Ruth Gledhill, the U.K. Times' religion correspondent, scored a fascinating and fantastic interview with Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola. She sat with him at his sparse office in Abuja and discussed the church in Nigeria, relations in the Anglican Communion, Islam, homosexuality and more:
Dr Akinola has become a totem of conservatism in the debate over homosexuality. The irony is not lost on him that he is attempting to preach a gospel back to England that was brought to his country by English missionaries in the mid-19th century. To modern, liberal, Western eyes, Dr Akinola is at the most extreme end of fundamentalist Christianity. Few can imagine the "broad" Church of England being led by such a man -- but in Nigeria he is at the more liberal end of the Christian spectrum. More importantly, he is in the front line of relations between Christianity and Islam. In the northern, Sharia states of Nigeria, Christians have been driven from their looted homes, even murdered. The relationship with Islam is central to his ministry and he has found a way to counter Islam without violence: it is called evangelism.
I like that rather than characterize him one way or the other, she describes how different people view him. And then she just quotes him a lot. Her story is detailed and long, but she also provided video clips (here and here) and a transcript of some of his answers to her questions. Here he explains his perspective that the harder the Nigerian church worked with the American Anglicans, the harder it was for the Episcopal Church to reach out to the Nigerians. The burden of proof, he says, is on those who have changed their doctrine:
The problem is ECUSA and the Western church's way of seeing and handling Scripture. Gene Robinson is just a symptom. I kept on saying you do not have to go through Canterbury to get to Christ. They [missionaries] brought the word of God here and showed us the way of life. We have seen the way of life and we rejoice in it.
Now you are telling me this way of life is not right. I have to do something else. Keep it for yourself. I do not want it. No Nigerian bishop needs to go to Canterbury to learn how to be a bishop. No Nigerian bishop needs to go to Lambeth Palace to go and study how to become a Christian. It is all available here. But as a fellowship we rejoice in our fellowship, we rejoice in our heritage as Anglicans . . . We celebrate it. But our unity will never be at the expense of truth or the historic faith."
I have friends on both sides of the Episcopal Church split and sometimes it's hard to see where the divisions lay, exactly. But this quote does such a good job of showing why the church is in danger of schism.
Gledhill's running transcript of Akinola reads most interestingly in contrast with quotes from the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. We've praised those transcripts provided by journalists, but it's interesting to compare her opaque answers with the clear and direct answers from Akinola:
In spite of what Western church leaders fear, he has no ambitions to lead a breakaway church. "That has never been on my mind. This is the media thing. You see we have scripture. We have our traditions. We have not broken the law. It is your churches that are breaking the law. You are the ones breaking the rules. You are the ones doing what should not be done with impunity. We are saying you cannot sweep it under the carpet. Maybe in the past you could get away with it, but not any more. We have aged. So we are not breaking away from anybody. We remain Anglicans. We are Anglican Church. We will die Anglicans. We are going nowhere."
Much of the interview centers on homosexuality, but unlike so many media reports in the West, Gledhill permits Akinola to explain the issue from his perspective as a Christian less inclined to read Scripture in a postmodern light and as a Nigerian church leader attempting to protect his flock from violent Muslims. She also learns about his very rough childhood, how he came to join the priesthood and what his plans are after he retires in a year and a half.
Anyone who reads Gledhill knows she's not aligned with Akinola's views, but she did an amazing job of letting her interview subject share his views without biasing readers against him or cutting his explanations short. It really is a model for Western reporters to follow -- if they want to understand the Anglican divide better.