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‘Christians don’t like hearing the truth’

31 August 2018

Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the first African Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, talks to Madeleine Davies


Dr Idowu-Fearon at the 2017 Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury

Dr Idowu-Fearon at the 2017 Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury

THE Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon suspects that Christians won’t like the answer that he has just given. But “I don’t want to be liked,” he adds. “I just want to tell the truth.”

We are talking about the cause of a recent surge in violence in his home country, Nigeria, where AK-47-toting herdsman are reported to have killed hundreds of people (News, 6 July). But his observation about the likely reaction could apply to some of his other answers, too. Throughout our hour together, he is more than willing to parse the problems among what he refers to as “yours truly — the Christians”, from corruption in Nigeria to his diagnosis of a “tailor-made” faith in the United States.

He has little time for British guilt about colonialism (“It is about time you get rid of it”), fears that our commitment to religious freedom has been “exploited” by extremists, and remains committed to his belief that the C of E may need to exercise “self-restraint of a sacrificial kind” in matters of sexuality. But he has also observed how “Christ-like” the British have been, in response to terrorist attacks, and speaks warmly of our “spirit of accepting people for who they are”.

He applied for the job of the Anglican Communion’s Secretary General, he says, because after years of helping Muslims in Nigeria, he felt God tell him that “your family needs you.”

This was only the second time that he had heard directly from God. His priestly calling came during his time at the Nigerian Military School. It was 1967, the first year of the Biafran War, and “I just thought ‘No — I would rather be a preacher.’”

The seventh and youngest child of an Anglican priest, he had come to a personal faith in Christ three years earlier, struck by the contrast between his own privileged upbringing and the way in which his fellow soldiers were treating their families: “wife-beating, children crying”. Given sympathetic discharge to pursue his calling, he had planned to serve as a military chaplain (“If I did, I probably would have been either dead or retired by now”); but his bishop wanted him to serve in his diocese.

From 1971 to 1990, he was General Secretary of EFAC (Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion) Nigeria. Founded in England in 1961, EFAC was led by John Stott, who developed a scholarship programme to enable “potential leaders” from the Communion to receive training in Evangelical colleges in Britain. By 1985, ten of the 99 beneficiaries had become bishops (Letters, 26 April 1985). Five years later, Josiah — a graduate of St John’s College, Durham — was added to their number, appointed Bishop of Sokoto.

He remained friends with Stott until his death, and recalls a walk from Clarence House to Victoria Station 18 months earlier: “I said: ‘John, do you think the next time I see you it will be in heaven?’”

His time in England coincided with “the height of the Charismatic movement”. In EFAC Nigeria, he says (rolling the “wr” for emphasis), “we wrestle with the Word . . . but we believe in preaching the word, calling people to conversion, and we believe in the gifts of the Spirit, which is still part of me.”

ACODr Idowu-Fearon at the 2016 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, in Zambia

SOKOTO is the seat of the Sokoto Caliphate, headed by the Sultan: the spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims. It was once an independent Islamic Caliphate, founded by a Fulani scholar, and one of the largest states in Africa until 1903, when the British conquered it (“Sokoto is also included in our sphere”, the Church Times noted in 1895).

Dr Idowu-Fearon was well-suited to the post. He has described breaking down in tears while presenting an essay on “the status of a non-Muslim in an Islamic state” during his MA in Islamic Theology at Birmingham University in 1981. “It was crystal clear to me that the Lord was calling me to the ministry of promoting a culture of respect and understanding between these two religious communities,” he told ACNS in 2015.

In 1998, he was appointed Bishop of Kaduna, another diocese in the Muslim north, with a roughly even split of Christians and Muslims. Within two years, about 2000 people had been killed and 80,000 had been made homeless in violence sparked by the reinstating of the criminal aspects of sharia in several northern states (News, 20 October 2000).

“Our people are being shot, butchered, and roasted,” he warned. Yet, in the same year, he announced plans for a Centre for Islamic Studies in the diocese.

“We have not had any hands cut off, or any Christians taken to a sharia court,” he said, of experimentation with sharia in Kaduna (2 March 2007). “This needs to be heard by the West. Even some Christian leaders are not telling the whole truth. They are exploiting the situation to get more money.”

His initiatives attracted opposition. It took three years for the diocese to approve the centre, and he came to be regarded, he says, as an “Evangelical wet”. Meanwhile, Muslim leaders took umbrage that a Christian was engaging in interpretation of their scriptures.

Today, two imams lecture at the centre, and, for the first time, Muslims have joined the intake — “ordinary Muslims: housewives, those working in offices”. A Pentecostal leader who graduated told him that it had “saved me from going to hell”.

His affection for Muslim colleagues is abundantly clear in his remarks, often contrasted with his rocky relationship with the Church in Nigeria. They and his diocese are his answer, when I ask what he misses most about home.

When it comes to the UK, however, he fears that religious tolerance has proved dangerous. What does he make of our reaction to recent terrorist attacks?

“There is a core of extremists who interpret the Qur’an and the hadiths their own way,” he says. “Now, for me, in this country, I believe the freedom of religion, the trust you English people have in people, is being exploited. I have been singing this song since the ’80s about this country.”

The response of the average person here to the attacks has been “Christ-like”, he suggests. “I believe it is because of the faith in this country. Whether secularists or atheists accept it or not, the law of this land is based on scripture. . . That has created a society that is transparently honest, a society that absorbs people, and a society that tries to say: ‘Look, this is the way we live here, and we expect you to do the same.’ But there wasn’t enough caution. It’s as if the British people let their hair down, as it were, and these groups of extremists exploited it.”

The best prescription for challenging extremists is to challenge them, he says, and “for the British people to take their faith seriously”.

“I’m not asking that you use the same vocabulary as an African Evangelical would, but . . . I have discovered that when a Muslim sees you taking your faith profession very seriously, he or she respects you.”


DR IDOWU-FEARON is the first African to hold the post of Secretary General. It is striking that, having come from a country where, according to Pew polling, 88 per cent of people say that religion is “very important” to them, to one languishing near the bottom of the scale, Dr Idowu-Fearon rejects the thesis of the “godless West”.

“Probably, it’s because of the circle within which I operate. I see more of Christ-likeness in terms of honesty, in terms of openness, accountability, and, I would say, love.” In Africa, he says, “there is profession, but the actual demonstration is not there.”

When asked about the recent spike in violence perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen, he suggests that “Christians don’t like hearing the truth, because everything is politicised in Nigeria.” He goes on to recount how, under the previous administration, “we know of senior Christian leaders who were aware of the corruption in that country, and still they bribed people and spoke to their members to vote for a corrupt Christian.”

In 2013, under President Goodluck Jonathan, the first Christian President since independence, Dr Idowu-Fearon denounced “the blatant display of wealth amidst hunger, profligacy, recklessness in the spending of money meant for development by our leaders” (News, 24 May 2013).

His own diagnosis of the recent spate of violence is clear: first, “there is more of politics than religion in this,” and, second, global warming is driving the herdsmen further south. He draws, too, on extensive knowledge of cattle-rustling, cattle routes inherited from colonial times, and young people who lack access to education. He has already challenged religious leaders who fail to offer this explanation, accusing them of being “unfair to Nigerians”.

His reference to “colonial masters” seems amused: he has little time for anxieties about the British Empire.

“This guilt feeling — it is about time you get rid of it,” he says. “This is the 21st century.” It is thanks to the British, he suggests, that Africans are able to communicate with one another in one language: “Those who brought this to us — they were not pagans; they were not Muslims; they were Christians.” He enunciates a list: education, governance. “You need to think positive.”

He is scathing about “politicians who, because they have nothing to offer to the people . . . sort of project the backwardness of their countries to the British. . . Yet they earn so much money. . . They are only looking for excuses to cover up their corrupt life.”

As a Nigerian bishop, he delivered his denunciations of corruption from the pulpit. “Corruption is killing this country,” he preached in 2003.

Although a study of corruption, promised in the 2016 Primates’ communiqué, is yet to materialise (News, 13 October 2017), it is on the agenda for Lambeth 2020, he emphasises.

He rejects, too, the claim that Canterbury acts as a colonial force within the Communion. He suggests that proponents of this claim “open your eyes and unblock your ears”, and praises the consultative style of his “boss”.

“Archbishop Justin does not take any decision without consulting with his Primates,” he says. “He sort of reminds me of the early popes. . . The Americans and the Africans, those who accuse him of being a colonialist — they have an axe to grind.”

His affection for the Archbishop is very evident. They first met when Archbishop Welby was at Coventry, which has a link to Kaduna diocese. It was only at the christening of Dr Idowu-Fearon’s grandson that he learned that the Welbys had put up his son while he was studying at university: “If he has a relationship with people, he goes all out.” Both men have lost children: a baby daughter in Archbishop Welby’s case, and a 24-year-old son at Bristol Medical School, in Dr Idowu-Fearon’s.

He considers himself to be “the most fortunate” Secretary General to date, because all the Provinces “know where he [the Archbishop of Canterbury] stands”.

ACODr Idowu-Fearon with members of his family at his commissioning as Secretary-General, in 2015

HIS own position on the sexuality issue that is exercising the Communion is clear. A member of the 2003 Windsor Commission, he remains committed to Lambeth 1.10, which maintains that marriage is between a man and a woman, and which advised against the “legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions” or ordination of those involved in them.

He has never shied away from defending this position, or challenging those who have defied it.

“Our African Churches can never be social progressives in the sense beloved of the West,” he told the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa in 2016. “We will never allow our Churches to be taken over by views and programmes which suggest that the Bible is wrong. We will not crumble or bow the knee to a godless secular culture that despises the Bible and what it teaches.”

He was, he said, “deeply disturbed” by seeing Christians holding the traditional view “swept aside by a campaign to change the Churches’ teaching on marriage and so-called rights of equality”.

In 2004, in a conversation with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States at that time, the Most Revd Frank T. Griswold (also a member of the Windsor Commission), he described how African traditional religion did not accept same-sex relations, “and, therefore, if you now ask us as Christians to accept same-sex relations as a lifestyle, we have no gospel to proclaim.”

“We do not hate homosexuals,” he emphasised. “However, we do not condone their lifestyle; I want us to get that very clear.”

The conversation, hosted by Pew, illustrated the complexity of his relationship with the Episcopal Church, and gave listeners a taste of his characteristic frankness. The response of a confirmation candidate in Florida who, asked to give a testimony, replied: “Well, I used to be a Baptist, and now I’m Episcopalian,” was “not acceptable”, he suggested. “That is not conversion. . . For the African, there is this dramatic life-changing experience.”

He had never forgotten, he said, how, after he told the Episcopal Church’s General Convention that “In my part of the world, when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold,” a bishop had stood up to say: “If they catch a cold, there is Advil [a brand-name of Ibuprofen].”

But there are also longstanding bonds of affection. In 1990, he came to study Muslim-Christian relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. A friendship with Trinity Episcopal Church in Tariffville was deepened when the parish arranged for his daughter to receive extensive medical care in the US (the entire family stayed with a Trinity family for months) and raised funds to support Kaduna in the wake of the 2000 riots. It was a prelude to annual, collaborative mission trips

When his appointment was announced in 2015, an American website, Episcopal Café, described him as a “long and vocal opponent of the acceptance of LGBT persons in the Church”, providing links to a number of interviews. In a statement, he emphasised that he had “never supported the law in Nigeria that criminalises the gay community and I will never support it”.

Ironically, the Church in Nigeria issued its own broadside, in a statement that described him as “not in accord with the theological and doctrinal posture of the Church of Nigeria”, because of his failure to support criminalisation (News, 3 July 2015).

As Secretary General, he has sought to emphasise compliance with 1.10 in its entirety. He defended the appointment of the Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham (News, 9 September 2016), and last year told the General Synod that “the struggle for the legal, social, spiritual, and physical safety of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is our issue in Nigeria and other places in Africa.

“The prophetic task for African Anglicans is to denounce violence . . . We need to receive and re-receive the courageous stance of the Church of England against criminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s.”

But he also argued that making a priority of “the great ministry of Jesus who gathers all peoples to himself” might require “setting aside certain difficult matters for now; it may mean self-restraint of a sacrificial kind for now”.

Can he understand why this might be a difficult message, particularly for those seeking a blessing for their relationship?

He points to John 15: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”

“For me . . . there are many things I would want to do as a Christian, but I cannot because of my love of Jesus Christ, my love for God the Father; so I am restrained by this love.

“What I have found in the West — I don’t see much of that here but across the ocean in America — Christianity has become tailor-made. It’s the ease, the comfort of the person, not what following Christ really demands. . . People talk about love and preach love, love, love, love, but love is sacrificial.”

He gives the example of Christian men in Kaduna diocese married to wives who have been unable to have children, and who, despite family pressure, have refused to take another wife. “I have no problem with a person who is struggling with his or her sexuality. No, I don’t. I don’t. But there are sacrifices to be made.”

In addresses to Churches considering changing their position on marriage, he has urged them to consider the impact on Christians in other parts of the Communion. In 2014, Archbishop Welby suggested that it could lead to “catastrophic” violence (News, 4 April 2014).

Asked to clarify how this might unfold, Dr Idowu-Fearon describes how, after the invasion of Iraq, his cathedral in Sokoto was attacked, and the Sultan was insulted after being seen walking with him: “When things happen in the West, Christians are attacked. . . I don’t believe in it, I don’t accept it, but it is the reality we face. For me, that is more appropriate than saying it is negating: it is affecting our witness. No, I have never bought into that reason, but it exposes the Christian to attacks. . . They cannot come and fight you here: they fight us over there. That’s a fact.”

His critique extends to conservative American Christians, too. In 2016, he suggested that the importance that African church leaders attached to sexuality was the result of the interference of “very strong min­ority conservatives” in the United States (News, 16 December 2016).

His concern about this today is “not as strong as it was”, he says, “because more of the African leaders are beginning to read between the lines. . . A good number more of the African bishops and archbishops are beginning to say, ‘Hang on. I am elected to serve my people; so the needs of my people come first.’”

The new Archbishop of Kenya, the Most Revd Jackson Ole Sapit, is “very special”, he suggests. “He wants to make his ministry relevant to Kenya, from the politicians to the ordinary member of the Church. So, for him, it is not what is going on in America or Australia, wherever. No. Kenya is first.”

DR IDOWU-FEARON is keen to emphasise that, as Secretary General, “my opinions don’t count. . . I just present the position of the Communion.” This is the tenor of many of his statements issued by the Anglican Communion Office, which proffer clarification or correction on matters of order. No, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) is not a Province of the Communion; yes, it is necessary to be in communion with the see of Canterbury to be part of the Anglican Communion (News, 22 June).

His reports tend to highlight encouraging signs. July’s noted a “sense of brotherhood and belonging” and “great enthusiasm” for Lambeth 2020.

Is it difficult to be consistent, on his travels, to avoid saying what those in front of him want to hear?

“People would take from whatever one says what they want to take out of it,” he observes. “But, if I am to describe myself, I would say I am at the centre. I am a centre-right, which means I can go with the right, I can go with the left, without changing my own convictions.”

He admits that being a “bridge” can be difficult, “especially when you see Primates and bishops who know what the true situation is, and then they pretend ignorance. That’s hurting. I found that very hurting. And I see that a lot.”

But his face lights up when he describes a recent invitation to speak on evangelism in the Province of Melanesia: “It was fantastic! I felt I was back in my heydays as an evangelist. I’m an evangelist! I found myself even making an altar call.”

What he likes most about the UK, he says, is “the freedom, which goes with responsibilities. . . I like the spirit of accepting people for who they are. I like that not sort of imposing on others.”

On his appointment in 2015, he suggested that “the biggest area of potential of the Communion lies in the 70 per cent of Anglicans who represent the Anglican via media.”

Today, he believes that the percentage has increased, and is confident that “the average Anglican, for me, wants to live his or her life in communion with others.”

He will be 70 next year. With two years to go until Lambeth 2020, and despite the growth of parallel structures championed by his home Province, the bridge-builder shows no signs of flagging.

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