These girls – and boy – are students at Anglican Junior Seminary in Yola, Nigeria. (The name is confusing but in American terms it is a combination middle- and high-school.)
Here is Bishop Marcus of Yola, with one of his priests, standing on the foundation of the dormitory at AJS’s new site.
When the dormitory is complete, the students will be able to move from their current temporary, cramped accommodations in a run-down building in town to this new, spacious, quiet site on the edge of town. AJS will be able to enroll more students than the current 60 it has room for. I spoke to an assembly at their school when I was in Yola and was impressed by how articulate and interesting the students were. They had very good – and challenging – questions for me and are promising young Nigerians.
I’ve written before about how the Nigerian government has essentially abdicated responsibility for education, especially secondary education. That is why church-run schools like AJS are so important to Nigeria’s future.
I’ve also written before about how alleged Anglican disunity is blocking really important projects like AJS. Bishop Marcus would love international partners to help him complete construction of AJS. As it is, the diocese is building the site building by building as it has the money to do so. It is hoping to raise enough money from its members to complete the dormitory by September to coincide with the beginning of the new school year. But progress has been slow lately.
My earlier post got some tetchy comments from both sides. Those in the broadly liberal camp said that Nigerian church leaders have said they don’t want American money so we shouldn’t give them any. Those in the conservative camp said I’m peddling “deviant theology” and undermining the “wall of orthodoxy” in a “poor, rural diocese.” (Yola is a state capital, not a rural backwater. Also, isn’t Jesus the one who breaks down barriers – read “walls”? But whatever.)
It’s hard for me to see the logic of any of these comments. To the conservatives, I’d say that my visit was at the enthusiastic invitation of my hosts. I’d also ask how many “poor, rural” Nigerian dioceses they’ve visited that make them such experts on what Nigerians are looking for. To the liberals, I’d ask if money is to be used as a weapon to punish people. Just because one leader says something we should inflict his sins on the rest of his church? I well remember what it was like to travel abroad when George Bush was president and foreigners visited his sins on me because of the passport I was carrying. To both, I’d say that the logic of punishing students because of alleged divisions seems more than a little twisted.
If there’s one thing I learned in a month in Nigeria, it is that paying attention to the most senior Anglican leaders may not be the best way to understand what is going on in the Anglican Communion right now. The lay people, priests, and bishops I met – in far-flung and off-the-beaten-path dioceses – are actually quite committed to Anglican unity and looking for international partnerships to build that unity and make it real.
One interesting factoid I learned in Nigeria concerns Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna. His diocese has one of the longest-standing international relationships in the Nigerian church. Over several decades, a church outside Hartford and the diocese of Kaduna have been able to work together on some really interesting projects. People have traveled both ways and the exchange has been about more than money.
Bishop Josiah is the one Nigerian bishop who has consistently called for dialogue and reconciliation within the global Anglican Communion – and he has paid the price for it. He was demoted from archbishop of a province back to bishop of Kaduna. Nigerian Anglican mucky-mucks have insisted Bishop Josiah is an outlier and doesn’t represent Nigerian Anglicanism.
But here’s what I’ve learned: there are many more bishops like Bishop Josiah out there. They may have some theological disagreements with other Anglicans around the world but they don’t see those disagreements as prohibiting dialogue. I don’t know of any other international partnerships like the one Bishop Josiah has with the church in Hartford. It is a fascinating thing that the one bishop with a relationship with a mainstream Episcopal congregation is the one bishop who has – without selling out his theological convictions – been most outspoken about the need for dialogue. Correlation is not the same as causation but…
One priest, in the midst of a deep conversation about things that divide Anglicans, said to me, “What really matters is Romans 14:19.” I had to look that up. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Sounds about right to me. Are there Anglicans in the rest of the world willing to challenge the dominant narrative of fissure in the Communion and form international relationships? The students at AJS – and countless other similar places around the country – are asking that question.