Encountering Akinola, Part two

This is the second of a two-part article.

By Frederick Quinn

Half way down Douala Street was a walled compound of tin-roofed cement buildings of various sizes, Bishopscourt, headquarters of The Church of Nigeria and Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, with whom I visited on March 31, 2000, the week after his public presentation as head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria.

The bishop was once a carpenter. That was evident early in our interview when he sprung up frequently and barked orders at workers stringing electrical lines in his office. He recalled an encounter when he was a lay catechist in Kebbi in Nigeria’s North, in the 1970s. When the regional Archdeacon came to town, looking for the congregation’s leader, Peter was up on the roof hammering in nails with the workers. Later, as a young priest in the new Nigerian capital of Abuja, government workers mistook him for a construction foreman because he was always arriving in their offices with an armful of building plans.

The fifty-six-year old Prelate was in constant motion, leaning toward visitors one moment, then bouncing up and down on his sofa seat to make a point. Peter J. Akinola was born in 1944 in Abeokutain, in Nigeria’s thickly vegetated Yoruba South. His father died when he was four years old, “and I have no memory of him. Later people told me he was a good and descent man.” Money was lacking for school, so an uncle in Nguru, Youbi State, in the faraway North, said, “Come and you’ll find some job.” A conventional Christian, Peter sang in the church choir, taught Bible classes, and graduated to lay reading lessons at the evening service.

By 1968 he had moved from a job as a postal worker to becoming a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, with his own shop and showroom, and several employees. He was doing well, but strange dreams intruded. “I found myself telling my age-mates and friends not to drink, go to the cinema, have so many girl friends. I heard them saying, ‘look, Bishop, if you don’t like our lives, get out of here.’”

“Then one fateful day in October I came to my workshop. A church representative was there with a letter asking the parish to send two young men to Zaria for seminary training. My uncle, who had brought me there many years ago, said, ‘Peter, the church council met and looked around the whole church and you are the only one they recommended. You should go for the interview.’ I could not refuse my uncle.”

“That night, I had a very clear dream. I was rebuking my godmother, a very saintly woman. She said gently, ‘Peter, what are you doing?’” Peter made the trip, taking with him 4,000 Nigerian pounds to buy supplies for a lucrative government contract recently awarded to his carpentry shop. He thought the seminary interview would be brief; he would flunk, and be sent home. At Zaria, the warden of the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, Jeremy Hinds (“This man was so influential on my life, I named my first son for him”) gave him the key to Room 12. “I waited for the interview on Saturday, but on Monday they told me ‘you can start classes. We do not have to interview this man. The Church Council said this was their candidate.’ Peter returned to Nguru, returned the money advanced on his furniture contract, paid off his workers, and headed for the theological college where “I grew stronger in the faith, grew stronger in the Lord. I came out tops in my class.”

Suleja was an isolated truckers’ stop, a crossroads on the North-South road when Peter was assigned there in 1978. The parched region soon became Nigeria’s new capital and Peter headed out on his Honda motorbike to visit newly arriving government workers in their homes. “Parlour churches” formed, Anglicans met regularly in living rooms or under large trees, and truckers made their buketria, an edge of town trucker’s cafeteria, available to Anglicans and Roman Catholics for Sunday worship. It was a time of explosive growth for the Church. Growing numbers of catechists and lay readers headed out as missionary teams into villages on Friday nights and returned on Sunday evenings, preaching wherever they could find listeners.

In 1979 Peter left Suleja for three years at Virginia Theological Seminary. Hoping to return to Nigeria as a seminary professor, he was instead assigned back to Seleja for three more years. “I cried and I cried and said ‘No way!’” In Nigeria, bishops assign clergy to parishes and Peter was told, “We need a pioneer, someone who is not only a pastor but a builder.” He stayed in Suleja from 1981 to 1984, and then became Provincial Missionary from 1984 to1989. By 1985 twenty-eight Anglican churches had been built in the new capital. Following established Church Missionary Society precepts, each church should be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing.

In 1989, Akinola, completing five years as Provincial Missionary, gave a progress report to the Synod of Bishops, after which a senior bishop told him, “Peter, you are not properly dressed.” “I raced back to the hotel for my cassock, and someone called me, ‘The Primate wants to see you immediately!’ I wondered what I had done wrong. The Primate handed me a paper and said, ‘Give me your reply quickly.’ I cried, and yelled, and screamed. That was the last thing I had ever thought of in my life, to be named a bishop. There were rumors of other senior bishops who were interested in the post, those who had trained in Britain and elsewhere. Canons and archdeacons and graduates of old theological colleges were around, and I was not part of any of those groups.”

In November 1989 Peter became bishop of Nigeria’s twenty-sixth diocese. (There were one hundred twelve dioceses in 2007). Bit by bit the church added additional institutions, medical dispensaries, schools, rural development projects, and a large primary school. Bishopscourt includes an office block and meeting rooms, clergy housing, and a five-bedroom bungalow for the Archbishop (who has six children), plus a ninety-room guesthouse to provide relatively cheap accommodation to Christian visitors to the nation’s capital, with proceeds being used for mission work. A small bookshop featured flyspecked copies of the deceased media evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman’s I Believe in Miracles and a sampling of the self help spirituality and success books increasingly popular in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s population, divided into over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, was estimated at 135 million persons in 2007. The country faces daunting problems. World Bank estimates place per capita GNP at $260, average life expectancy at fifty-two years. The adult literacy rate is 57% and the probability of dying before the fifth birthday (both sexes) is 14%. Christian and Muslim populations are roughly comparable, with a 10% edge usually given to Muslims. Possibly seventeen to twenty million of the fifty-some million Christians are Anglicans. The growth of the church in Nigeria eclipses that of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain combined.

The Singapore Ordinations and Archbishop Akinola’s Disruptive Future

What about the Singapore ordinations? (On January 29, 2000, two American clerics were irregularly ordained as bishops in Singapore by two prelates from Rwanda and Singapore, and two retired American bishops. Their goal was to set up a conservative “Anglican Mission in America,” but neither the American Church nor the Archbishop of Canterbury had endorsed their election.) The Nigerian bishops are all for them, Archbishop Peter Akinola told me on March 31, 2000. Although he had participated in the Lambeth discussions on human sexuality, he stated, “Scriptures constantly tell us a faithful union in heterosexual marriage” is the only norm for personal human unions. What happened in Singapore was expected.”

“We are looking at this in a global perspective. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians are in the United States and many feel they cannot worship in the Episcopal Church. They go elsewhere or they do not go to church. The issue is having episcopal supervision for them.” Neither then nor later did I ever hear an overseas Nigerian, Kenyan, or Ugandan in the United States say anything like what his dissident white male supporters and Archbishop Akinola kept repeating was a cry from unhappy Africans for Episcopal supervision. Africans in America were concerned about finding employment, homes, and educating their children, and avoiding an immigration dragnet. Some pastors warned Kenyans to steer clear of situations where they would encounter law enforcement agents.

When, toward the end of our conversation, I raised the issue of the place of gays and lesbians in the church, his face came close to mine, “Brother, the Bible says,” he replied, his voice lifting in intensity both times I raised the subject. Akinola’s manner was in your face, and he listened only to the extent that a visitor’s comments touched a subject for which he had a set piece answer.

Twice during our conversation he referred to Bishop John S. Spong’s Lambeth remarks about the backwardness of the African churches, which stung him badly. “We will respond to him,” Akinola said with determination, like a kid on the block that had been hit by a brickbat, planning his retaliation, and I knew the subject would not end there. Later I reread some of Spong’s writings. He was not a favorite writer for me; much of his work was intentionally provocative and thin of scholarship, although I would agree with many of the positions he has taken. In this case, the language that set Akinola off was a comment like:

One of the things that’s so obvious about many of the Africans is that their education is an evangelical education about the Bible. It’s almost no education. They’re wanting to say that Darwin wasn’t right; that Adam and Eve are the first two people in the universe. You know, I haven’t run into that sort of argument in my country in a long, long time. But it’s still there.

What about the ordination of women? “In Nigeria, it has not begun yet. This is not for any biblical reasons. When the time comes, we will do it. At present there are divisive forces in this country. Women’s ordination would divide the church. We cannot have a divided church. I’m not going to stampede into any position that divides the church.” Far from a stampede, a Nigerian survey taken several years later showed 80% of clerical and lay leadership opposed women’s ordination.

As we left, we had a prayer together, from which I remember the lilting cadence of the Archbishop’s voice, and the strong, callused hands of the carpenter. I tried to keep up contact with him, but it amounted to nothing. I included an entry on him in a book profiling ninety African saints, martyrs, and holy people and left two suitcases full of vestments and altar furnishings with him, gifts from the Altar Guild of National Cathedral.

Over the next seven years Archbishop Akinola’s actions proved far more disruptive than his inaugural sermon remarks in 2000 suggested, and he appeared unconcerned about the controversy they caused, and growing antipathy toward him. Akinola appeared to relish a lively verbal street brawl. Detractors would find him a tantrum-throwing foot stomping bully, defenders an unalloyed defender of the true faith. Few would claim he possessed the middle range of executive skills as reconciler, negotiator, and enabler.

On June 19, 2007 he was voted out (72 to 33) of the presidency of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella group representing over fifty million members and composed of representatives of most Christian bodies in Nigeria. Although he had completed building of the National Ecumenical Center in Abuja, a shell of a building under construction for sixteen years, his abrasive managerial style had cost him support, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria was drafted as a candidate to replace Akinola when his first four-year term ended. In what was traditionally an automatic vote that would make Akinola vice president, the Association’s three hundred member General Assembly similarly rejected him. Nigerians cited his rigidity, his closeness to the departing chief of state, and his intransigence toward Muslims as reasons why change was needed in the association’s top leadership.

Elsewhere, Akinola left a path strewn with controversy. He had pointedly refused to take communion at primates meetings in Ireland in 2005 and Tanzania in 2007 with the heads of the Episcopal Church in America. His reported remark about the Archbishop of Canterbury to another prelate at the Dromantine, Ireland, meeting, “He will do what we tell him,” won him few new followers at Lambeth Palace.

In 2005 he sent an inflammatory letter from a group of porous membership called “Global South.” Its membership and finances are undisclosed. Calling Europe “a spiritual desert” he challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury “to do something about a British law allowing civil partnerships” because it gave “the appearance of evil.” But Akinola included the signatures of three other conservative bishops to the document, they claimed without consulting them, and the trio objected loudly, accusing him of “megaphone diplomacy.” The Archbishop kept pushing. In May 2007, despite objections from Canterbury and the American Church’s Presiding Bishop, he ordained an English cleric, Martyn Minns, as Bishop of the Nigerian Church in the USA. This was part of a Grade B coup attempt by a handful of dissident American bishops to claim leadership of the Episcopal Church in the USA for their own splintered factions.

During August 2007 Akinola also issued a lengthy pastoral letter, large sections of it apparently written by Minns, called “A Most Agonizing Journey Towards Lambeth 2008.” It said the Anglican communion was on “the brink of destruction” and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appeal for unity was “highly questionable.” Failure to heed such warnings said the document “is like going to bed and ignoring a naked flame in the house.”

Akinola’s charges did not go unanswered in Africa. Both Nobel Prize laureate and Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, and his successor, Archbishop Njononkulu Ndungane, have taken pointed issue with Akinola, saying the latter’s energies were wrongly focused on sexual issues when Africa was wracked by war, poverty, and disease. Akinola’s had curiously stated, “I didn’t create poverty. The church didn’t create poverty. Poverty is not an issue, human suffering is not an issue at all, they were there before the creation of mankind.” The dean of the Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa took a different position. “Very few of us take the homosexual debate as a top priority issue,” Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana remarked, “Most African Anglicans want to get back to basics and concentrate on poverty, disease, injustice and the need for transparency in governments.”

Akinola’s leadership record has been sadly mixed. His undeniable skills as a builder are evident, as is his lack of tolerance toward others. A door slammer in a world of increasingly numerous door openers among Christians, he has called attention to himself for his inflammatory statements while, at the same time, failing to gain the wider following he and his backers anticipated. Deliver an ultimatum, throw a tantrum, and denigrate those who have a different position represent his largely unchallenged modus operandi.

The abysmal lack of information of many his followers in America about Africa contributes to the problem. Not many of the recently proclaimed members of the Churches in Nigeria, Uganda, or Kenya in Northern Virginia and Southern California could easily locate Abuja, Kampala, or Nairobi on a map. Fewer such people have been to Africa, or are conversant with the moral dimensions of contemporary African problems. Such issues include the long-standing Darfur refugee crisis, the pandemic presence of HIV/AIDS, the widespread presence of female genital mutilation, a problem in thirty African countries brutally afflicting over a million young women a year. Political pluralism and transparency are likewise widespread civic needs in many African countries. When America listed its reasons for going after Sadam Hussein, a leading African news magazine (published in Europe) profiled several African heads of state it said deserved similar treatment, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

In short, there are no lack of religion-related developmental issues the church could focus on in Africa. The efforts of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to link mission and the United Nation’s Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) represents an imaginative and life-enhancing step in that direction.

Finally, the vision of Christianity Akinola and his supporters present does not reflect the breadth and depth of religion in Africa. Scripturally, it represents a burnt out school of biblical literalism and one-line quotes often taken out of context, the last remnants of a colonial church tradition, one where a handful of African bishops rigidly follow in the footsteps of a departed generation of autocratic British mentors.

The Roman Catholic Church in Africa has given the wider church imaginative liturgy, courageous political engagement with dictators, and heart-rending examples of the church in operation at village levels, as have other Protestant churches, and the Anglican Church in many parts of Africa, such as in Southern Africa. The Nigeria-based vocal faction and their American supporters fail as well to draw on the contributions of the African American religious ethos, and the lively contributions of feminist, Pentecostal, liberation, and other postcolonial theologies, many of them increasingly known to African Christians.

The literature and witness of African Christianity is vast. The perspective of African women is available in the works of Mercy Amba Oduyoyue of Ghana, and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, a Kenyan Lutheran woman theologian. John Mbiti has examined the relationship of traditional African belief and Christianity. Others have written on subjects as different as the communion of saints in ancestor veneration and the unity of all creation in traditional African religion. The book list of a publisher like Orbis Maryknoll is a valuable point of departure for those willing to consider a broader, more comprehensive view of African religious experiences. Andrew F. Walls, a former Methodist lay minister to Sierra Leone, and Professor Emeritus of the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, has framed the challenge:

None of us can read the Scriptures without cultural blinkers of some sort. The great advantage, the crowning excitement which our own era of Church history has over all others, is the possibility that we may be able to read them together. Never before has the Church looked so much like the great multitude whom no man can number out of every nation and tribe and people and tongue. Never before, therefore, has there been so much potential for mutual enrichment and self-criticism, as God causes yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn lived for several years in Africa as an American diplomat and holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a visiting scholar at the African Studies Center. Dr. Quinn, who spent eight weeks in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2000, has written extensively on African affairs, including two books, Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People From the Continent of Africa (Crossroads, 2002) and “In Search of Salt,” Changes in Beti (Cameroon) Society, 1800-1960 (Berghahn Books, 2006) and has published articles in the Journal of African History, Africa, Cahiers d’études africaines, Afrika und Ubersee, Tariqh, Abbia, and the International Journal of African History.

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