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A meeting of minds in Nigeria

21 February 2014

Jesse Zink visited different Anglican provinces to see ifthe Communion was as divided as the headlines suggest. In this extract from his new book, he visits eastern Nigeria


The Anglican Christian Fathers' Fellowship gathers at Owerri

The Anglican Christian Fathers' Fellowship gathers at Owerri

I ARRIVED in the diocese of Owerri, Nigeria, as the guest of its Bishop, Dr Cyril Okorocha. Owerri is in the heartland of the Igbo people. This is the former Biafra, which suffered so grievously in the civil war of the late 1960s, and is now close to the centre of the country's oil-fuelled growth.

The sheer scale of programmes and projects in the diocese was overwhelming: schools, clinics, social services, a newspaper, and more.

During my visit, Bishop Okorocha cut the ribbon on the diocese's new two-storey medical clinic. The senior medical officer showed me the rooms for HIV counselling, patient consulting, and group-education sessions. We also saw the fully functioning lab with several impressive-looking machines. The clinic had been built entirely with Nigerian money.

The new clinic, not far from the diocesan conference centre, was a 60-bed facility that could accommodate a whole range of events, and generate income for women's ministries in the diocese. Next door was the diocesan printing press, a hot, crowded, and busy operation.

The activity of church organisations on weekdays was more than matched by the activity on Sundays. Bishop Okorocha told me that, when he first became bishop, he had confirmed 700 people in a service that lasted until 1 a.m. He now limited services to "only" 200 confirmands each.

"Confirmation is important," he said. "Many young people here belong to secret gangs and cults for a time. When they are confirmed, they are saying they no longer want to belong to those. It's a big step for them."

I thought back to my own confirmation in the United States, and the casual approach that so many of us had taken to the rite.

MY TIME in Owerri coincided with the annual conference of the Anglican Christian Fathers' Fellowship (ACFF), a burgeoning organisation that Bishop Okorocha had started as a kind of parallel to the Mothers' Union, and as a way to involve men in the Church.

When we arrived at the church where it was being held, there were between 600 and 800 men in the pews, patiently listening to speech after speech.

The speakers had a common theme. They lamented the ways in which fathers were failing to raise their children in the faith, and were not modelling regular attendance at church. The result, the speakers said, is that children were being influenced by Pentecostal churches, and leaving the Anglican Church.

The Bishop's keynote address was on the second day of the conference. It was a three-hour marathon, interrupted - distressingly - by celebratory cannon-shots from a wedding party near by. It featured discursive sections on Igbo cosmology, and the parenting strategies of Abraham, Moses, and Eli.

His main theme came back to the issues raised the day before: Anglican fathers in Owerri, and elsewhere, needed to do a better job.

My visit came just a few weeks before the diocese's annual ordination service. In the month before the scheduled date, the 25 or more ordinands gather with their families in the diocesan conference centre for a final, intense period of formation.

On the day I visited, the ordinands were discussing how they could work together in parishes, and also work alongside their lay people. The lesson was led by the Ven. Paul Nwaozuzu, Owerri's archdeacon. A gentle-looking man, he was in charge of Owerri's Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

The Bishop introduced me to the class, and asked me to say a few words. I explained my interest in exploring what unity looks like when the body of Christ spans the globe, and acknowledged that there have been differences between our two Churches in recent years.

A few of the ordinands asked questions, but it was polite, and restrained. As the questions petered out, the Archdeacon had a point he wanted to make. "There are many cultural differences between our two Churches. What matters, though, is Romans 14.19." He quoted it from memory: "Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."

LATER, Paul invited me to accompany him to a neighbouring diocese. It was a beautiful drive through the rolling eastern-Nigerian landscape. The two-lane road took us through market towns, and small villages of subsistence farmers. Scores of churches - some Anglican - lined the road. In the course of the 60-mile drive, we passed through four Anglican dioceses.

Paul is the sort of man who, when he walks into someone's home, immediately says: "May peace be upon this home and its inhabitants." His earnestness is a function of his genuine Christian devotion.

His father had also been Archdeacon in Owerri, and Paul has long expected this ministry. He is the furthest thing from a demagogue, and our conversation in the car meandered through a range of topics, as we explored the differences between our Churches.

The conversation turned to the lesson with the ordinands. I said how much I had appreciated his comments about peace and mutual upbuilding, in his lesson with the ordinands. He acknowledged the comment, but had some questions for me.

He had heard that some priests in the US and England are gay. "What would these . . ." he paused, looking for the right word, "brothers, I guess you would call them. . ." He started again. "What would these Christian brothers of yours say if I asked them how they could be homosexual, and train for ordination?"

I told him how seminary classmates of mine who are gay tell me that they believe God created them to be that way. He paused to digest this information. After a few moments, he spoke again. "In every culture, there is something to be converted by the gospel. In Nigeria, it is our lying, cheating, and pervasive corruption."

He paused again, reflective. "What is it that needs to be converted in America?" It was an honest question, asked genuinely, and I realised that it was not one to which I had ever given serious thought. I stumbled, looking for an answer.

I MENTIONED American culture's obsessive drive to sexualise human interaction, although I made it clear that I did not think same-sex relationships fell in this category. He nodded thoughtfully.

We talked some more about the differences and divisions between the Churches. It was clear that we disagreed; but it was also clear that this disagreement did not change the respect and affection that either of us was developing for the other.

I told him that I was interested in figuring out what place there was for people like me in a place such as Owerri. The old mission era was gone, but there was as yet no new model.

"That's a good question to be asking," he said. "I think we need to be stressing mutuality more in the Church. Everyone has to show up ready to give and receive something." It reminded him of a sermon that he preached to his congregation after the 2010 Lausanne Conference of Evangelical Christians.

"The statement from that conference calls on Christians to live a life of 'humility, integrity, and simplicity'. If thousands of Christians can agree on that, surely there is something we can learn from it."

I had no doubt that these were values that he lived in his life. But there were practices I had seen in the Church in Nigeria that made me wonder if everyone shared his commitment.

At the end of the Bishop's address at the ACFF, there had been a collection for ACFF, known as the "appreciation". Men came up to the chancel and put envelopes full of money into the bucket.

WITH one exception, it was not all that different from what I remembered at the stewardship-ingathering Sunday at my home church in the US. The difference was that, as they approached the bucket, each man took the microphone, said his name, gave a short speech thanking the Bishop, and announced how much he was giving. After each announcement, there was applause, its volume dependent on the size of the gift.

While the appreciation continued, I flipped through the copy of the new Nigerian prayer-book I had been given a few days earlier. At the back is printed the Jerusalem Declaration, the manifesto that came out of the 2008 meeting of GAFCON in Jerusalem, which Nigerian bishops attended instead of the Lambeth Conference.

My eye was drawn to the declaration's second point: "The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught, and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the Church's historic and consensual teaching."

As I looked up from the Jerusalem Declaration and watched the men with their envelopes, Jesus's instruction in the Sermon on the Mount came to mind: "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you."

No matter how I tried to square it, the appreciation seemed in direct contravention of Jesus's teaching. There was nothing secret about this appreciation. It fact, publicity was its purpose. It seemed impossible to reconcile the desire to read and obey the Bible in its "plain" sense with what I was seeing in front of me.

After the conference, I asked several priests about the practice. Each said that it was commonplace. I mentioned the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but each shrugged, and said: "It's our culture. It's how we give."

I PRESSED one priest further. Leaving aside Jesus's teaching, I said, I did not think that public giving was necessarily wrong. Perhaps it encouraged people to give more. Perhaps - in a culture where corruption is rampant - it encouraged transparency in the Church's financial affairs.

I was certainly open, I said, to the idea that we could modify how we understood Jesus's teachings in order to accommodate both this aspect of Nigerian culture, and the way in which giving has evolved in the Church. He nodded, satisfied with the solution.

But I pressed on. If I could show leniency in scriptural interpretation on this point, would he be willing to show the same leniency on the American Church's interpretation of same-sex relationships? The American Church has made changes to respond to its culture.

The priest said that what I was saying sounded reasonable to him. "But being opposed to homosexuality has become a test of whether you believe the Bible or not," he said.

"Why homosexuality and not, say, public giving?"

"I don't know. It's just the way it is. If you want to be a faithful Christian, and do well in the Church, you can't be in favour of homosexuality, even a little bit."

As I prepared to leave eastern Nigeria, this was the thought that gnawed at me. Despite the openness I had found in people such as Paul Nwaozuzu, who genuinely wanted to learn more about my Church, for many Nigerian Christians opposition to homosexuality has taken on totemic significance.

In this context, reaching a point where Nigerians and I could agree that homosexuality was not a relationship-defining issue seemed almost impossible.

Then again, perhaps there was hope. Later, at a separate diocesan conference I attended, I sat next to Eugene, an older priest not far from retirement. He had fought for the Biafran rebel army, and then hada career as a secondary-school teacher.

His ecclesial ambitions were no greater than faithfully pastoring his congregation. We amiably reflected on the divisions in the Communion.

As our conversation came to an end, he said: "These problems have hurt our association in the past few years. But flexing our muscles, left and right, does not solve any of our problems. I don't think we need to be in a hurry. With the passage of time, we can come to a greater understanding of each other."

He looked at me: "You need to learn more about Nigeria, and we need to learn more about you. After all," he said, "we are all Anglicans."

That was the most hopeful message I could take away from eastern Nigeria. At the local level in Nigeria, I was finding numerous conversation partners. It was in this genuine mutual learning, I thought, that Anglicans could begin to find a way beyond the impasse.

The Revd Jesse Zink is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and assistant chaplain at Emmanuel College. This article is an edited extract from Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A search for unity, published by Morehouse Publishing at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10).

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