ABUJA, Nigeria, Dec. 20 — 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.”
Archbishop Akinola, a man whose international reputation has largely been built on his tough stance against homosexuality, has become the spiritual head of 21 conservative churches in the United States. They opted to leave the Episcopal Church over its decision to consecrate an openly gay bishop and allow churches to bless same-sex unions. Among the eight Virginia churches to announce they had joined the archbishop’s fold last week are The Falls Church and Truro Church, two large, historic and wealthy parishes.
In a move attacked by some church leaders as a violation of geographical boundaries, Archbishop Akinola has created an offshoot of his Nigerian church in North America for the discontented Americans. In doing so, he has made himself the kingpin of a remarkable alliance between theological conservatives in North America and the developing world that could tip the power to conservatives in the Anglican Communion, a 77-million member confederation of national churches that trace their roots to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“He sees himself as the spokesperson for a new Anglicanism, and thus is a direct challenge to the historic authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” said the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
The 62-year-old son of an illiterate widow, Archbishop Akinola now heads not only Nigeria — the most populous province, or region, in the Anglican Communion, with at least 17 million members — but also the organizations representing the leaders of Anglican provinces in Africa and the developing world. He has also become the most visible advocate for a literal interpretation of Scripture, challenging the traditional Anglican approach of embracing diverse theological viewpoints.
“Why didn’t God make a lion to be a man’s companion?” Archbishop Akinola said at his office here in Abuja. “Why didn’t he make a tree to be a man’s companion? Or better still, why didn’t he make another man to be man’s companion? So even from the creation story, you can see that the mind of God, God’s intention, is for man and woman to be together.”
Archbishop Akinola’s views on homosexuality — that it is an abomination akin to bestiality and pedophilia — are fairly mainstream here. Nigeria is a deeply religious country, evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, and attitudes toward homosexuality, women’s rights and marriage are dictated largely by scripture and enforced by deep social taboos.
Archbishop Akinola spoke forcefully about his unswerving convictions against homosexuality, the ordination of women and the rise of what he called “the liberal agenda,” which he said had “infiltrated our seminaries” in the Anglican Communion.
This view emanating from the developing world is hardly unique to the Anglican church. More and more, churches of many denominations in what many Christian leaders call the “global south,” encompassing Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, which share these views, are surging as church attendance lags in developed countries.
Bishop Martyn Minns, the rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., who was consecrated by Archbishop Akinola this year to serve as his missionary bishop in North America, said Archbishop Akinola was motivated by a conviction that the Anglican Communion must change its colonial-era leadership structure and mentality.
“He doesn’t want to be the man; he just no longer wants to be the boy,” Bishop Minns said. “He wants to be treated as an equal leader, with equal respect.”
Even among Anglican conservatives, Archbishop Akinola is not universally beloved. In November 2005, he published a letter purporting to be from the leaders, known as primates, of provinces in the global south. It called Europe a “spiritual desert” and criticized the Church of England. Three of the bishops who supposedly signed it later denied adding their names. Some bishops in southern Africa have also challenged his fixation with homosexuality, when AIDS and poverty are a crisis for the continent.