It worked like this: The Nigerian legislation was introduced in 2006, and promptly embraced by almost every church in that country. This included Akinola's, which does nothing without his say-so. Akinola's acceptance of the bill caused considerable discomfort in the 73-million member Anglican communion even among fellow conservatives, some of whom undertook a quiet campaign to change his mind. Meanwhile, a group of conservative Virginia congregations in the Episcopal Church (U.S.A), which belongs to the same Anglican Communion as Akinola, were taking the tough decision to jump the Episcopal ship and become Nigerian congregants because of their unhappiness over Episcopal stances on a number of issues, including the ordination of a gay bishop. But they knew little about the Nigerian legislation. Some had read a story in the Washington Post, and a fairly vague response from one of Akinola's U.S. representatives. They voted without knowing much more; and, as one pastor told me after the vote, the Nigerian bill "just wasn't on our radar." I talked to a half-dozen congregants in the various churches, and, although they didn't want a gay bishop, none of them supported the jail sentences prescribed in the Nigerian legislation.
The Nigerian bill, although troubling, did not seem worthy of more than a couple of paragraphs when I wrote a recent profile of Akinola, for two reasons: By last December, it was considered unlikely to pass, partly due to international outcry the U.S. State Department, for instance ,expressed concern. And within days of the Virginia vote, Akinola moderated his view. In a welcoming letter to the Viginia churches also released in Nigeria he admitted, "We recognize that there are genuine concerns about individual human rights that must be addressed both in the framing of the law and its implementation."
In the heat of Nigeria's presidential election campaign, however, the bill has been revived. According to Stefano Fabeni of the Washington-based organization Global Rights, the Nigerian legislature is supposed to be considering a new, "harmonized" version of the bill, that may or may not include the five-year penalties. Fabeni also asserts that on February 14, during a discussion of the issue, the Christian Association of Nigeria, to which Akinkola's church belongs, argued in favor of letting the penalties remain. In any case the old version, with penalties, has already passed two readings in both houses of the National Assembly, and will become law if it passes a third reading in the Senate. The deciding vote could take place at any time within the next few weeks. So, now would be a good time for the habitually forceful Most Rev. Akinola to be a bit more forceful.
A few months ago, Nigerian religion expert Abieyuwa Ogbemudia said to my colleague Gilbert daCosta, "It is incredible for any church to even tolerate homosexuality and survive in Nigeria. Your church would be dead in the water." Akinola, however, has proven himself in the past to be a brave man. He took a strong and important stance against Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's bid for an extraconstitutional third term. He needs to be brave again and speak out against the penalties in the Nigerian bill. If he truly has concerns about human rights, he should express them with vigor. Failure to do so ought to prompt his new Virginian congregants to give a second thought to their choice of Akinola as their shepherd.