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
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
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.