North frequently misunderstand, patronise, or libel contemporary Africa by portraying it solely as a basket case. This is a serious distortion. The continent is marked by economic dynamism, even though significant areas face deep poverty. It is a continent of great innovation, expressed in such things as the creation and expansion of universities, many of which have Christian foundations. It is a continent that is changing fast. Any discussion requires assimilation of a number of facts routinely ignored by the North. For example:

1. China has far greater influence in contemporary Africa than the West.

2. The nation of Rwanda, which saw such turmoil in the early 1990s, is increasingly the economic dynamo of central Africa, albeit with continuing serious problems.

3. No South African younger than 30 can remember white majority rule — thank God!

Given the ease with which Anglicans from the Global North misunderstand Africa, there is a deep need for Global North Anglicans to listen hard and speak carefully about African Anglicanism. New research helps people do just that.[2]

How Big is African Anglicanism?

Here is a table showing the growth of African Anglicanism in comparison with the rest of the Communion since 1970.

Table 1: Numbers of those affiliated with the churches of the Anglican Communion, 1970-2010[3]

1970 2010
Africa 7,728,000 50,398,000
Asia 361,000 855,000
Europe 29,367,000 26,436,000
Latin America 775,000 915,000
Northern America 4,395,000 2,527,000
Oceania 4,781,000 4,843,000
TOTAL 47,407,000 85,974,000

It is right to question such data. Sometimes limited administrative infrastructure is available to collect figures in various countries, and such numbers provide only a broad-brush picture, which requires other material for nuance. But these figures are robust, produced by leading demographers and backed by a wide range of detailed research.[4] Recent alternative analysis in the Journal of Anglican Studies by Daniel Muñoz raises valuable questions, but utilises highly problematic data sources and cannot be relied upon.[5]

Lambeth 2020 needs to face two simple but crucial changes that this data on African Anglicanism presents.

First, African Anglicans have become in recent decades the substantial majority of Anglicans worldwide. Nigerian and Ugandan Anglicans alone represent over a third of all Anglicans. The importance of a province should not be read off its numerical size, and there is plenty of growth happening outside of Africa. But these figures cannot be ignored either. They matter. The Global North’s baleful tendency to talk over the rest will not do anymore.

The second message for Lambeth is the shift within African Anglicanism. Here is a second table, which gives a regional breakdown.

Table 2: African Anglicanism by region, 1970-2010

1970 2010
Western Africa 3,085,000 20,440,000
Northern Africa 92,900 526,000
Eastern Africa 3,102,000 25,878,000
Central Africa 102,000 539,000
Southern Africa 1,347,000 3,014,000
All Africa 7,728,900 50,397,000

What is startling is the way that Anglicanism in West, Northern, Central, and Eastern Africa has dramatically grown, whereas Southern African Anglicanism has not. In 1970 the Anglican Church of Southern Africa was twice the size of the Anglican Church of Kenya; in 2010 the Anglican Church of Kenya was twice the size of Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Serious Growth

Parts of African Anglicanism have seen dramatic growth for a long period.

Richard Burgess’s study of Nigeria shows how the number of its Anglican dioceses has mushroomed from 16 in 1979 to 164 in 2011, a shift matched by the proliferation of parishes. For example, the diocese of Lagos West grew from 161 to 240 churches, from its creation in 1999 until 2010. Overall, from 1970 to 2010, Nigerian Anglicans grew from under 3 million members to around 20 million. This growth was faster than population growth, often amidst great social upheaval, and it combined evangelism with much social action.

Similarly vigorous expansion has happened in countries like Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan. Eastern and Western Africa constituted about 75 percent of African Anglicans in 1970, but in 2010 they grew to about 90 percent. A key aspect of Anglicanism in many of the vigorously growing parts of Africa is its “pentecostalisation,” whereby the spirituality of Pentecostal Christianity is spliced with Anglicanism.

Such growth is not an unmixed blessing. As they grow, some provinces face the problems of how they avoid being warped by wider culture, by ethnic divides, and by ties to governments that are sometimes corrupt. But Anglicans in the Global North are in no position to cast the first stone on these matters.

The Decline of South African Anglicanism

South African Anglicanism was a key force in Anglicanism. Key Anglican thinkers have promoted South Africa as the model for the Communion. This was reflected in the last Lambeth Conference in 2008, when South African indaba provided the framework for the conference. But South African Anglicanism has markedly declined as a proportion of African Anglicanism.

South African data is patchy, but the picture is reasonably clear. There has been a rise in the numbers who self-identify as Anglican, but to a dramatically smaller degree than Anglicanism in much of the rest of Africa. South African Anglicans constituted about 18 percent of African Anglicanism in 1970, but now constitutes 6 percent. South African Anglicanism has also declined relative to the South African population. The population more than doubled between 1975 and 2015, but (except in a couple of the smaller dioceses) the number of Anglican churches has been static for decades. Barbara Bompani’s research indicates a church that did crucial work opposing apartheid but has struggled to find direction thereafter.[6] It contains vitality, but it is now much smaller than a number of provinces in Africa and is being overtaken by others. 

New Anglicanisms in Africa

A fascinating shift is the rise of Anglicanism in surprising areas of Africa. Yossa Way’s work shows how the French-speaking Anglican Church of Congo acquired its first diocese as late as 1972, when there were 30 clergy, 25 parishes, and 30 churches. As of 2015, Anglicanism in Congo had nine dioceses, 545 clergy, 424 parishes and a membership of about 237,000.

There is growing awareness of the marked expansion of Anglicanism in Sudan and South Sudan. What is less recognised is the vitality that is also apparent in countries such as Ethiopia and Egypt, where simply being a Christian means facing profound challenges. Those who assume Alexandrian Christianity was just about Athanasius will be startled to hear of the recently formed Alexandria School of Theology.

Modest Progress

Parts of African Anglicanism have grown fast, while others have grown little or moderately. Daniel Eshun’s work shows how the Ghanaian church grew from around 100,000 to around 269,000 from 1970 to 2010. Yet, at the same time, Ghana’s population rose more swiftly, meaning the church has grown in size, but shrunk as a proportion of the population. Anglicanism in a number of other African countries, such as Malawi and Zambia, reflects a similar trajectory.

Africa and America

It is sometimes said that conservative Anglican provinces have been disproportionately propped up by conservative Anglicans in the United States and elsewhere. We should beware this judgment. South African Anglicanism, which could not be characterised as conservative, also has significant links with the United States. Moreover, the idea is both a huge overestimate of what outside support can do and a belittling of indigenous agency. The primary (human) reason why Anglicanism in Nigeria, Sudan, Congo, Uganda, and Kenya is dynamic is because of the work of Nigerian, Sudanese, Congolese, Ugandan, and Kenyan Anglicans.

The African Diaspora

Conversely, the expansion of African Anglicanism is deeply affecting the Global North. I vividly recall talking to Derek, a Ghanaian Anglican who had moved to Glasgow in Scotland. He had tried to worship in local Anglican parishes. “They were,” he began, but his voice tailed off. Derek was too polite to say it, but the comparatively dynamic Anglican faith he’d experienced at home was not what he encountered in the United Kingdom. He gave up and joined a Pentecostal church instead. There is a large and rapidly growing African diaspora in North America and the United Kingdom. This diaspora takes faith very seriously, and most of its members are finding a spiritual home outside of Anglicanism. One of the major challenges (and opportunities) for the Episcopal Church and the Church of England in the future is connecting with this African diaspora.

African Anglicanism and Lambeth 2020

There is much Anglican dynamism outside of Africa. But as we look towards Lambeth 2020, Anglicans (especially in the Global North) need to recognise that African Anglicans make up the majority of the Communion. And African Anglicanism is incredibly dynamic, as a recent paper by the Kenyan Professor Joseph Galgalo showed.

In addition, observers in the Global North need urgently to take account of the dramatic changes that have happened within African Anglicanism. South African Anglicanism has markedly shrunk as a proportion of African Anglicanism whilst other centres have grown, sometimes in highly surprising places.

To say this does not mean that African Anglicans should dictate to the rest of the Communion what Anglicanism is. But it does mean we should be profoundly concerned to ensure that African Anglicans are heard. Will Lambeth 2020 be a rerun of Lambeth 2008, which large numbers of African bishops did not attend, and where indaba rhetoric was a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed appropriation of the least vigorous part of contemporary African Anglicanism?

If Lambeth 2020 is to be different from Lambeth 2008, the Global North needs to guard vigilantly against the Spong reflex, of looking down upon whatever is disliked theologically. Especially in the Global North, we need to remove the plank of our colonial mindset from our eyes.

Alongside this, Anglicans in the North need a far greater willingness to learn about, and from, African Anglicanism. One of my tasks is to arrange overseas placements for ordinands. I have been very struck by how hard it often is to persuade them to travel outside of the Global North and to engage with those parts of the Global South where their theology might be challenged. Many are keen to get to New York or Vancouver. Few have asked to go to Lagos or Nairobi; and this is at a time when tightened visa restrictions make it much harder for African Anglicans to visit the North, further shrinking the opportunity for encounter between North and South. Yet, if we who are in the North can get over our myopia and our border regulations, we have so much to learn from encountering the South.

African Anglicanism is not the only dynamic part of the Communion, but it is collectively the most dynamic part of the Communion. It contains many churches that have faced profound challenges and shown much resourcefulness. The need to learn from African Anglicanism is underlined by the rapid growth of an African diaspora in the Global North. For those in United States and British cities, Africans are increasingly near, as well as distant, neighbours.

African Anglicanism is certainly not perfect. But, in the run-up to Lambeth 2020, there is great need for Anglicans in the Global North to practice postcolonial humility — not least by encountering and listening closely to African Anglicans. What ecclesial blessing might thereby be unlocked?


[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (OUP, 2007), p. 142.

[2] See the work of Daniel Eshun, Yossa Way, Barbara Bompani, Richard Burgess, and Joseph Galgalo in David Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017).

[3] This data comes from T. Johnson and G. Zurlo, “The Changing Demographics of Global Anglicanism, 1970-2010,” in Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline, p. 50. Affiliated Anglicans is a broad-brush term and therefore a broad-brush measure. Within England, for example, it includes all who were baptised as Anglicans, even though the vast majority do not regularly attend worship. The Anglican Communion includes churches in communion with Canterbury as of 2010, with the exception of churches such as those of South and North India which are in communion with a range of denominations. For more discussion of data issues, see: D. Goodhew, “Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion,” in idem, Growth and Decline, pp. 5-9.

[4] The researcher Daniel Muñoz has argued for far lower figures for Anglicanism in the Global South and higher figures for Anglicanism in the North. For a detailed discussion of Anglican numbers see: Goodhew, ‘Growth and Decline’ in idem, , Growth and Decline, pp. 7-10.

[5] Daniel Muñoz, “North to South: a Reappraisal of Anglican Membership Figures,” Journal of Anglican Studies 14:1 (2016). For a detailed evaluation of the Muñoz research, see my review here.

[6] B. Bompani, “South Africa,” in idem, Growth and Decline.


  1. The process of listening closely to African Anglicans with post-colonial humility is Indaba. The irony of Indaba is that it was and remains alien to the reality of most of the dioceses of South Africa, while the Kenyan Church has taken to it far more readily. Archbishop Wabukala used Indaba – renamed Baraza (the Swahili for Indaba) as conflict resolution for the ethnic difficulties facing the church and requested and received funds from Continuing Indaba. The Diocese of Mbeere saw the ending of a 50 year ethnic conflict through Indaba and has seen phenomenal church growth through Indaba. Kenyan theologians shaped Continuing Indaba, led by Prof Galgalo (and Scripture).

  2. I’d like to know whether “membership” is measured according to the same criteria in each of these churches/provinces. If so, what are those criteria? If not, we could easily have here what, in statistics, is called “measurement error.”


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