The Rt. Rev. Akinpelu Johnson is the Bishop of the Diocese Lagos Mainland (Anglican Communion). He comes from a lineage of priests beginning with his great grandfather. His great-great-grandfather was a missionary who was invited to return from Sierra Leone to work in Ibadan with David and Mrs Hannah Hinderer in 1858.
Bishop Johnson’s great grandfather, Venerable Nathaniel Johnson had two siblings who were also clergymen; Venerable Henry Johnson (vicar of St. Paul’s Church Breadfruit, 1876-1881) who eventually worked under Bishop Crowther on the Niger Mission (Nathaniel’s older brother) and Revd Samuel Johnson, Pastor in Oyo, who wrote the original manuscript of ‘The History of the Yorubas’. His immediate younger brother Dr. Obadiah Johnson, the second Nigerian to qualify as a doctor, helped to rewrite the script when the original was lost.
Bishop Johnson’s grandfather was Revd Canon Horatio Victor Emmanuel Johnson and his father is The Very Revd Sope Johnson.
In this interview, Bishop Johnson gives us an insight into his understanding of some theological and liturgical issues of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion).
What were your expectations before you became the Bishop of Mainland Diocese of the Church of Nigeria? Would you say those expectations are being met?
I won’t say I had expectations in the conventional sense of the word, but my own understanding is to make where I am called to serve better than I met it. When I was sent to Christ the King Anglican Church, Ajegunle-Apapa as the Archdeacon in 2006, I recall asking myself what my purpose in the Church would be.
I asked that question because the church had a charismatic orientation liturgically and I knew that I was not that way inclined. I did not mean to denigrate the Church but I felt that it was also important to within the context of my being there, to be able to chart a way forward for the Church at that moment in time.
However, in a discussion with the then Bishop of Lagos, he asked me to set a standard in that church and in the Archdeaconry, which I was glad to do. Today, looking back, I thank God that I served in that church. I tell people that if there is any church where I had total fulfilment in ministry, it was in Christ the King Anglican Church, Ajegunle Apapa. I won’t even say I had the kind of fulfilment I had in Ajegunle in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina where I served as Provost.
In Marina I was comfortable, it is my home Church; I was and still a member of the choir. By God’s grace, we were able to accomplish things and introduce some new dynamism in worship and liturgy; but in Ajegunle, things were not so easy, especially financially, but God made up for it in the nature of the members of the congregation. It was with their cooperation that we were able to turn things around for the better.
In coming to this diocese as Bishop, I had no expectations as it were, other than to have the desire and hope to make my own contributions to the diocese. I had worked in one of the parishes in this diocese before, between 1996 and 1999. So, I knew where I was coming to; besides, the Cathedral of St. Jude where my base is, holds some form of fondness for me.
My great grandfather, Revd Jacob S. Williams was a vicar here between 1893- 1901. It was while he was vicar here, that my paternal grandmother was born. In fact, our family house sits opposite the front gate of the cathedral.
I am so grateful for the various achievements that my predecessor the Most Revd (Prof) Adebayo Dada Akinde recorded in the building up of the Diocese in the first ten years of its existence, especially in the many construction projects undertaken and completed. This has made it possible for me to focus more on the building up of the people. The clergy are my number one constituency, and I hope by God’s grace to help raise the standard of the clergy in every aspect. I believe that if the clergy are spiritually developed and well trained, they will make a greater impact on the people in their parishes.
For instance, two of them have attended courses abroad since my arrival here and another two were due to go but for visa issues and the pandemic. We have also had a study week in conjunction with some other interested dioceses, with Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali from the U. K. to come and stimulate us intellectually and spiritually. As pastors, we need to appreciate and understand scholarship. The first tool apart from the right spiritual grounding of a priest is theology. We talk about St. Paul the Apostle today because of his intellect. He was trained and sharpened by his study under Gamaliel, the best teacher of that time. His spiritual encounter with Jesus became the basis of his ministry, powerfully articulated by virtue of his education and training.
So, there is a need for the priest to place a premium, not only on spirituality but also on education and training.
There are pastors who claim to have been called by God and because of that will only have to depend on the Holy Spirit for knowledge and not theological education. How will you react to that?
Yes. That is true. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us because He is the ultimate teacher. But we don’t want to stop at that for our priests here, after all, the disciples of Jesus were with him for three years. The training that we do regularly are being inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Anglican Church comes from a tradition of training.
The average priest in the Roman Catholic Church from where the Anglican church evolved, if I am correct, will go to the seminary and be first trained in philosophy and then theology (the study of the word of God), so they are prepared intellectually to pastorally engage with the people. Our intellect is God’s gift which we should not neglect. Spirituality is vitally important, but it is not enough. I think we should be inspired by churches where training is encouraged not by those who think it unnecessary. We have a tradition of training in the Anglican Communion and we need to keep training and re-training.
So how has it been in terms of the impact of the training? Are you getting results from the output of the priests in the diocese?
It’s a total package. By God’s grace, we are seeing some impact on the clergy themselves and with the congregation. Beyond being spiritually alive, the priest should be able to speak well especially in this digital age, and should be well informed. The kind of audience we have today is sophisticated. They can get information at the tip of their fingers. The good thing for me is that I am in a diocese where the need to put up infrastructure is no longer urgent because my predecessor had done a lot in that direction. That is why we can face the re-training and developmental needs of our priests. The covid-19 season has also taught us there is a need for us to further develop ourselves in many areas.
Talking about the covid-19 season, how easy was it for the diocese to transit to the use of technology in reaching parishioners?
What we did was to allow every parish to move at its own pace. We must bear in mind that the covid-19 season was also a time of paucity of funds. At a point, many dioceses could not pay the clergy their stipends. We didn’t have that challenge initially, but as the situation progressed, we started having to adjust things. Some of the parishes have been able to upgrade their IT infrastructure and have embraced technology well enough to reach their members; others, because of their peculiar circumstances are still coming up. But by and large, we are working on some other parishes to meet up with globally acceptable standards in terms of their environment and peculiar needs of their members.
There seems to be a melange of both the Pentecostal and the orthodox way of worship in many Anglican churches. What are your thoughts on this?
The Anglican church strictly speaking has a very broad theological and liturgical spectrum that is able to accommodate a variety of churchmanship from what we call the High Church (Anglo-Catholic) to the Evangelical. The Anglican church in Nigeria is Evangelical in theology and there are four key elements in this: Firstly, the importance placed on the sufficiency of scriptures. Secondly, the incarnation and redemption wrought by Jesus on the cross. Thirdly, the need for a personal conversion or experience of Christ. Fourthly, the necessity for evangelism or the propagation of the gospel.
Unfortunately, people have confused being charismatic in worship or liturgy, as the main or only hallmark of being evangelical in theology. It is a fact that within the broad spectrum of the Church, people will find their home, so it is best to describe the Anglican Church in Nigeria as being Broad Church liturgically. It means it has elements of the Anglo-Catholic liturgical tradition and the evangelical/charismatic liturgical tradition within it. For example, the use of altar candles, altar servers, the use of the word altar, processional crosses, and vestments such as the cope and mitre won by bishops, are of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. On the other hand, the simple clergy habit (hood and scarf), revival services, the use of the phrase ‘the Lord’s table, are part of the evangelical tradition.
What now currently happens is that in some churches, their services have lost almost completely, the Anglican flavour. Many parishes no longer chant psalms and the use of hymns declined, though, in fairness, the growing popularity of community hymn singing is helping to address the situation. The singing of the Eucharist too is not very common, many clergy probably also do not appreciate it.
Ironically, when my great-grand uncle, Henry Johnson was vicar of St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit Lagos, at the dedication of a new Church building sometime in 1877, the service was a choral Eucharist and the choir was robed; two firsts in Lagos! Some English missionaries especially Revd J. B. Wood, then vicar of St. Peter’s Faji, took him up that he was practicing Roman Catholicism; but now we take those things for granted.
In parishes in the UK now, for instance, you hardly find a parish that has a robed choir. It is in the cathedrals that you find robed choirs. When I studied in the UK, the choir of one of the parishes I used to officiate in didn’t wear robes. So, there are some things we don’t seem to understand with our worship system. If you say you are evangelical or charismatic liturgically and I see a cross on your altar and I see a choir that is robed, then I will tell you that those are some elements of High Church worship, but not the totality of it.
I think, however, that we can safely say that we are Broad Church liturgically; that is, that we have within our Church, elements of the various liturgical practices. There seems to be a subtle problem of the tendency in some quarters to look down on those who might be High Church in orientation, viewing them as unbelievers. What I believe is needed is to revisit our understanding of liturgy and theology, articulating both in such a way as not to cause confusion and then perhaps embrace the diversity that exists within the Church.
How in a practical sense could that be done?
Let me give you an instance. Years ago, my father, while in the Cathedral in Marina introduced daily weekday Holy Communion services at 6:45 am. He believed that the Holy Communion service is the highest and primary service of the church. He also introduced the Holy Communion service during funerals and weddings. Some people I believe did complain to the then Bishop of Lagos and he encouraged them to go with these liturgical developments as long as they were in conformity with scripture.
When around 1974 a new Bishop was elected, he wanted the worship of the Cathedral to go back to the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that is, the worship that was practiced before April 1970 when my father became Provost of the Cathedral. This led to a brief crisis.
The former Bishop had permitted the changes in the liturgy which encouraged lay participation in the Holy Communion services. They could now read the Old Testament, New Testament, take the prayers of intercession and bring the elements of bread, wine, and water in a procession to the altar. Taking away this opportunity now was difficult. Today, it is true to say, that those things my father advocated for have become part and parcel of the Church in Nigeria.
But how was worship when the Europeans were here?
It was the 1662 prayer book that was in use then and it remains the Prayer Book that unites us in the Anglican Communion. It contains the articulation of our faith and the statement of our doctrines. It does not mean that each province cannot have its Prayer Book. We do, but 1662 [prayer book remains the one that binds us together. The drawback of the 1662 Prayer Book was that it was for monastic worship and needed minor adaptation for congregational worship. For instance, morning and evening prayers ended with prayers and grace with no sermon. However, for public use, a sermon was allowed after the prayers, and a collection taken after the sermon.
Still on the Anglican theology, what is your opinion about the view that baptism for babies has no scriptural basis?
That is a different argument and that is why we are different from the churches that practice believers’ baptism. These churches believe faith has to precede baptism because the clear-cut examples of the Church in the New Testament (the primitive church) only seem to show examples of people who had to make a conscious decision for Christ and baptism. One question the Bible does not answer is: what happened when people who converted and were baptised started having children?
Did they leave the children unbaptised? If we however follow what is implied in Acts 10 when Cornelius’ household was baptised (the faith of the father of the house determined the faith of members of the home, including slaves); the evidence of early Christian writings of the late 1st Century onwards; the Jewish practice of circumcision by which the male child enters into a covenant relationship with God on the eighth day; Jesus asking that children be allowed to come to him; then we can say that the Anglican tradition of infant baptism is not wrong.
In Judaism, a child enters a covenant relationship with God through circumcision on the 8th day. The question is, why don’t they wait for him to be old to be able to decide? The Bible says we should teach a child the way he should go. Unfortunately, perhaps because we have imbibed some of the Pentecostal understanding in the question of baptism and its relationship to the question of rebirth, our liturgy and theology are now out of sync. We definitely need to revisit our Prayer Book to see if what it says is what we say and practice.
Giving all these theological and liturgical issues, what has been your experience with the priests in the diocese?
It is fair to say that these issues are present in one way or the other in the diocese. However, one thing that I encourage whenever we come together is discussions on various theological and liturgical issues. This underscores the need for proper theological training in our approved seminaries and in recognised institutions.
That is why I emphasise the need for training and studying in recognised institutions and the continuous retraining of our priests. Beyond our Diocese and within the context of our National Church, we know that some of our clergymen have come back to the Anglican Church from other denominations and they bring with them doctrines and practices which are not ours. The effect now is that our traditional doctrinal positions and understanding are slowly being eroded and we now have a situation where in some instances, our theology and liturgy are out of sync.
So, sir, what would you say is your vision for the diocese?
My desire is to make the Diocese better both spiritually and materially. We hope to achieve this by investing in and developing the clergy and this will take time and resources, but I believe it will be worth it. We need to positively project the image of the Diocese and make it a home for all. Towards this end, apart from constantly developing the clergy to face the many challenges of the 21st Century, we believe that rediscovery and developing of our choral musical heritage will assist us in deepening our spirituality and projecting our image in a positive light.
We appreciate too that we are a landlocked diocese; stuck between the Diocese of Lagos and Lagos West, so the quest to expand will be very difficult and expensive. That is why for now we are shifting our focus slightly away from outward expansion to the consolidating of all our parishes. We are working hard on growing our smaller Churches to the point that they can stand on their own.