By Kirk Petersen
The first African to serve as Secretary General of the Anglican Communion plans to return to Nigeria after stepping down in August 2022, to work with the educational institute he founded in 2004: The Kaduna Centre for the Study of Christian-Muslim Relations.
Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon spoke of his plans at a press conference on September 21, in which he also expressed optimism for the long-term future of the Anglican Communion. “This church belongs to God. As long as God is alive,” he said with a chuckle, “there will always be the Anglican Communion of churches.”
Idowu-Fearon, the fifth Secretary General since the office was established in 1971, was appointed in April 2015 and assumed his duties in September. His appointment was met with some skepticism, according to a cover story in The Living Church, because of unsubstantiated media reports that he had supported making homosexual activity a criminal offense.
Episcopal Church leaders rallied to his side, with endorsements from then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and her predecessor, Frank T. Griswold. For his part, Idowu-Fearon said at the time, “I have never supported the law in Nigeria that criminalizes the gay community and I will never support it.”
From the beginning he said he was committed to being a bridge-builder in the Anglican Communion, saying that when he started, “a good number of primates were no longer attending Primates’ Meetings.”
“Today there are three major primates – watch my lips, I’m not saying provinces; primates – who have not been attending the Primates’ Meetings. But at least in one or two of these provinces where they come from, there are many who would love to be together with us within the Communion.”
He declined to identify the primates or their provinces. The primates of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda have been unwilling to participate in Anglican Communion meetings in recent years because of the continuing presence of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which consecrated a gay bishop in 2003, and approved liturgies for same-sex marriage in 2015.
Idowu-Fearon said he was thankful for the creation of four new provinces of the Anglican Communion while he has been in office, which will bring the number of autonomous provinces to 42 as of September 24. That’s the date of the first synod of the Anglican Church of Mozambique and Angola, spanning two non-contiguous, Portuguese-language countries.
Other new provinces in the past several years include Sudan (formerly part of the Province of Sudan and South Sudan); Chile, a move necessitated by what Idowu-Fearon described as “massive, massive evangelism and church growth”); and Alexandria (formerly part of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, and encompassing Egypt and nine countries in North Africa).
As Secretary General, has led the staff of the Anglican Communion Office (ACO), and has overseen a significant staff reduction in 2021. In January, an independent review recommended that the ACO move away from managing programs to operate more as a secretariat, forming connections and sharing knowledge among the 42 provinces.
The Rev. Dr. Will Adam, deputy secretary general, told the news conference the ACO currently has 17 employees. Gavin Drake, director of communications and IT, later said the ACO had lost seven positions in the review. ACO headquarters, at St. Andrew’s House in western London, also houses 10 additional employees of the Lambeth Conference Company and the Anglican Alliance, which are separate organizations.
Idowu-Fearon’s interest in Islam dates to his seminary days, before his ordination as a priest in 1971. “I do not see a Muslim as someone who is going to Hell, as I have no right to do that,” he said at the press conference. “I see the Muslim as a human being. We are all created by the same God.”
Christian-Muslim relations are a life-and-death matter in Nigeria, a majority-Muslim country of 211 million people that has long been plagued by violence. An average of 17 Christians were murdered for their faith every day in the first 200 days of 2021, according to a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law in Nigeria.
“The work of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in my situation in the northern part of Nigeria is a frontline ministry, and I want to go back to that, to use education for peacebuilding,” said Idowu-Fearon, who before joining the leadership of the Anglican Communion was the Archbishop of Kaduna in the northwest part of the country.
The Anglican Church of Nigeria reports membership of 18 million people, making it the second-largest province in the Anglican Communion, behind only the Church of England. According to self-reported statistics from the 42 provinces, slightly more than half of the world’s Anglicans live in Africa.
Idowu-Fearon gave formal notice of his planned August 2022 retirement to the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee a week before the press conference. The announcement was a bit of a formality, as he began his seven-year term as Secretary-General on September 4, 2015, and he is not eligible for another term. He will be 73 at the time of his retirement – which he said he preferred to think of as his “resignation,” as he does not plan to retire from Christian ministry.