The simplicity that trails The Very Revd Babatunde Colenso Akinpelu Johnson who from August 24 2016 becomes the Bishop of Mainland Diocese of the Anglican Communion is quite unusual for many of his ilk.
Though he comes from a very privileged background going by his genealogy, he does not carry this about. Rather he relates with the high and low with an unassuming candor.
It is therefore not surprising when he told our reporters that he was quite fulfilled when he served in the heart of Ajegunle as the Archdeacon of the Apapa Archdeaconry of the Diocese of Lagos Church of Nigeria. He said the station afforded him the opportunity to impact positively on the lives of the people.
Born in May 1965 to The Very Revd. Sope Johnson and Dr. B.C Aderinola Johnson who happened to be the first female Psychiatrist in West Africa; Pelu has since turned out to be the quintessential family man who cherishes family values and communal living.
He had his primary, and part of his secondary education in Nigeria. He completed his Ordinary Level and Advanced Level studies in the UK, before proceeding to Immanuel College of Theology, Ibadan where he obtained his diploma in Theology and Religious Studies. He became a deacon in June 1990 and served in St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit and then returned for his first degree in Theology and M.A in Christian Ethics at the King’s College, London. He came back to Nigeria and served in All Saint’s Church, Yaba as curate and on July 19,1999 he was posted to St. John’s Anglican Church Aroloya as vicar.
What is intriguing is that his ministry posts so far have some kind of link with his kinfolks. In the case of St. John’s Church Aroloya he soon discovered that his great grandfather Nathaniel Johnson was the first vicar of the church. The third vicar of the church was his grandfather. Both his grandfather and father were born in the Aroloya vicarage. His father too is a priest who rose to become Provost of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina.
It is instructive to note that The Revd. Samuel Johnson who wrote the History of the Yorubas was the younger brother of Very Revd Pelu’s great grandfather, The Venerable Nathaniel Johnson.
In a well-researched book titled, As for me and My House….the story of a Levitical Dynasty, the newly elected Bishop traced the genealogy of his family to Mr. Henry (Snr.) and Sarah Johnson who were both liberated slaves of Hastings in Sierra-Leone.
This couple was invited in 1857 by David Hinderer to join the Yoruba mission in Ibadan from their base in Sierra-Leone. They arrived in Ibadan on February 11 1858. They had 8 children, 7 of whom survived them. The first 3 were clergymen; Henry, Nathaniel and Samuel, the forth, Obadiah was a medical doctor who graduated from King’s College London in 1884. Samuel was the author of “the History of the Yorubas”.
His paternal grandmother also shares in an eccliasiastical dynasty, her father being the Revd. Jacob S. Williams, vicar of St. Jude’s Cathedral until 1901 and first Primate of the African Church. Her maternal grandfather was the Revd. William Odusina Moore, one of the earliest Egba clergymen. There are of course cousins and in-laws who also share this ancestry, such as Bishop Adelakun Howells, Bishop Charles Phillips, Bishop S. C. Phillips, The Very Revd T. A. J. Oluwole, The Venerable T. A. J. Oluwole, The Revd Canon M. S. Cole and The Revd S. M. Abiodun.
On his return from the UK in 2006 having bagged an MPhil Degree at the University of Kent in Canterbury he was made Archdeacon of Apapa and Vicar of Christ the King Anglican Church, Ajegunle Apapa. It was from there he moved to the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina where he served as Provost of the Cathedral a position his father had earlier held. He was elected Bishop of Mainland Diocese on June 1 2016.
In this interview with Church Times team, he gives further insight on his ministry.
How was it like relating with your father as a priest in the church yard?
I did not initially see my father as a priest when I was growing up. I saw him more as a father. When I was born, my father then was Head of Religious Broadcasts of the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation. He had been trained and ordained in England in 1955 and made priest in 1956. We grew up in Ikoyi and I was baptized and worshipped at Our Saviour’s Church. He was made the provost of the Cathedral when I was five. My father was provost for 25 years.
How was life as the son of a priest?
From what I remember we had the normal kind of upbringing. I loved to sing and the opportunity to sing in the choir was there for me. But what I can recall is that the teachers expected us not to be human because our father was a priest. So I used to get into trouble once in a while. I used to tell them that the fact that my father was a priest does not make me a priest, but that was it. There was no real pressure other than the usual expectations from people. When we were much younger we were also compelled to memorize the collect for the week.
Did all that exposures make you want to be a priest?
Such exposures had no direct link with my interest in priesthood. Though I used to mimic priests while playing with my friends when I was young I had no inkling that I would ever become one. By the time I went to boarding school in England I thought I would go into the priesthood, but only on a part-time basis because I wanted to pursue a career in catering. So when I finished my Advanced Levels, I enrolled in college for Hotel and Catering Management, but did not finish before I decided to go into priesthood full time. I can’t really figure why I suddenly developed interest in becoming a priest. It was more of something that had always been in my sub-conscious. I was not particularly close to my dad when I took the decision to go into priesthood.
But why did you have interest in Hotel and Catering in the first place?
Well I had always loved cooking. I still cook when I have the opportunity. I have no problem with cooking and I believe I cook very well. My grandmother taught me how to cook and do some basic sewing.
So you now opted to go into priesthood. What basically influenced your decision?
I keep telling people that Easter Sunday of 1987 was when I got the conviction to go into priesthood. Then I told my father that I was interested in becoming a priest. I also told the late Primate of the Church of Nigeria, The Most Revd Joseph Abiodun Adetiloye. However, we have never discussed my reasons to go into the ministry.
When I became Vicar of St. John’s Church, Aroloya, the history of the Church was given to me and that was when I saw for the first time, the picture of my great grandfather who was the first vicar of the Church. I read it and through it realized my connection to the Church. My grandfather was born there and also was a Vicar there. It was there too that my father was born.
However, it was in 2006 when I started the research into the Johnson family that I realized the depth of the ecclesiastical heritage that I had. There were not many things my father could have told me since his father died when he was 12 years old.
What influence did the seminary have on you?
Well, the seminary was basically meant to prepare one for pastoral duties and also expose one to the doctrine of the church. The seminary I don’t think, is supposed to teach you about God. Everybody has that understanding before going to the seminary. The seminary teaches you how to articulate your ideas about God and prepare you for the practical aspect of the work of ministry. We used to say among ourselves that if you don’t know God before you enter the seminary you cannot know him when you enter. My experience of the seminary is that it helps you to function and to be able to adapt to any situation you come across as a priest in the Anglican Church.
What was your first day on the pulpit like?
I was in Ibadan and we always went out on Sundays to experience the practical exposure to know the workings of the church and duties of a priest and of course the art of preaching. For two years I was in All Souls Church, Jericho and All Souls Church Bodija. We had opportunity of assisting the resident priests in ecclesiastical work. I think the vicar under whom you serve plays a great role in making you into what you eventually become. I served under the Late Bishop Adebola as a deacon.
So in concrete terms how will you relate your experience?
It was a valuable experience that set the tone of the ministry for me. I learnt a lot from the late Bishop Adebola. He had this gift of being able to discover people’s talent. He saw me as a conservative type and he used me for administrative and clerical duties. He always wanted us to sit with him and discuss with him. We shared ideas and discussed the scriptures a lot with him. He expected an essay from me every week.
Does being a priest affect your normal life as it were?
It depends on the context in which you are looking at it. There is no freedom that does not entail responsibility. Even if you think of yourself as freer than I am, I don’t think it will be easy for you to go and marry two wives the way it will be difficult for me to marry two wives. You don’t have to be a priest to know that it will be wrong for you to go and drink and fall into the gutter. So really, the same rules that govern the life of a priest also govern the life of the congregation.
For instance I’m the very shy type. People misunderstand me and think I’m being arrogant. Its only people who know me very well know that I am not. I think socializing also depends on where you are. For instance, if I am in Ajegunle where I once served as a priest, I probably would have found it difficult putting on shorts or trainers. But in the Cathedral I will have no such inhibition.
I can say that working in Ajegunle, Christ the King Church was quite fulfilling for me. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in that church because the people were genuine and real.
How do you mean?
If the people in Ajegunle tell you good morning you can be sure it is good morning. They have a wonderful sense of fellowship and communion. For the four years I spent there I enjoyed myself. My time in that church was a blessing to me. I hope I was also a blessing to them too. Coming to the Cathedral was also a fulfilling experience for me. It was quite refreshing coming back to where my father served and where I grew up. For me the Cathedral is home.
That brings us to the issue of the kinds of people you pastored over the years. What is peculiar about overseeing people in a rich environment?
The difference between where I am now before being elected Bishop and where I was coming from, talking about Ajegunle is that here in the Cathedral, more people have an opinion and over there they are more dependent on the clergy. I think both have their advantages.
First of all you don’t need as much time to talk about money in the church of the affluent unlike in a place where most are economically challenged.
Having said that though, the saying is true, that “the rich also cry”. On the outside, they may appear not to have any problems, but on the inside they have the same issues if not more that they are grappling with. The way you approach it has to be with a lot of tact and wisdom. You don’t pray the kind of prayers you pray in the poor environment in the rich environment.
So what is peculiar about their challenges?
Nothing. They have issues with children, ill health and a lot of other human challenges and that is not different from the disadvantaged areas too.
What has this taught you?
That as scripture says, we should give thanks in everything, and that is the meaning of the prayer that St. Paul prayed in Phillipians 4 vs19. He thanked the Phillipians for the gift they sent to him and prayed that God would supply their needs. But he was also making the point that he had learnt to be satisfied in all circumstances. From that point of view you will discover that not all the rich people have what they want. They still have children who can’t get jobs and you find out that sometimes the children can’t get to the level of their parents in life not because the children are not good or brilliant but because sometimes the “shoes” of their parents are too big for them.
You were provost of the Cathedral in the Diocese of Lagos, the same position your father held for 25 years. What does that mean to you?
The issue is that God is involved in all things. I am grateful that I have the opportunity of serving where my father served. But it has its own challenges as well. I grew up in the Cathedral and for a few people it was difficult for them to come to terms with the fact that the Pelu of today is different from the Pelu of the 70s. Many still see me as the choirboy It took a while for some people to come to terms with the fact that I am the provost of the cathedral.
In what way would you then assess the role of your father as provost in the Cathedral and that of your uncles and cousins who were priests in the Anglican Communion?
In fairness to my dad, the current administrative and liturgical set up in the Cathedral was done by him. God used him greatly in that direction. The fact of my ecclesiastical heritage challenges me to rise even above what is expected of me. It gives you an added sense of responsibility.
You’ve put in how many years now?
Today, June 23 (the day the interview was conducted) makes it 25 years that I have been serving in the Anglican Church as a priest.
What does your election as Bishop mean to you?
It means I have more responsibility. I will be looking after more people. It will interest you to know that I have a link to the Cathedral of St. Jude’s Ebute Metta too where I would be operating as the Bishop of Mainland Diocese. The church is less than a minute walk to our family home in Ebute Meta. A great grandfather of mine, The Revd J. S. Williams was Vicar there and during his time there, my grandmother was born in the vicarage.
25 years as a priest in the Anglican Church. How will you describe those years?
Not too easy but with ups and downs.
Why do you say that?
You know that it is quite challenging to manage people. God has however been faithful. He has led me through the issues that confronted me.
Are there things you think should change about the Anglican liturgy?
We have to change as situation warrants it. Change is inevitable but we can’t afford to lose our identity. We must hold to our own doctrine. What we believe must tally with how we worship.
Do you fear that the church is losing its tradition?
A lot of us have been influenced by the Pentecostal movement because the movement has caused us to take a look at ourselves and make amends. Now Anglicans take the Bible more seriously. But then there is a downside. If you ask an Anglican to articulate something what you hear will most likely be what is not an Anglican understanding of that particular issue and that is very challenging.
Like what issues?
There is thin dividing line in some of these issues. The centrality of the cross apart from the Bible is the basis of the Anglican belief. We believe the cross is a symbol of suffering and a symbol of hope. If somebody tells you that he won’t suffer; he might be right in part because of the need to make positive confession.
But if you believe it seriously that you will not suffer then we should ask: “who gave you that guarantee that becoming a Christian you won’t suffer because Jesus did not promise us anything like that?” He said we would go through tribulation but we should be cheerful because he has overcome the world. So the situation where the clergy say things that they believe the congregation might want to hear is not to be encouraged. Paul warned that in the last days people will gather to themselves teachers who will say to them the things they want to hear.
If I say to my congregation that they will prosper and that their miracle car is coming they will scream and shout amen. But then here is another priest saying to the congregation, don’t worry; weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. The congregation might say such a priest hasn’t got the anointing.
How many of us want to wait when the traffic light is red? The God that answers by fire and the God that answers “now” is the God we have learnt to serve with the advent of the Neo-Pentecostal movement. Let us hope that the Anglican Church will continue to be strengthened.
The only way the church can be strengthened is to pay more attention to the training and retraining of its pastors. For me the clergy are the first constituency of the Bishop. The vision of the Bishop must be passed on to the clergy who will then pass to the members.
Have you at anytime been discouraged?
Yes. Several times. I am a human being. I am 51 now. I was ordained when I was 25. I have the same emotion, anger disappointment and the need to be picked up when I am emotionally discharged.
What then are your high moments?
When I preach and know that my message has blessed at least one person. That for me is the most fulfilling time.
When in spite of what you say people don’t understand.
How is your wife involved in your ministry?
Well she has to go to work. She has to have her own life. That is my own understanding. She needs to work so she could bring her own experience to bear in the ministry; but by and large she has been very useful particularly with the women and girls and has greatly supported me all the way and I thank God for her life.