On an episcopal visit in 1992 to Maiduguri, the Northeastern Nigeria city that has become a hotbed of sectarian violence today, then Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), the Most Revd. Abiodun Joseph Adetiloye stopped by the bishopscourt of the Diocese of Maiduguri. To open the door for this august visitor was a young female staff of the diocese.
“As soon as I opened the front door of the modest bishopscourt,” recalls this lady, twenty years later, “I saw a handsome, stately figure dressed in the trademark purple clerical shirt meant for bishops, under a grey jacket. He thanked me heartily for ushering him in and then almost instinctively proceeded to pray for me. I found myself kneeling down at his feet and responding with Amen to all the biblical benedictions the then primate pronounced upon my life. It was for me a life-transforming encounter. Although that would be the last time I set my eyes on this avuncular archbishop, the positive effect of that encounter upon my life and destiny was quite enduring. As I stood up and walked away from the lounge that day, I felt convinced that this was truly a servant of God. How sad it feels to hear that he is no more.”
The foregoing testimony is just one of the many that provide some insight into the person and ministry of the former Primate of all Nigeria who passed away on December 14 last year. Quite a few Nigerians believe that the Anglican Church in Nigeria owes its current dynamism to this great preacher and evangelist. Selfless service to God and humanity distinguished his episcopacy. He was relentless in his quest to expand the frontiers of the gospel in Nigeria, especially in the Muslim-dominiated Northern Nigeria. To the former Primate, nothing equates to a redeemed soul.
Once on a visit to one of his parishes for a confirmation service, he bluntly told the candidates that confirmation without salvation amounted to nothing. It was another way of telling them that they must be born again. Archbishop Adetiloye was indeed a great influence on his parishioners. As one of the confirmation candidates on that occasion recalls, the former Primate’s sermon that Sunday changed his life for good. “In truth I knew that I was not born again, but after that soul-stirring comment by the then Primate, I broke down and wept, and right there at the chancel I yielded my life to Jesus,” he said. “It endeared him much to me. He certainly left a huge legacy not only in our Communion but Nigeria as a whole. His love for and commitment to evangelism was outstanding. The expansion of the Anglican Communion especially in Northern Nigeria is much to his credit.”
A highly outspoken cleric, Adetiloye earned the respect and admiration of all those who believe that the church should speak out against oppression and injustice. He never held back his punches on such matters. He was meek and humble without being weak. He was accessible to both the low and high and still kept himself above the fray. The chief target of all his public engagement, as he told the national press, was the common good of all Nigerians and the promotion of God’s kingdom on earth. If he ever lost his cool (and he did a few times), it was in revulsion against cant and hypocrisy. He could hardly stand both. To him they were the chief undoing of every society.
As Primate of all Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Archbishop Adetiloye left an indelible legacy especially in the way he defined the theology of the Church of Nigeria. He left no one in doubt as to where the church stood on all thorny spiritual and social issues. And by carving out new dioceses across the country, against all odds, he ensured the steady expansion of the gospel in the remote recesses of the country. He gave much impetus to the planting of churches in the far North. His support for the tent-making ministry led to a qualitative improvement in both the number and calibre of people being enlisted into the holy orders.
Born in Odo Owa, in the present Ekiti State, on December 25, 1929, Archbishop Adetiloye did not have the luxury of being mentored by his father who died barely four years after he was born. It couldn’t have been rosy for him but God’s grace was sufficient. In 1954, he was ordained a priest. In 1962, at the age of 33, he joined the Faculty at Immanuel College after completing a Bachelor of Divinity programme at King’s College, London. It was from there he was appointed the provost of Cathedral of St James, Ogumpa, Ibadan and bishop of the then newly created diocese of Ekiti in 1970.
In 1985, the late Primate was translated to the Diocese of Lagos and was appointed Archbishop of Province One and Primate Metropolitan of all Nigeria in 1988. By the time he retired in 1999, after attaining the age of 70, he had left giant footprints in the sands of time.
As Bishop of Lagos, he paid special attention to the training of priests, establishing the Lagos Anglican Seminary as a training ground for prospective clergymen. He continued his predecessor’s policy of admitting professionals in all fields into the priesthood. His strong push on evangelism led to the creation of new dioceses. Indeed, between 1987 and 1997, he created 15 dioceses in Northern Nigeria and 15 others in Eastern Nigeria. Whereas he inherited 26 dioceses when he became Primate in 1988, he had raised the number to 76 by the time he retired in 1999, having created 50 new dioceses.
Steeped in biblical theology, he earned the respect of many as a highly informed and knowledgeable preacher and teacher. He often preached without sermon notes. Many who had the privilege of hearing his sermons say he was a highly gifted, inspiring preacher.
All through his career in church ministry he faced personal and family challenges with admirable courage and equanimity. His tenure as Prelate of Church of Nigeria was truly epochal.
As this great servant of God returns to his Maker, Master and Friend, I have no doubt that a precious crown of righteousness awaits him there. May he rest in everlasting peace. Amen.
Most Revd. Adebayo Akinde is the Archbishop of Lagos Province of the Church of Nigeria(Anglican Communion)