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Artillery Row

Maligning the missionaries

Should the Church of England regret the promotion of Christianity?

In his fascinating 2015 book God Or Nothing, Cardinal Robert Sarah speaks warmly of a group of French missionary priests who established their headquarters near his home village of Ourous, in the remote north-west of Guinea: “I will always admire these men, who had left France, their families, and their ties to bring the love of God to the ends of the earth.” Sarah’s parents were ordinary subsistence farmers, converts to Catholicism from their traditional animism. Their son has enjoyed a highly distinguished career in the Catholic Church. He was appointed an Archbishop at the age of just 34 and is a bona fide intellectual and polyglot.  

When the Holy Ghost Fathers arrived in the Ourous district in 1912, Guinea was under French control, and would remain so until 1958, well into Cardinal Sarah’s lifetime. As in many parts of the world, the spread of Christianity in West Africa was closely linked to European colonial endeavours. 

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to take a simplistic view of the interplay between proselytization and imperial expansion. It was not simply a matter of priests and missionaries marching arm in arm with invading armies. In the early days of British rule in India, the East India Company — the dominant power there until 1858 — strongly opposed Christian missionaries operating in their territory, on the grounds that it was potentially destabilising and would stir up discontent. This prohibition had weakened significantly by the 1820s and 1830s, but wariness of evangelists among British authorities in the subcontinent remained. Even in the later nineteenth century, after the rule of the EIC had been replaced by direct Crown government, official British policy was to work with and carefully manage the religious diversity of India, rather than to supplant it with Christianity. 

Individual missionaries were often ambivalent at best about the imperial projects of which they were a part. Colonial expansion may have made their work possible, but European domination frequently threatened what those Christians saw as the God-given dignity of the conquered subject peoples. The Jesuits, for example, were expelled from Portuguese territory in South America in the 1750s, as they had been involved in indigenous resistance to forced population removals. Many of them had stood up for the rights of the native tribes. There is also a wonderful story told by Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Anglo-Catholic priest and anti-apartheid campaigner Fr Trevor Huddleston. As a young boy in 1940s South Africa, Tutu saw Huddleston raise his hat to Tutu’s mother Aletha, a cook. For a white man to show such respect to a working class black woman was highly unusual, and Tutu never forgot it.   

The widespread founding of church-run schools in almost all parts of the European empires arguably worked against the sustainability of the imperial projects in the long run. Those schools eventually raised up generations of articulate, well-read native leaders whose newly-acquired familiarity with the Western tradition and the teachings of Christianity led them to expect and demand better treatment and equal rights, and to highlight the moral failings of imperialism in terms which would prick the consciences of their supposed masters. The partial integration of imperial subjects with European civilisation enabled by such schools made it harder for the middle classes of London or Paris or Brussels to regard Africans or Asians as inherently alien and inferior.     

By the high imperial period, between c1870 and the First World War, atheism and scepticism towards Christianity were far from uncommon among European governing classes, including those sent out to govern the colonies. In the British context, district officers wielded enormous de facto power, especially in more remote regions, and an individual who didn’t care for evangelical fervour could make considerable difficulties for missionary work. Some bore no particular antipathy to Christianity but were fascinated by, and intensely protective of, the cultural and religious traditions of their particular areas. Sir Charles Bell, a long-serving colonial administrator in India’s Sikkim province, developed a great love for Tibetan culture, learning the language and becoming friendly with the ninth Panchen Lama, and he was certainly not alone among his profession in harbouring strong affections for local social-religious practices. Such individuals could and did seek to frustrate the efforts of missionaries, regarding them as cultural vandals or ignorant outsiders.  

It is simply untrue, then, that European imperialism and Christian evangelists were always and everywhere working together as part of some dastardly plot. For one thing, missionaries often came from countries that had few or no imperial possessions, like Denmark and Sweden, or were themselves subject to foreign rule, like Ireland. 

And yet the Church of England Commissioners have recently issued a report containing a recommendation that some kind of official apology was in order for “denying that black Africans are made in the image of God”. But you could search the writings of hundreds of colonial-era missionaries and not find any such assertion about African humanity, except perhaps for a handful of unrepresentative cranks. If you were to find such sentiments anywhere, it would be much more likely among secular officials or soldiers. 

there is something deeply odd in the idea that Christians should regret people abandoning false religions and adopting Christianity

Bizarrely, the same report also moots the idea of an official apology from the Church of England for “destroying” traditional African belief systems. It is undoubtedly true that some such systems were subject to violent suppression, and that forms of coercion were used in certain places. All the same, there is something deeply odd in the idea that Christians should regret people abandoning false religions and adopting Christianity. I suspect that serious and observant African Christians, like Robert Sarah, would be very sceptical. I think of my former parish priest, an accomplished and devout man from Togo, whom I cannot imagine regretting the arrival of Christianity in that country, however imperfect and unsatisfactory some of the circumstances. I think too of the Malawian priest on Twitter who posts about the uncomplicated piety of his flock, and the enormous distances they will walk to hear him say Mass. Churchmen from Africa and south Asia have been some of the fiercest defenders of Christian orthodoxy in the face of the instinctive self-abasement of the exhausted and timid Western churches. It would be a great surprise to hear that such men spend long hours fretting over the fate of their ancestors’ religious practices. 

Cardinal Sarah records in God Or Nothing that one of the first of the Holy Ghost fathers to come to Ourous, Fr Montels, died after just a few months, and is buried near the church there. Even if it is not the Commissioners’ intent, their notion of an apology looks a lot like distancing themselves from, even disregarding, the huge sacrifices made over centuries by thousands of mostly-forgotten men and women, just like Fr Montels, who made long and dangerous journeys to parts of the world that they barely knew, out of love for the people who lived there. 

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