Just after the First World War, an Anglican diocese was established in Lagos in Nigeria. Ninety-one years later, it has become the largest active Protestant church body in the world.
Much of the growth of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, however, occurred during the last two decades.
From 24 dioceses in 1988, the church has grown to 156 dioceses. Every Sunday, the Church of Nigeria gathers 20 million people in worship of Jesus Christ.
The 22-year period of the dramatic growth of the Church of Nigeria coincides with the terms of the last two primates, or heads of the church.
To find out, The Christian Post spoke with the immediate past primate of the Church of Nigeria over the phone.
According to the Rt. Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola, it all started when bishops stopped thinking of themselves as bishops in the conventional sense.
Previously, the bishop was addressed as "His Lordship." He mainly occupied the position of the office, had everything done for him, attended meetings, decided mission strategies, and graced ceremonies.
“Today, every bishop (in the Church of Nigeria) is first and foremost an evangelist,” said Akinola. “And from that, other things follow.”
The Church of Nigeria entered a period of rapid growth when it started creating "missionary dioceses." This involves appointing and dispatching bishops to areas with a weak Anglican presence. These bishops are to form full-fledged dioceses within a five-year period.
The bishop-missionaries brought the Anglican presence to “every nook and cranny of the country,” Akinola expressed.
The emphasis on using episcopal leadership in advancing the missionary cause is clear from statistics.
Akinola became the 46th bishop of the Church of Nigeria in 1979. Today there are 167 bishops in the church.
Akinola himself practiced the principle that the bishop is a missionary.
He was assigned in the early 1980s to create an Anglican presence in the then new capital, Abuja, which was about to be built. From nothing, the bishop created a diocese that today comprises 55 parishes.
Was the dramatic growth of the Church of Nigeria largely due to the good leadership of its primates?
Akinola responded, “Without a leader, how much can we really accomplish?”
“When a leader is focused, when a leader is determined, when a leader is genuine, when a leader is being led by God, I am sure that good things will result,” he said. “But when a leader does not give attention to these matters or has a different agenda, of course the fellowship will be affected.”
Akinola acknowledged that much of the growth has been due to the good leadership of the church.
“But it is one thing to lead, it is another thing for what you do to be led by God,” said the retired primate. “So for me again it is certainly God’s mighty blessings upon our leadership that is responsible for our achievements.”
Explaining the missionary focus of the church, Akinola stated, “We believe very strongly that when a church ceases to evangelize and to plant new churches, it will not have the right to exist.
“The reason why this church is left in the world is to reach out and to be the salt to our world, be the light to our world and to make Christ known to the world.”
The leadership of the Church of Nigeria takes the Great Commandment and Great Commission seriously, the bishop expressed.
It is the mission to the lost that forms the "bedrock" of the activities and programs of the church, he said.
The Great Commandment is the call to love God with the whole being and to love the neighbor as self.
After He resurrected, Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission to dedicate their lives to making disciples of others.
Despite its largeness, Akinola sees the Church of Nigeria growing to half the population of the country. Nigeria has over 150 million people.
“My successor is a firebrand in the area of evangelism and orthodoxy,” he said.
Nicholas Orogodo Okoh was elected in September 2009 to succeed Akinola as the fourth primate.