An African archbishop finds common ground in Virginia

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola says it's no accident that he, an African, has become the outspoken leader of Anglican traditionalists worldwide. God has always looked to Africa to save his church, he says.

When Christ sought safety from Herod, he found it in Egypt, in Africa, and when he was completely worn out, an African carried his cross, according to Akinola.

"God is consistent: He has always used Africans to build his church, to save his church from error. Right from the very beginning," says Mr. Akinola, dressed in the traditional garb of his Yoruba ethnic group, a large wooden cross hanging from his neck. "Africans are always there to do it!"

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Best known for his vocal opposition to homosexuality, Akinola has found support among US Anglicans, or Episcopalians, who opposed the 2003 consecration of a gay bishop and the church's move to allow dioceses to bless same-sex unions.

Last month, two of America's oldest Episcopalian churches – both in Virginia – voted to break with the US branch of Anglicanism over the issue and concerns about church leaders' adherence to biblical authority. These churches, and several other smaller churches, joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which is connected to Akinola.

"Homosexuality seeks to destroy marriage as we know it, unity as we know it, family life as we know it, so how can we endorse that?" asks Akinola. "That is completely outside what God planned for humanity. When God created man, he saw man was alone and added a female mate for him. Why didn't he pick one of the baboons, one of the lions to make his partner? He could have done so. He didn't," he says. "Homosexuality is nothing short of sinning against God with impunity as you are going against his will."

Akinola says his views are not controversial, he is simply a traditionalist adhering to God's scripture with the full support of his bishops and congregation. He says he "abhors" what he describes as the "extreme liberalism of the Western world." The debate on homosexual bishops is a symptom of that extreme liberalism and is contrary to biblical teachings, he says.

"In Africa, the gay issue is a taboo a no-go area. But that does not mean there are no gays," says Akinola, his words tumbling out fast and loud. "We have gays in Africa, too."

"But the key difference is that we don't celebrate it. Because for us it is contrary to our African culture, it is contrary to our Africa way of life and it is contrary to nature. And from a Christian point of view it is contrary to God's word, to the scripture," he says.

Tradition of tolerance tested?

The Anglican Communion has practiced, from its earliest days, compromise and embracing theological differences of each constituency. But on a number of occasions over the last three years, Akinola has threatened to leave the Communion, which is headed by the Church of England's Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ian Douglas, professor of Mission and World Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., says that the Anglican Communion's tradition of inclusion is being put to the test.

"Part of the problem with the Anglican community today is that the different constituencies are so convinced of their own truth, that they say they have no need of others – and that goes against Anglican tradition," the Rev. Mr. Douglas says.

But the current divisions are not all one sided, says Douglas. Traditionalists like Akinola are digging their heels in, but so are the Western liberals that Akinola derides.

"The global South is speaking out of its postcolonial reality and wants to assert its position vis-à-vis the West," says Douglas, "At the same time, gay and lesbian communities and women want to assert their own position in their societies."

"For me it's heartbreaking to see groups that potentially share such commonality going at each other's throats," says Douglas.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, with 140 million people, is roughly split between Christians and Muslims. The two groups often clash in the streets leaving hundreds dead. Akinola has repeatedly justified his position as a defense of the faith in the face of what he describes as Nigeria's own brand of "militant" Islam.

Akinola supports new legislation before the Nigerian government which could, if passed, prohibit same-sex relationships including public displays of affection between same-sex couples. The bill, which the US State Department warns could infringe basic human rights, has so far failed to stir any controversy here in Nigeria.

Akinola's rise to prominence was shaped, in part, by Nigeria's post-colonial tumult. Akinola was born in southwestern Nigeria in 1944. At that time, Britain was the colonial power and, like most southerners living close to the ports and European influences, Akinola was raised in Christianity.

The death of his father when Akinola was only four limited family resources and forced Akinola to drop out of school early and learn a trade, as a carpenter.

Akinola's path to prominence

A career in the church was an unusual choice, says Akinola. In 1960, the year Nigeria gained independence, Akinola was 16 and the newly oil-rich country was buzzing with opportunity and the "hunt for money," as Akinola says.

By the time he joined the Anglican priesthood in his early 20s, Akinola had set up successful businesses selling furniture and medicine. And though he left the classroom early, he completed his high school education by taking correspondence courses.

Akinola continued his studies within the church. Shortly after being ordained into the Anglican priesthood, Akinola attended the Virginia Theological Seminary in the US before returning to Nigeria in the early 1980s.

By 1991, Nigeria's port city and original capital, Lagos, had grown so large, unmanageable, and dangerous that military leader Ibrahim Babangida, fearful of assassination, turned his back on the city and carved out a new federal capital in the heart of the forest. It was to this new capital, Abuja, among the bulldozers and empty plots, that Akinola was posted to establish an Anglican presence upon his return to Nigeria.

Akinola counts his establishment of a strong Anglican congregation in Abuja as one of his greatest successes. And as Bishop of Abuja, he has built the National Ecumenical Centre, the main church for all Nigeria's 20 million Anglicans.

As Akinola approaches his 63rd birthday in late January, he bubbles with the energy that fueled his rise to Archbishop of Nigerian Anglicans in 2000. He moves fast, talks fast, and says he doesn't tolerate tardiness or excuses.

Akinola feels he has accomplished much with relatively little. "It's not by might or by power, [as a priest] you have no police to arrest anybody you have no army with their weapons to fight anybody – all you have is to talk," he says, sitting on a sofa in the air-conditioned calm of his Abuja office.

The church stands atop a hill in the capital, its new angular arches cut a crisp bright figure among the highways and office blocks of the city. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Baptist, officially opened the church in October.

On Dec. 25, Akinola gave his Christmas Day message from a lectern on the church's rotating altar. As the instrument of God, he says, he does not shy away from any subject, including politics. His sermon included calls for Nigerians to register ahead of this year's crucial presidential elections – balloting meant to cement the transition to civilian rule – and called for the people to be "God-conscious in casting their votes."

Unlike in many rich, Western countries, religion and faith remain central to many people's lives in Nigeria. In the country's Christian south, churches the size of football stadiums are packed every weekend with worshipers.

Amid the rattle and hum of portable generators on Abuja's Wuse market, shoppers leafing through Christian books and Bibles variously describe homosexuality as "evil" and an "abomination."

"We are very conservative here in Nigeria," says Norma Obazele, who describes herself as a devout Christian and declined to give her age. "Homosexuality is wrong, it's from the devil."

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