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"The Christians raised their heads..."

Posted on: March 6, 2001 2:29 PM
Related Categories: Nigeria

[ACNS] Ash Wednesday began for me with the power of the Book of Common Prayer's Litany of Penitence and Confession. The day lived up to its message in some ways for me and indeed I knew it was Lent. Yet God's grace led me to have an interview with His Grace, the Most Reverend Peter Akinola, Primate of Nigeria, said to be the fastest growing Province in our Anglican Communion, just the next day, St David's Day. The strength of the Nigerian Primate's faith is as inspiring as the story of the great Patron Saint of Wales to this editor. I gratefully share this interview with you. I asked the Archbishop about the recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Nigeria, a church with 15 million Anglicans. He told me much about that visit and much, much more. By the end my spirits were lifted.

An interview by Canon James Rosenthal, Anglican World, with the Archbishop of Nigeria

March 1, just before the Primates Meeting

Kanuga Episcopal Conference Centre, North Carolina, USA

JMR: What has been the impact on your Church in general from a visit like this from the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Archbishop Peter: In many respects I believe that the visit was very fulfilling, it was very satisfying, it was very gratifying, it was very, very supportive of the work that we are doing. It was most encouraging and I must say it was very challenging. Each time the Archbishop had an opportunity to preach or to engage people in conversation at whatever level, he was very gentle but at the same time you could see power coming out of his words. Words of wisdom, words that really challenged us to give thanks to God and to see the great potential that lay ahead of us as the Church of Nigeria. On the whole I would say that that visit was not only timely it was a blessing to our Church.

JMR: Archbishop, would you mind saying one bit more about the challenge you see for the days ahead?

Archbishop Peter: Archbishop Carey spoke several times about the modern day emphasis on a prosperity gospel. He spoke about interfaith and what we can do together with other Christian people in the context of our nation. We talk about the potential the Church could reap from our youth. Let me expand on those three aspects of our church life.

In our country today there are many new churches springing up on daily basis. In other words, anyone who thinks that he is of any consequence in society and any one who thinks he is above the law, is above discipline within our own Church, gets out there, gathers some followers and becomes their leader, his wife becomes the treasurer, his son is the superintendent. That happens almost all the time and because of the general level of poverty in our country such people have a following. The message the masses want to hear is of miracle, a message of prosperity, a message of healing, if you come to us, Christ will do this for you, Christ will do that for you. The Archbishop did not mince words in declaring in several places, that is not only unchristian, it is not scriptural and is not the mind of Christ. What Christ says is carry your cross and follow me. Thus that message was terribly important and very timely. It was one big area of challenge which we have to follow up now. We have been doing it but coming at this point to emphasise it has further kindled our commitment. We want to follow up on that.

Now, the area of interfaith dialogue. You will be interested to know that the Anglican Church in Nigeria and the Roman Catholics have just begun to think about how to set up a joint committee, that we call the "Nigeria ARCIC". The visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury was a big boost to that and I made arrangement for the Archbishop to be able to receive in audience heads of other denominations for over 2 hours in Abuja, before the tour began and that meeting more or less prepared him for the many areas of his visit. So like I said, it is a challenge and that his coming from England and lending his moral support to what we are doing indicates that it is something we have to do more.

JMR: Is there good church co-operation?

Archbishop Peter: There has not been much co-operation in the past, but with this visit it has now served as a springboard and I am going to be personally be involved in encouraging my colleagues like the President of Roman Catholic Conference in Nigeria, the Lutheran Church and so on. May I say we have in place various committees and commissions and there is this particular commission on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Our brother Bishop Josiah Fearon of Kaduna is Chairman of that committee. (Ecumenism and Interfaith). I have already mandated them to go out all the way and get to work. When we meet in Port Harcourt soon and I am going to ask them to bring a report of how far they have come in these conversations. I think we are going to pursue that of the Roman Catholics and Lutheran Church more vigorously first, then perhaps that with Baptists will follow. The Lutheran Church and Roman Catholic Church will be the first we take on more actively.

The fourth area of challenge is that of the youth. I am a Nigerian, I have lived in Nigeria all my life but I have never for once taken time to even think of what the percentage of our youth are in Nigeria. It was the Archbishop of Canterbury who announced to me and to our people that young people in Nigeria under the age of 25 constitute more that 45% of our population. The first thing I said was 'Wow really.' So perhaps that is the biggest challenge I have to face. I want to see what the committee wants to do - there is a national committee of youth for our Church. If we have more than 45million young people in Nigeria what tremendous opportunity, what a tremendous challenge that is for the Church. No more rhetoric. We have to go beyond mere planning committees, we must now identify specific tasks and assign specific responsibilities to these young people. You know the saying 'catch them young.' We must keep these young people in the Church. We must bring them in and give them a keen sense of belonging in the Church.

JMR: The Archbishop of Canterbury often says that the young people are the Church of today. Would you agree with that?

Archbishop Peter: The young people from what I have seen now are the Church of today and of tomorrow. After my generation who is next? The young people. So if we do not attract them now, to begin to see how things are to be done, if we do not channel their enormous resources and energies in the proper way, the Church will not have a future. Anything we can do that will help our young people, I tell you I am all for it.

JMR: What do you feel about being part of the Anglican Communion brings to you as a Primate but also to your people?

Archbishop Peter: Well I think this goes back to Memory Lane. We in Nigeria of course we are conscious of the fact that our Church was a product of the labours of Church Missionary Society that came to Nigeria in 1842 from the Church of England and it was through their efforts and labours of love that our Church came into being. So we see our Church as an offspring of the Church of England. Secondly to be an Anglican means that you are also in Communion with the See of Canterbury. So from this perspective, we can not see ourselves living in isolation. We see our roots in the Church of England and we see our identity as part of the Church of England but now in autonomous, independent nation. So being part of the Communion does not mean that we are coming to learn from England, how to be Anglicans, how to be Christians, how to go to Jesus. All that, we can do for ourselves. But at least we can keep in touch with base. And being part of the Communion keeps us in touch with our base.

JMR: Do you consider the Communion in any way a family for your people? Do you see it that way? Families often have problems. Do you see it as that kind of dynamic?

Archbishop Peter: The dynamic of family is what lies behind the point that I made that we see it as our root, our base. That is our parents, which is a family. Of course the Anglican Communion is a family and that is why each time we write the Church of Nigeria we write in parenthesis "Anglican Communion", that is where we belong. So for us the family we say whenever there is tension, disagreement or whatever, we will try to resolve it in a family way.

JMR: Your Grace, obviously it must be a prayerful burden to be the principal Archbishop of one of the fastest growing Church in the Communion? How with what you have experienced over your ministry as a layman, as a priest, as a bishop how do you think what you have experienced and how God has moved in your Church. How do you think you can share that with the rest of the Communion? What is it that you can bring to the table of the family?

Archbishop Peter: Thank you very much for that question. Much of what we think we can offer I do know, but is there anyone out there who is listening? What works for us in our context may not work in other contexts. But because you asked here is what I have in mind.

  1. We in Nigeria believe very strongly in the priority of the scripture. We have a vision statement which starts out by saying we are a Bible-based Church. And because of that 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. And part of what that means for us is to take the injunction about the proclamation of the gospel, about being witnesses, about evangelism and mission and church planting, very, very seriously. The Church in the last twelve years or so has grown from 26 dioceses to 77 dioceses and we were bold to put bishop as a missioner where there was nothing at all. When I was sent to Abuja I inherited not even one square inch of land, there was no Church member, no organ, no choir, no money, nothing and I mean practically nothing. But the Church fathers felt that if we could put a church missioner there something would happen and that was 12 years ago. Today Abuja diocese is the pride of most other dioceses in Nigeria. If you found anything on the ground today, it is only by the Grace of God that we have been able to establish it.
  2. The notion that Northern Nigeria is Muslim North must be debunked. There is no such thing as the Muslim North. It is only a myth that exists in some parts of the North. You have as many Christians as you do Muslims. There are many States in which the Governors are not just Christians but pastors. So bare that in mind. However, there are some parts of the North -..Sokoto, Yobe, Bauchi, Borno where Muslims see themselves as being in the majority. And that is in 5 or 6 States in the whole North and there are several other States: Kaduna, Plateau, Benue where Christians are by far in the majority. So that is just to debunk that old claim. Please help me inform the entire media in the world that there is no such thing as Muslim North.

     

In 1990 at the beginning of the decade of Evangelism our Primate felt that the best and the most effective way of doing mission was to put a bishop in each of the State capitals!

At first there were 8 bishops. We did that and it was a resounding success. The presence of these bishops in these States has meant that Christians can raise their heads and can say we, too, are here. So you cannot just take these States for granted any longer and for them to be there means that evangelisation and church planting became top priority. So we went out all the way regardless of whose ox is goured to proclaim Christ as Lord and Saviour and thanks be to God that new churches are being planted almost on daily basis.

Now you find that in the Western world there is a lot of preoccupation with how to do things right. How to be politically correct. How not to offend your neighbour about what you say. How not to confront your neighbour with the claims of Jesus Christ. Now in my own context there is no such thing. You proclaim Christ to all and sundry and let them make their own decision about whether to accept Christ or not. So there is no question about being politically correct in my country, in my tradition, in my culture. We just go out there and proclaim Christ who was crucified, and the Lord has been blessing that tremendously. So this is one thing that we would want to share with our brothers in other parts of the Communion. I would plead with my Christian brothers and sisters in the entire Communion that there is no such thing as being politically correct when it comes to the gospel. This is the claim of Christ - go ahead and say it, and let the Holy Spirit minister to their hearts.

JMR: Please just tell me what you really believe the message of Jesus is? You say Christ crucified, which is what we believe but what do you think - Jesus the word of God incarnate - the love that he shows on the cross - what is that? - Who is it for? - What is his central message?

Archbishop Peter: I look at myself and my struggles in my religious pilgrimage and I found like Paul that the more I try to meet or attain to God's standards, the greater the failure I see. Here and there I have found solace and consolation in scripture coming to me by the power of the Holy Spirit in his words saying ' my grace is sufficient for you'. What you have to say to yourself is, what has God in Christ done for you? I am fragmented and sinful in all my ways, there is no amount of self righteousness in me that can take me to the kingdom and yet all that I need is to be in eternity with God, this is my ultimate concern. God in Christ has guaranteed that for me. Now that is the real message. What is your ultimate concern? Where do you end up with all your mundane struggles? Can these struggles actually obtain for you that ultimate concern, that is, life in eternity with God. For me with the assurance of God in holy scripture, by the Holy Spirit, God in Christ has done it for me. So I want to share that. For me evangelism means telling my story of what Christ is to me and what he has done in my life to others. And that lifts away the huge burden of complacency from my heart, from my soul. It is a huge liberation.

Talking about Archbishop Carey's visit to Nigeria. You remember I took him to Zamfara, the Sharia State. For the first time in years the entire Christian community came out jubilating and dancing to greet him. Rejoicing. They came to the city gates to see him pass. That was the first time they had such a rare privilege. Later a bishop told me, your Grace, this is a liberating visit. So it is that kind of liberation that I am talking about.

JMR: Tell me about your ultimate hope?

Archbishop Peter: In this life I see God is in control of my life because God is my eternity and ultimate concern he is very responsible for all that I am.

JMR: That is very good I have never heard it said like that before.

Archbishop Peter: I surrender and where he says I go, I go. What he says I do, I do by his grace. I only hope that my best that I do in the power of the Holy Spirit as enabled by him, is blessed by him. That is my hope.

JMR: Thank you very much.