Theology Thursdays: Defender of the Faith by Philip Jenkins

The most important figure today in the Anglican Communion, a worldwide federation of churches with some 75 million adherents, is probably a man few people in the West know anything about: Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola, of Nigeria. An uncompromising traditionalist, Akinola presides over the most vibrant and almost certainly the largest Anglican community in the world—at a time when the Anglican world's true center of gravity has shifted to Africa.

It was no small matter, then, when Akinola went public this past summer with blistering denunciations of proposals to consecrate openly gay bishops and to sanctify gay marriage. Commenting on the decision of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster to approve the blessing of gay unions, Akinola declared that the diocese had in practice seceded from the Anglican world. Reacting to a proposal in the Church of England to ordain a gay bishop (a proposal ultimately withdrawn after intense pressure from African and Asian leaders), Akinola thundered, "This is an attack on the Church of God —a Satanic attack on God's Church." And during the buildup to the U.S. Episcopal Church's controversial ordination of Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire, he announced, "I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don't hear of such things."

American and European readers may be inclined to dismiss such remarks as coming from a hidebound bigot, or perhaps from a demagogue seeking attention—but they would be wrong to do so. In his attitudes toward sexuality, and above all in his attitude toward religious authority, Akinola represents a deep-rooted conservative tradition in African Christianity that is flourishing and growing, and that is simply not going to vanish as levels of economic growth and education rise in Africa. The prospect of imminent global schism in the Anglican Communion is therefore real.

Matters may well have come to a head by the time this article goes to press: in October the Archbishop of Canterbury was scheduled to preside over an emergency session in London of the primates of his Church worldwide. Perhaps the session will turn out to avert open schism, but even the friendliest such meeting could not change the nature of the enduring conflict between the older and the younger Anglican churches, with those of Europe and North America set against those of Africa and Asia. Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are watching these events with foreboding, because what is really at issue, of course, is competing conceptions of the nature of religious authority, of the relationship between the religious and secular spheres, and even of the possibility of coexisting peacefully with other faiths.

Peter Jasper Akinola is (not necessarily in this order) a Nigerian, a Christian, and an Anglican. He is an imposing figure, tall and graying, who has been married for thirty-four years and has six children. He was born in 1944 and spent his early life in the province of Ogun, the land of the Yoruba people, in the far west of Nigeria; he was sixteen when the country achieved its independence. Akinola thus came of age in an era of enormous optimism about a nation that had the potential, because of its vast oil reserves and its surging population, to be one of the most powerful countries in Africa—indeed, possibly a world power. From 1966 to 1970, however, Nigeria was torn apart by a civil war that killed perhaps two million people, and from 1983 to 1999 the country was ruled by a series of brutal and stunningly corrupt military dictatorships that set back development at home and blighted the nation's reputation overseas. In this disastrous secular environment many Nigerians began to see their future in the Christian churches, which offered a growing place of refuge.

When Nigeria's civil war began, Akinola was starting an entrepreneurial career in Lagos as a carpenter and a furniture maker, with a sideline in patent medicines. In 1968 he began training as a catechist, and after studying at Anglican theological colleges in northern Nigeria, he was ordained a deacon in 1978 and a priest in 1979. He traveled to the United States and in 1981 received a master's in theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. Later that year he returned to Nigeria, to Abuja, the city that was being developed as the nation's new federal capital. His return coincided with the start of a remarkable religious explosion. The Nigerian Church has never since known anything but boom years, and the specific nature of this boom is central to understanding Akinola's response to the debates over homosexuality.

The Anglican Church of Nigeria was founded by British missionaries in 1842. For well over a century it grew healthily but not remarkably. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the Church began a furious period of evangelism, with growth statistics that sound like the goals of a Stalinist Five Year Plan. In the late 1970s Nigeria was home to five million or so Anglicans; that number has now grown to perhaps 18 million, and it may double by 2025 or so. (To put that in perspective, North America has about four million Anglicans, and the number is stagnant or shrinking.) In 1979 the Nigerian Church had sixteen dioceses, organized in a single province; today it has nearly eighty dioceses, organized in ten provinces. In 1979 Nigeria had a single archbishop; today it has ten, overseeing a whole national hierarchy.

When Akinola arrived in Abuja, he began a mission from next to nothing, with "not even one square inch of land," as he told the magazine Anglican World in 2001. "There was no church member, no organ, no choir, no money, nothing—and I mean practically nothing." Eight years later he was the first bishop of the see of Abuja; by 1998 he was the archbishop of a province of Abuja, with eight bishops under him. Since 2000 he has been the primate of the whole Nigerian Church. The expansion that fueled his rise is the kind of growth that he sees as normal and that he expects will continue. "In our country today," he told Anglican World, "there are many new churches springing up on a daily basis." It was a claim he meant literally.

But in Akinola's view, this growth depends entirely on loyalty to orthodox biblical faith. His experience in Nigeria has shown him that orthodox churches flourish, and heretical or schismatic churches fail. Nigerian Anglicanism is at its core intensely Bible-centered. "We in Nigeria believe very strongly in the priority of the Scripture," he has said. "We want to see ourselves as a church that seeks to live in obedience to the dictates of the Scripture, regardless of whether that is convenient or inconvenient."

Akinola and his church are also firmly committed to evangelism. "If a fire is not burning," he has observed, "then it is no longer fire. If the Church is not evangelizing, then it is like a dead fire." Evangelism means spreading the message of the Bible, of course, and although debate about biblical interpretation is possible in some cases, Akinola sees no room for it when the New Testament text speaks as clearly as it does on homosexuality. The worst feature of the North American debates, he felt, was that scriptural arguments were simply ignored. Reacting to the Episcopal approval of Robinson's election, Akinola declared himself "astonished that such a high-level convention ... should conspire to turn their back on the clear teaching of the Bible on the matter of human sexuality."

Although Akinola believes that American and British churches are in error, his Anglican roots condition how and when he feels he can intervene directly. This tradition gives him a strong sense of the global dimensions of Christianity. He heads not the Church of Nigeria but the "Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)," and that is a crucial difference. Anglicans everywhere fall within his area of concern. His communion is a family, and as he has put it, "That is where we belong." Yet Akinola is reluctant to speak out of turn. He venerates the Anglican idea of autonomous churches under their own primates and bishops, and feels that a primate has no right to interfere in another province, except in the direst circumstances. He has been remarkably moderate toward the North American churches—however difficult this may be to believe for those who know him only from his recent remarks. In interviews he has gone out of his way not to condemn the U.S. Episcopal Church, and he makes a point of praising Bishop Frank Griswold, its leader, and other American liberals. He refuses to ally himself with American conservatives who want to break away from their liberal bishops altogether. "You don't just jump from your diocese to begin to do whatever you like in another man's diocese," he told the Church of Nigeria News in 2001. "That is not done in our Anglican tradition."

That Akinola has now spoken out so strongly on issues being debated in other countries suggests his level of fury. This arises in part from his sense that the Northern churches are abandoning the Christian moral tradition. But another element further explains Akinola's—and, indeed, African Christianity's—desperate intervention in the Church's controversies over homosexuality: rivalry with Islam. At first sight the connection may seem tenuous: what does it matter to Christians in Lagos or Kampala whether an Anglican minister blesses two men in a civil ceremony of union in Vancouver? But the link is in fact an important one.

Nigeria is a land of intense interfaith conflict. Islamist authorities have imposed sharia law in a third of the country's thirty-six states, and Christians there face a very real danger of persecution and jihad. These sharia states include Kebbi and Kaduna, where Akinola lived during his years of theological training in the 1970s. He saw firsthand the growth of Muslim militancy, and his diploma is from the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, located in Jos, which for several years now has been a storm center of rioting and anti-Christian pogroms. Since 1990 the Anglican Church has responded to these threats by deliberately reinforcing its presence in the Muslim north, to show that Christians are not going to fade away without a fight.

This struggle provides the crucial context for African concerns about sexual morality. Across the continent Muslims have tried to make converts by arguing that the Christian West is decadent and sexually irresponsible—a belief that finds daily confirmation in Western films and television. If the Anglican Communion accepted gay bishops or approved gay unions, Muslims would gain an enormous propaganda victory in Nigeria—and in a dozen or so other African countries in which Christians and Muslims compete for converts, often violently. When Akinola speaks out, therefore, it is not because he wants to intrude on the affairs of other churches but, rather, because he feels that the very existence of Christianity in his own territory is under threat. At stake, he believes, is the religious map of much of Africa, and the global balance between Christianity and Islam.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is The New Anti-Catholicism (2003).

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 13, 2003