DIVISIONS remain in the Anglican Communion, but there is “very little of the bitterness and rancour that existed previously”, the Secretary-General, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, has said.
He was speaking on Tuesday, when it was announced that he would retire at the end of August 2022, after serving a seven-year term.
“When I was appointed to this post, I said that ‘my prayer to God is very simple, that I would be able to be a bridge-builder, to create the culture of respect for differences, a culture of accepting people as human beings and loving them for who they are in Christ,’” he said. “Over the past six years, we have seen this prayer come true. There are still divisions within the Anglican Communion; but there is very little of the bitterness and rancour that existed previously.”
Dr Idowu-Fearon, who is 72 and the first African to be the Communion’s Secretary-General, said during a press conference on Tuesday that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s personal visits to each Primate, during the first few years of his archiepiscopacy, had “prepared the ground” for him once he was appointed Secretary-General in 2015 (News, 8 May 2015). When Dr Idowu-Fearon visited Primates who had hosted Archbishop Welby, “I was welcome. I had a home,” he said.
At the time of Archbishop Welby’s installation, in 2013, “a good number of the Primates were no longer attending the Primates’ Meeting”, Dr Idowu-Fearon said. “Today, apart from three Primates, all the Primates are on board. For me, it’s something to praise the Lord for.”
Dr Idowu-Fearon would not be drawn on which three Primates were not “on board”, but it is known that the Primates of Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya have not attended Primates’ Meetings, and have been critical of Archbishop Welby.
In “at least one or two” of these Provinces, Dr Idowu-Fearon said, “there are many who would love to be together with us within the Communion”.
He also stated: “As far as I know, as far as the records we have here are concerned, none of these three Primates has formally written to say to us ‘We are leaving the Anglican Communion. . . They just don’t turn up to our meetings: that’s it.” He reiterated Archbishop Welby’s message that “the door is always open.”
This “growing understanding” with Primates who had previously been hostile to the Communion did not mean that their theological positions had changed, he said. “We’re having more people now at the centre, those who were originally and staunchly committed to the Right or to the Left; a good number say we can work together with our differences, and that is a good thing.”
Dr Idowu-Fearon said that he had not picked up on disquiet in the Communion over the Church in Wales’s decision this month to allow same-sex couples to have their civil partnership or marriage blessed in church (News, 10 September). But he continued: “I’m treating it as a decision taken by a member of a family, a decision that does not go down well with a significant number. So I’m treating it as a local decision. It is blessing: they have not actually come out to say ‘We are changing our canon on marriage.’”
The deputy secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Revd Dr Will Adam, who also took part in the press conference, said: “There is, it seems to me on the surface, a material difference between the decision of the Church in Wales and the decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church or the Episcopal Church in the United States. However, how that lands in the wider Communion and how that is treated by the Primates when they meet for their virtual Primates’ Meeting in November, clearly we can’t second guess. . .
“We will have to see how this works out. I think it is our hope that the various member Churches and the parts of the Anglican Communion will continue to be able to walk together, even if there is some distancing with the walking together; walking in the same direction and walking together.”
Speaking of his plans for the future, Dr Idowu-Fearon said that he would not be retiring: he plans to return to working with the Kaduna Centre for the Study of Christian-Muslim Relations, in Nigeria, which he founded in 2000, when he was Bishop of the Kaduna diocese. “The work of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in the northern parts of Nigeria is a frontline ministry, and I want to go back to that — to use education for a peace-building particularly between Christians and Muslims.”
A “high point” of his time at the Anglican Communion Office had been a visit to Melanesia. “The Primate there invited us to lead in evangelism and renewal, and that really took me back to my early years as a bishop in the northern part of Nigeria.”
There had been significant growth in Churches in the Communion, he said, which had necessitated the creation of three new Provinces: Sudan (News, 4 August 2017); Chile (News, 23 November 2018); and Alexandria (News, 3 July 2020). Another new Province, the 42nd in the Communion, Angola and Mozambique, is due to be inaugurated today.
During his time in office, Dr Idowu-Fearon has challenged both liberals and conservatives in the Communion. In January 2016, he told Episcopalians in the United States that their decision on same-sex marriage had put other Churches in the Communion at risk (News, 5 February 2016). Later that year, however, he said that the importance that African church leaders attached to the question of same-sex relationships was the result of interference by conservatives in the United States (News, 16 December 2016).
He has also expressed frustration at the manoeuvrings of GAFCON. In a robust address to the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong, in 2019, he responded to the question “How should we respond to GAFCON?” by saying: “When you see a Primate, when you see a bishop, who knows that this is what it means to be an Anglican Church . . . and he pretends that he doesn’t, that’s very frustrating” (News, 3 May 2019). He also criticised Primates who had snubbed invitations from Archbishop Welby.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been friends with Dr Idowu-Fearon for almost 20 years, said on Tuesday: “He has ministered to us through a profound respect both for our difference and diversity, and with a vision for our unity in Jesus Christ. For his remarkable determination and courage in pursuing this calling, I praise God for the gift that Josiah has been to us.
“I am especially grateful to Josiah for his wisdom and work in the preparations for the Lambeth Conference, and I am glad he will still be in post when that takes place next year. I look forward to continuing in partnership in the gospel with Josiah over his remaining time as secretary-general and in the future beyond that.”
The Chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Most Revd Paul Kwong, who is a former Archbishop of Hong Kong, described Dr Idwo-Fearon on Tuesday as “an outstanding Secretary- General of the Anglican Communion. His fruitful ministry is marked by his commitment to making himself available always to connect or reconnect people and trying to bring them together in the Communion.
“He has been good to maintain positive and productive relationships and to engender cooperation among people with complex, diverse and sensitive relationships and persuasions.
“I thank him deeply for what he has done for the Communion, in particular, The Anglican Consultative Council. I wish him all the best for the next phase of his ministry.”
Before his present appointment, Dr Idowu-Fearon was the Bishop of Kaduna and Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna, in the Muslim north of Nigeria, where there is a roughly even split of Christians and Muslims. He has played a pivotal part in interfaith relations between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, including setting up a Centre for Islamic Studies in the diocese (Features, 31 August 2018).
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).
A statement from the Anglican Communion Office says: “The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion is working on a succession plan to recruit the next Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, and more details will be announced at a later date.”