The obvious history of Eastern Christianity in Africa is that of the Christianization effected by the Coptic Church, its Ethiopian and Eritrean daughter Churches, and Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Melkites, all of which were focused in North Africa, the area geographically most proximate to Christianity's origins. In the mid and southern reaches of the continent, Latin Catholic and Protestant missionaries had been a much more visible presence until the Orthodox missions of the past century.
Notably, such missions have not been spearheaded by the Eastern Churches of African origin (Copt, Ethiopian, or Eritrean), but chiefly by the Greeks. Anecdotally, it has been speculated that among the factors contributing to this have been a sense of superiority on the part of North African Christians toward their sub-Saharan brethren, as well as a distrust among the latter of other Africans. The distrust being part and parcel of the internecine warfare and tribalism that has marked the continent for centuries.
Interestingly, some of the earliest Eastern Christian activity of an "Orthodox" nature in the sub-Saharan regions was initially home-grown and incubated by a mix of vagante
and non-canonical/independent "Orthodox" Churches having their immediate origins in the US. Marcus Garvey, an African-American best remembered for Black political activism in the early 20th century, was also involved with the ecclesiastical entity styled "The African Orthodox Church of America", which is the forerunner of the church about which you asked.
The AOCA was originally headquartered in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood and one of its parishes, St. James, was still situated there, only a block from my grammar school, until the 1960s. A classmate (who was Orthodox) and I, consumed by curiousity (him by the sign that said "Orthodox", though his parents said it wasn't
; me by the fact that it was surmounted by a cross in an era when common wisdom said that only Catholic churches were
), snuck inside in the early 50s. We were certain that we were doomed to Hell
- although we weren't sure whether it would be the same Hell
Inside, I got my first glimpse of what I would later understand was a rather rudimentary/primitive iconostasis, depicting solely Black images. My friend, with all the wisdom of a 3rd grader, opined that the lingering scent of incense didn't "smell right", therefore, the church wasn't really Orthodox
. We escaped without further ado, sure that if we were caught, we'd be marched up the street to Father (with whom we knew the AOCA priest was friendly) or to Sister Superior, both of whom loomed as a far more immediate and dire threat than Hell's fires
Joseph Rene Vilatte, whose name is listed somewhere in the episcopal lineage of virtually every vagante
and independent "Catholic", "Orthodox", "Anglican/Episcopal" and "Lutheran" Church in North America factored into the AOCA as well, consecrating a Garvey follower, George McGuire, as its first hierarch. A group of African native clergy, with backgrounds principally in the Latin, Anglican, and Methodist Churches, as well as the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion (an early African independent church), sought and obtained hierarchical consecration from McGuire for Daniel Alexander, their leader. The resultant body flourished, ultimately more so than did its American step-parent (which still exists, but in extremely small numbers). Many of its clergy and faithful, as well as those of some of its offshoots, were inspired decades later to seek canonicity from various Orthodox Churches, including the Copts, Ethiopians, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. Ultimately, some of these formed the nuclei of the Orthodox missions that are presently underway in Africa.
There are also some historical ties among these bodies, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox community in Jamaica that arose initially from a cult-like fascination with Emperor Haile Selassie.
Some of the history of these bodies can be read at:African Orthodox Church Archives Orthodox Mission In Tropical Africa History of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church African Greek Orthodox Autonomous Church Imperial Coptic Ethiopian Church of EthiopiaA Sketch of Rastafarian History
As regards the AOCA, it's numbers had decreased dramatically over the years in North America and, only a few years ago, it had few surviving temples. One is St Philip's in Sydney, NS, Canada - the sole church of the denomination in Canada. (It is or, until recently, was a viable congregation; the current Lieutenant-Governor of the Province, Honourable Mayann Francis, is a congregant and her father was formerly its pastor). You can see interior photos of the church here
It reflects the Church's mixed heritage, with touches of both Western and Ethiopian influences. Other than the 3 barred crosses on the exterior though, (which can be seen in photos on pages 8 and 9 of a history of Black Churches in Nova Scotia located here
(slow to load, be patient), there is not much immediately reminiscent of the Church's early efforts to forge an Orthodox identity.
Details regarding the successor of the original entity can be seen at its website
- which is sparse. And the reality of it may be less than what is depicted there, as I see it still lists St James in Roxbury, which I believe no longer exists. Ah, I see there is an updated version here
There is, however, also the African Orthodox Church of Africa, which claims to be the legitimate successor to the church founded by Daniel Alexander, whom I referenced above. Its website can be viewed here
Back to focusing on mainstream Churches, GO Metropolitan Makarios of Kenya compiled a detailed Chronology of Christianity in Africa
. Metropolitan Makarios is a prolific writer and links to many articles by him, significant numbers of which relate to Orthodoxy in Africa, can be found at ORI
There's also an interesting interview with Fr. Theotimos (Tsalas)
, an Orthodox priest in the Congolese Republic on an ROC site. An article on Orthodoxy in Uganda, from ONE magazine, can be read at at the CNEWA site