The next secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, is well known for his work in reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.
But he is also no stranger to Canada. As an adjunct professor in Christian theology and Islam at Toronto’s Wycliffe College, he visits Canada at least once a year to teach and preach. He also has close ties with St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto, which partners with his diocese of Kaduna in a farm project aimed at interfaith reconciliation in his region.
Idowu-Fearon, 66, will take up the position in July, succeeding Canon Kenneth Kearon, recently elected a bishop in Ireland.
Coming from a conservative part of the Communion, Idowu-Fearon doesn’t fit easily into the stereotype that some may have of Nigerian bishops. Viewed askance by some of his peers, he has been publicly criticized by his former primate, Peter Akinola, as being too close to the West. But, he has also been dismissed as homophobic by some in North America.
Going by his public pronouncements, he is someone who is passionate about Christian-Muslim reconciliation in Nigeria, outspokenly against criminalization of homosexuality there, but not willing to see the Communion give the green light for same-sex unions.
In Nigeria, homosexuality “is not a front-burner problem,” he said in an interview in Toronto. More urgent are the issues of poverty, corruption, joblessness and religious conflict. “I feel passionate about this,” he said. “The problem in my country has to do primarily with the manipulation of religion from both sides.”
In his new role as secretary general, Idowu-Fearon said he is looking forward to building bridges between the liberal and conservative ends of the Anglican Communion spectrum.
“I am encouraged by what we came up with during the Lambeth Commission that produced the Windsor Report,” he said. “We discovered that almost 70 per cent of Anglicans are willing to work together.” (Idowu-Fearon served on the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which considered worldwide Anglican unity in response to divisive debates on human sexuality.)
As secretary general, Idowu-Fearon’s major responsibility is to implement the decisions of the four Instruments of Communion—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting—a task that he sees as an opportunity to meet with Anglicans around the globe “and make sure that Anglicans live Anglicanism.”
Chosen from candidates in several regions of the world, Idowu-Fearon is the first African to take the post. Of the 85 million Anglicans within the Communion, Nigeria claims 18 million.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has welcomed the choice. “I look forward to working closely with him in the renewal of the Anglican Communion amidst the global challenges facing us today,” he told Anglican Communion News Service.
Welby and Idowu-Fearon have known each other for quite a while now. “We’ve been working together for some time in the area of Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria,” said Idowu-Fearon, who also spends time in Britain, where his wife is a citizen and owns property. Since 2007, he has been a Canterbury Six preacher (preaching priest), and in 2013, Welby awarded him the Cross of St. Augustine in recognition of his ministry in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue in Nigeria and around the world.
Welby has also visited Nigeria numerous times, including last year at the height of the Boko Haram crisis, when he flew there to pray with then-president Goodluck Jonathan after the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls.
In Canada, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald described Idowu-Fearon as “Christ-centred, fair-minded to a fault,” while George Sumner, principal of Wycliffe College, said he is “theologically grounded and astute, intellectually open, pastorally experienced and globally connected.”
In the U.S., Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told Episcopal News Service that Idowu-Fearon “has worked hard to keep the conversation going among people who would often not want to talk to one another.”
Until he assumes the position full-time in July, Canadian The Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan will oversee the work of the secretary general part-time.
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.