Daniels of the year - Men of the hard cloth

10 December 2006 - Print Version

News & Views

Source: World Magazine

By Mindy Belz in Kampala.

Jesus asked His disciples, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A man clothed in soft garments?” John the Baptist, of course, was no such man, and neither are WORLD’s 2006 Daniels of the Year Peter Jasper Akinola and Henry Luke Orombi. Their biblical stands are making a difference not only in Africa but in the United States, as the crisis in the oldest American denomination reaches its climax.

At twilight the marabou stork still sits atop the tallest tree on Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi’s compound in Kampala, waiting for prey to come into view. Inside his home the archbishop is talking about other flesh-eaters. He is describing the scene when Uganda tyrant Idi Amin sent men for Orombi’s lifelong mentor, then-Archbishop Janini Luwam. “16 February 1977,” he says, as though it were yesterday. “From this place, from where we are sitting, they took him and killed him.”

Luwam was a popular clergymen, “a passionate preacher, a great pastor gifted in engaging people,” according to Orombi. Luwam spoke out against Amin’s murderous regime, attracting international attention. One night armed men from the defense ministry showed up just under the stork’s tree with a political prisoner. His hands had been nearly cut off at the wrist but left dangling and bleeding as a way to lure Luwam from the house. When the archbishop came out, they beat him with gun-butts and demanded to search his home for weapons.

“They forced him to go everywhere—the chapel, the bedrooms—under the pretext of looking for guns,” said Orombi, a seminary student at the time who had spent five months working for Luwam. “Finally they came to this room and on the table was a Bible. ‘This is my gun,’” Luwam told the men. Not long after, Idi Amin’s men shot and killed Luwam.

Orombi, too, was arrested during Amin’s regime, held in prison for assisting a church operating underground. He was released unharmed. Orombi became the leader of Uganda’s Anglican church in 2004. He and his family now live in the home that was Luwam’s. Orombi and his counterpart in Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, are among conservative prelates under fire from church leaders in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Their particular crime is aiding and abetting congregations in the United States in quitting the United States’ oldest Protestant denomination. Those congregations no longer want to submit to radical interpretations of Scripture, including the ordination of gay clergy. The conflict spiked in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated the openly gay bishop from New Hampshire, Gene Robinson. The gulf has only widened since, moving the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is part, to a likely split.

The latest development: Several dozen U.S. churches have asked for “alternative oversight” from Orombi, and the number grows almost daily. On Dec. 2 California’s San Joaquin diocese—with 48 parishes and 7,000 members—became the first diocese to take the first of two steps toward ending affiliation with the Episcopal Church. This week congregants at two of the nation’s largest and wealthiest Episcopal congregations, Truro Church and The Falls Church, both located in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., are voting to leave the denomination and to seek alternative oversight from the Anglican province headed by Akinola.

The two congregations include leaders of government agencies, members of Congress, Washington journalists, and think-tank presidents. Past attendees include George Washington and George Mason. Truro’s property is valued at $10 million; The Falls Church, $17 million. Episcopal diocese leaders insist that property belongs to the diocese, while the churches rest on Virginia court rulings indicating it belongs to churches—hinting at the legal and financial battles the theological rift will inspire.

Lending official oversight to what promises to be a bumpy transformation will be Akinola and Orombi, along with other prelates (see sidebar). With accelerated secession from the Episcopal Church underway, how did African clergymen with tribal roots and histories steeped in internecine conflict arrive in the middle of a crisis affecting a worldwide church of 77 million whose birthright flows from the Anglo-Saxon halls of Canterbury?

Can such prelates, one a carpenter and the other a high-school dropout who failed at becoming a mechanic, reach Anglicans in affluent nations while shepherding local church members whose yearly per capita incomes average out to $550? In countries where indoor plumbing and 24-hour-a-day electricity aren’t yet standard?

In Africa 10 of 11 provinces have declared themselves in “impaired communion” with the Episcopal Church since the consecration of Robinson. They are joined by other provinces in India, Southeast Asia, and South America: Over half of Anglican archbishops around the world have declared that the U.S. church’s long drift away from biblical authority means they will not recognize as a legitimate Anglican leader U.S. presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. She voted for the consecration of gay bishop Robinson and has approved “same-sex blessings” that are tantamount to gay marriage.

The archbishops who oppose her represent 70 percent of Anglicans worldwide. The Nigerian Church alone—with attendance at 20 million—dwarfs the Church of England’s attendance at 1.7 million, the Episcopal Church’s 2.2 million, and the Anglican Church of Canada’s half million.

Radical church leaders in the United States, like Bishop John Chane of Washington, D.C., accuse Akinola and others of trying to walk away with the denomination. Akinola says it is the Episcopal Church “which has chosen to walk apart.” Embracing open homosexual practice among clergy “negates our understanding of Scripture as historically understood by the church. It is a departure from all that we stand for,” he told WORLD.

Radical church leaders also seek to frame the debate in cultural terms. They charge that Akinola opposes homosexuality because that is culturally safe in his mostly Muslim Nigeria. They blast him for supporting a gay-marriage ban currently under debate in Nigeria. “We are only asking that we be allowed to do this in our own context, which is admittedly different to that of most of the world,” said Robinson.

Orombi says homosexuality is “nothing new” in Africa. The Ugandan church has a century of martyrdom behind it, and the first Anglican martyrs in 1886 were burned to death in large part because they refused the homosexual advances of the king. And “we don’t spare the polygamists,” Orombi said, noting that he himself is from a polygamist family. “I understand what it is to live within a polygamist marriage, and I’m not going to condone it because I know it is not within God’s will.”

Sexual practices that depart from Scripture, Orombi said, “are not a boxed-up thing for the Western world. It’s a human failure to understand God’s primary design and His calling on us. . . . Do you think the prostitutes are so happy because they are there where they are? This is the injustice of humanity. We tell them it is sin. We don’t want to call it anything else. The problem in America and the Western world is they don’t want to call it sin. They want to give it another name. We don’t want this.”

Both Akinola and Orombi say the debate over sexual morality is an outgrowth of a larger and longstanding issue. “What God says is evil, they say is righteousness. Where we see Scripture, they see the dictates of modern culture coming first,” said Akinola.

Orombi said the debate about sexuality has become “more an intellectual exercise, when what is at stake is the teaching of the Word of God.” Decades of liberal interpretation of biblical texts and church doctrine, he said, have “separated the Scriptures from the power of God’s hands” in ways detrimental to American church life.

“It is difficult to be proud and to be confident to proclaim the truth of what the Scripture is. I think lack of confidence about the Word of God in America comes from an interpretation where the Bible is not the ultimate truth,” he said.

The Anglican crisis has arisen alongside a megashift in church demographics. Already more than half of the world’s Christian population resides in the global south, and at current rates of change four out of five Christians by 2050 will live outside the traditionally Christian West (see p. 44). And where the church is growing fastest, it is speaking with an increasingly conservative and orthodox voice—startling a Western church bathed in Enlightenment sophistry and deconstructed Bible texts.

Global south churches, according to retired archbishop of Southeast Asia Datuk Yong Ping Chung, “emerge out of missionary efforts built on the uniqueness of Christ and the authority of the Bible. Some live in very, very difficult lands and are challenged all the time. This gives personal conviction and a foundation on which to believe. English, Canadians, and Americans are very well off and many of their churches have huge inheritances—they can afford not to win souls.”

Standing for biblical authority has not been without cost, including financial. Orombi told WORLD his province turned down $400,000 a year when it declared impaired communion with the Episcopal Church. Episcopal headquarters at that point offered to triple its giving but Orombi refused. “Do they think this church runs on money? And if it did run on money, would American money solve our poverty in this country?” Orombi says conservative churches in the United States have made up some of the difference.

Asked how much it cost the Nigerian church, Akinola is quick to answer: “As far as I am concerned, nothing. The church that we inherited was a church that was vastly dependent on Western aid and what we now call handouts. As a result, the church was not able to determine what was available for local resources. No more.”

Martyn Minns, rector at Virginia’s Truro Church, is at the center of the tilting power structures. In August he became missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, established by the church of Nigeria to provide oversight sought by Truro and other churches. Minns has known Akinola since seminary days. “In a real sense we are learning what it means to be a global community, learning from folks we’ve been thinking need our church. What God is doing is getting our attention and moving us out of our narrow parochialism and cultural ghetto.”

If the labors for the worldwide church are pressing, Akinola and Orombi face burdens of ministry at home both ponderous and persistent. Orombi describes them in terms of a recent trip to northern Uganda, which has suffered under nearly 20 years of attacks from the vagrant Lord’s Resistance Army. Fighting ended under a temporary agreement signed last August, but over half a million people live in camps for the displaced. When Orombi arrived at one village in October, a mother rushed to ask him to baptize her newborn twins. At the same moment, as he looked ahead, he could see several huts had caught fire and the blazes were spreading. “We have blessings and cursings together all the time,” he said, “and we take them both as from the Lord.”

Orombi learned on the eve of the trip that his sister had died, but he followed through on the 10-day program anyway: “People sympathized with me, but they had been preparing for months for this trip. . . . The north is going through a very hard time and it is important for me to go and identify with them, to bring a message of hope in the place of struggle. . . . But the most important thing is that not to go would give the devil a chance.”

Orombi did not go to high school because he wanted to be a mechanic. “I didn’t make it,” he says simply of the apprenticeship, and his father insisted on enrolling him in a teacher’s college. There, he says, he met Christ, “and that changed the whole perspective of the future,” opening up a lifelong love for children and youth ministry and for becoming an ordained clergyman. He studied theology at a seminary outside Kampala and for three years in London.

By 1993 church leaders named him the first bishop of a new diocese in southwestern Uganda. A decade after beginning with almost nothing, Orombi had a church infrastructure in place there that included schools, training centers, a new airstrip for missionary drop-offs, and rural and community outreach that attracted Anglican workers from South Korea, England, Scotland, and Germany. “I did it by preaching the gospel fiercely,” he said. A year later he became archbishop.

At a New York dinner or at home in the bush, the archbishop, at 6-foot-5, is a commanding presence not only for his stature but also for his baritone laugh and aggressive sociability. On Thursday evenings he teaches an evening Bible study at All Saints Cathedral in Kampala where 200 people regularly attend. Some say they walk more than five miles home afterward.

Orombi begins by opening a Bible well-inked in orange highlighter and saying, “God is good,” to which the congregation immediately responds, “all the time.” He takes them through 10 points about leadership using Mark 4 as text, punctuating the serious with the humorous. At one point he quotes an African proverb in relationship to his own leadership: “The higher the monkey climbs the more his nakedness shows.”

When the service is over, Orombi stays nearly an hour to greet attendees, setting up meetings with some who want to discuss family problems or jobs. “I love people. I love to talk to people, I love to ask questions. I love to look at people’s gifts and try to copy as much as I can. I’ve come to learn that until you learn to go to a practical level and interact with people, you can’t appreciate them,” the 57-year-old archbishop said.

Akinola, nearly a foot shorter than Orombi and, at 66, almost a decade older, brings the characteristic Nigerian intensity to conversation, an abrupt candor that doesn’t obscure a sharp wit. With a series of deadly air crashes, the most recent last month, Akinola declared flying in Nigeria (something he does nearly every week) “a journey to the grave.”

Akinola appears formal in conversation but is fond of showing up in what Nigerians call “civilian mufti”—street clothes minus the archbishop’s traditional raspberry shirt and sometimes the cleric’s collar. African papers refer to him as “the most powerful man in Anglicanism” but others, like one newspaper in Australia, brand him “a fundamentalist bigot.” He speaks forcefully but acts cautiously: He rarely grants interviews, friends say, and makes it a rule not to publicize his travel schedule.

Akinola had to leave school after his primary education. He took up carpentry to support his family and ran a successful business before returning to school under church guidance. He was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1978, a priest in 1979, and attended Virginia Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s in theology in 1981. He became an archbishop in 1997 and primate of all Nigeria in 2000 when the country came under one province. Like Orombi, Akinola “founded” a diocese in Abuja, which became surprisingly self-reliant using business investments to fund 12 primary and two secondary schools. Akinola has worked in both the predominantly Christian south and the largely Muslim north. In the south Anglicans often have been at odds with Roman Catholics; in the north, Islam and Christianity have been at war with one another.

When northern states began adopting Shariah law, Akinola called on the government to suspend oil receipts and supplies. “Time has come to call the Shariah governors to throw Shariah off our land. The governors were elected by Nigerians of all persuasions, not just by Muslims alone but for our common good,” he said.

Last February when Muslims rioted over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, Nigeria was hit hardest: In the north rioters killed more than 120 Christians, burned about 40 churches, and destroyed hundreds of shops and houses. Reprisals by Christians in southeast Nigeria killed about 100 Muslims and left perhaps thousands homeless. Akinola says the controversy ended discussions about dialogue between Christians and Muslims. “We have had the assumption that Islam is a religion of peace, and I ask myself: From what you see on the ground happening, how can you not see that Islam is not making peace? That understanding—it is frightening.”

Akinola says he now tells those under his care to be cautious, “to watch what you say and where you go.” But he draws a parallel to the conflict with the Western church: “I have Muslim friends, and we know the boundaries of our friendship. I have Roman Catholic friends, and we know the boundaries of our friendship. We must accept our boundaries in the Anglican Communion. Unity at the expense of the truth is not faith.”

In appointing Truro Church’s Minns, Akinola said he plans “not to challenge or intervene in the churches of (North America) but rather to provide safe harbor for those who can no longer find their spiritual home in those churches.” Minns himself finds precedent. London sent clergy to America in colonial times, and now Africa is doing the same: “We are a church that needs help.”

Orombi says he looks forward to key Anglican meetings, like one of worldwide Anglican leaders coming up in Tanzania in February, even though they are likely to turn into showdowns. “Many of us in the global south want this whole sexuality thing to be thrown out, to be finished,” he said. “It is exhausting and debilitating.” It is also painful. “If your brother decides he is not going to move, you are sad and pained and you are walking away. Not because you love it. You are walking away painfully, bleeding.”
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Daniel nation

Archbishops Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi are not alone in shepherding U.S. churches that finally want to separate from the radically-led Episcopal Church; they happen to represent some of the largest numbers of Anglicans, both in their own countries and as emigrants (students and workers) to the United States. Others:

Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone represents 30,000 Anglicans in five South American countries. “If you’re faithful to what Jesus calls us to do, you’ll have a very uncomfortable life,” he told a gathering of conservative Anglicans. “If you follow Jesus, an awful lot of people aren’t going to like you.”

Archbishop of the West Indies Drexel Gomez: “So if we are to go forward together the [Episcopalians] have to, as it were, backtrack.”

Archbishop of Rwanda Emmanuel Kolini helped form Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) in 2000 as a way to provide “alternative oversight” to churches caught in a hierarchal web of Episcopal teaching radically at odds with Scripture.

Archbishop of Southeast Asia Datuk Yong Ping Chung retired in February but was dubbed “the Asian tiger” by Akinola for leading a small province to take a big stand for biblical authority. “Our battles did not come overnight, they are 30-40 years in the making, and we have until now been too willing to compromise,” Yong told WORLD during an early December visit to the United States. With Kolini, Yong has led AMIA. “Only God could bring together a churchman from Sabah (North Borneo) in Malaysia and one from Rwanda, which has just gone through this period of genocide,” he said. “To be a small church used by God for such a time is amazing and humbling. In God’s economy it is not about human size and power. It is about heart and obedience.”

 

1 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Sinner Says:

    “Many of us in the global south want this whole sexuality thing to be thrown out, to be finished,” he said. “It is exhausting and debilitating.” It is also painful. “If your brother decides he is not going to move, you are sad and pained and you are walking away. Not because you love it. You are walking away painfully, bleeding.”

    We praise GOD that you indeed will finish ECUSA and finish this whole thing in February!