At Axis of Episcopal Split, an Anti-Gay Nigerian
The New York Times    December 25, 2006


By LYDIA POLGREEN and LAURIE GOODSTEIN

ABUJA, Nigeria, Dec. 20 - The way he tells the story, the first and only time Archbishop Peter J.
Akinola knowingly shook a gay person's hand, he sprang backward the moment he realized what he had
done.

Archbishop Akinola, the conservative leader of Nigeria's Anglican Church who has emerged a the
center of a schism over homosexuality in the global Anglican Communion, re-enacted the scene from
behind his desk Tuesday, shaking his head in wonder and horror.

"This man came up to me after a service, in New York I think, and said, 'Oh, good to see you
bishop, this is my partner of many years,' " he recalled. "I said, 'Oh!' I jumped back."

Archbishop Akinola, a man whose international reputation has largely been built on his tough
stance against homosexuality, has become the spiritual head of 21 conservative churches in the
United States. They opted to leave the Episcopal Church over its decision to consecrate an openly
gay bishop and allow churches to bless same-sex unions. Among the eight Virginia churches to
announce they had joined the archbishop's fold last week are The Falls Church and Truro Church,
two large, historic and wealthy parishes.

In a move attacked by some church leaders as a violation of geographical boundaries, Archbishop
Akinola has created an offshoot of his Nigerian church in North America for the discontented
Americans. In doing so, he has made himself the kingpin of a remarkable alliance between
theological conservatives in North America and the developing world that could tip the power to
conservatives in the Anglican Communion, a 77-million member confederation of national churches
that trace their roots to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"He sees himself as the spokesperson for a new Anglicanism, and thus is a direct challenge to the
historic authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury," said the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas of the
Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

The 62-year-old son of an illiterate widow, Archbishop Akinola now heads not only Nigeria - the
most populous province, or region, in the Anglican Communion, with at least 17 million members -
but also the organizations representing the leaders of Anglican provinces in Africa and the
developing world. He has also become the most visible advocate for a literal interpretation of
Scripture, challenging the traditional Anglican approach of embracing diverse theological
viewpoints.

"Why didn't God make a lion to be a man's companion?" Archbishop Akinola said at his office here
in Abuja. "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."

Archbishop Akinola's views on homosexuality - that it is an abomination akin to bestiality and
pedophilia - are fairly mainstream here. Nigeria is a deeply religious country, evenly divided
between Christians and Muslims, and attitudes toward homosexuality, women's rights and marriage
are dictated largely by scripture and enforced by deep social taboos.

Archbishop Akinola spoke forcefully about his unswerving convictions against homosexuality, the
ordination of women and the rise of what he called "the liberal agenda," which he said had
"infiltrated our seminaries" in the Anglican Communion.

This view emanating from the developing world is hardly unique to the Anglican church. More and
more, churches of many denominations in what many Christian leaders call the "global south,"
encompassing Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, which share these views, are surging as
church attendance lags in developed countries.

Bishop Martyn Minns, the rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., who was consecrated by Archbishop
Akinola this year to serve as his missionary bishop in North America, said Archbishop Akinola was
motivated by a conviction that the Anglican Communion must change its colonial-era leadership
structure and mentality.

"He doesn't want to be the man; he just no longer wants to be the boy," Bishop Minns said. "He
wants to be treated as an equal leader, with equal respect."

Even among Anglican conservatives, Archbishop Akinola is not universally beloved. In November
2005, he published a letter purporting to be from the leaders, known as primates, of provinces in
the global south. It called Europe a "spiritual desert" and criticized the Church of England.
Three of the bishops who supposedly signed it later denied adding their names. Some bishops in
southern Africa have also challenged his fixation with homosexuality, when AIDS and poverty are a
crisis for the continent.

He has been chastised more recently for creating a missionary branch of the Nigerian church in the
United States, called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, despite Anglican rules and
traditions prohibiting bishops from taking control of churches or priests not in their territory.

"There are primates who are very, very concerned about it," said Archbishop Drexel Gomez, the
primate of the West Indies, because "it introduces more fragmentation."

Other conservative American churches that have split from the Episcopal Church, the American
branch of the Anglican Communion, have aligned themselves with other archbishops, in Rwanda,
Uganda and several provinces in Latin America - often because they already had ties to these
provinces through mission work.

Archbishop Gomez said he understood Archbishop Akinola's actions because the American
conservatives felt an urgent need to leave the Episcopal Church and were unwilling to wait for a
new covenant being written for the Anglican Communion. The new covenant is a lengthy and uncertain
process led by Archbishop Gomez that some conservatives hope will eventually end the impasse over
homosexuality.

One of Archbishop Akinola's principal arguments, often heard from other conservatives as well, is
that Christianity in Nigeria, a country where religious violence has killed tens of thousands in
the past decade, must guard its flank lest Islam overtake it. "The church is in the midst of
Islam," he said. "Should the church in this country begin to teach that it is appropriate, that it
is right to have same sex unions and all that, the church will simply die."

He supports a bill in Nigeria's legislature that would make homosexual sex and any public
expression of homosexual identity a crime punishable by five years in prison.

The bill ostensibly aims to ban gay marriage, but it includes measures so extreme that the State
Department warned that they would violate basic human rights. Strictly interpreted, the bill would
ban two gay people from going out to dinner or seeing a movie together.

It could also lead to the arrest and imprisonment of members of organizations providing all manner
of services, particularly those helping people with AIDS.

"They are very loose, those provisions," said Dorothy Aken 'Ova of the International Center for
Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a charity that works with rape victims, AIDS patients and gay
rights groups. "It could target just about anyone, based on any form of perception from anybody."

Archbishop Akinola said he supported any law that limited marriage to heterosexuals, but declined
to say whether he supported the specific provisions criminalizing gay associations. "No bishop in
this church will go out and say, 'This man is gay, put him in jail,' " the archbishop said. But,
he added, Nigeria has the right to pass such a law if it reflects the country's values.

"Does Nigeria tell America what laws to make?" he said. "Does Nigeria tell England what laws to
make? This arrogance, this imperial tendency, should stop for God's sake."

Though he insisted that he was not seeking power or influence, he is clearly relishing the curious
role reversal of African archbishops sending missionaries to a Western society he sees as
increasingly godless.

Asked whether his installing a bishop in the United States violated the church's longstanding
rules, he responded heatedly that he was simply doing what Western churches had done for
centuries, sending a bishop to serve Anglicans where there is no church to provide one.

Archbishop Akinola argues that the Convocation, his group in the United States, was established
last year to serve Nigerian Anglicans unhappy with the direction of the Episcopal Church, and
eventually began to attract non-Nigerians who shared their views. Other church officials and
experts say Archbishop Akinola's intention for the Convocation was to attract Americans and become
a rival to the Episcopal Church.

"Self-seeking, self-glory, that is not me," he said. "No. Many people say I embarrass them with my
humility."

Anyone who criticizes him as power-seeking is simply trying to undermine his message, he said.
"The more they demonize, the stronger the works of God," he said.

  


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