The prophet priest
When I came to Africa to work in a parish, I thought of the priest as anyone who felt he was called to that work, that acitivity, and also chose to train for it. But soon I found that it was the choice of the Holy Spirit to more or less invade the body of a man and so rather force him to be a prophet priest. The priest was affected by the filling of the Spirit whether he wanted it or not.
At first I resented this "fundamentalistic" and overly "charismatic" appearance of the priest. I tried to talk sense to him, emphasizing the importance of cool reflections, Scripture study, reasonable preaching and a lot of common sense in defending the faith and the Church. I did not understand the exaggerated role of the Spirit and the individuals body. It even felt pagan.
So Northern Europe met Africa here ! My priest did not argue. He just showed how the Spirit lived in his body, in himself here on earth in a biological organism. He asked gently several times: do you have a body my friend? Or just a mind?
After some years in Africa wrestling with this resentment towards inviting the Spirit to my body, I came to realize that God gave me a body to harbour the Spirit, not to merely analyze, read, write and talk with. Just as I engage my human body in sexual activities I could let God the Spirit be my divine sexual Lover. That is a strange pleasure far above the human sexuality.
The priest prophet is crucial as a man who is by default attacked or invaded by the Spirit. I had to let go of the notion from home, that a priest is a functionary, a minister of sacraments and theology. Here in Africa he is essentiallly a wild being, a posessed body, for the good of all the people. He is someone who use to invite the Spirit into this body of his, not an interlocutor on religious matters or a father for confession, a regular pastor for his flock. It took time for me to change into this crude and naked Christianity.
I am blessed by this change. So many centuries of culture and language have buried this primitive and living Christ. Africa gave it back to me. No more brooding and thinking in sermons and tracts. This literary and thinking activity has nothing to do with living Spirit in the body, with living Christ in my soul. The way to the soul of Christ is through the body as I learn to invite the Spirit just as I can see the priest and prophet do right in front of my eyes. That is the preparation for eternity for the soul with a new glorified body.
What is "seen" is of utmost importance to African Christianity. In the Old Testament the word is of central importance, not what is seen. In the New Testament the word is still in the center although The Word is now seen in Christ. The image of Christ is seen as He is healing, talking, being crucified. He is also risen and shows the Risen Body to many people, but the important thing here is the visibility, not the fact of miraculously living on after the body is dead. Every soul lives on as a matter of fact. Jesus the Messias showed it with full visibility which demonstrated the strangeness - many did not recognize Him.
The priest prophet embodies the risen Christ as he invites the Spirit into the body and shows this to us. We are to see this and do the same. Faith is not believing in words anymore, rather the words just point to this concrete and primitive reality of God the Spirit, moving in this body. Words are not read or thought as much as felt bodily. Prayer is the continous body felt freedom of the Spirit in us.
While a priest in the European churches are thinking and acting as representatives of Christ, the african priest is invaded by the Spirit of Christ and is replaced by God. It is a divine energy event, not a human thinking or a human moral attitude.
The deepest spiritual life is full of signs and the priest as posessed prophet is actually God's sign to us. This I learned in Africa and the word "sign" carries much more primitive, foreign and bodily significance than in all Northern theology.
The immediate imposition in the body was shocking to my emotional culture. It was close to blasphemy and perhaps acceptable in simple people in a revival tent. The almost amoral directness in physical energy was whithout any spiritual meaning for my intellect. Yet this was like Christ Himself lived and worked, with his force of Spirit, not very theoretical or interested in my religious thoughts or moral behaviour in general.
This priest prophet I find to be essential to faith and Church. It is not hierarchy anymore, like in the European and Western Church. It is the living fact of the Holy Spirit residing in the human body and mind as one incarnated process. The man in the social world may be known as a criminal, a peasant, a woman or a man, a civil servant, poor or rich, a cleaner or a high school teacher. But the living Spirit in her/him makes her/him a priest prophet for the living Lord, should he let this presence of the Spirit lead him to the Church.
But from this follows also the consequence that no man is a priest whithout the Holy Spirit taking posession of his body, even if he is ordained as the bishop of Rome himself. This means that very few priest prophets in this African sense are to be found in the Western and European Church. They exist, but are very few.
When I visited my home country this change in my appreciation of the African priest/prohethood made me smile when celebrating mass or a lutheran service in different churches in Sweden. Here we listen to those reasonable and friendly priests who certainly do not experience the Spirit move their bodies at all. They are entirely human and social and used their intellects and their understanding. They would feel everything else inappropriate. The african immigrants celebrating mass or church service seem to comply. They have generally adopted the European faith, the civilized Christianity, also African priests working in the North.
The Holy Spirit is not human. In prayer we allow this non-human force of God into our bodies. Therefore we often stand or move in prayer. Life force from the Spirit is allowed to move freely in us. It is alive, more than that, it is wild, it is posessing in its fire of divine love. To even in a small degree harbour it makes the body and the mind meet something really strange. You don't put that Divine strange force into words. You don't make theology of it. It is too strong, too rich and real. The real African priest prophet knows that and shows that to you.
The religious need
One big difference from my home Christianity is that African faith is dominated by the concrete and the efficient for the religious need.
This is clearly visible in the iconography of the Afro-Christian religions. While indebted to motifs common to the Christianity of the Mediterranean area from the first centuries, there are differences. There are small or no efforts to express theological ideas. There are even less efforts to produce frescoes, genre scenes or pretty figurines. It seems as though one shuns the decorative and sentimental in favour of the real physical effect of the Holy Spirit.
What invites the Holy Spirit into a human body and soul is a concrete activity. Thinking or talking means little in this process, and the europena "talkative" religions is not even close. Again sexuality is an analogous phenomenon. Just as there is a sexual craving in us, there obviously is a spiritual need for God the Holy Spirit to enter us with its otherwordly and strange power.
This power can heal and Jesus Christ is the supreme healer. But the conventional healing from bodily ailing is not always emphasized. Healing also is a change of lives even when it does not heal from sickness. Faith is about this power entering us, not in any heard and acknowledged teaching or message. The mind is healed from erroneous thoughts and negative feelings.
The philosophy called vitalism in the West comes rather close to African Christianity. The religious need is for vital force, the one that the Holy Spirit brings into the body of the posessed by it. It is less a social need. Even the forgiveness of sins is connected to this vital Holy force, sin is not a private failure but the lack of a communal Spirit, felt in the body and its movements. Holy force cleanses body and mind from the material called sin, rather than conventional "forgiveness" of a persons private wrongdoings. This impersonalized sin is often named demonical forces, bad or evil spirits, which offers a link to prechristian tribe religiosity.
From the outside this appears as a need for moving our bodies like in dance and ritual, and the relative absence of the individual moral conscience. The private confessional is not emphasized. But also the social gathering, so emphasized in evangelical Churches and also Vatican II, is largely irrelevant here. The religious need is of the healing power of God the Holy Spirit, to enter bodies and rejuvenate life by this supernatural force. Of course we share this with everyone but the social gathering is not important per se as in the typical Western congregational life.
It can also appear to visiting outsiders as a need for physical well-being, again analogous to food, drink and sex. But this well-being is actually an otherwordly force that is not human but divine. To fear God is here appropiate as an awe felt bodily and mentally. It is more an enstrangement by the Spirit than a desired and controlled human well-being. A certain tolerance is present for being "mad" in this powerful Spirit. The healing is actually being posessed by God the Spirit, which Jesus Christ shows us in the Gospel and the priest prophet demonstrates at every mass or service.
This is obvious in the iconography. There is little of the imperial imagery that came into the Church from Constantine onwards, borrowing heavily from Byzantine imperial art. Instead emphasis is on the servant of the poor and the suffering mankind, the healing force rather than the majesty and splendour. The religious need is not of entering heaven but on being relieved by the entering of the Holy Spirit into the body.
African Christianity uses baptism as a meeting between forces. The Holy Spirit cleanses us from all sins, fills us with his power, and changes us from within. It can be done with water or with Spirit only. You will recieve a new name with baptism and it will be done in an adult age, even if it were done as a protection rite as a baby. It can be repeated as a purification rite, a healing procedure many more times.
This is not quite the same understanding of a sacrament as in the Western and Northern Christianity. It is rather a concrete meeting of forces in the name of the Father, just as Jesus did his main ministry as a healer in the name of the Father - rather than talking teaching.
Rather could we say that the Holy Spirit is all sacraments and the only force that is of interest. Through Jesus Christ and in Him we can recieve the Spirit bodily and mentally, and this has almost nothing to do with liturgy or Church or clergy.