‘Our Parent, Who Art in Heaven…’
By Femi Olugbile
There are moves afoot concerning some ‘little things’ that may affect the lives of many people in the Christian community of Nigeria. On the surface, they look like minor matters of semantics, and of human behaviour, but they go to the core of religious belief and practice.
One of those ‘little’ changes is about the gender identity of the Supreme Being ‘Himself’. To put it simply, and crudely, is God a ‘He’, or a ‘She’?
Even thinking about God in such terms must sound sacrilegious to some ears.
When the Catechist Patrick White delivered a letter from the Reverend Gollmer of the CMS Mission in Badagry to Oba Akintoye at Iga Idunganran on the 10th of January, 1852, asking for permission to preach the Gospel in Eko, he was doing far more than carrying a message from a missionary of the Church of England to Olowo Eko. He was taking the Christian religion into the heart of the country that would become known as Nigeria. He was also taking, along with the Bible he carried in his hands, and the conviction he carried in his heart, a culture and a way of life that would massively impact Lagos and the whole of the yet to be born country. In his wake would come the first major Churches and the first educational institutions in the country, including its first Secondary School – CMS Grammar School.
When the Oba, who must have thought ‘Patrick White’ was the name of a white man, and not a black indigene of Badagry, genially waved his hand to signify that the Catechist could go ahead and preach to the people at a spot in Ebute Ero, he was opening a door that would transform a substantial number of his people into part of a world-wide community of Anglicans whose ‘Mother Church’ was in England. Already, by that time, the Catholic Church, the ‘Original Church of St Peter’, had been supplanted in the scheme of things in the British Empire, and the dominant Church in England and the colonial territories was the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, with the British King as titular head and ‘Defender of the Faith’.
Patrick White, whose original name some people claimed was Whenu, grew up in the household of Reverend Gollmer in Badagry. He received education and became the first trained Catechist in the Church.
As he stood at Ebute Ero later before a curious crowd of onlookers, many of whom would become his flock, on that Saturday, telling them about salvation, and the Holy Trinity, there was no doubt in his mind about the nature of the God he preached about, or that he was a ‘He’.
Fast forward to present times.
For several years now, there has been controversy and disagreement in the world-wide Anglican communion, which is headquartered in England, and nominally headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The fealty towards ‘Mother Church’, interestingly, was not much affected by the anti-colonial struggle that resulted in independence for most of the countries that were previously under the British Empire. A regular Synod has provided a forum for continuous interaction and solidarity.
However, in the past two decades, the certainties on which Patrick White preached his sermon at Ebute Ero, and around which several generations have lived and died in Lagos, and Nigeria at large, have been turned on their heads. Disagreements over some doctrinal ‘little’ points have led to the formation of a worldwide movement known as GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference), and a proclamation known as the Jerusalem Declaration which decried the ‘False Gospel’ that was being preached by some people in the Western World. These centred around the de-emphasising the exclusiveness of Christianity as a path to salvation, and acceptance of homosexuality as a human right. The Nigerian Church played a strong role in the emergence of the GAFCON movement.
It was hoped that the divisions would heal over time, and that Anglicans everywhere would soon find their way back to common cause.
But the ‘Woke’ movement which has swept through the Western World in the new millennium, bringing about changes in social attitudes, some salutary, some more dubious, has permeated the Church, leading to controversy and declining Church attendance. Feminism has improved women’s rights but has acquired an aggressive, inquisitorial edge. ‘Black Lives Matter’ has brought welcome action on reducing racial discrimination, but has also led to vindictiveness and ‘political correctness’ in the public space. And LGBTQ+ activism has run rampant, refusing nuance, and threatening fire and brimstone on anyone who expresses reservations.
In 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby proclaimed ‘God is not male or female’.
Then, a few days ago, it was announced that two Commissions of the Church of England would start work on finding a ‘more inclusive language’ for referring to God ‘in a non-gendered way’.
Patrick White, whose ministrations led to the building of Holy Trinity Church, Ebute Ero, and countless missionaries, local and foreign, who lived and died on the job would turn in their graves at the prospect that some day ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ they taught millions of Nigerian converts and their children to recite over the years might change from ‘Our father, who art in heaven…’ to ‘Our parent who art in heaven…’
It is not the only change on the horizon.
King Charles III, whose crown comes with the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, is suggesting that at his coronation next May, the title be changed to ‘Defender of Faith’, in recognition that there are several ‘faiths’, not just Christianity, in his domain.
And the ‘radicals’ of the LGBTQ+ cause are about to overrun the last bastion of the biblical purists by ensuring that the Church not only accepts ‘gay’ life as a human right but begins to ‘bless’ same-sex marriage.
To conservatives, it is all evidence the world has gone bunkers.
To the proponents, it is change, ensuring inclusiveness for all.