There have been some rumblings in the Anglican Church of Nigeria in America leading to a number of aggrieved members, seeking the attention of the Church’s authorities to settle the dispute amicably.
In this exclusive interview, Jacob Kehinde Olupona, a writer, scholar and professor at the Harvard University and Chair of the Department of African American African Studies, who is also a founding member of the Anglican Church in America, Anglican Diocese of the Trinity (ADOTT), tells his side of the story while proffering solutions to the problem.
Background as a staunch Anglican
I am a staunch Anglican and the son of an Anglican Priest, an Archdeacon. I was partly responsible for starting the Nigerian Anglican Church in Boston which is part of the larger group which we call the Anglican Diocese of the Trinity, ADOTT.
I was born into the Anglican family both from my mother and father’s side in Ondo state with quite a number of Anglican priests. To me, Anglicanism is not just a faith tradition, a Church; it’s more than that. It’s a heritage. It’s a tradition, heritage, church; it’s a faith.
Our name in Owo where I come from is almost synonymous with Anglican Christianity in our home town. My father was the first Anglican to be ordained a priest. My grandfather was the first licensed lay reader in the town. So, I’m deep into it. Why I’m I saying this? It’s because if you say I’m being very emotional about what they are doing to us in America, in the church of Nigeria, you know why it is so.
Issues on ground in the Church
Nobody sent us to America to start a Church. We started in different places. At first, we were part of what is called the Episcopal Church which is the white American church, for a long time. And when there was a crisis in the church, when a number of Anglican missions and countries decided to pull out from the Episcopal Church, we were caught in limbo. On one hand we wanted to continue to worship God, on the other hand, we were mindful of the problem that we were faced with and we made a lot of sacrifices. So, a number of us decided that we should start our own Anglican church. So we played a pivotal role in that. I recall that I came home and approached the Archbishop of Ibadan diocese Anglican Church and said, give me two priests to go to America to study with me, and he did. The priests were admitted to do their masters and they became the priests that began to help us conduct worship.
My house in Massachusetts became like the place where this church took off. Today, the Anglican Church in the Boston area can boast of about five churches that have spread to other states. We were doing well. When we celebrated our 10th anniversary around 2011, we had a big celebration. We had a book; we got all the churches to write about their origin, status and it was big. We wanted the church to be a kind of model to the church at home, given what we’ve been able to achieve. In addition to that, we thought of starting a theological seminary that could lead to a university where we will be encouraging those at home to go and study. We got everything in place. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunities in America to do our work. We were growing.
Another important thing about us is that unlike some of these ethnic cleavages we see at home, ours in America is not like that. Virtually, in every church or district or parish, you find Igbos and Yorubas living and worshiping God peacefully together. We had no problem whatsoever. All of a sudden, the Primate and the House of Bishops according to him, met in Nnewi sometime last year and came to the conclusion that they will demote us. Our Diocese- ADOTT, that they would demote us to become mission fields; no more a diocese but mission centres. We thought it was a joke because we were never consulted, nobody discussed it with us. This is a Church made up of professors, accountants, doctors, those who are proud of their Anglican heritage. So they passed a resolution according to him to demote us. This is coming from Nigeria, trying to control us. They weren’t there when we started our church and they have never given us a dime; we are the ones financing everything and most of the time, our priests are not even paid, we just give them stipends. There was no single time when we had to talk to anybody to come and settle a quarrel for us. It became a model church; an ideal Anglicanism.
On the claim in their resolution that it was a mistake to create ADOTT as a diocese, like I said in one of my writings, his predecessor, Bishop Okoh didn’t make a mistake in creating ADOTT. Even the Primate before him did not make a mistake in bringing us together, God in his own mercy would not allow his community to meet in error. So, for them to make that claim, it is a total theological contradiction. It’s in fact, a sin against God.
Efforts to address the issue
We need to call a spade a spade. In the course of this, we do the normal thing.
We wrote a letter to the House of Bishops to look at the issues; it’s not proper. We wanted a dialogue with them. They would not respond to our letter and, you know the style if you follow some of the bad administrations we’ve had in Nigeria, silence is for them an answer. They were quiet. We took the second step; we did a paid advert in two Nigerian newspapers where we stated our case clearly. I personally wrote a letter to him some time ago when we noticed what was going on. The root of this thing is that there’s a white Anglican church in America, ACNA, which wants to control us. They said we should not be autonomous but be under them; in this day and age? The question we’ve been asking ourselves is, why did Ajayi Crowther, who was responsible for planting Anglicanism in Nigeria, fight to grow an indigenous church? As US citizens, we are autonomous and have the right to worship. In fact, America as a state, must not hear that people are trying to stop us from worshiping God in our own way. It’s against the American constitution. This is why it’s important for the House of Bishops who have been totally silent, to call Primate Ndukuba to order. Tell him this is not the way to go because whatever happens after that, they can’t blame us. We are responsible citizens of US. We have made every overture to them; to say this is unconstitutional. Even in my church of Nigeria, it is unconstitutional. We have never heard in the history of a Diocese that it is dissolved. So what he has done is novel. What I’ve realised from a number of Bishops is that he doesn’t listen to anybody but himself. The most dangerous is that they want to turn the Anglican Church in Nigeria into ethnic tribal enclaves. What they have done has caused serious division among us. If you look at the folks he is using to destabilise us, they are from his ethnic enclaves. That’s not the church we knew and not the church Nigeria represents.
This has affected the diocesan Bishop Adebogun who is in charge of our diocese and his family. The first thing the Primate did was to appoint someone, Bishop Orji, a supervising Bishop over us- that’s political. Supervising Bishop is not in Anglican Church vocabulary; they invented it. During that time, Bishop Orji was busy constantly harassing our diocesan and suffragan Bishops.
Unfortunately now, the suffragan bishops have allied with the primate to continue to mess us up in America. It’s disheartening but we have come to the conclusion that we are not going to let this happen because it’s undemocratic. The latest thing they did was to appoint one Bishop Kanu based in the East to be our supervising bishop. This is odd. It’s unconstitutional and against the Will of God. We are surprised at the silences of the Nigerian Anglican Bishops- the House of Bishops. We never imagined in our life that given what we know about Anglicanism, Bishops will be quiet and silent in the face of oppression that is so visible that we’re experiencing with Primate Ndukuba. As a true Anglican, I respect him; we greet him as Your Grace; that’s a powerful word. If I have to call someone His Grace, that comes with respect; we believe so much in that.
Next line of action in the midst of silence of Bishops
We have taken them to the court of public opinion. We realised that many Anglicans in Nigeria do not know what is going on. I have not talked to any bishop who agrees with him because they know it’s unconstitutional. We want to make sure that they don’t destroy the Anglican Church. If you go to the cathedral in America where we have the seat of the Bishop, the place is in chaos. Why we are begging all of them to stop is that it will lead to public disorder. If there’s disorderliness in the Church, the State will pay attention. And Nigerian Anglicanism cannot afford to see that in America. Many people will be affected; it’s a bad situation. We are people of peace. Our response is not because we are afraid. We are elders and whatever that is going to tarnish our names, we can’t let it happen.
How crisis is fuelled by influence of Nigeria’s political system and Pentecostalism
In the Anglican tradition, no Bishop, Archbishop has absolute power and authority over the Church. There are three groups of people that are important; House of Bishops, House of Laity; that’s where I belong, and House of Priests.
This crisis has made me answer a question I was not able to answer throughout my life; I’m now 73. People ask me, why were you not ordained given your pedigree? I used to answer that I didn’t have the calling. Now, I realise why. As a member of Laity, I have a role that is as important as the priest to defend the faith. That’s what we are trying to do; to defend the faith which I have been doing through my writings, lectures and interventions in different places. The Anglican does not have a pope. Even with the pope in Catholic tradition, he’s democratic given that he will consult before taking decisions. What is happening is the erosion of the understanding of what Anglicanism is. The Primate is first among equals. He is an Archbishop primarily. The Diocesan bishop of any diocese has the authority of the place.
I think the influence is from the political system at home whereby we are supposed to be practicing full democracy and federalism, the president behaves as if he is a senior prefect who orders and that’s it.
We belong to the House of Laity and what we have seen today is the erosion of the House of Laity. It used to be strong and powerful. No decision is made without consulting them. Now, the priests have taken over which is a reflection of what’s happening in Nigeria today and influence of Pentecostalism, where you have the G.O who is like the all in all. It’s not Anglicanism. You raised a theological question and I’ve given you a theological answer. Within the doctrines of the Anglican Church, no Primate has absolute power.
What happens if crisis endures
Well, if the crisis is left unattended to, it may lead to, God forbid, break away churches; a situation where the state may pay attention – court litigation. You are dealing with Americans; they know their rights. I still believe the Anglican Church is a reasonable one. God is still working through his own people. God will not allow his community to meet in error; He will intervene.
Impact of the crisis
If I tell you what I have suffered; people who, under normal situations, should not be talking to me. God has by his grace, elevated me to the top. So, it’s painful when you know that people are writing all kinds of nonsense. They’ve called me all kinds of names. One, a Nigerian, even sent a stupid letter to my wife who is a suffragan bishop. It’s not been easy for us but we will, for the sake of faith and sake of Christ, swallow it and see it as part of our calling.
Crisis is not strange to Anglicanism but it’s always something they’ve been dealing with. There is always an internal conversation where issues are resolved. We have not been given the chance or attention. How do you dissolve a diocese without even a reference to the registration we did with the state. It’s done in ignorance and some of the folks they are using to cause the crisis, have a lot of personal issues that should disqualify them from working in the house God.
An appeal to the House of Bishops
The House of Bishops should pay attention to what we have to say. They cannot continue to be quiet and silent. I take silence very seriously, silence in the face of evil and oppression is ungodly, unchristian. They need to go back to the status quo and if they feel there’s a need for reorganisation based on what we have, then we can sit down to talk. Not this draconian intervention that doesn’t augur well for us. How do you dissolve a diocese, a diocese that didn’t create problems for you. A diocese you do not even sponsor; you don’t know how we pay salaries. It’s just by association that we said we are part of the church of Nigeria. We don’t have to. I’ve been told the primate doesn’t listen to anybody. So, why appoint someone who will not listen to people? As a primate, that’s a high ranking position in the Church of God. As a scholar of religion, I’m worried about the church of Christ today. And what we are seeing is problematic. As I look back to the Church of Christ which I was born into, I worry about what’s happening today. But we will continue as people of faith to take the matter to God in prayer.
We are worried that this could be about money; to have control over our finances. I’m also very worried about the ethnic implications of all this. If after we have done all that we can and they still insist that this is the way they want to go, then we’ll allow the law to take its full course. We are American citizens.