Akinola, Peter Jasper
Peter Jasper Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria, emerged as a key figure in a looming split inside the worldwide Anglican Church. Outspoken in his conservative views, Akinola has strongly opposed the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. He has called on Anglican prelates in the more liberal West to reconsider their liberal policies, and he has become a leader of what is sometimes described as the coming "southward shift" of Christianity in the twenty-first century—meaning that for the first time there will be more adherents to the faith in Asia and Africa than in the Christian world's longtime centers of power in Europe and North America. Some of Akinola's public remarks have been perceived as homophobic and have brought the archbishop a degree of infamy outside of Africa. "I have been so demonised by the Western media," Akinola told Times of London journalist Ruth Gledhill. "If this is the price I have to pay for leading the Church at this time, so be it. They can punch me here, punch me there, but in the midst of all that are people who say Akinola is the right thing."
Feared Sacrificial Death
Akinola was born in 1944 in Abeokuta, a city in the state of Ogun in southwestern Nigeria. He is a member of the Yoruba ethnic group, one of the three main groups in the country, and was raised by an uncle following the death of his father. He entered school at the age of ten and finished at sixteen. He wanted to continue his education, but instead his family urged him to move to Lagos, the capital city at the time, to learn a trade. There he stayed with family members and began to learn carpentry and cabinetmaking. "Very ugly things happened to me while I was there," he recounted in the interview with Gledhill. "Another uncle of mine was not thinking well of me. He was going to sacrifice me for a ritual to make money…. I had premonitions. I saw a very clear vision of what was going to happen," he continued, and said that events then began to mimic his premonitions. Finally, he said, "I came out of the house to go to where I was supposed to be sacrificed and I saw this figure far away at the other end of the road, beckoning me to come. In white. I ran and ran and ran. The faster I ran, the further distance between me and the figure. I never found it. I believe very strongly that the Lord was taking me away from that dungeon."
Akinola spent much of the 1960s working as a carpenter—a particularly symbolic line of work, given the fact that it was also Jesus' profession before he began preaching—and became increasingly active in the Anglican Church in Nigeria. The religion was established there by English missionaries in the 1840s and continued to grow even after Nigeria achieved its independence as a sovereign state in 1960, after years as a British colony. The promise of the new era soon faded with the outbreak of a devastating civil war, and in the 1970s the country struggled to recover. A brutal military regime came to power in 1983 and persisted well into the 1990s. The corrupt, despotic rule seemed to prompt an increasing number of Nigerians to turn to the Anglican faith—aided in part by an evangelical push to gain new converts—and the membership rolls swelled.
Akinola began training as a catechist, or someone who instructs others in the tenets of the faith in preparation for baptism or confirmation, in 1968. In 1973 he entered the Theological College of Northern Nigeria and earned his diploma of theology in 1978. He was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church that same year, then ordained as a priest in 1979 and went on to earn a master of theological studies from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He was made a vicar at a church in Abuja, the city that would become Nigeria's new federal capital, and he was consecrated a bishop in 1989. As the Anglican community in Nigeria continued to grow, a number of new dioceses were created, and in 1997 Akinola was elevated from diocesan bishop in Abuja to the office of archbishop. He headed Province III in Nigeria for three years before being made Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria in 2000. By then, the Anglican Church in Nigeria—which is formally known as the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)—had nearly tripled its membership, which was just five million when Akinola was ordained in the late 1970s.
Strife Erupted over Gay Rights
The Anglican Church in Nigeria belonged to what is known as the worldwide Anglican Communion. No national church has a position of authority within the Communion. The Church of England, however, is considered the mother church, and its primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is considered a symbolic leader for the world's Anglicans. The Episcopal Church of the United States is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. Since its ordination of the first women priests in the mid-1970s, the U.S. Episcopal church has become increasingly liberal, though conservative elements within it have periodically raised concerns over this new direction. In 2003 Episcopalian leaders elected the first openly gay bishop in the U.S. church, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, which prompted protests both at home, from more tradition-minded U.S. parishes, and in Africa, from church leaders who adhere to a much more conservative interpretation of the Bible.
Akinola had already emerged as a crusading force on this issue in the summer of 2002, when a Canadian diocese within the Anglican Communion agreed to bless same-sex unions. He warned that such actions could be construed as a break with the Anglican Communion, a sentiment echoed by Anglican leaders in the West Indies and South America. In 2004 he summoned the first conference of African Anglican bishops, which issued a formal statement in October supporting the call for a moratorium on the election and consecration of bishops living openly as gays or lesbians and the halt of Anglican rites for blessing same-sex unions. The statement mentioned by name the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada.
At a Glance …
Born on January 27, 1944, in Abeokuta, Ogun, Nigeria; married; six children. Religion: Anglican. Education: Theological College of Northern Nigeria, DipTh, 1978; Virginia Theological Seminary, MTS, 1981.
Career: Worked as a carpenter until 1973; ordained deacon, 1978; ordained priest, 1979; St. James Church, Abuja, Nigeria, vicar, 1978-82; canon missioner in Abuja, 1984-89; consecrated bishop, 1989, and served as diocesan bishop for Abuja, 1989-97; Archbishop of Province III, Nigeria, 1997-2000; Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria, 2000-09; head of the African Anglican Bishops' Conference, 2004—, and the Global South group of Anglican provinces, 2005—.
Addresses: Office—Archbishop's Palace, PO Box 212 ADCP, Abuja, Nigeria.
In 2005 the primates of several African, Asian, and Latin American Anglican churches organized themselves as the Global South. Among the twenty Anglican Communion provinces that joined were Kenya, Rwanda, the Philippines, South India, Bangladesh, the West Indies, and the Southern Cone of the Americas, which includes South American Anglicans. The primates elected Akinola to head the group, and in November of 2005 they issued an open letter to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which they criticized the Church of England for its lack of leadership on the issue of gay bishops and same-sex unions.
At the same time, Akinola sensed an opportunity to strengthen ties with U.S. Episcopal parishes that also disapproved of the liberal shift. In December of 2006 a few conservative Episcopalian dioceses made a formal break with the U.S. Episcopal church and allied with Akinola's Nigerian diocese instead. This news was followed by a controversial interview that Akinola gave to the New York Times, published on Christmas Day. Its opening paragraphs featured quotes from Akinola recounting the time he "jumped back" after realizing he had just shaken the hand of an openly gay person. In responding to questions by the paper's religion writer, Lydia Polgreen, Akinola attempted to justify his objections to homosexuality. "Why didn't God make a lion to be a man's companion?" he countered, in remarks that were widely publicized. "Why didn't he make a tree to be a man's companion? Or better still, why didn't he make another man to be man's companion? So even from the creation story, you can see that the mind of God, God's intention, is for man and woman to be together."
Anglicans Resisted Islam
Akinola's stance on homosexuality has deeper roots, however, involving Christianity in Africa and the spread of Islam. Parts of Nigeria are the few remaining places in the world where actual religious violence threatens the neighborly coexistence of Christians and Muslims together. In northern Nigeria, where Muslims are in the majority, several provinces have adopted the strict Islamic religious law known as sharia as their legal code. In some of these areas, Christians have been persecuted and their homes looted. Akinola's Nigerian church—which is expected to reach the twenty-million mark by 2010—is poised to play a significant role in the country's future direction. Its numbers have swelled because of an active recruitment effort, but Islam has also engaged in zealous recruiting activities. Indeed, throughout Africa "Muslims have tried to make converts by arguing that the ChristianWest is decadent and sexually irresponsible," explained Philip Jenkins in the Atlantic Monthly, "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, sometimes violently."
In 2006 Akinola consecrated Martyn Minns, a longtime friend, to serve as bishop for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the churches that had broken with their U.S. Episcopal diocese. Minns was the rector of Truro Church in Virginia, a wealthy parish that objected to the ordination of gay priests and bishops. In May of 2007 Akinola traveled to Woodbridge, Virginia, to install Minns as the CANA leader. Truro is one of about thirty U.S. parishes that have aligned with African dioceses. The event only fueled opposition to Akinola, with critics claiming that he is attempting to use the disagreement to wrest control of the Anglican Church from its seat at Canterbury, England, via the Global South group. He has dismissed such charges, stating that he intends to retire as archbishop in 2009 and return to serve as a simple village priest. Some religious scholars have even wondered if the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican Communion leaders are attempting to stall a formal debate or decision on the matter of gay priests and same-sex unions until that date. But Akinola is firm in his belief that the controversy will not end simply because he has exited the fray. "The Church is already receiving hundreds of people who are better, stronger," he asserted to Gledhill. "God raised Peter Akinola to what he has done. The same God will raise hundreds of people more gifted than me to get the job done. It is God's Church not mine."
Atlantic Monthly, November 2003.
New York Times, December 25, 2006; May 6, 2007.
Time, February 19, 2007; May 14, 2007.
Times (London, England), July 5, 2007.