Rt. Reverend Akin J. Atere is the Bishop of Awori Diocese of the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion. In this interview with the trio of Debo Akinyemi, Dayo Emmanuel and Kunle Adewunmi, Atere tells the story of his sojourn to priesthood, bares his mind on state of the Church and laments the state of the nation tracing the woes of the country to the Festival of Arts and Culture which held in Nigeria in 1977. Enjoy!
How did the journey to priesthood begin with you?
My maternal grandmother took me over from my mother when I was just 3months. I sucked her breast as an infant. She was very committed to church. The genesis of my priesthood can be traced to her mentorship. She wanted a priest in the family and she had only one male child, others were female. So, she wanted that male child to become a priest. She believed every priest was next to God. When she sees a priest, she believed she had seen God. She named the only boy, Titus after the Biblical Titus. Unfortunately Titus refused to become a priest. But she kept on praying.
When I was born, she started nurturing me and focusing my attention to church and that was why when I was young even from my infancy, I lived my entire life in the church. So right from age three, I joined the choir. That same year I joined the Boy’s Brigade. So, throughout the week, I was either in the church or at home. When I was growing up, each time there is a new priest in our church, my mother or my grandmother would ensure I interacted and possibly lived with them for a period of at least three months.
Unfortunately, when she wanted me to become a priest I refused because of my exposure to the lives of the priests. They didn’t drink alcohol and they lived ascetic life which I was not comfortable with. Despite their Spartan lifestyle people still abused them. Rather than react, the priests spent time praying for those who persecuted them. So, I felt bad because I couldn’t cope with such a life. So, each time the selection conference came up at the Diocesan level, I would take off.
But there was this Archdeacon in our church; Late Pa Ayejoto who wanted me by all means and I think there was a sort of agreement between him and my grandmother who shared with him that she wanted me to be an ordained priest. He was also working towards it. So, he started offering me opportunities to conduct services, starting from early morning services. I was even surprised the first day to hear myself talking to the congregation and I think that was where he picked interest in me. Later on, he allowed me to preach on Sunday and people appreciated it and they started addressing me as pastor. But I wasn’t yet convinced that God wanted me in the church. I thought my involvement with other groups in the church was enough for me as a sort of worship to God.
But at a particular year during the Selection Conference, I had run away to Lagos but I came back when everyone who may want to apply had applied and when it was too late for anybody to accommodate me. On Easter Sunday, my Venerable then, Venerable Ayejoto now looked for an old form for Emmanuel College and gave it to me to fill. I filled it out of respect for him. I planned to get to the interview late and also spared my long beards. In the Anglican Church, pastors are not allowed to wear beards. I did everything so I could be disqualified. But all attempts to evade the priesthood did not bear fruit.
Seven were shortlisted from the Diocese to go to Ibadan for the final selection conference, I was the eighth. I took my own form to the Registrar myself whereas, all completed forms had been submitted about two weeks before then, I was thinking also, that the Registrar would reject the form. He took it and I was invited to write the exams which took 3days, having to face many panels for interviews. At the end, I came back home. About two weeks after, I saw my grandmother dancing all away from the church, and rolling on the floor. I was asked what happened. The news was that I had been shortlisted and admitted to the Seminary. I said so what? Out of eight of us, it was I who didn’t want to go that was admitted. But later, two people joined us. So, I was admitted to the seminary in 1984 and graduated in 1987.
I later realised that my going to the seminary was the best thing that happened to me and my grandmother. When she was about to die, she summoned all her children, including my uncle and said I was the eldest of them all and that, they should respect me and allow me to lead them.
You didn’t want to go to the Seminary, what would you have loved to become?
In those days, many aspired to be teachers because that was what was in vogue. I was aspiring to become a graduate teacher because I was already a Grade II teacher. I sat for WAEC after my Grade 11 certificate and thus had two certificates which qualified me to teach. We were allowed to teach class one to three since we were called Grade II School Certs. I wanted to be like the Graduate teachers but unfortunately, you have to pass JAMB, go to University before you can obtain that. Unfortunately or fortunately I would say, each time I sat for JAMB I won’t pass even when others who were not as brilliant as I passed. There were times my results were seized. That frustrated my bid to go to the university when I wanted to.
When I graduated from Emmanuel College, I was thinking that as usual, I would not be admitted so, I applied for Direct Entry into LASU and was almost late for resumption not knowing that my name had been shortlisted. That opened a way for me. Today, I’m a proud holder of PhD.
You were posted to Saint Timothy from Lagos before coming down here, considering what Ota was known for then, do you have any fear coming to Awori Land?
Yes, my posting to St. Timothy, Ota then was due to church persecution. I was the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Ilasamaja Mushin, it was the biggest church in Mushin. While I was there, I was doing my job. I was a junior priest and was told to head such a large church. The man I took over from was a Canon and he was posted to the Seminary to go and lecture which nobody wanted to do. I took over from him as a junior priest and so, those elderly priests that were before me felt it was an unnecessary favour for me started persecuting me, telling lies about me to the Bishop. Unfortunately, the Bishop felt they were saying the truth. That was when I was transferred to St. Timothy. The man I took over from had also spoilt my name before my arrival that nobody wanted to welcome me at the church. So, it was a very serious trouble. It got to a time that I and my wife started crying because nobody wanted to listen to us, everything said about us was taken as gospel truth. But, God is a faithful God. He is the God of justice and fairness.
After working for three years here in Awori, the Bishop came and saw what God had done through me. For more than five minutes he was praying for me. That was when he now confessed that it was persecution that brought me to Awori but that God himself brought me to do a job here. And as God would have it, not knowing that God sent me as first missionary journey because when this Diocese was created and the Headquarter was put at St. James here, St. Timothy people felt that they should be the headquarter because financially and in terms of other resources, they are better. So, they felt it was better for them to remain in Lagos than to serve under this Cathedral. But, when they heard that I was the one elected they were excited and resolved to submit to wherever the headquarters is.
What is the Secret of the giant strides you have taken so far?
The secret of any development in church is God. At the dedication of the Bishop’s court, I said the secret has been God, plus God, plus God. The little effort I made was prayer. I knew I prayed because already I knew the secret of prayer due to what I’ve gone through before now. It was this persecution that took me to seminary in the course of my career as a priest. Infact, my family was in Lagos, I was the only one at Akure. Because of my background I had been commitment to the church, I was not that exposed to social life. So, I knew that for me to get out of that place, it must be God so, I started praying and I prayed and prayed. God answered. I was identified and elected Bishop. It’s not all that very easy for you to be identified at the seminary. Usually bishops were picked from priests that are serving in the church. But as God would it the elevation came as an answer to prayers. That was the major secret! The second secret is because I was a priest in Lagos and had been to a number of churches. That gave me the opportunity to know people. So, I asked for assistance from the little people I know and during Synod or any other project, we run to them for assistance. The third secret: there is what we call Permanent Commission. It came as a result of the return of schools by Lagos State. There are about 5 or 6 schools owned by Anglican Church and a management board was set up to handle it. For three to four years now, we’ve been having dividends and our own share is about 15% which also assisted in the running of the diocese. The fourth which is also important is the level of co-operation which I have had so far. The people here are so good. They love me and appreciate what God is doing through me. Though they don’t have much they give their words of encouragement. Majority of the people in this Diocese love me and they know that I sincerely love them too. Honestly I am shocked that the Bishop Court could be completed in nine months. It can only be God.
There is the second storey building in Nigeria here in the cathedral; an indication that the missionaries were here before they went to Abeokuta. When and how are you going to correct this impression that The Egbas or Abeokutas tasted Christianity before the Aworis?
Yes, each time I’m with them, they know I have a point to make and they don’t even open that subject when I’m around, especially with my colleagues. The truth must be said. I think the advantage they have is that Abeokuta as a kingdom is popular than Ota. But in terms of the presence of Christianity, nobody can dispute that it came in through Badagry. Though they were heading for Abeokuta when they got here, they got the news that there was war at Abeokuta so they waited here in Ota for the war to be over. While waiting, they approached the then King who fortunately had consulted the Ifa oracle before their arrival and Ifa had told them that some strangers would be coming to this land and they were bringing good things. That was what made the Oba to offer them land. But they gave them a place which was regarded as evil forest. We were told then that the whole of this place was an evil forest where they buried leprous and mad people. It was a fearful environment. It was called “Ipate Oyinbo”( a dunghill for the white people). That was when they erected this Second Storey Building and from here, they left for Abeokuta. Though, the people here then, even those in Badagry were typically idol worshippers and they did not appreciate whatever the White men had brought. It was Baba Onilogbo’s grandfather who offered to be their messenger and they taught him some little things. He took advantage of their coming to send his own children to school. That was why the education of this community started from the lineage of Onilogbo Oba Samuel Ojugbele. In terms of the presence of Christianity, I normally tell them that Awori experienced it first. If Abeokuta was peaceful then, they would have just passed to Abeokuta. They stayed at least for more than two years because some of the materials used then were imported and in those days, it takes time to import. There’s another church in Tigbo-ilu, which has collapsed but older than the building we have here in Ota. That was the way to Abeokuta then. Though it has collapsed, I told them to preserve what remains and if you get there, you will be able to assess the age of the collapsed building.
God has used you to do a number of things in the diocese. What next should be expected from the Diocese?
Well, development will not stop. We are looking at investment because our people are not all that robust. In fact, with the situation of the country now, one should not depend on the contribution of members even those who give contributions now are not much so, it’s our intention to produce water and also to go into large scale Agriculture.
Even in the Bishop’s court complex, we still need a Chapel that will be open to the community to worship. Then, the plan of the Bishop’s court is for it to be converted to a Secretariat and as a Storey building but we cannot embark on that now, what we intend doing is to restructure it because where I am now is supposed to be the residence of the Vicar of this church, it was when I came that I took over. So, if I leave here, there will be room for the Vicar to come back here, all I need is a Bishop’s office if it can be created for me so that I will have both the residence and the office in the same place.
We also intend to develop our Bible College. We already have a permanent site. As God provides the funds we will embark on several other evangelical and infrastructural projects.
Where did Nigeria get it wrong and how can we come out of the mess we find ourselves?
The genesis of the problem in Nigeria could be traced to when we invited gods to take over from Almighty God. What we are seeing today, is the impact and outcome of Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. After God had blessed us, we now gave glory to gods. For any keen observer, you will know that, that was where we got it wrong and till now, we have not gone back to God to say we are sorry.
In those days, most of the schools were run and administered by missionaries. The education then was balanced. Those who graduated from mission schools were morally mature, spiritually balanced and academically good. Most of those who are at the helm of affairs today had this opportunity. They were trained and you can see. But when government took over, they bastardized the educational system; whereas, education is the foundation of development of any nation. If you get education wrong, you get everything wrong and today, even the educational sector is in shambles. You have graduates in English that cannot express themselves in English. It’s so bad that even in the church there are people who lay claim to certificates they cannot defend.
Unfortunately, the church is also being affected. We now have selfish church leaders. All could be traced to the faulty educational foundation.
We have to go back to God. We need to go back to the basics and what our fore-fathers handed over to us as Christians and even in politics. If God can open the eyes of our first generation leaders and pastors to see what they left behind, I’m sure they will not be happy.
The church today is stinking more than the society. In fact, I’m afraid now to have much crowd in the church because when you see too much crowd in a church, you must be careful if the Truth is being preached in that church. So, we need to repent, we need to be delivered because I cannot but say that, the end is very, very near.
How is the Anglican Communion making effort to right some of these wrongs where you have Politicians hijacking the churches, you find an ex-convict; a big man coming back from prison being celebrated in the church?
If there’s any church that is uncompromising as far as I’m concerned, it is the Anglican Church. Now, if you notice, politicians no longer come to our church. But the truth is that God is not interested in the death of a sinner. On the case of Chief Bode George who left the prison and went to our Cathedral for thanksgiving it was not possible for you to ask him to go back, and say because he was a sinner, he should go back.
Why then do we have churches? So, you must allow sinners to come but you must tell them the truth. But for those who were at that service they will know that, after preaching the pastor said; “go and sin no more”. That was the best message for him, that you have sinned and have been punished and God is annoyed but God does not want you to die in this sin. So, the best thing for you is to repent and sin no more. I think that was the best message. If it were some other assemblies, they would probably have celebrated him and may not tell him the truth since he’s going to put down some money. I learnt he never stepped into that church again because he heard the truth.
To the credit of the Anglican Church you will know that on this homosexual thing, we have stood our ground even at the global level. We have maintained the sanctity of the Bible. What God hate, we must hate. In fact, we no longer attend the Canterbury meeting; we now have our own GAPCON the forum for Anglican Churches who believe in the sanctity of the Bible.
Our Primate has been consistent in speaking the truth to power. It is not in the nature of the Anglican Church to compromise. The reason behind this is because no matter what you are in this world, you are accountable to God. If you observe our Bishops are not all that rich because we depend on salaries and honorariums we get when we go out to minister. But in some cases, you see pastors living in affluence. Each time we come together, we discuss the affairs of the country, the affairs of the church and in most cases, we proffer solutions to problems as God gives us the wisdom.
Rumour has it that, the priest that told Chief Bode George to go and sin no more was punished and transferred to a remote church because Bode George felt angry and pressed some buttons. Any word on that?
No. That is not true. In fact, the priest who preached is a brother to my wife because they came from the same place. In fact, he was promoted. He was just an assistant to the Provost. He was transferred to St. Peters; another big church in Faji. He just left Faji now for another big church, so, he was never punished. Everybody praised him and the Bishop praised him for being courageous to say the truth.
The Lord Bishop, The Lord Bishop, that’s what they call you … people from outside the Anglican Church will not understand the use of that term they think you are equating yourself with God. How will you react to this?
It’s very simple and there are two dimensions to it. The Anglican Church is an offshoot of Church of England that is why we are also Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion.
In the British Parliament, the Bishop of the Anglican Church is also part of the Parliament and if you are in the parliament, you are called lords. That’s why those who are in priests are Lord Spiritual while those who are not Priests or Bishop are Lords Temporal. So, that is the origin of my lord, my lord. Even in the Court, the Judges are called lords.
But in the Spiritual interpretation, as a Priest and as a bishop, you are a representative of God and so, people must see Him in you. Therefore, when they say my lord, it is not you but it is He whom you represent. If you also go further, you will discover that we call our own pastors; Reverend, then followed by Venerable, Very Reverend. The word Reverend, is taking from reference; somebody who you respect, who you reference, that belongs to God (we reference God). Then, when we say Venerable, it means someone that you venerate, that you worship; you can only venerate God. That is the God in him, it’s the title. May be you say Very Reverend or Rt. Reverend. It’s the God in you that is seen and respected. That is why when you say My Lord Bishop, you see me as a representative of God and so, you relate with me with that understanding. And, when you refer to us as my Lord, then we must behave ourselves. It’s to call your attention to what you are. For instance, if a member of my church can consume a carton of beer, people will be hailng him; oh! You are wonderful. But if you see me with a glass of beer, just a glass, I’m sure you are going to add it to your news story that Bishop was in a pleasure-filled atmosphere, enjoying himself. So, if I’m conscious that as a pastor, I condemn alcoholism, then I must not touch it at all. Also, if I’m putting this collar on, even when I’m driving, and somebody offends me on the road, for me to say you are stupid; I must be conscious of what I put on, so, all these are things that make us so careful even with our utterances.
But some people prefer to be pastors. Anybody can be pastor. But when you say you are Reverend; that is an aspect of God that you acquire. When you say you are Venerable, it’s an aspect of God that you have acquired. So a responsibility is placed on you.
As part of Christ’s gospel, he had to feed the people at the point of his teaching when they were hungry. If we may ask sir, does the Church make provision for meeting the needs of the needy?
We have what we call “Welfare Bank” where people come for food and clothing. What brought about that was that in one of our churches, a Sunday school pupil suddenly fell sick and it was terrible. Investigations later showed that for the past 3 days, that child didn’t eat anything and the parents were in the church.
The first thing the Pastor did was to buy a soft drink of which after taking it, he was revived. It then occurred to us that some of our students that come for Sunday school don’t have access to good food. So, we called on people to donate food stuffs and clothing materials. That was how we formed the Welfare Bank.
We normally have all these food stuffs and we distribute it even during Christmas festival, we have invested so much in food stuffs for the less-privileged in our midst.