I’ve really been enjoying the chance to visit with Bishop Cyril Okorocha of Owerri. He is my host these first few weeks in Nigeria and a fascinating person. Leaving aside his personality, though, here are some things he’s told me about his job that might help bring flesh to the idea of what it means to be a bishop in Nigeria.
Bishops in Nigeria – as in England – are referred to as “my Lord.” His title is the Rt. Rev. Dr. Cyril C. Okorocha, the Lord Bishop of Owerri. (He did his Ph.D at Aberdeen with Andrew Walls, the premier mission scholar of the 20th century.) People stand when he walks into a room, no matter what else they are doing. He and I talked about this and the challenges it poses to ministry. For instance, when he began as bishop, he drove himself places. But people were shocked at that and said a bishop can’t drive. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll walk.” “No,” they said. “Bishops can’t walk.” So he got a car and driver – the current car is a Toyota Corolla sedan.
His diocese is now much smaller geographically than it was when he began serving as bishop in 1999. That’s because the growth of the church has led to the creation of about ten new dioceses out of his one diocese in the last decade, including four in the last three years. It now takes him only an hour to drive to the farthest away church.
The largest number of confirmations he’s ever done in one service is – wait for it – 700. The service ended at 1 am. Now, he “limits” the confirmands to 200 per service. Confirmation here is a big deal and often involves the young people renouncing – often in very public ways – gangs and non-Christian cults they may have been involved in.
He has about 120 clergy and probably 25 or so more at some point in the preparation process. The parishes and clergy are divided into 18 archdeaconeries. The archdeacons are a super capable bunch of people and do most of the administration of the local needs but it is still a lot of people to keep track of, especially since some people become priests for the social standing that comes with it. Bishop Okorocha has to put out the fires caused by people who don’t behave quite as is expected of priests. (This is something bishops all over the world do, I guess.)
Bishop Okorocha lives in the Bishop’s Bourne – another nice hold-over from England – which is a fairly large compound. His house has three large sitting rooms and a large dining room, all to entertain the groups of people who come to see him. The grounds of the Bourne have several different fruit trees, a well, a generator, and a fish pond (for eating, not looking at). It’s all part of the bishop’s drive for self-sufficiency in the face of the weakness of the Nigerian state, which is a post for another time.
There is a weekly chapel service in the bishop’s chapel, open to anyone who wants to come. The service was a mere three hours this past Wednesday. Afterwards, several people hung around to get a word in with the bishop, asking him to help solve a problem of some sort, no doubt. It’s a lot like a medieval lord holding a weekly audience, I thought. Because everyone is always wanting to talk with him, it takes forever to get anywhere.
There are lots of great questions to ask about the episcopacy in Africa and how it interacts with pre-existing traditions of chiefdom and how those traditions help or hurt the idea of servant leadership. I won’t say that all those questions are answered in Owerri. But they are being asked.