Understanding Akinola

by
02 November 2006

RECENT DIVISIONS in the Anglican Communion over sexuality have prompted various interpretations of the Church of Nigeria’s position, given the outspokenness of its Primate, the Most Revd Peter Akinola. Having served in parishes in both Nigeria and England, I believe I am qualified to comment.

Few critics of Archbishop Akinola know about the friendship that existed between him and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA), the Most Revd Frank Griswold, before the outbreak of this crisis.

If the Bishop and the Archbishop are no longer in communion or in impaired communion, the issue at stake is serious. The disagreement is not only about scripture, which Archbishop Akinola and his Church consider to be authoritative in matters of theology and ethics, but also, about respect for the corporate existence of the Anglican Communion.

A BRITISH FRIEND asked me recently whether Archbishop Akinola’s position was truly representative of the position of Nigerian Anglicans. The truth is that most Nigerian Anglicans share his view.

The Church of Nigeria — and its concern for a life-transforming mission in the 21st century — is rooted in its Evangelical heritage. The founding of the Nigerian Church is traceable to the 18th-century revival in the Church of England, which gave birth to the Church Missionary Society (now Church Mission Society) in 1799.

Missionaries in Nigeria made hard decisions and many mistakes. Believers were required to break completely with the past. Polygamists were forced to renounce their wives. Those who failed were regarded as outcasts or backsliders. The missionaries began to emphasise the importance of spiritual encounter and true repentance as the necessary indicators of Christian life.

It is unfortunate that the Nigerian Church has been accused of allowing polygamy, while opposing homosexuality. In practice, the Church in Nigeria has always opposed polygamy, and, in many instances, refused membership of the Church to men who failed to renounce their wives. The Lambeth Conference of 1888 deliberated on this.

In one of the places that I served in Nigeria, I was aware that many men were refused communion because they were polygamists. It was not until 1988 that the rules were relaxed, after the deliberations of Lambeth Conference, and its resolution not to deny people the grace of God in communion.

But the Church of Nigeria only tolerates polygamy; it does not approve of it. Neither has it accepted polygamists any more than the 1988 Lambeth resolution allows. No official review in Nigeria has changed this, contrary to what has happened in ECUSA concerning sexuality.

In Nigeria, the Bible is always the final arbiter in all matters of theology and ethics. This position has been further strengthened by the challenges that Anglicans are facing after the emergence of the African indigenous church movements of the 1930s, and the subsequent growth of neo-Pentecostalism in post-civil-war Nigeria.

For the Nigerian Church to be relevant to its people, it cannot afford to be undecided about matters of faith and ethics. It is competing not only with the new Churches, but also with Islam.

Furthermore, the Christianity that appeals to Nigerians is one in which the Church can be prophetic amid the vices of contemporary culture. If it could do this  on polygamy, there is no reason why it should fail to speak up against anything that it considers inconsistent with the Bible.

AFTER unprecedented growth during the Decade of Evangelism under the primacy of Archbishop Adetiloye (1988-99), the primacy of Archbishop Akinola in 2000 began with a fresh definition of the tasks facing the Nigerian Church; and a statement of vision was drawn up.

For the Archbishop of Nigeria to maintain a position different from this vision is not only to abandon its aims, but also to deny its Evangelical heritage. In speaking about homosexuality in the Anglican world, Archbishop Akinola is representing his Church.

TO ACCUSE the Nigerian Church of meddling in the affairs of another province is to ignore what  it means to be in communion with each other. To accuse its Archbishop of wanting to break the Anglican Communion is to be ignorant of the importance that the Nigerian Church attaches to the corporate existence of the Anglican Communion.

The position of the Church of Nigeria has sometimes been distorted to suggest that it has no pastoral concern for gay people. This is not true. It welcomes all people, as the Church is truly a home for all sinners; but it refuses to legitimise homosexuality as an acceptable basis for sexual relations. It welcomes gay people, and calls them to repentance.

Whatever are the Church of Nigeria’s many problems, total commitment to the scripture as authoritative in theology and ethics is not one of them. Neither is absolute commitment to the Anglican Communion.

Canon Dr Stephen Fagbemi is Honorary Curate of Murston with Bapchild and Tonge, in the diocese of Canterbury.

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