Nigeria's Akinola is driving force in Anglican world

Abuja, Nigeria - The worldwide Anglican Communion is officially led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England, but he's facing growing competition these days from Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria.

A staunch defender of traditional Christianity, the energetic Akinola, 63, leads a movement of "Global South" churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America that has brought the 77-million-strong Communion to the brink of schism.

The power of these churches, which now account for more than half of the Communion, will be on display next week when the primates, or heads of member churches, hold their two-yearly meeting in the Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam.

The traditionalist primates are threatening to snub their new United States counterpart, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, for supporting gay clergy and have persuaded Williams to invite a conservative Episcopal bishop to the meeting along with her.

Depending on where Anglicans stand on homosexuality, Akinola is seen either as the symbol of the shift of Christianity's centre of gravity to the Global South or the man out to divide the third-largest denomination in the faith.

"Akinola personifies the epochal change in the Christian church," U.S. evangelical pastor Rick Warren wrote last year to describe him in Time magazine's list of 100 top world leaders.

"He's splitting the Anglican Church," said Giles Fraser, a London vicar heading the gay-friendly Inclusive Church group.


Akinola, who worked as a carpenter before entering the priesthood, came to international prominence in 2003 when he stood up for the Bible-based Christianity of the Global South after the Episcopal Church appointed an openly gay bishop.

He said the Episcopal Church had "chosen the path of deviation from the historic faith" and called homosexuality "an aberration unknown even in animal relationships".

This has strong support in Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims often clash and the orthodoxy of one side reinforces the orthodoxy of the other.

"The archbishop champions the views of the people," said Ugo Okoro, an Abuja journalist and practising Anglican. "The best way to describe him is fierce about these values."

It has also made Akinola the darling of conservatives in the United States, where at least 45 Episcopal parishes have switched their allegiance to him or other African bishops in protest against their church's liberal stand.

Akinola has even organised a parallel conservative movement, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, to act as a mission for U.S.-based Nigerians and U.S. traditionalists and consecrated an American bishop last year to head it.

He upped the ante further, saying the primates must resolve the homosexuality issue soon or see his church -- the second-largest in the Communion after the Church of England -- boycott the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference in 2008.

"We are hoping that after the primates' meeting in Tanzania ... we will have a clearer vision of what we have," he said last month. Without that, he told a Lagos daily, the most important consultation round in the Communion is "not worth attending".


With 17.5 million members, Nigeria is the second-largest Anglican province after the Church of England with 26 million -- but its number of regular churchgoers is far higher and growing.

Behind it come Uganda (8 million), Sudan (5 million), Kenya (2.5 million) and Tanzania (2 million), giving weight to an African wing in the Communion that grows steadily in influence.

The Episcopal Church, by contrast, numbers only 2.4 million.

Philip Jenkins, an expert on Global South Christianity, said northern liberals often see Akinola's drive as "a quirk by one person" rather than a view with wide support.

"If Akinola walked in front of a bus tomorrow, there would be 20 other primates who would follow exactly the same course," the Pennsylvania State University historian told Reuters.

Fraser said African Anglicanism was not a monolith and some bishops chafed under his leadership, but agreed he was the clearly the driving force among them.

"The leader of the last generation of African bishops was Desmond Tutu," he said, referring to the former head of the South African church, a liberal exception among the Africans.

"Akinola is the leader of the new generation."