Portrait of Akinola

Peter Akinola was born in 1944 and his father, whom Akinola has described as a ‘bushman’, died four years later. Akinola was working as a carpenter when he felt called to the Anglican priesthood. He earned a degree from the Theological College of Northern Nigeria in 1978, began his ministry as a vicar at St James’ Church in Suleja, then moved to the United States to earn a master’s degree from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1981. He was a provincial missionary from 1984 to 1989, became Bishop of Abuja in 1989, and was elevated to an archbishop in 1998.

‘I did not ever dream of being a bishop, let alone of being Primate,’ Akinola said. When he was chosen as a bishop, he sobbed and asked the Primate if there had been some mistake. Looking back on his fatherless childhood, on years of fending for himself, and on earning his first theology degree by correspondence course, Akinola did not feel like bishop material: ‘Nobody knew me, except God.’

The height of foolishness

Akinola felt a similar astonishment when he was chosen in 2000 as the successor to Joseph Adetiloye, who had been Primate of Nigeria since 1988, and led the church through a period of vigorous growth during the Anglican Communion’s Decade of Evangelism. (There were about 5 million Nigerian Anglicans in the late Seventies. Today there are nearly 18 million. Akinola wants to double Nigeria’s Anglican dioceses, to more than 160, within three years. ‘He’s planting dioceses faster than we’re planting congregations,’ said an American admirer who recently helped coordinate a visit to Washington.)

‘For me to think of being the Primate would have been the height of foolishness,’ Akinola says, brushing his hands together as if he’s just disposed of trash. ‘It was entirely by God’s grace and providence.’

Enough to do at home

One of the core affirmations of Anglicanism is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s centrality to Anglican unity. He is not an Anglican pope, but the first among equals (sharing authority with 37 other primates). Relationships, according to Archbishop Akinola are becoming a little strained. He remains in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury (as does American Primate Griswold, despite recent events) but one of his most repeated remarks – ‘We do not have to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus’ – indicates a new willingness to challenge Western control. Asked recently about the importance of being in fellowship with Canterbury, Akinola first responded with a smile and a rhetorical question, ‘Is the Church of England an Anglican church?’

‘The church did not start in Canterbury, the church did not start in Rome,’ he said. ‘Whether Canterbury is Anglican or not is immaterial. We are Anglicans. They are the Church of England.’ Akinola stresses that he is not trying to replace Williams, who is six years his junior: ‘Nobody is asking for the position of Rowan. We love him, we respect him. Akinola is not looking for a new job. I have enough to do at home.’

Theological crisis

The shift in the Anglican Communion has happened relatively quickly. As late as 2002 it might have appeared that Akinola would be as reliable as Archbishop Desmond Tutu in supporting the Episcopal Church, regardless of its differences with African Anglicanism. In that year alone, Akinola welcomed Griswold for a ten-day visit to Nigeria; and joined only six other leaders who have been enthroned on an honorary ‘international cathedra’ at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York.

At the end of his brother primate’s visit to Nigeria. Akinola praised Griswold vigorously. ‘There had been a huge dividing wall…of misconceptions about this man,’ Akinola said about Nigerian clergy’s impressions of Griswold. ‘Their impression of him before has now been removed. They now see him as a brother.’ Akinola has seen things differently since General Convention met in the summer of 2003 and approved Robinson’s election.

Nigeria Stateside

Just 14 months after those votes, Akinola announced new plans. As the Primate of Nigeria, he intends to establish a Church of Nigeria in America to minister to Nigerian expatriates – and any Episcopalians who wish to join them – who feel alienated by the actions of General Convention. Akinola said this church would have its own bishop, appointed by Nigerian bishops, and he compared it to the overlapping European jurisdictions of the Episcopal Church and the Church of England.

Listening to Akinola, it would be easy to forget that some Episcopal bishops had been ordaining openly gay priests since the Seventies. Robinson’s elevation as a bishop placed the Episcopal Church’s sexuality debate on Akinola’s radar. ‘Hitherto my position has been that there was no need [for alternative oversight]…but that was when we were together, sharing the same faith, sharing the same order. When the Episcopal Church chose to separate itself from us, we had no choice but to come rescue our people.’

Credal attack

Akinola believes the church’s sexuality debate is part of a larger theological conflict that includes attacks on credal faith. He cites John Shelby Spong, the retired Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. ‘If a bishop in another part of the world had done what Spong did, he would be defrocked,’ he said in an interview with Christianity Today during his visit to Washington. ‘In the United States they smile because they agree with him.’

When the Primates gathered in London in October 2003 to discuss General Convention’s approval of Robinson and the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster’s approval of an official rite for blessing gay couples, Akinola said he appealed to Griswold to intervene against Robinson’s consecration. He described saying to Griswold during a break for tea, ‘You and I have come a long way in the past three or four years. We have established a new relationship, new friendship, new rapport, new understanding.’

Akinola said he mentioned how Primates from India and Pakistan were in tears because of General Convention’s decisions, then added, ‘Our hearts are bleeding. You can save the communion this costly problem by putting a stop to this agenda. You can stop the consecration of a practising gay priest.’ Griswold, Akinola said, described himself as not having the authority to stop Robinson’s consecration because it had followed diocesan procedure and had been approved by General Convention.

Through Episcopal Church spokesman, Robert Williams, Griswold said he did not recall similar details from his personal conversation with Akinola. And regarding that October 2003 Primates’ meeting, as Williams put it, Griswold ‘recalls parting from the meeting with an amicable and subdued spirit.’

African priorities

Among the things Akinola wants to do at home is to move Anglicans toward financial self-sufficiency. ‘The first and most important step is to change the mindset of bishops who say, Whatever you want, just go to the Episcopal Church and you can get it,’ he said. Every people group has a vocation in a specific place, he said, citing as disparate examples Bedouin Arabs and Eskimos, and God provides the resources for those vocations. ‘No African has an excuse, with good soil and the resources at our disposal – natural, spiritual and human.’

Akinola believes African Anglicans can make significant steps toward this self-sufficiency by 2009, when he plans to retire. He recognizes that Africans must continue accepting some financial assistance from the prosperous West, but he wants that financial assistance to be short-term. ‘Let there be some form of reciprocity,’ he said.

As the chairman of the Council of the Anglican Provinces of Africa, Akinola also is urging Africans to develop their own system of theological education. When bishops held their first all-Africa gathering at Lagos in late October, they agreed. ‘The time has come for the church in Africa to address the pitfalls in our present theological and Western worldview education, which has failed to relate with some of the sociopolitical and economic challenges and Christian faith in Africa,’ their communiqué said.

That goal, too, connects with Akinola’s concern that African Anglicans not be at the mercy of wealthy Westerners. Akinola believes the Episcopal Church is creating a new religion. God asks in Amos 3: 3, ‘Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?’ It is a question Akinola has cited repeatedly. Akinola has said he can no longer walk alongside the Episcopal Church. ‘Whatever is not in line with the authority of the Word of God must be evangelized. Those who do not uphold this,’ Akinola said while holding a Bible aloft, ‘I will not go with them.’

Just what that means for the future of the Anglican Communion will become clearer as the next Lambeth Conference convenes in 2008. For now, as Philip Jenkins has observed, the day of Global South Christianity is dawning.

Douglas LeBlanc writes for Christianity Today <> where a longer version of  this piece first appeared


Reject Bishop

In a case which demonstrates all too clearly the tensions which can arise in relatively recently established African Churches, issues of culture, competence and money have been raised in the Diocese of Lake Malawi, where the death of Bishop Peter Nyanja led to the election of Nicholas Paul Henderson, an Englishman. Allegations have been made that the episcopal elections were ill-conducted and consequently illegal.

Henderson was elected on July 29 this year in Lilongwe four months after Nyanja’s death. The Electoral Panel was presided over by Archbishop of Central Africa, Bernard Malango. Lawyer for the complainants, Steve Kafumba, said that the Electoral Assembly did not follow the Church’s Constitution and Canon law. ‘The complaint is that the Electoral Assembly twisted the formalities of the elections to suit the bishop-elect. The members are challenging the whole elections process,’ said Kafumba, who could not be drawn further for fear of pre-empting the case.

Fresh elections?

One member of the concerned group, who pleaded for anonymity, said the flaws in the electoral process included the way nominations were handled. Some priests acted in a way that promoted Henderson at the expense of other able candidates. The short-listing process which produced three candidates (Henderson, Henry Hastings Mbaya and Kelvin Hinks) from an original slate of nineteen, it is being claimed, was seriously flawed.

In affidavits sent to the Archbishop of Central Africa and the Provincial Registrar, Kafumba has asked the Court to nullify the July 29 polls. He has called on the Episcopal Synod, a body comprising of all provincial bishops, to come up with a new nomination.

Fatal generosity

The complaints against Henderson’s election seem to turn primarily on matters of finance and the degree of Henderson’s involvement with the diocese. ‘He is a man who has only been known to most people in the diocese after the death of Bishop Peter Nyanja, because some priests went on a deliberate campaign to portray him as someone who has been assisting the diocese,’ complainants allege. They accuse the electors of putting too much emphasis on the monetary advantage of electing a foreigner, as opposed to how he would assist the church’s mission.

‘Members of the Church have been told that this man assisted the Diocese during the 2001 hunger with about K13 million to buy food and he also contributes £8,000 every year towards the Lake Malawi Diocesan Fund. There was also serious concern that the bishop-elect was not sufficiently conversant with Malawian culture because he has never worked in the country. There were widespread fears, it was claimed, that he would not understand local problems and also bring ‘strange culture and traditions’ to the diocese.

Malango, who presides over the Provincial Court said he has not yet received the objection, but said according to the Canon laws, there was nothing wrong with people raising queries as long as they were canonical objections.

‘But no one can query the procedures which were followed because I am the guide and the one who is very familiar with the Canon. I am the custodian of those procedures as laid down in the Canon of this Province,’ said Malango. According to Chapter 7 of the Constitution and Canon of the Central Africa Province, valid objection to the election of a bishop might be made on the grounds that the elections were informal, or the person elected is not of canonical age, competent learning and sound faith. The Church laws do not give a complainant a chance to appeal or go to a secular court after the Church Court’s ruling.

‘No person shall be competent to object unless he be a Communicant of the Church, of honest life and good repute, and present to the Court sufficient certificates to that effect; and further that he subscribe a declaration that he will accept the decision of the Court as final,’ reads section 5 of Canon 7.

In 2002, church members also sought an injunction on the ordination of Malango as Bishop of Upper Shire, alleging financial misconduct while serving as a Bishop in Zambia.

This one will run and run…

Bright Sonani is a correspondent for

The Nation Newspaper, Malawi


Cider with Rosie

For some, a major religious observance recently took place in Australia – the 20th anniversary of Neighbours, a television soap opera which, with the help of the BBC, has some 14 million British viewers.

Most visitors to Australia would be under the impression that nobody watches the show here. Perhaps this is true in the average Anglican demographic – but it is currently a mainstay in the 16–39 age range – all of a sudden I feel that I have passed through the veil! – with much of the pop industry being fed from its fledgling actors.

Images of church

The recent anniversary has been an opportunity to walk down memory lane, seeing clips of past episodes and to note on that journey just how the Church has been portrayed throughout the years in this suburban soap.

During the history of Neighbours the Church has simply provided a backdrop to more than four weddings and the occasional funeral. Early on in the series practising Christians were portrayed in characters such as Mrs Mangle, who in gloves and hat on her way to church would be a regular fountain of texts from the book of Proverbs, and Harold, the ever-present Salvation Army officer, who would perform various ‘good deeds’ quite divorced from any celebration or sharing of his faith.

The presentation (or lack of presentation) of a more diverse Church in Neighbours goes hand in hand with the issue of culture, and more to the point multiculturalism in this nation. Opinion columns have had a frenzy since the London bombings as to the success or failure of Australia to be a multicultural society – and more column inches dedicated to defining what that is in the first place. Much of this debate is irrelevant, when so much of television presents the ‘White Australia Policy’ as never having been repealed.


Other than the specialist television station SBS, where subtitled films are the norm, the strong presumption is that the State Religion is white, protestant and frankly undemanding, with a culture to go with it.

True, Neighbours has on occasions attempted multiculturalism. But such experiments were far from successful! The Lee family from Hong Kong appeared fleetingly, but not long after being accused of trying to eat Julie Martin’s dog they vanished. The Indian (newsagent) character Vikram left soon after his sister began to go out with a white man. As for Aboriginals – I cannot claim to have watched all of the nearly 5,000 episodes, but I have no recollection of any appearing.

And women priests

And so the arrival on the show of the woman priest, Rosie Hoyland, and her western liberal values was of no surprise. Presented as a selfless fund-raiser, her character will best be remembered for having left her children when they were young, in order to go ‘into the church’ only to end up playing two lovers off against each other. I was always bemused by the idea that on her departure from the series she was supposed to have gone to Papua New Guinea, and am still not sure which diocese would have been prepared to take her there!

‘Rosie’ and her approach to the Church fits in well with a diocese such as Melbourne, where the latest edition of the diocesan paper carries an article stating that traditionalists in the UK have not ‘the heart for any further fight after their defeat in [the recent] General Synod.’ The same article, with no evidence whatsoever, claims that a mere 200 clergy left the Church of England under the Measure following the ordination of women to the priesthood, and any higher figures are ‘wildly exaggerated’.


The truth is that the media sees traditional Anglicans as no different from any other ‘foreign’ group in this multicultural society. What they stand for and believe is not understood, and there is no desire to muddy the waters by finding out. Hence, the bland total-embracing no-belief sort of Christianity is easier to portray and offends nobody.

Perhaps rather than worry about this representation, traditionalists should rejoice. Surely we would not wish to be dealt with in the same appalling way as some of the other groups I have mentioned. After all, the most recent stereotyped appearance in Neighbours was of a Roman Catholic priest who found it more difficult to embrace his vows than an endless line of women.

Instead, I delight in the appearances of ‘The Reverend Rosie.’ She encompasses the shallowness of liberal Anglicanism and is herself a result not of the writers but of the church. I for one would rather the reality of a non-demanding church be presented (true for so many parishes) rather than an unrecognizable portrayal of traditionalism, simply because the writers and presenters cannot be bothered to steep themselves in true multiculturalism and find out what we are really about.

Philip Murphy is a Neighbour

of one of the Neighbours

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