By Jim Naughton
In today’s Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson once again takes Sen. Barack Obama to task for his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In breaking with Wright, Gerson writes, Obama has woken from a theological slumber. But contrast Wright’s words and actions with those of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the leader of Gerson’s church, and ask yourself who has been sleeping.
Gerson is a member of the Falls Church in Falls Church, Va. His congregation and the nearby Truro Church, played the key role in leading 11 Virginia parishes out of the Episcopal Church after the Church consecrated Gene Robinson, an openly gay man as bishop in 2003. Most of these parishes joined the Church of Nigeria, which Akinola leads.
The relationship between Akinola, Truro and the Falls Church is a close one. The American churches provide important financial support for Akinola’s ministry, and American clergy frequently write his papers and speeches.
In February 2006, 10 months before Gerson's church made the final decision to affiliate with Akinola, Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (full disclosure, he is my boss) published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post calling attention to proposed Nigerian legislation (here, on page 12) supported by Akinola that –interpreted as narrowly as possible—would have significantly curtailed the rights of gays, lesbians and their supporters to speak about their lives in public, assemble or practice their religion. Interpreted more broadly, language that aimed at stopping any displays of same-sex affection, public or private, direct or indirect, was a prescription for home invasion.
One of the more objectionable clauses in this legislation reads:
Any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment.
Akinola’s supporters argued that Muslims were behind the bill, but human rights activists in Nigeria told a different story. The legislation was advanced by a Christian president, and supported by the Christian Association of Nigeria while Akinola was its president. The bill’s key parliamentary opponent was a Muslim.
The legislation was vigorously criticized by 16 international human rights groups, the European Parliament and the U. S. State Department. It eventually died, but Akinola never backed away from his support, even after human rights groups explained the potentially devastating effect the law could have had on groups working to prevent the speared of AIDS.
In the midst of this legislative struggle, Akinola gave an interview to The New York Times, which appeared on the paper’s front page on Christmas Day, 2006.
The way he tells the story, the first and only time Archbishop Peter J. Akinola knowingly shook a gay person’s hand, he sprang backward the moment he realized what he had done.
Archbishop Akinola, the conservative leader of Nigeria’s Anglican Church who has emerged at the center of a schism over homosexuality in the global Anglican Communion, re-enacted the scene from behind his desk Tuesday, shaking his head in wonder and horror.
“This man came up to me after a service, in New York I think, and said, ‘Oh, good to see you bishop, this is my partner of many years,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh!’ I jumped back.”
Akinola's allies in the United States had worked hard to soften his image and distance him from the bill (very, very hard.) but the published record was against them, and after the Times' interview, Akinola stopped speaking to reporters in the U. S.
If Gerson had any trouble with Akinola's behavior, he did not voice it in a column he wrote five months later. In his first effort as a Post columnist, Gerson described Akinola's decision to consecrate Truro's former rector, the Rev. Martyn Minns, as a bishop in the Church of Nigeria, as an "epoch-dividing event," and praised Akinola's vibrant brand of Christianity.
Gerson may have been referring to the failed Nigerian legislation when he offered these highly-qualified reservations, but they are so vague it is impossible to tell:
This emerging Christianity can be troubling. Church leaders sometimes emphasize communal values more than individual human rights, and they need to understand that strongly held moral beliefs are compatible with a commitment to civil liberties for all. Large Pentecostal churches are often built by domineering personalities promising health and wealth.
(The Post printed my letter responding to Gerson’s piece. However, I was unsuccessful in persuading the paper to acknowledge that Gerson had hidden a conflict of interest from his readers in failing to disclose that his parish was involved in litigation over church property on Archbishop Akinola's behalf. This still seems to me a fairly obvious and signficant violation of journalistic ethics.)
In May, The Atlantic magazine raised new and more troubling concerns about Akinola. In “God’s Country,” the writer Eliza Griswold, daughter of the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, describes a retributive massacre in the Nigerian town of Yelwa carried out in 2004 by a well-organized band of men, wearing clothing and tags that identified them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Akinola was president of CAN during the massacre, which Human Rights Watch reports claimed the lives of approximately 700 Muslims. Dozens of others were kidnapped, raped or maimed. (The relevant sections of the article and the HRW report are excerpted here.)
Eliza Griswold visited Akinola in 2006. She writes:
When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
When these remarks came to light, Akinola’s spokesman released a statement that had nothing to do with the incident at Yelwa, but with later riots over the publication of Danish cartoons, that Muslims viewed as insulting to the prophet Mohammed. Neither the archbishop nor his American followers have offered further elaboration.
Akinola's handling of the massacre in Yelwa and his incendiary comments during the cartoon riots contributed to his defeat when he ran for re-election of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Indeed, members of the Association took the unusual step of denying him the vice presidency, which is usually awarded to the candidate who finishes second in the presidential balloting. His anti-gay crusades, and his efforts to split the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality led to the defeat of Akniola's handpicked successor, in the voting for president of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa. Yet, members of his American flock, which is concentrated in Northern Virginia, but includes a congregation with close ties to the Family Research Council, and other conservative political groups, continues to support him.
These congregations are involved in a high-stakes effort aimed at either driving North American churches out of the Anglican Communion for their acceptance of same-sex relationships, or, failing that, splitting the Communion in two, and claiming leadership of a potentially large faction centered in Africa. This movement is financed by Americans who, with help from British evangelicals, are also its chief strategists. Public fealty to Akinola and one or two other African archbishops is essential, however, or the effort is unmasked as a largely Western enterprise, and loses credibility among Anglicans in the developing world—the very constituency for whom it purports to speak.
As a result, the Nigerian archbishop, whose influence is on the wane among Christian leaders in his own country and among Anglican leaders on his own continent due to his extremism, remains the spiritual leader of Michael Gerson’s parish, and in similarly-minded congregations in Northern Virginia.
Gerson may hold views very different than those of Akinola—just as Barack Obama may hold views very different than those of Jeremiah Wright. But given Gerson’s repeated criticism of Obama over his relationship with Wright, it seems fair to ask whether anything that Wright has said or done is as destructive to the human family or reflects as poorly on the Church as the word and actions of Peter Akinola, and why Gerson is able to pronounce with such supreme condescension on Obama’s failures when his own are so much more damning—and enduring.
Jim Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe.