Crucifixion in Abuja, Nigeria

On this day, Good Friday, Christians commemorate one moment of crucifixion two thousand years ago—but we also reflect on all the other moments of crucifixion that continue to take place in our world even today.

One moment of crucifixion this week was the bombing of a bus station and market outside Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It is a moment of crucifixion whenever innocent people are killed, whenever violence tears apart our societies and brings grief and suffering in its wake. When I saw this picture, I thought of the women with Jesus at the cross reacting to his death sentence and execution.

I was in Nigeria in June 2011 when a similar bombing happened at Nigeria’s police headquarters in Abuja. I was well away from Abuja but what I remember so clearly about that time was how on edge everyone was afterwards. It’s understandable. These kinds of killings make us question what we think we know about our safety and security.

I particularly remember all the rumours I heard in church on the Sunday after the 2011 bombing. One rumour in particular was making everyone nervous: Boko Haram, the Islamist group thought to be behind the attacks, had tried but failed to bomb a church in the town of Enugu, not far north from where I was. Not only for me, but for everyone else, this brought the terror home in a deeply personal way: was our church next? Would we be the next victims? And if not us, what about friends and relatives at other churches in the region? I never actually learned if the the rumour of what had happened at Enugu had any truth to it but it had clearly done its job: everyone was on edge.

An environment like this, so shaped by such pervasive insecurity, shapes one’s approach to the gospel and to church. Some months back, when a Nigerian archbishop was kidnapped, I posted an excerpt of my book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, that reflects at greater length on how the Nigerian church is shaped by this context. In brief, however, people come to church looking for assurance, constancy, and steadfastness. They want to hear about a God who protects (when it seems no one else will) and who will defeat one’s enemies (when it seems no one else can). The result is a church that is about confidence, steadfastness, and fidelity to a particular interpretation of the Bible.

But what these holy days remind us is that this is not the only approach to crucifixion. Christ’s response to crucifixion was not to return as a vengeful, wrathful victim, seeking to inflict retribution on those who had wronged him. Rather, Christ’s response to crucifixion was to return to life as a forgiving, reconciling presence whose followers sought to create a new community that would include even those who had once put their leader to death.

Although the church makes the journey in a handful of days, it can take a long time to go from the crucifixion of Good Friday to the forgiveness of the risen Christ. Indeed, it is the journey of a lifetime. But it is the journey that all Christians are called to make, a journey that begins not in a place of strength but in a place of weakness and humility.

Crucifixions remain all around us in this world of ours. But Christians know that Good Friday is not the end of the story.

And that is good news.

Backpacking excerpt in the Church Times

The Church Times this week publishes a lengthy excerpt of my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion. In the excerpt, I describe the practice of “appreciation” I witnessed at a Nigerian church conference and wondered how to square it with the church’s Jerusalem Declaration.

With one exception, it was not all that different from what I remembered at the stewardship-ingathering Sunday at my home church in the US. The difference was that, as they approached the bucket, each man took the microphone, said his name, gave a short speech thanking the Bishop, and announced how much he was giving. After each announcement, there was applause, its volume dependent on the size of the gift.

While the appreciation continued, I flipped through the copy of the new Nigerian prayer-book I had been given a few days earlier. At the back is printed the Jerusalem Declaration, the manifesto that came out of the 2008 meeting of GAFCON in Jerusalem, which Nigerian bishops attended instead of the Lambeth Conference.

My eye was drawn to the declaration’s second point: “The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught, and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the Church’s historic and consensual teaching.”

As I looked up from the Jerusalem Declaration and watched the men with their envelopes, Jesus’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount came to mind: “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

No matter how I tried to square it, the appreciation seemed in direct contravention of Jesus’s teaching. There was nothing secret about this appreciation. It fact, publicity was its purpose. It seemed impossible to reconcile the desire to read and obey the Bible in its “plain” sense with what I was seeing in front of me.

The excerpt has no shortage of pictures, including this one of the appreciation.

IMG_1937

In the excerpt, I describe talking to a wide range of people about the issues before the Anglican Communion, including, of course, homosexuality.

Later, at a separate diocesan conference I attended, I sat next to Eugene, an older priest not far from retirement. He had fought for the Biafran rebel army, and then had a career as a secondary-school teacher.

His ecclesial ambitions were no greater than faithfully pastoring his congregation. We amiably reflected on the divisions in the Communion.

As our conversation came to an end, he said: “These problems have hurt our association in the past few years. But flexing our muscles, left and right, does not solve any of our problems. I don’t think we need to be in a hurry. With the passage of time, we can come to a greater understanding of each other.”

He looked at me: “You need to learn more about Nigeria, and we need to learn more about you. After all,” he said, “we are all Anglicans.”

Read the whole excerpt. Or just go out and buy the book yourself.

The “threat” of the “new churches”

The Anglican province of West Africa has recently reorganized itself, and has a new archbishop and primate, Solomon Tilewa Johnson. In an interview, he identified two challenges for the church: poverty and “new churches.”

The Archbishop was referring to the fact that traditional Churches on the continent of Africa have been increasingly concerned about losing particularly younger worshippers to newer, more charismatic Churches, or losing them from church altogether.

The author of the article in the Anglican Communion News Service subtly opined that this latter threat was “surprising.” But if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know it’s not.

After a trip to Nigeria 18 months ago, I asked, “What is Peter Akinola afraid of?” I saw, in my travels, the incredible growth of neo-Pentecostal churches and the way in which the growth of those churches threatened established denominations (Anglicanism chief among them) and made Anglicans become more like Pentecostals in theology, worship practice, approach to Scripture, and much else.

I returned from that trip, thought some more about it, and wrote a paper in which I argued that the Pentecostal explosion and its influence on Anglicans was one of the most under-reported stories in the Anglican Communion. That paper (which is a lot longer than a blog post) was published in the Journal of Anglican Studies, but is available for free online.

So I appreciate the frankness and honesty with which Archbishop Johnson raises the issue. It is clearly one that needs thoughtful reflection and consideration—what does it mean to be Anglican? Is the church designed to give people what they want or challenge them with a new way of living?—and it is encouraging to see a leader addressing the issue so openly.

UPDATE, 27 March 2013: This post is attracting quite a lot of attention lately, which is great. If you’re interested in reading my article in the Journal of Anglican Studies about “Anglocostalism,” you can find it by clicking here.