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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Conservatives could spark Anglican split

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Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2003
From the Field
York Alan


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Abuja — The power failed three times during last Sunday's morning service at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. The electric organ went suddenly silent, the air conditioners stopped humming and the preacher had to raise his voice to be heard in the vast church but the worshippers were clearly used to it all and never missed a word in their hymnal.

In many ways, Nigeria doesn't work. Its population of 130 million is under-employed, under-educated and, too often, under-nourished. Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil exporter but the nation's oil refineries are chronically broken and it must import refined products like gasoline to serve its own needs. Corruption and dishonesty are so rampant that Nigeria's best-known service exports are its email and fax scams.

Yet for the world's churches and mosques, Nigeria is paradise. Religion is booming throughout the country. There are tiny evangelical churches at every street corner and scattered throughout the countryside and Islam continues to add adherents, especially in the North of the country.

The Cathedral Church of the Advent is part of the Church of Nigeria, a member of the world Anglican Communion. There are 17 million Anglicans in Nigerians, making it the second largest Anglican national church in the world, after the 25 million Anglicans in England. But in Nigeria, unlike in England, Anglicans actually go to church and their numbers have tripled since the 1970s.

The worshippers were all there in their Sunday finery. The women were especially impressive, dressed elegantly in flowing robes and wearing expansive straw hats or multi-coloured headdresses of brocaded fabrics looking more like pieces of art than simple hats. But the men were also dapper in their ties and doubled-breasted suits as were the children in their frilly dresses and freshly-pressed pants and shirts.

For 3 ½ hours, they prayed, they sang and paraded to the front of the church to be blessed and to take communion.

The service was long, but it was zippy. The organ's big sound was augmented by a drummer, a brass band and the occasional electric guitar plus a gospel-like choir is flowing purple robes and mitre-board caps. There were lots of hallelujahs and "praise the lords" as the worshippers sang and shimmied.

There was a morality play acted by children on the theme of corruption with lots of simulated beating, a 30-minute sermon, an awards ceremony for winners of a bible quiz and a communal blessing for three recently-married couples and their children.

For the world Anglican Communion, faced with dropping attendance in places like Canada and Australia, Nigeria's flourishing church is a blessing but it also represents a huge challenge.

Despite the syncopated rhythm of the church music, the Church of Nigeria is fundamentally a conservative institution, especially when it comes to the hottest issue of the day in the Anglican Church-the ordination of women.

Nigeria's Anglicans have been in the forefront of those rejecting the U.S. Episcopalian Church's decision to bless the ordination of Gene Robinson as the Anglicans' first openly gay bishop. The Archbishop of Abuja, Peter Jasper Akinola, has called the move "evil" and has compared homosexuality with animal behaviour. He wasn't at the cathedral on Sunday but his views were articulately presented by Reverend Canon George Njoku, who presided at the service.

"It's not a question of homophobia. A lot of things will come apart if we accept this," he explained to me as he greeted worshippers at the door of the cathedral at the conclusion of the service. "It's clearly against the revealed word of God. We may all be sinners but we don't boast about it."

Rev. Njoku said that Nigerian society was universally opposed to gay ordination and that it went beyond his interpretation of the Bible. "We don't need to teach that a man should marry a woman and a man should not marry a man."

The issue was already having an impact on the effort by Anglicans in Nigeria to attract to new converts as competing denominations gladly point out that Anglicans preach homosexuality, he noted. But Rev. Njoku is convinced that Nigeria represents the majority of the world's 70 million Anglicans and in the end, a "realignment" may be necessary in the Church. Some would call that a split.

"I got so many e-mails," he said, noting that many of them are supportive of the Nigerian Church's strong ban.

As I bade farewell to the minister, he headed to the church car park, where he blessed the shiny new black car belonging to a family of congregants and I headed back to my hotel, shaking my head.

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