4 September 2015

Nigeria: Rise of the Muslim Bishop


It was not for nothing that detractors called Archbishop Josiah Idowu Fearon of the Anglican Communion a Muslim Bishop: he is a bishop, no doubt; but obviously, he is not a Muslim, even though he knows the religion better than many Muslims.

Once His Grace was invited to one of those many unending Northern meetings to give a talk appropriate for the occasion. Given the choice of theme and topic, he chose what in the circumstance he considered was the most important one facing the peoples of the North - the disappearing unity, equality and essential oneness of its people. He chose to reunite them under God.

As he rose to begin his lecture in Transcorp Hilton's Congress Hall, he raised his hands as if in prayer - and at that moment you could see it all: here was this unassuming, unpretentious and self-effacing tender of the vineyard who possessed nothing besides his ecclesiastical collar exuding such moral presence as dominated all that was before him.

He chose to give an exposition of the meaning of Surat at-Ikhlas, the 112th chapter of the Holy Quran.

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

Qul huwallahu ahad

Allahus samad ... .

Beginning as every Surah does - in the Name of God, and in anticipation of His mercy and grace, Bishop Fearon articulated the Quranic concepts of the unity and the uniqueness of God; and drew the attention of the audience especially to the implications of this for them. It was a long and meaningful talk; and here Fearon was the restorer of the Christian ethic and raison d'etre of love even in pain, and he was acting as a reminder to Muslims and enforcer of their forgotten duty of pan-Abrahamaic brotherhood and fellowship.

The matter needed delicate balancing, and Fearon stopped at the third verse. At any event, even at this, only the implicit courage of his religious convictions and absolute confidence in the rectitude of his own doctrinal position could have emboldened a Christian clergyman to dabble in the subtleties of Surat at-Ikhlas as vehicle for interfaith interface.

When he stopped but before he sat down he pointed out at me in the audience and said whoever wanted to know why he stopped at the third verse should ask me. I therefore wisely decided to leave before the end of the event but many waylaid me to ask why Bishop Fearon stopped where he did.

But it ought to have been obvious enough, I said. His Grace stopped at that unbridgeable gap - the theological blackhole that so demarcated the boundary that separated Christianity from Islam - at the very border of their belief system, between the tenets of Tawhid and the doctrine of Trinity. And here only Fearon could have employed and exploited areas of real and uncompromising differences between the two faiths, nicely made his point without splitting any theological hair and compounded even Muslims without giving himself any airs.

In the circumstance, many might have wished that Fearon were some Levantine Nestorian, Oriental Orthodox Monophysite, or even a New World Unitarian; and could therefore have gone on to finish his exegesis without having to face this choice of extricating self from a spiritual quagmire. But the significance of this was that he was none of these but could see a way of getting a little more light even from a source that so frontally disagreed with the foundation of Christianity.

But then that is the essential Fearon, a Christian clergyman who talks about Islam from a position of knowledge; and, more importantly, as someone able to combine dedication to his Christianity with genuine respect for Islam as a religion. And this is what makes him so suitable for his self-imposed role of being the midwife of peace and understanding in tortured land of pain and misunderstanding.

Ordained a priest in 1971, Fearon had, in less than two decades, become the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese; and eight years later, he became the Bishop of Kaduna, where he established the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity. His interest in Islam is personal and deep-seated. He said he was introduced to an intellectual interest in Islam by one of his teachers in school; and he immersed himself in Islamic studies in general, but, in particular, more specifically in order to study how the Qur'an presents the nature of Jesus Christ [AS]. This sojourn saw him completing the University of Jordan Arabic program and doing a master's degree in Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian relations.

A man of great Christian generosity, a patient listener and respecter of all persons, Fearon personifies the very love he was always trying to preach; because, first of all, he appeared incapable of refusing to give it. It had become his second nature to give. A man of communion, for whom bridge-building has become a personal endeavour, he is committed to interfaith dialogue. Called Muslim Bishop by the detractors and Mr. Dialogue by admirers on both sides of the divide, Fearon has never hesitated or looked back despite opposition and deliberate misunderstanding.

Despite his great sympathy for Islam and genuine fellowship to Muslims, Fearon has often spoken of the need for change in Muslim attitude to Christians, especially in Northern Nigeria. People on both sides seem to be prisoners to history.

The undying appeal of a past-gone and non-existent dar al-Islam has continued to influence and shape Muslim attitude in a way that leaves the chasm of an uncharted territory between the reality of citizenship and an imagined dhimmitude. While this may have been resolved constitutionally, the reality on the ground has not been addressed, perhaps because it requires an attitudinal change that has taken too long in coming. It is true that no matter how long it takes, true integration will only come if this is no longer an issue.

Fearon is being commissioned today as the Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, a position that puts him in the Number Two administrative position in the entirety of the Anglican Communion. He will be the first African to occupy the post, and it is a great day for Nigeria that a man of uncommon achievement on the religious and social scenes has been recognised world-wide.

He is a recipient of several honours. In 2013 Fearon was awarded the Cross of St. Augustine for what the Archbishop of Canterbury said was "in recognition of his courage and vision in relentlessly promoting dialogue and peaceful reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, two major religions in a country that has suffered untold religious violence and insecurity."

He is a member of the distinguished Canterbury Six Preachers, and has been awarded the Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON, national honour.

As Fearon resumes duty at the Lambeth Palace today, there is the great danger that he will truly be missed; and it is therefore incumbent upon religious leaders and co-ordinators of faith-based groups in Nigeria to continue his good works.

While the secretary-generalship of the Anglican Consultative Council is a full-time job of great responsibility, Bishop Fearon will do well not to allow any of the structures or interfaith bridges he has built to be dismantled. It should prove possible that in the new office, he may be able to sell the idea of dialogue to the centre. This is a matter that should be pursued with renewed zeal, with compassion and with the same sensitivity with which he has approached and executed his own attempts.

In the end, whether he is called a Muslim Bishop, Mr. Dialogue or anti (or pro-) gay bishop, the fact is that by dint of hard work and compassion, Fearon has created a phenomenon that can save a fractured world; and, by virtue of this, he has written to the top of the world. Yet this true man of God has only got more self-effacing.

Nigeria is proud of him and of his achievement and we wish him the best of his Archbishopric and administering this wide world of Anglican Communion.


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