Nigerian archbishop woos those opposed to Episcopal changes
FAIRFAX, Va. — In a direct challenge to the leadership of the US Episcopal Church, an influential Anglican archbishop from Africa is exploring ways to allow American congregations upset over the election of a gay bishop to realign themselves under his jurisdiction.
Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who has been sharply critical of the US Episcopal Church’s decision last year to consecrate Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, said yesterday he feels obliged to provide a spiritual home to Nigerians in the United States who are leaving the church over the issue.
Although Akinola said that is his primary goal, he also said he wanted to offer a home to any Episcopal parish that no longer feels it can abide by a US church hierarchy that conservatives see as abandoning a fundamental Christian teaching condemning homosexuality.
The US Episcopal Church ”is creating a new religion in which [what] God almighty has declared a sin is no longer a sin,” Akinola said at a news conference at Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, a parish that has withdrawn its financial support of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in protest over Robinson’s election. ”We cannot go along with that kind of religion.”
The Episcopal Church is the US branch of the 77-million member Anglican Communion, the international Christian body that traces its roots to the Church of England. Akinola, as the spiritual leader of 17 million Nigerian Anglicans, is highly influential in the communion and has previously warned that Robinson’s election could split the association of churches.
Each Anglican province is autonomous and crossing geographical boundaries, as Akinola plans to do, is considered inappropriate by many Anglican Communion leaders. However, other bishops before Akinola have accepted oversight of some conservative US congregations.
Akinola’s visit to the United States comes less than two weeks before the release of a long-awaited report by a group known as the Lambeth Commission, which will recommend what course the Anglican Communion should take in response to the Episcopal Church’s actions.
Robert Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church, said Akinola’s plan ”does not come as a surprise,” but church leaders would wait to comment until the Lambeth Commission releases its report Oct. 18.
Akinola said his US trip to explore a possible realignment was endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion. Canon James Rosenthal, a London spokesman for the communion, said he had no information on discussions on the issue between the two leaders.
It is unclear exactly how many Nigerian Anglicans worship in the United States. Akinola estimated there may as many as 250,000, but some church leaders believe the number is much lower.
”Our people are deserting the Anglican Church as a result” of Robinson’s election, Akinola said. ”We want to recover our people.”
But he added that his efforts were not limited to Nigerian Anglicans. ”Whoever wishes to join would be welcome,” he said.
Nine of the 107 Episcopal dioceses in the United States, plus about 240 individual congregations outside those dioceses, have joined the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, which conservatives formed as a ”church within a church” in response to the theological divide.
In the Diocese of Washington, home to several majority-Nigerian congregations, spokesman Jim Naughton said that some parishioners expressed unhappiness about Robinson’s election, but that overall the issue has not been a major source of concern.
”He’s responding to a concern we have not heard expressed,” Naughton said.
Akinola said he is just beginning to explore the available options in a realignment.
Although he said the divide could be healed if the Episcopal Church reverses course in the coming weeks, he also said the need for a realignment is long overdue.
”We are already two years behind schedule,” he said.