Nigeria: Fearon - Orchid for Mr Dialogue
By Adamu Adamu
28 JUNE 2013
Last week, the Most Revd Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Bishop of the Province of Kaduna and Bishop of Kaduna Diocese in the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, received the award of the Cross of St. Augustine from Archbishop Justin at an impressive ceremony at Lambeth Palace «in recognition of his outstanding ministry in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue in Nigeria and across the world.» It is a fitting reward for patience, doggedness and abiding goodwill for believers in the One True God.
The Cross of St. Augustine is awarded to members of the Anglican Communion who given long and exceptionally distinguished service to the Anglican Communion and made significant contributions to the life of the worldwide Communion, or to a particular church within Anglicanism. It is the second highest international award for service within Anglicanism. It is instituted in honour and memory of St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
By the common consent of the leadership of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the testimony of us who are touched by his work and words, Fearon has, as described by Archbishop Wellby, been tireless in promoting dialogue and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, and, in the process, displaying great courage and vision in the most difficult of circumstances.
Born in 1949, Fearon originally set out to train as a soldier of the Republic not knowing that he was destined to be a soldier of Christ [AS]. When the urge got too strong, he got a sympathetic discharge from the Nigerian Military Training School in his second year to pursue his calling to serve God. He left for Emmanuel College where he trained as a priest and was ordained in 1971; and he was consecrated a bishop in 1990.
Like the other Augustine from a different tradition--St. Augustine of Hippo--Fearon is an intellectual inquirer and every inch a philosopher-priest and a teacher of note. He received his Minister of Divinity from Hartford Seminary in 1993 and a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Durham . It was in his bid to understand the other side that he enrolled at the University of Birmingham's St. John's College to read for a master's degree in Islamic studies, and he went for a second master's degree in sociology from Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. In 2002, he received his doctorate degree in Arabic and Islamic studies with special interest in Christian-Muslim relations from the University of Jordan. He is currently a research fellow at Ahmadu Bello University working on determining the influence of politics and religion on development.
From 1981 to 1990 when he was consecrated bishop, he worked as the General Secretary for the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion for Nigeria, and concurrently held the post of Warden of St. Francis Theological College, Wusasa from 1981 to 1984, when he became the Provost of St. Michael's Cathedral. In 1997, he was made the Bishop of Kaduna Diocese.
In his career, he has held the presidencies and chairs of several networks and councils. He is a past president of the Network for Inter Faith Concerns of the Anglican Communion, ember of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council, NIREC, member of the State Religious Harmony Council, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity and chairman of Bridge Builders Association of Nigeria, member of the Religious Advisory Council of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and chairman of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.
In all these roles, he has proved one of the most powerful, persuasive and, yes, even most unyielding of the defenders of Christian rights in Nigeria. But like his friend, His Grace John Cardinal Onaiyekan, he does it without bitterness; he does it with superior knowledge, with sympathy, with respect, with deep compassion but with exemplary firmness.
At a recent gathering in Abuja where Fearon gave the keynote address, his paper on the need for Christian-Muslim understanding dwelt on Surat al-Ikhlas, the 112th chapter of the Holy Qur'an, which he recited in a way that would have won the approval of even the most pedantic of tajwidists. But he stopped after the third verse; and, pointing at me sitting in the audience, he said, "Adamu Adamu would know why I stopped here." And I should know: the fourth verse is Lam yalid wa lam yulad, which was most categorical and uncompromising in asserting the unity of God in a way that negates Christianity's most central doctrine of the Godhead. Fearon would accept a truth wherever he saw it, but would not abandon his fundamental position for the sake of dialogue; for, true dialogue is not to abandon your position; it is to understand and respect that of the other, and have the other do vice versa.
At any event, the spectacle of a Christian priest reciting and quoting from the Holy Qur'an not to ridicule Islam as, for instance, Sheikh Ahmad Deedat often did Christianity when he quoted the Holy Bible, but to call for mutual understanding was salutary in the effect it had on Muslim listeners.
For those engaged in interfaith dialogue like Bishop Fearon, several other issues, especially those surrounding the doctrine of Trinity must have proved the hardest nut to crack; and it may, not infrequently, have signalled the end of many an interfaith exchange, because of its centrality in one and the misgiving with which it is viewed in the other.
ut not even Trinity should have presented an insurmountable obstacle to understanding. As Fearon's works show, Nestorian Christians did not believe in the doctrine; and nor does the Unitarian Church even today, however, it is for both Muslims and Christians to understand and accept that dialogue is not time to preach. It is time to understand.
As it is, Trinity became official dogma of the Church in 325 AD following the adoption of the Nicene Creed, exactly 245 years before the birth of the Holy Prophet Muhammad [SAW]. Therefore, the Qur'anic appellation 'People of the Book' referred to the Christians who believed in God the Son, the Father and the Holy Ghost, contrary to the claims of some Muslim groups today who, by limiting its application to pre-Pauline Christians, wished to deny present-day Christians this special status in order to justify hostility to them.
Despite all this, however, and thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the likes of Fearon, dialogue can and will succeed, because, what is more, it is there in engraved in Scripture. The Holy Qur'an gives witness to the fact that Christian monks and their priests recognize the truth when they hear it and they shed tears of gratitude to God for His guidance; and the holy book makes the eternal assertion that of all the people in the world, Christians are nearest in love and amity to Muslims. These facts cannot and must not be allowed to change because of current difficulties created by superficiality and exuberant ignorance.
And there is no better antidote to this than humility and patience; just as there is no greater man than he who out of his volition lowers himself before others, for by divine grace he will be raised high. Bishop Idowu-Fearon's humility follows him like a shadow on a bright sunny day: in other words, you cannot miss it; and it is that kind of self-effacement borne of the realisation that man is nothing and that God is everything. Fearon approaches interfaith dialogue with genuine sympathy and with a sincere desire for true fellowship with Muslims, and he does so with an uncommon insight and understanding of both sides of the divide--and sometimes with better appreciation of the spirit behind the letter that the Other is defending.
Fearon is so successful because his sincerity is always able to strike the right chord in the ears and hearts of his listeners. And in the melody of belief, the hymns to God are as many as there are tongues to utter His praise and celebrate His glory; and the paths to genuine fellowship are as many as there are hearts that love and truly believe in Him. As the ministry of Fearon shows--and as it indeed is--it is not possible to love God and not love humanity: for love of God is the foundation of all true religion and love of man the end of it; and so is it that it cannot but be. And on earth or in heaven there is nothing like it; and, for us, the greatest expression of this love is the very fact of our creation; for, to create is to love, and to return that love is what we do in worship so that we may be raised from the dust of our desires; and, in the end, we will grow only by as much as we are able to love our God and each other, this being the fundamental goal of all dialogue.
But my day in Kaduna is never complete without that organic, often vegan, natural, whole meal dinner over which Sam, Abba and I unashamedly fight. Any day, a visit to the Fearon household is always an educational visit with a wonderful listener and great storyteller for a host. The atmosphere is always pleasant, tidy and neat--and, yes, bookish--and with the kind of austere and nondescript plainness appropriate only for the holy poverty of yore.
And here, it is Sister Comfort that we must thank for all the comfort, all the hospitality and the utter simplicity--not to forget the culinary delights--of that little Godly homestead where every visitor is treated as if he is the Archbishop of Canterbury on a pastoral visit, and her husband for all the spirituality--and, especially, for the sincere hand extended to us all for understanding, for fellowship and for the consecration of everything to the glory of He who created us all.