BY SOLA SOLANKE
In the run up to the Synod, the challenge of securing an interview session with the Lord Bishop, Diocese of Lagos West, the Rt.Rev.Dr. James Olusola Odedeji became daunting, given his tight schedule. So, after waiting for days for his response, a moment of respite came on Thursday 13th May, 2021.
Q: How far has the Diocese realised its set objectives outlined since the last Synod?
A: We thank God for safety and for the preservation of our souls. It has been tough with the various lockdowns here and there, from the federal and state governments. A lot of our programmes were actually disrupted, but we were able to do a lot through online services like Webinar. Through this, we were able to gather our priests together around a table and through online conferencing. We want to appreciate God for that provision. It could have been worse if we were unable to get across to our teeming population, especially for a Diocese like Lagos West. We were able to ensure that the three houses that make up the Synod, our members, and the Clergy are well connected, united, and on purpose. Our three cardinal assignments for this Diocese are dear to our hearts, and we have been able to do a lot, according to the will of God for us at this time.
Q: What lessons has the Church learnt during this pandemic?
A: We have learnt so many lessons. One: that everyone must be prudent, because it could have been worse if, during the pandemic, the maintenance of the Church had been impossible. Aside from this, the parishioners also need spiritual help. Like the hospital, the Church cannot be closed down. So, during the pandemic, every Church must realise that they cannot eat with both hands. Two: we must be able to reach our people technologically. We’ve learnt a lesson that we are in a global village, and that movement should not be a barrier. Even members who were stranded abroad due to non-travelling guidelines were connecting with us in our services, and we read their comments from Canada, US, Australia etc. Before now, we only beamed important programmes occasionally, unlike now when prayer meetings, Bible study are now on air, on YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms. Another lesson we’ve learnt is hygiene. Nobody can come into the Church now without going through some protocols. And, more importantly, we have been available for our families; because, during the period of lockdown, we enjoyed family harmony and coexistence more, though at the expense of income. That notwithstanding, most families got more united during the period. So, these are some of the lessons that we’ve learnt during this period of the COVID -19 pandemic.
Q: Still on COVID- 19, how has the Church adhered to the protocols as outlined by the Government?
A: I’ll like to say that in our own denomination, most of our members are very educated and enlightened; hence they don’t joke with the protocols. People are politely asked not to enter the Church if they are not with their nose masks; using the Bishop who wears his nose mask 24/7 as an example. Even on the pulpit, I preach with the mask on and disinfect my hands regularly, because leadership comes with a lot of responsibilities. Even my priests show good examples in this regard. So, in the Lagos West Diocese where we are privileged to supervise, we make it a compulsory phenomenon. I make bold to say that our Churches have been adhering well to the protocols.
Q: During this COVID-19 pandemic, the Diocese lost some members, are you thinking of setting aside a Remembrance Day for the lost souls?
A: Well, we may have to consider that. The way our Church is governed, you can’t just wake up one morning and say, because they are doing it somewhere, you want to do it here. And, for all you care, those who died during the pandemic might not have died due to COVID -19, but due to some underlying ailments which might not be unrelated to ageing. In all these, for those who died, their families do come around to book for remembrance services. And, for your information, in the Anglican Church, we have two days, November 1st being ‘’All Saints’ Day’’ for all those who have gone, and November 2nd which is ‘’All Souls’ Day’’. So, those two days are specifically chosen by our Church Fathers to remember those who have laboured, those who have given us this cherished heritage. However, if any, member of the Church wants a memorial service for their departed ones, it is welcome. But, we may decide on other arrangements as time goes on.
Q: At a recent ‘’Conference on the Church in the 21st Century’’, a decision was taken that no Church service must exceed 120 minutes. Are you still sticking to that decision?
A: That’s what we do in the Lagos West Diocese. My priests are aware that no service must exceed two hours. If we talk of sermon which normally takes time, you can still say many things within a short time. The way the Church operates is like a proverb; you don’t feed someone who is emaciated and very lean on the same day. It has to be consistent feeding. Even the message of God must be consistent. People should be consistently reminded of what they have heard, what they have known; then you carry them from the known to the unknown. We should know that preaching for three to four hours to the adult is a waste of time. He will switch off at a time. It’s like the adult class. We thank God that the man we have here in the Cathedral is very articulate, and he knows his onions. There’s no time you listen to him, even within a short time, that you won’t have something to take home. If every priest sticks to that, I think a maximum of two hours should be okay for a service. That is what we advocate here. That’s the more reason we don’t waste time during wedding services which doesn’t exceed one hour thirty minutes at most, in spite of all manner of thanksgivings. This is how the Church should manage time in the 21st Century.
Q: How is the Church reacting to the recent pronouncement by the Presidential Steering Committee on the new variants of COVID-19 protocol?
A: Well, the Church will have to comply with whatever the Government is doing for the safety of its people; but I have an idea about what we should do. What I think we should do is to have our borders properly protected. You will see that COVID 19 is going down drastically, and we are not resting on our oars; but our borders are too porous. In other countries, you don’t enter somebody’s country until you are certified healthy enough, so that you don’t contaminate the place. In this regard, the Federal Government should be more proactive in that area. This COVID-19 was brought by those coming from abroad. It didn’t start from my village. We heard it’s now ravaging India; and here in Nigeria the first points of contact are the epicentres like Lagos and Abuja where we have international airports. And, we know that at these airports, anything goes! The efforts of Government on COVID-19 are appreciated, but such efforts should also be extended to the security of our nation. If only efforts are galvanised towards securing our borders very well, we wouldn’t have suffered losses to COVID-19 as we did as a nation. We thank God specifically for the Governor. He gave us in Lagos State for the way he has been responding to the pandemic.
Q: What’s the reaction of the Church to the ethnic tension currently being experienced nationally and the looming food insecurity in the country?
A: Where there is injustice, there can never be peace. The serious agitation that we have in our nation today is not unconnected with the fact that people are not being treated well. Many years ago, when people had a relaxed environment to operate, they weren’t bothered about who was in power. The current agitation is because appointments into offices are one-sided. The way and manner our fore-fathers are cajoled or brainwashed is no longer tenable because everybody has advanced technologically. So, when someone came on board and said he was for nobody, we all clapped. But the situation on ground now has proven us wrong. As priests, we hear a lot from our members. When you say ‘One Nigeria’, they would respond, ‘can there be one Nigeria?’ Our women are being raped, while our daughters are being humiliated everywhere. Even those of us that are here, nobody can tell me that he or she is satisfied with the situation of things around us, especially with the environmental challenges we are facing. So, my view is that there can’t be peace where there is injustice. And, where a poor man cannot eat, a rich man will not be able to sleep. Even in church governance, you must be sensitive to the needs of your followers. And; there is no leadership without followership. You cannot be indifferent to the yearnings of your followers. We are all in a panicky situation where people cannot travel in peace. People will therefore agitate where they are not being fairly treated.
Q: Will the Church therefore subscribe to self-help, in terms of the citizenry defending themselves?
A: The Church will never subscribe to or advocate for self-help because we will get to a point where innocent people will suffer more. My view is that our leaders should wake up. When the present government came into power in 2015, some were of the view that Buhari would not do well, while others felt he should be given the benefit of doubt. By now, I would have thought that Buhari would have proved the doubting Thomases wrong by ensuring that life gets better. We must be honest that things weren’t easy when he came in, and that’s why they grabbed the word, change! That was why he was able to get it, because people were tired of the old river. Who doesn’t want change when it is good? All hope is not lost. He can still use the last two years to correct all the wrong impressions, because people are already indicting him of culpability. This is what I think the President should do at this material time.
Q: On Youth Development, how far has the Diocesan Youth Council keyed into your programmes?
A: I want to thank God that our youths have responded so well. It will interest you to note that during COVID-19 pandemic, we are having our programmes through Zoom, Webinar and teleconferencing etc. and, we have a dynamic leader in the Ven. Kolawole Arire who has successfully led these children effectively. A lot of our youth have graduated from Bishop Akinola Foundation where they were trained technical and vocational professions like bricklaying, electrical technology, catering, fashion designing, etc. This is in an attempt to empower our youths, so they won’t be looking for white-collar jobs. This Diocese wasn’t bad when we came in, but we’ve been able to improve on what we inherited.
Q: With the Synod 2021 around the corner, and given the recent pronouncements on COVID-19 protocols, are there going to be changes to the Synod programme?
A: Yes. There will be a few changes, in the sense that we are only going to accommodate fewer delegates in the Cathedral. We will ensure the remaining delegates are carried along. They will have all their documents, their files, and all the programmes of the Synod. We will give them an ID whereby they can connect with us online, and will even give them an opportunity of making their contributions, as we did last year. It was participatory, and that is the essence of the Synod. We are going to ensure that we don’t violate the guidelines. And, the guideline we are adopting is to ensure that the auditorium does not accommodate more than 50%. In fact, we are planning not up to 50%, so that there will be social distancing, and still be protected. It’s for our good, if it is done with good intentions. This Synod is so important because it’s the 1st Session of the 8th Synod, that’s where we are going to set the agenda for the next three years that makes a Synod.
Q; Can we have an update on the level of work on the Bishopscourt, and the proposed new Cathedral?
A: We got the Government approval on the Bishopscourt in the GRA completed. Work is at the completion stage. From the foundation to the present stage, neither was fundraising organised, nor any parish levied. Very few individuals have been helpful. God has been the major financier. We hope to dedicate it before Christmas, all things being equal. We got to know about the availability of the land through Chief Osunkeye, while Zenith Bank facilitated the purchase, which we have fully paid off.
On the proposed new Cathedral, consultations are ongoing. We hope to start construction before end of 2021, God willing.
Q: Given your tight schedule, one wonders if you do create time for leisure. If you do, how do you unwind?
A: This is both a funny and serious question. There is a popular cliché which states that if you don’t pick a day for rest, your body will pick a day for you which you may not like. In all these, we find a way of ensuring that we find time out of no time to rest. People are always wondering seeing us throughout the year without breaking down. One; it’s not unconnected with God’s grace. Number two; know what we do at a given time, ensuring that we don’t overshoot our limits. We listen to our body chemistry. For instance, Monday would have been a rest day for me, but for the students from Archbishop Vining Theological College, Akure who were on a 10-day visit to the Diocese of Lagos West for their annual College Mission. I wasn’t around when they came, it’s only normal for me to wish them goodbye as they depart. So, on Tuesday I will be conspicuously unseen, going through my charge; but on Wednesday, I will be in the office to put final touches to the preparations for the Synod. Normally, after Synod, maybe for a few days, we will take a break. We will cope, because we have capable hands, which many of you are aware of.
Q: What’s your message to the parishioners as we prepare for 2021 Synod?
A: They must be expectant. Whenever you are approaching the presence of God, you must be expectant that God is going to do a new thing. Our God is a God of new beginnings. He is ready to show more lights, and get us to areas of new discoveries; things we should do, and things we should drop, so that His work will have a smooth running. They should be prayerful. We’ve just had very successful pre-synod prayer convocation. Members should be expectant of blessings. He will be giving directions on where He wants us to go; what He wants us to achieve/accomplish in the next three sessions that will make for a synod, God helping us. Thank you.
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