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All things (not so) bright and beautiful 

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In his nearly five years as the prelate of the Diocese of Lagos Mainland, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), the Rt. Rev. Akinpelu Johnson has etched his theology and churchmanship on the spiritual walls of the Diocese, and I dare guess, in the hearts of his parishioners. I call him a master of theological dialectics and Anglo-catholicism. If he was a painting artist, his canvas would be covered with fascinating works that reflect man’s foibles and strengths and endless aspiration for perfection, all at once. But Bishop Johnson is a shepherd of souls and gifted teacher. And he does so in an uncommon style. 

In his early days as the chief servant of our diocese, the response to his unique style of leadership and oversight among his clergy was a blend of both consternation and admiration for this rather “British man,” who sees more than one side to every issue and can be amazingly candid. After nearly five years, it has also become obvious that this scion of a long priestly lineage is clear-eyed about his mission in his See. One of the ways he has demonstrated this is through his rather eerie choice of Synod themes.

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Particularly striking is his theme for this year’s diocesan synod that lasted from May 20 to 23. It was his fifth synod since he assumed office in August 2016, after an illustrious tenure as the Provost of Nigeria’s oldest cathedral. Quite like the theme of last year’s synod (“Amos: A Cry for Social Justice”), this year’s (All Things Bright and Beautiful) is quite evocative in its breadth and sweep. 

Generally, a synod theme not only tells you something about what matters to a diocese but also provides a window into the heart and passions of a prelate. 

Whereas last year’s synod theme mirrors Bishop Johnson’s passionate interest in matters of social and economic justice in the society and church, this year’s theme depicts unmistakably his concern for a healthy interaction between man and his environment. To some people, such a theme might sound surrealistic or even utopian in a society like ours. But in truth, Nigeria, like the rest of the world, is facing a clear and present danger arising from ecological abuse and mismanagement. God certainly made all things bright and beautiful, but it is no longer quite so in most parts of the world. In other words, today, all things are not so bright and beautiful, on account of man’s disregard for divine injunctions. If this is not the time to put this ominous situation on the front burner of public discourse, one wonders when!

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In his sprightly and eloquent style of presenting his presidential address during synods, Bishop Johnson expounded on the theme by looking into God’s beautiful world at creation and the world in which we live today. Clearly, so much has gone wrong and much, if not all of it, is the fault of man. Climate change, flooding, deforestation, landslides, air pollution to name just a few, are all consequences of man’s abuse of the pristine ecology that God created and bequeathed to him.

True, God made all things and gave man dominion over them. But what is dominion? Bishop Johnson persuasively explains that the context in which the Bible uses the term, dominion implies NURTURE and not DESTRUCTION. God could not have mandated man to destroy what He had so beautifully and wonderfully made. Yet, that is apparently what man is doing today. Through indiscriminate tree felling and excavations, for instance, the Earth has become increasingly prone to landslides and desertification. These have grave consequences for man, and unless man ceases from such practices, the earth is in great danger of ruin.

What Bishop Johnson seeks to achieve is to draw attention to these issues and show that God’s redemption is not just for man, but also for other non-human components of the earth. He argues “that Christianity in Nigeria as it is currently understood and practised…has given very little thought to creation and Man’s role in it. The emphasis, it seems, is firmly rooted in the question of Man’s individual eternal salvation.” Yet, just as important is the Gospel’s concern “with the natural world as an object for redemption by Christ.”

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In effect, more consideration needs to be given to the way man interacts with the natural world. How so paradoxical that man would need to be reminded of the importance of preserving himself by also preserving other non-human creations of God! One would have thought that self-preservation is instinctive. But the irony is that man has become wilfully or otherwise the principal architect of his own misfortune through practices that are highly detrimental to his environment. Bishop Johnson calls for a volte-face by man in this fatal march towards self-destruction. When Nigerians mess up their environment with refuse of all kinds, particularly the plastic type, they must realise that that is a recipé for environmental crisis. Plastics are not biodegradable and will definitely harm the soil on which man depends for his sustenance. When we fell trees without planting new ones, we are opening up the environment to desertification and aridity.

When we dredge rivers or reclaim flood basins without carefully assessing the environmental impact that such things can have in the near or distant future, we are endangering the earth. Whereas God made all things bright and beautiful (Genesis 1:31), man has progressively ruined that beauty. How unfortunate! 

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The crux of Bishop Johnson’s address at the 2021 synod of his diocese is that ruining the earth is neither in man’s best interest nor consistent with God’s command that man tends the earth.

Of course, there has been no shortage of excuses for man’s mismanagement of the environment. The main excuse is hinged on the view that the Bible permits man to have dominion over all other creatures. While that may be true, it needs to be stressed that dominion is not the same as destruction. Bishop Johnson proved the fallacy of that notion in a nuanced exposition of that scripture. The earth, like every good mother, provides for us— the flora and fauna, the solid minerals, rivers and oceans, etc. It is only proper then that we in turn care for it. By improving his relationship with the environment, man is doing himself a great favour. In the words of Bishop Johnson: “The Church in Nigeria must urgently take a fresh look at the accounts of creation and embrace a new theological ethic of creation that reminds Man of his responsibilities to God to care for the natural world and the environment. Our country is not immune from climate change and we have already started feeling its effects. It is clear that if the Church does not address the issue as a legitimate concern of God for His world, nature and the environment will destroy humanity.” This is not alarmist, but a real possibility, if Nigerians continue to treat the environment so mindlessly.

Ven. Okey Ifionu is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Lagos Mainland

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