Condolences from leaders throughout the Anglican Communion are being sent to the Church of the Province of West Africa, following the sudden death of its primate, Dr. Solomon Tilewa Johnson.
The metropolitan archbishop of the internal province of West Africa, and bishop of Gambia, who was 59, died in Fajara on Jan. 21 while playing tennis, one of his favourite pastimes. He was the first Gambian bishop as well as the first Gambian archbishop and primate.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote to Archbishop Johnson’s wife, Priscilla, and to Dr. Daniel Sarfo, archbishop of the internal province of Ghana, to offer his condolences and assurance of his prayers. “I know that many will miss Archbishop Tilewa for his boundless energy and the great enthusiasm he had for his ministry, in the Church, both in Gambia, in the Province of West Africa, and in the wider Anglican Communion,” he wrote to Archbishop Sarfo. “His gifts were not confined exclusively to the Church, and he had an active role within the national life of Gambia, serving as a member of a number of boards and committees. He was generous in his hospitality, and was always glad to welcome visitors to the Gambia, where he had served as Bishop since 1990.”
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, wrote to express deep sympathies and to say that Canadian Anglicans were holding in their prayers the Archbishop, his wife and their family, the diocesan family throughout Gambia, and Anglicans throughout the province. “Moments like this remind of the bonds of affection with which we are drawn together in the Lord Jesus, in whose love we are one.”
Secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, said, “Archbishop Tilewa was a big man in every sense of the word. His great height made him stand head and shoulders over others, but so did his heart. He had a great love for the church, and worked hard for the spread of the Gospel in his own country, his diocese, and more recently, the Church of the Province of West Africa, which he served with distinction as Primate.
Kearon added, “His immense pride in being able to represent his diocese at the Lambeth Conference of 2008 was matched by his love and compassion for those in any sort of need. He was a man of justice, and served with distinction on his country’s independent electoral commission. All of this was rooted in his love for his Saviour. To his wife and family, of whom he was so proud, to his church and to his country, we extend our prayers and our sincere sympathy.”
Zambian priest and director for mission of the Anglican Communion Office, John Kafwanka, wrote, “What a shock to hear about the death of Archbishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson. You will be fondly remembered for your service to the Lord and humanity.”
In an email to the Anglican Communion’s Francophone Network, episcopal bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe Pierre Whalon said, “What a loss for the Province of West Africa, for the Anglican Communion and for us all.”
Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, primate of the province of Kenya and bishop, All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi, spoke of seeing Archbishop Johnson recently. “In October last year, we shared fellowship at GAFCON 2013 here in Nairobi, and we thank God for his commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ whom he served with a robust faith and cheerful energy throughout his ministry. He was a man of global vision and his death, so untimely from our human perspective, has deprived not only the Church of the Province of West Africa but the whole Anglican Communion of a talented leader.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, said, “The bishops and people of The Episcopal Church are grieving the death of the Primate of West Africa. The province and his family are in our prayers.”
Archbishop Ian Ernest, primate of the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean, wrote of first meeting Archbishop Johnson in 1990 at the All African Council of Churches annual assembly in Lesotho and of their collegial relationship in the years since. “He is indeed for me a dear brother in Christ who has been a friend and a colleague of my ministry as Primate. His intuitive skills and his spirit of frankness as a Church leader have enabled him to emerge as a unique and strong witness of Jesus Christ in regions where religious extremism and violence prevail. His untimely death comes as a great blow to all those who have had the joy and privilege to know him.”
The primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba wrote: “Archbishop Johnson and I met daily at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches, sharing both light moments, deep theological discussions and the challenges of leading an Anglican province. My wife, Lungi, also worked with him at a recent meeting of the mission society, Us (formerly USPG). …We are both immensely saddened at his passing and send our condolences to the Diocese of The Gambia and the Province of West Africa.
A life of service
Solomon Tilewa Ethelbert Willie Johnson was born in Banjul, The Gambia, on Feb. 27, 1954. He attended the Wesley Primary School in Gambia from 1962 to 1966 and then Gambia High School until 1972.
He started his career in 1975 as a teacher at Banjul’s Gambia High School. However, after two years he applied and was admitted to Trinity Union Theological College, Umuahia, Imo State, Nigeria. In 1980 he left with a diploma in Theology.
After three years at the U.K.’s University of Durham (1982-1985) he obtained a BA (Hons.) in theology. Twelve years later, he returned to Britain to gain a certificate in theology from Oxford University. In 2000, he became a graduate of the Theological Foundation of Indiana, U.S.A., with a doctorate degree in applied ministries.
Solomon Tilewa Johnson was a deacon from 1979 to 1980, a priest from 1980 to 1990 and a diocesan bishop from 1990 until September 2012, when he was elected as the ninth primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa as well as metropolitan archbishop of the internal province of West Africa.
In 2012, he was named “Person of the Year” by the Gambia News and Report Weekly Magazine, which said his election as the ninth archbishop and primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa (CPWA) made him the first Gambian bishop to hold such a position.
He was involved with a range of organizations and committees, both in Gambia and overseas, including mission agencies; educational establishments; national bodies tackling socio-economic issues; and ecumenical bodies such as the All Africa Conference of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Gambia Christian Council.
Archbishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson is survived by his wife, Priscilla Gladys Johnson, and three children, Njilan, Jeggan and Dado.
With files from Jan Butter, director of communications for the Anglican Communion Office