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Archbishop Welby on the first black Anglican bishop

Posted on: June 30, 2014 4:27 PM
the first black Anglican Bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who was consecrated 150 years ago.
Related Categories: Abp Welby, England

From Lambeth Palace

Archbishop Justin Welby preached at Canterbury Cathedral during a service of 'thanksgiving and repentance' for the first black Anglican Bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who was consecrated 150 years ago.

Read the sermon below: 

1 Peter 5: 1-11

Numbers 12: 1-9

This is a service of thanksgiving and repentance. Thanksgiving for the extraordinary life which we commemorate. Repentance, shame and sorrow for Anglicans who are reminded of the sin of many of their ancestors. We in the Church of England need to say sorry that someone was properly and rightly consecrated Bishop and then betrayed and let down and undermined. It was wrong.

The narrative itself is well known. Bishop Crowther was born a Yoruba man, captured by slavers and sold. After hardships and adventures he came to Sierra Leone, the country created by Wilberforce and others for freedom from slavery. Crowther was a man of both immense dedication and perseverance, and deep holiness. Converted to Christ he studied, came to England, was eventually ordained and went back as a missionary. In spite of immense hardship, in great simplicity of life and despite the racism of many whites, he evangelised so effectively that he was eventually ordained Bishop, over much protest (the New Testament reading is the same as that chosen by him for his consecration, "Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away."). He is seen in a window of the former Palace of the Bishops of Durham. He led his missionary diocese brilliantly, but was in the end falsely accused and had to resign, not long before his death.

Crowther was the apostle of Nigeria and the inspiration of much more. He worked all over but especially in the South South (for the Nigerians here) or Niger Delta, in places like Nembe (which I have been to), Brass, Bonny. It is a hard place now, one can scarcely imagine what travel and health were like then. He was a linguist, a scholar, a translator of scripture, a person of prayer. Above all he loved Jesus Christ and held nothing back in his devotion and discipleship.

Those who opposed him were caught up in their own world. British society of the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly racist, deeply hierarchical. It resisted all sense that God saw things differently. In the India of the time the East India Company, ruling the land, forbade the singing of the Magnificat at evensong, lest phrases about putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek might be understood too well by the populations they ruled. The idea that an African was their equal was literally, unimaginable. Of course they forgot the list of Deacons in Acts 5, including Simeon Niger in Acts 13, or Augustine from North Africa, or the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptised. They lived in an age of certainty in their own superiority. In their eyes not only the gospel, but even the Empire would be at risk if they conceded.

The issue was one of power, and it is power and its handling that so often deceives us into wickedness. Whether as politicians or Bishops, in business or in the family, the aim to dominate is sin. Our model is Christ, who washed feet when he could have ruled. Crowther's consecration reading was do not dominate, and it means just what it says. Each of us must lead by humility.

So before we condemn Crowther's opponents out of hand, for a moment permit them to be a mirror for us. Whom do we exclude by reason of race, or nature, or disability, or in our desire for power? Are we not often as guilty by confining the gospel and the offices of the church to those whom we consider acceptable, keeping control? For Crowther's opponents scripture was authority, but interpreted through the lenses of their contemporary world view. We may have different lenses, but are they better?

Whether it is tribalism or nationality, gender or religion, or any other form of power hunger, the church globally remains caught by its history and its assumptions and often fearful of greater openness.

The hero of this story is obvious. It is Crowther, and it is essential that we give thanks for the work of the Spirit in God in a man who held nothing back. These are the sorts of people for the church of today, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere. Full of grace, abounding in love, transparent, humble, people of integrity. Whether in politics or in pastoral ministry, they are the ones who must rise to the top in the generations to come.

But the hidden hero, the essential hero, is God Himself. We see Crowther, but if we are wise we see also the providence of God. The church is always a place of hope in history, because whether it has in times past or times to come the brilliant or the negligible in its leadership, the holy or the corrupt, God raises up new leaders who renew faith and bring the reality of Christ to the fore. If, in the early nineteenth century, you had tried to guess the name of the future apostle to Nigeria, you would have picked someone from a missionary society, not a man of the country itself. It is hard to imagine the barriers he overcame, and yet, at the right time, one person or another supported him, saw the reality of Christ in him, recalled that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, black nor white, man nor woman, but that God is all in all, and raises up leaders as He chooses.

There is a lesson for today. In repentance and thanksgiving we must seek afresh to see what God is doing and not try to impose on Him the patterns we have in our own society. In faith we must back those in whom is seen the character of Christ, his love, his holiness, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his self emptying and self giving.

Crowther did not make himself grand, he lived out the commands of the words he took at his consecration. And from his time forwards God has demonstrated his grace through that ministry. Today well over 70 million Christians in Nigeria are his spiritual heirs. Today they suffer and struggle, they sin and triumph over sin. They are human, but their potential (and the potential of the extraordinary country that is Nigeria)  is at least in part the result of the work of Bishop Crowther.

Today we honour him and in so doing The Lord Jesus Christ whom he served. We are sorry for his suffering at the hands of Anglicans in this country. Learning from their foolishness and from his heroism, we seek to be a church that does not again exclude those whom God is calling. We seek new apostles, and the grace to recognise them when they come.