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Akinola's power

Akinola's power


With antigay rhetoric as his tool, a Nigerian archbishop has made himself a central player in the fight over America's Episcopal Church. But in chasing his ambitions, has he failed his own country?

The pews of Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge, Va., were alive with the spirit of an authentic revival on May 5. Alternately dancing, raising hands to the heavens, and bowing in prayer, roughly 1,500 worshippers witnessed the marriage between the Church of Nigeria and the recently formed Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a group of about 30 Anglican congregations scattered about the United States that have formally broken away from the Anglican Communion's American branch, the Episcopal Church USA.

Peter Akinola, the archbishop of Nigeria, had come to Virginia to preside over the installation of the convocation's leader, Bishop Martyn Minns. Decked out in a regal gold robe and miter, Archbishop Akinola exited the sanctuary at the end of the ceremony smiling, jubilant--singing the words of the recessional with his entourage of 10 or so trailing behind. For a gay reporter covering the event, it was a rare glimpse--a chance encounter--and I found myself fixated, studying him in not so subtle a way. He spotted me within moments. I clearly wasn't there to celebrate. His smile dropped, his song fell away, and he walked on by.

The union between Peter Akinola and Martyn Minns was inaugurated in the summer of 2003 when a majority of 107 Episcopal bishops voted to approve the consecration of

V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire. Leading up to the vote, a growing number of evangelically inspired Episcopal conservatives had been voicing their displeasure with the direction of the Episcopal Church, but few as loudly as the congregation of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., headed by then-Rev. Minns. Seven leading bishops from Asia, Africa, and Australia met with Minns and about 50 conservative Episcopal bishops in Fairfax and issued a statement saying Robinson's confirmation could "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the church." After Robinson's installation, Akinola officially cut ties with the Episcopal Church, stopped accepting its donations, and, in a 2006 ceremony held in Nigeria, elevated Minns to the rank of missionary bishop.

With Minns's formal installation as leader of CANA on May 5, Archbishop Akinola effectively expanded his church's authority into the United States, with Minns as his American brand manager.

Akinola must have felt a strong calling to make such a move. It put him in defiance of a church tradition, dating back to the fourth century, that limits the activity of a bishop to that bishop's jurisdiction. Put simply: One bishop doesn't tread on another bishop's turf. Virginia is the turf of Bishop Peter Lee, and the United States is the domain of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female primate, or leader, of the Episcopal Church and in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Bishop Schori referenced that tradition in a last-minute letter to Akinola on April 30, urging the archbishop to change his plans. She added that his visit would hurt "efforts of reconciliation" between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the body that delicately knits together about 77 million Anglicans in 38 provinces across 164 countries. It's a network that is set up to absorb the unique cultures of different regions by allowing them to elect their own bishops without interference from abroad.

The leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, joined Schori in opposing Akinola's visit--to no avail.

The Nigerian primate wrote Schori that due to what he called the "unbiblical agenda'' of the Episcopal Church, "'the usual protocol and permissions are no longer applicable."

His words depict a leader who is secure in the purity of his agenda. Yet as I began to ask questions about this stern spiritual icon, I discovered an all-too-fallible man who has found that condemning gay people is a shrewd career move.

It would be wrong to call Akinola unprincipled. No doubt he, like most Nigerians, grew up believing that homosexuality is a sin. But this pastor has let his flock at home suffer while he networks in America, accumulating power, publicity, and--according to informed observers--money.

Nigeria, with about 120 million people, is the most populous country in Africa and among the poorest in the world. Life expectancy is 47 years, roughly 3 million people are infected with HIV, and between 1996 and 2005, nearly 30% of children under age 5 were malnourished. It is a land of dichotomies, where oil flows at about 2.5 million barrels a day--making Nigeria the largest oil producer in Africa--and yet anywhere from 60% to 75% of Nigerians, according to various sources, live on less than a dollar a day.

Nigeria is also the largest Anglican province in Africa, with more than 15 million members. As one of the most powerful leaders in the religion, Archbishop Akinola is also perhaps Africa's staunchest opponent of gay rights, the ordination of gays and lesbians, and same-sex unions. And his reach goes far beyond the church.

Akinola is a political power player. He strongly backs a proposed Nigerian law, currently under debate, that would prohibit same-sex marriage and call for a five-year imprisonment of anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or "performs, witnesses, aids, or abets" a such a marriage. The bill even specifies that anyone involved in advocacy for gay and lesbian rights would get five years behind bars. International human rights groups, experts from the United Nations, and more than 250 U.S. Christian leaders have condemned the measure.

The human cost of Akinola's vendetta in his homeland should not go unnoticed by LGBT Americans watching his rise here. "Archbishop Akinola is exposing gays and lesbians in Nigeria to danger," says Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of the pro-LGBT Anglican group Changing Attitude Nigeria. "He's constantly putting us on the news and saying that homosexuality is evil, thereby making some people take the law into their hands."

Mac-Iyalla founded Changing Attitude Nigeria, which is part of an international network of Changing Attitude groups, in 2005. Today, the Nigerian group has about 2,000 registered members. But with the current climate in Nigeria, many gay people are afraid to come out. If a conservative estimate of roughly 4% of Nigeria's citizens were gay, that would mean about 5,000,000 gays and lesbians reside there; the comparable figure for the United States is about 12 million.

"We have been part of the community," says Mac-Iyalla, explaining that homosexuality has come under great scrutiny in Nigeria only in the past few years. "It is only now that the government and the church have decided to use us to its political gain." The result? "Most people get themselves married, but they still know that they are gay or they are lesbians."

In 2005, Mac-Iyalla and eight other members of his group were arrested after a meeting in the nation's capital, Abuja. They were beaten and held in jail without food or water for three days. Mac-Iyalla has also received threatening e-mails and phone calls as well as one handwritten letter that spoke of torturing him with acid.

"It frightens me, although it will not make me stop," says Mac-Iyalla, who now lives in exile in nearby Togo. "Those who are doing this are Christians and members of the church--they think they are working for God by getting rid of me."

Mac-Iyalla says that most Nigerians see homosexuality as abnormal and unnatural, which makes it easy for Akinola to push his agenda. The cultural divide between the United States and Africa on this issue is so extreme that, in the words of one African who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "The people in the pews in most Anglican churches in Africa, I don't even really think they understand the battle their leaders are fighting."

Gloria Kwashi, the wife of Bishop Benjamin Kwashi of Nigeria's Jos diocese, an Akinola ally, put it this way at Minns's installation in Virginia: "The little I know about that thing is that we have them in Nigeria. But we don't talk about it. It's not something to talk about."

And yet that's exactly what Akinola keeps talking about. Around the time he won an award from the online religious publication Kairos Journal in 2005--which included a $25,000 grant--for exhibiting "exemplary fidelity to the authority of Scripture and exceptional pastoral courage," Akinola issued an essay that proclaimed, "Homosexuality and lesbianism, like divorce, breed a society of single parents which gives rise to a generation of bastards."

While Akinola passes such judgments, his fellow Africans struggle with poverty and disease. "We debate these things whilst people are dying," says Bishop Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba of Botswana.

"[Akinola's] voice has been the icon of the conservative position," says Mwamba. "[But] Africa is not a monochrome continent. His is the voice that has been given publicity, but it is not the dominant voice.

"The voice which is not heard," Mwamba continues, "and this is what I would call the real voice of the Anglican Africans, is a silent voice, which simply seeks to live its Christian values without drawing attention to itself. It's a voice of trying to make ends meet."

Mwamba sees the real issues of the African people--poverty, the lack of clean drinking water, nutrition, HIV and AIDS, education, women's rights--being neglected by the small cadre of bishops led by Akinola. "Thousands of kids are dying every day," Mwamba says. "Now, those are the issues the church should be addressing."

For Akinola, though, rejecting gays takes priority. After he cut off ties with the Episcopal Church, he refused to take its relief and assistance money, not only for Nigeria but also for the entire 13 provinces that form the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA), of which he is chairman.

Reverend Emmanuel Sserwadda, the Episcopal Church's U.S.-based partnership officer for Africa, says Akinola has crippled the church's efforts to provide aid in Africa.

"In our annual budget we put line items to assist provinces, especially in Africa," says Sserwadda, who was born, educated, and ordained in Uganda. "[But] in the last three years [CAPA] has been doing nothing because one person, Akinola, has hijacked the whole thing."

Akinola has not blocked all American aid from coming into Africa. Money from his conservative allies still flows. For instance, Five Talents, an organization cofounded by Minns, makes micro loans to budding entrepreneurs in Africa.

Still, in the face of so much need, Bishop Mwamba sees no reason to reject any offerings of aid to Africa. And at any rate, he adds, Archbishop Akinola should not be acting autonomously. "The church is not just comprised of the archbishop," says Mwamba. "Decisions have to be taken in consideration of all the bodies that constitute the church."

Mwamba's diocese, which does accept funding from the Episcopal Church, is building the first inpatient hospice in Botswana; it also runs Holy Cross Hospice, which provides outpatient services for people living with HIV or AIDS, their families and caregivers, and orphans and vulnerable children.

"To see little children smiling because somebody is caring and loving and showing them some hope by being there--these things you cannot measure, they bring great joy," says Mwamba.

Akinola may get joy from preaching his beliefs. But he gets earthly rewards as well. Both Mwamba and Sserwadda say that Akinola and other bishops have been lured away from addressing key African issues by the promise of power and money.

"Most of the influence has been done by people from [the United States] like Martyn Minns, like Bishop [Robert] Duncan from Pittsburgh--that group of people," says Sserwadda, referring to the two of the better-known conservative Anglicans in America. "Akinola wouldn't be meddling in the issues of the Episcopal Church had these people not reached out to him. He wouldn't have a platform [in America]."

The "influence" Sserwadda describes comes in the form of all-expenses-paid trips to the United States, envelopes that contain several hundred to several thousand dollars--gifts big enough to be meaningful for one person but too small to have serious impact on an entire ministry. The money is nearly impossible to track because it isn't linked to any specific organization.

"If an American gives an envelope like that, it is not given for the use of the church, it is given to the individual," says Sserwadda. "Or if not that, someone is flown into the States, and all his bills are paid.... He goes back after doing shopping, and sometimes that person comes with his wife or with his child...." In other words, it's a cushy family trip for free.

For U.S. executives, such perks may be common, but by African standards, they are rich. Says Sserwadda: "I am telling you that even [a bishop's] annual salary cannot facilitate" travel on such a scale.

Sserwadda has not personally witnessed an exchange of money, he says. "But we hear of it," he adds. "It has been happening."

"The money is flowing, definitely, left, right, and center," agrees Mwamba. "I think there is great temptation among poorer African bishops who may be promised whatever they may be promised, if they take a certain position."

For a leader like Akinola, the greatest lure of all may be the chance to play on a world stage. "It is the power issue," Sserwadda says. "He enjoys it."

The problem, explains Sserwadda, is that Akinola's African flock is disempowered. "When you corrupt a leader, then that means you really deny everything to the people under that person," he says, "because they can't oppose him or her."

One anonymous source who is African-born but now works as an Episcopal minister in the United States sees the whole African crusade against homosexuality as someone else's war.

"For me, the primates in Africa are mercenaries who have been hired to fight a war, which in the U.S. they have lost," he says, adding that Robinson's consecration was the final straw. "If you are losing a battle, if you don't have enough manpower to fight, you go and hire mercenaries from somewhere who can fight for you."

Bishop Mwamba concurs: "To a great degree Africa has always been the play field of different powers. The whole issue of sexuality is an American issue that somehow has found itself being played out across the Atlantic in an African conference."

As Minns wrote in the program for his installation ceremony, "There is a delightful irony in that a church that was founded by missionary efforts from the west is now able to return the blessing to the west."

Of course, that "blessing" means that CANA is now competing to supplant the Episcopal Church as the American arm of the Anglican Communion. It's an effort that Akinola sees as a long-term endeavor, calling Minns's installation "the first step" in a long journey. "We do this on behalf of the Anglican Communion," he said from the stage in Virginia, his words ringing righteous as ever. "We are here to ensure that God's people have a home."

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