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Ana Pimsler/The Potomac News/AP

Endings and beginnings

Religion | Controversial archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola steps down with purpose

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

It's a strange phenomenon when weather-or anything-slows the archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola. But that's what happened when record snowfall in Washington last month forced the cancellation of a long-anticipated celebration, known among Anglicans as a festal eucharist, to commemorate Akinola.

The stout, 66-year-old clergyman, who friends say gets by on three to four hours' sleep a night and keeps a travel schedule to rival any gold-status f­requent flier, will step down March 25 as head of the Anglican church in Nigeria-at 20 million, the largest Anglican communion in the world.

The event that was to include national and international church leaders would have displayed the significance of his six-year tenure, a time when the African primates began to lead rather than follow their Western counterparts. Instead the Nigerian is in a downtown D.C. restaurant-counting the hours until his plane departs ("six"), marveling at the snow ("a wonderful and fierce problem for me"), remembering what lies behind, and straining toward the future.

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I last spoke with Akinola in New York when WORLD named him one of its 2006 Daniels of the Year. At that time, Akinola gained worldwide attention following the formation of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA.

It represented a breaking away of U.S. and Canadian Episcopal congregations in protest of the church's increasingly liberal interpretation of Scripture and its willingness to accommodate practicing gay clergy-with the breakaways placing themselves under the ecclesiastical authority of the archbishop of Nigeria. At that time CANA represented about 8,600 U.S. Episcopalians. Today it represents over 70,000.

That action followed a historic shift guided by Akinola: In 2005 the church in Nigeria changed its constitution to redefine membership in the Anglican communion as no longer "provinces in communion with the See of Canterbury" but instead "all Anglican Churches, Dioceses and Provinces that hold and maintain the 'Historic Faith, Doctrine, Sacrament and Discipline of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.'" Battles within the church over the 2003 ordination of gay U.S. bishop Gene Robinson, Akinola said, made plain the distinction between those seeking to follow Scripture and those following "the dictates of modern culture." He told me then, "Unity at the expense of truth is not faith."

Since that time those battles have escalated: Last year the Episcopal General Convention voted to declare homosexuals eligible for any ordained ministry in the church and began writing prayers to bless gay unions. In December it elected its first openly lesbian bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion, Mary D. Glasspool, and-despite warnings from the Archbishop of Canterbury-is set to install her in May as the spiritual leader of its archdiocese in Los Angeles.

Akinola and his colleagues were already working to provide alternative leadership for theological conservatives within traditional Anglicanism's hierarchical structure. The Nigerian primate became a leader in GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Confer­ence, which in 2008 led to the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, of which CANA is a founding member.

Throughout, Akinola's acerbic style has served him as both leader and lightning rod of a controversial movement. Asked by a Nigerian journalist about multimillion-dollar lawsuits over property between CANA congregations and the Episcopal Church, Akinola said last month: "It is not CANA going to court; it is the demonic powers in the so-called Episcopal Church that are suing."

It's hard to imagine the roiling seas of worldwide Anglicanism without Akinola somewhere in their midst. And in fact he plans a busy retirement. Already he has formed the Peter Akinola Foundation, which will guide continued work among Nigeria's poor, in rural areas, and with its youth. Akinola was a school dropout who became a tradesman, eventually learning carpentry before he went back to school and began theological training.

I had to ask:

What will 20 million Nigerian Anglicans do without you as their leader?

I am only a servant of God and I was called to serve as servant to the best of my ability and I am stepping down. The work continues without me. My successor, Nicholas Okoh, is a very strong man in faith and character and will be focused, I have no doubt. He has been a companion and colleague and friend. Our challenges are nothing that is new to him, plus he has the asset of having a military background. He was a colonel in the Nigerian army.

What will the gay rights activists and others who branded you "a fundamentalist bigot" and accused you of stalling their agenda do without you?

They will do something with or without Akinola, because what I have done has been with full understanding of the church in Nigeria. Whether I am there or not this trouble continues. My successor has been [the Theological Resource Group] chairman of GAFCON.

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