In what can only be called a painfully fawning profile (which is not surprising given the author) of Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria in The Times, Ruth Gledhill still manages to capture two important points about Akinola. (For those readers not familiar with Anglican leaders, Archbishop Akinola has emerged as the leading conservative voice in the Anglican Communion--particularly on the issue of same sex relationships).
First, Gledhill puts in context the Nigerian Anglican church. Growth is not merely a fulfilment of the the Great command. It is also a survival strategy:
When Dr Akinola was growing up it was common, especially in the southern part of the country, for every family to have both Muslims and Christians among their number. On Sunday, the whole family would troop off to church, and then on Friday they went together to mosque. Although in the southern part of the country Muslims and Christians still live together in harmony, there are 12 states in the north where Sharia, or Islamic law, has a hold, and some Christians have suffered.
“We began to see certain threats in the north,” says Dr Akinola. “Religious disturbances, crises, rioting, to the extent that Christians were killed and maimed and properties looted.” His response was informed by his missionary vocation. “By virtue of our religion we cannot fight because we are told, if you are slapped on the right cheek you must turn your left cheek. Love your enemy and pray for him. So how do we respond to these unprovoked attacks on Christians? Evangelism is the answer. Make the Church grow.”
The bigger the Church gets, the fewer conflicts Christians will face. “That is what we believe. So we have put ourselves into the work of mission very seriously.” The era of bishops living like lords in their own little empires has long gone. “Every bishop in his area is an evangelist,” he says.
When his predecessor, Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye, stepped down, there were 76 dioceses. He had trebled the size of the church by planting a bishop in every city. “I was the Dean then. We did not know who would be Primate. I said, Baba has finished the work, everything is now done, allelujah! He said, Peter, that is a big mistake you are making because the work is yet to begin. As God would have it, I then became the Primate and we set a vision for ourselves as to how to carry on with this great task.
Second, it is clear from the interview that Akinola turns the issue of sexuality on its head--he speaks as if the debate were about the Episcopal Church forcing Nigerian Anglicans to accept homosexuality. The reality is that the Episcopal and Canadian Churches are merely asking for room to address issues of sexuality as they see called to do. No one is even remotely suggesting that Akinola or other Nigerians accept gay Bishops or bless same sex unions. Yet Akinola says the following, according to Gledhill:
The demand from the West that his Church liberalise he sees as a gross reimposition of an old imperalism. “For God’s sake let us be. When America invades Afghanistan it is in the name of world peace. When Nigeria moves to Biafra it is an invasion. When England takes the Gospel to another country, it is mission. When Nigeria takes it to America it is an intrusion. All this imperialistic mentality, it is not fair.”
Read it all here.
One final comment. There is a sad tendency by Anglicans to either lionize Akinola or to denounce him based solely on the issue of sexuality. I suspect that the story is far more complicated. I disagree with Akinola on the great Anglican soap opera. Still, it is hard to imagine the challenges of leading a Christian body in Nigeria, and the growth of the Anglican church has been remarkable. I suggest that we neither demonize or lionize, but confront Akinola when we think he is wrong, and praise him for the good he has done the church in Nigeria.