Media Matters

Out of Africa

Traditionalists in the Episcopal Church turn to a Nigerian archbishop for leadership -- and the New York Times gets the story wrong.

By 1.10.07

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As the Episcopal Church begins to shed parishes like a dried-up Christmas tree sheds needles, it must have been comforting to the denomination to receive a sizeable Christmas present from the New York Times.

What could more clearly say "Merry Christmas" to the denizens of 815 Second Avenue, the church's national center, than the total trashing of the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola, on the front page of newspaper's Christmas Day edition?

With the headline "At Axis of Episcopal Split, an Anti-Gay Nigerian," the Times story spins the crisis in the Anglican Communion as a simple pro-gay/anti-gay issue. But it wasn't just differing views of homosexuality that led nine parishes in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Virginia to affiliate with the Province of Nigeria. And it wasn't just an "anti-gay bishop" that brought about the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

The root cause the Times ignores is a theological one concerning differences over many tenets of the faith: the nature of sin; the authority of Scripture; whether Jesus is the only way to God; whether God is a Father, or as the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church would have us believe, a Mother. The Times portrayal is guaranteed to make the Nigerian church and American traditionalists appear ignorant and hateful.

That's why the paper seems alarmed by the size of Akinola's flock -- there are more than 17 million members of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. (Think of the potential number of homophobes being indoctrinated!) And whereas the Times' pet Episcopal Church is diminishing more with each passing year, the Nigerian province continues to grow in spite of persecution. In 1998, there were 61 dioceses, and today there are 78 -- many of the new ones formed in the Muslim-dominated northern and middle "belt" areas of the country.

THE TIMES REINFORCES ITS "anti-gay Nigerian" theme with an introductory story about the archbishop's "first and only time" to knowingly shake a gay person's hand. Akinola recounts how while in mid-handshake with a man in New York, the man introduced him to his "partner of many years" while shaking his head in what the reporter describes as "wonder and horror." "I said, 'Oh!'" he told the Times. "I jumped back."

Akinola may have been shaking his head with dismay over a province of the Anglican Communion where same-sex partners are not just accepted but exalted. And perhaps the archbishop jumped back because he is savvier to Episcopal Church operatives than for which he was given credit. African bishops and clergy from Sudan and Uganda, for example, had been introduced to the same gay man and his partner while the Episcopal News Service conveniently happened to be close by. They seized the moment on camera to exploit those Africans -- either for shaking hands or for not shaking hands. Maybe Akinola did not want to join the ranks of those who had been used by the Episcopal Church to provide credibility for itself in the wider Communion.

The rest of the article continues in this vein. Akinola is called "the most visible advocate for a literal interpretation of Scripture," which supposedly challenges the "traditional Anglican approach of embracing diverse theological viewpoints" The archbishop is further identified as "the 62-year-old son of an illiterate widow." The reference to his mother's lack of education -- not uncommon among African women of the time or even today -- seems to suggest that only the ignorant and uneducated have this perspective on the Bible.

Yet the reporters admit that Akinola's views on sexual morality fit the Nigerian mainstream. "Attitudes towards homosexuality, women's rights, and marriage are dictated largely by scripture and enforced by deep social taboos," the Times scolds. These attitudes contrast sharply with those inculcated by some American church activists, who make use of transgendered sock puppets to promote "Queer Week" at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Massachusetts.

Maybe the Times should have interviewed the sock puppet rather than EDS Professor Ian Douglas. Douglas says Akinola "sees himself as the spokesperson for a new Anglicanism, and thus is a direct challenge to the historic authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury." But Douglas's concern for "historic authority" seems disingenuous. He was present at General Convention 2003 during debates over the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Those in favor of Robinson justified their challenge to historic authority by invoking the Holy Spirit (in favor of consecrating as bishop a man who had left his wife and children to live in a homosexual relationship). Falsely portraying orthodox, traditional faith as "new" Anglicanism is part of the spin.

IN A PARTING THRUST, the Times expounds upon proposed Nigerian legislation that would make any public expression of homosexuality a crime punishable by five years' imprisonment. What the story fails to mention is that homosexual activity has actually been illegal in Nigeria, as in many African countries, for years. According to Article 214 of the Nigerian Penal Code, sanctions include up to 14 years imprisonment. But recently, homosexual activism sponsored by organizations from outside of the country has enflamed the already-heightened religious tensions. Islamists seek to reform the country by imposing a legal code that calls for the stoning of homosexuals. In response, Nigerian President Obesanjo has proposed the aforementioned legislation, which would prohibit homosexual activities sans stoning.

Akinola recognizes that there are concerns about the possible violation of the human rights of individuals affected by the proposal that need to be addressed in "both in the framing of the law and its implementation." He informed the CANA churches that "while the honorable speaker of the House, a Muslim, wanted the immediate and outright passage of the bill, the deputy speaker, an Anglican, persuaded his colleagues to allow full public debate on it."

It's difficult enough to keep your head as a Christian in Nigeria. For the archbishop to decry legislation that limits "gay rights" would be to expose the entire Christian community in Nigeria to the wrath and violence of the Islamists. Moreover, Akinola has made it quite clear that he believes it is in the best interest of his country, and indeed, of those persons who are living in a homosexual lifestyle, to not "follow the path of license and immorality that we have witnessed in other parts of the world."

The Times may not be considered all the news that's fit to print in the Archbishop's Palace in Lagos, but Akinola is well aware of his critics' charges. In a letter to the new CANA churches in the U.S., Akinola wrote, "Sadly, I have heard that some are suggesting that you are now affiliated with a church that seeks to punish homosexual persons. That is a distortion of our true position."

"Every person, regardless of their religion or sexual orientation, is made in the image of God, loved by God, and deserving of the utmost respect," Akinola says. CANA Bishop Martyn Minns adds, "[Akinola] is not seeking to victimize or diminish anyone. He is primarily an evangelist and a pastor whose desire is to see all people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ."

Archbishop Akinola sees individual human beings who need Christ's healing in their lives to become the people they were created to be. The New York Times sees an opportunity to promote the gay rights agenda. Who is it who is really diminishing people?

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About the Author

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children (Chosen Books, 2007).