By Debra Fieguth
A few weeks after his appointment as the Anglican Communion’s secretary general, the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon expresses a clear sense of what his job requires and how he intends to fulfill the charge.
Idowu-Fearon, Bishop of Kaduna, is best known for his reconciliation work between Christians and Muslims in his own country. But his frequent visits to Britain, Canada, and the United States have given him frequent opportunities to work with Western branches of the Communion.
In an interview in Toronto, Idowu-Fearon, who takes up the new position in July, said his job description is straightforward. “I am to implement the decisions made by the four Instruments of Communion: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meeting,” he told TLC.
That means, he is quick to add, “my own opinion is immaterial.”
But that does not mean he will merely implement the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury. “I’m not to be seen as subservient to him, but there must be a Christlike mutual relationship.”
And if one of the Instruments of Communion were to take a stand that went against his personal convictions — for example, the withdrawal of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 upholding marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman — he said he would have to resign.
With an estimated 85 million members in the Anglican Communion, the Church of Nigeria now claims 18 million — the largest number in any single country.
In the Nigerian church, Idowu-Fearon, 66, has sometimes had an uncomfortable relationship with his fellow bishops.
More recently Idowu-Fearon made it clear he was against Nigeria’s law criminalizing homosexuality. But that did not stop gay lobby groups in the U.S. from characterizing him as homophobic.
In Nigeria, he pointed out, homosexuality is not a front-burner issue. Corruption, poverty, and joblessness are deeper challenges.
He is centered on bridge-building. Coming from an area that has seen so much violence between religious groups, Idowu-Fearon has worked to help Muslims and Christians listen to and respect each other.
With a master’s degree in Islamic theology from Birmingham University, as well as a PhD in sociology, Idowu-Fearon has a higher education than most bishops, both within Africa and throughout the Communion. He has put his understanding of Islam to good use at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity, which he cofounded in his home diocese. While Boko Haram and other extremist groups continue to slaughter Christians in northeastern Nigeria, in Kaduna the situation has improved across the years.
Reports of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe, Australia, and North America, have put many Christians on edge. While some prefer to steer clear of anyone identifying as Muslim, Idowu-Fearon insists dialogue is a better approach.
Dialogue, far from leading to a compromise in beliefs, is more likely to bring about reconciliation between groups. “Reconciliation is a form of witness,” he said. “I believe someone who is involved in the ministry of reconciliation actually has better opportunities to witness their faith.”
Choosing his words carefully, Idowu-Fearon points out that the church is bigger than what either the Anglican Communion or groups such as Confessing Anglicans and the Global Anglican Future Conference might believe.
“In Anglican ecclesiology there is the unseen church and the seen church. In the unseen church there is no need for bishops because all those who are there are known only to God. The seen church is meant to remind us of the unseen church.”
Neither the Anglican Communion nor breakaway groups decide who is part of the church, he said. “We need to guard against arrogance. I don’t believe in wagging my finger at anyone.”
He has hope for the Communion. “I am encouraged by what we came up with during the Lambeth Commission that produced the Windsor Report,” he said. “We discovered that almost 70 percent of Anglicans are willing to work together.” For him that means “my job would be to really go round and make sure that Anglicans live Anglicanism.”
Archbishop Justin Welby welcomes Idowu-Fearon’s appointment, saying he looks forward “to working closely with him in the renewal of the Anglican Communion amidst the global challenges facing us today.”
Welby has great affection for Nigeria, having visited the most populous African country about 90 times. In 2014, at the height of the Boko Haram crisis when more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped, Welby flew to Nigeria to pray with then-president Goodluck Jonathan.
In 2013 Welby awarded Idowu-Fearon the Cross of St. Augustine in recognition of his “outstanding ministry in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue in Nigeria and across the world.” Since 2007 he has been a Canterbury Six Preacher. He is a member of the Religious Advisory Council of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Idowu-Fearon replaces the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, who resigned from the position late last year when he was elected Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, Ireland. Until July, the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan of Canada, recently retired as director of the Communion’s office of unity, faith, and order, will do the job part time.
While he could stay in Nigeria and continue to focus on reconciliation there, Idowu-Fearon looks forward to a more intentional role in the global arena. As secretary-general, “I will be in the centre of the storm.” It’s a challenge he clearly relishes.