Right Reverend (Dr) Williams Oluwarotimi Aladekugbe is the Anglican Bishop of Oyo Diocese. In this interview by GABRIEL OSHOKHA, he speaks about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Church.
Some states in Nigeria recently made public their decision to lift the ban on religious activities undermining the fact that COVID-19 thrives where people are clustered together, how do you see such decision and why?
For those states in the northern part of our country in particular, the decision is premature because apart from Lagos State being the epicenter of the pandemic, the next place that comes to mind is Kano and some other northern states. So, to have hurriedly eased the lockdown of places of worship is unthinkable at this time and the question I asked when I heard about it is, why now? Why now in the sense that for us, we knew that the Muslim festival was in view and so to some extent we see religious coloration in the decision. Besides, I see it as a way of not agreeing with the Federal Government because if the regulatory body has given a regulation, I think it’s only normal for everyone to abide by.
To some extent too, maybe the states are trying to play politics but even if it’s politics, I do not see Kano State playing such politics because it belongs to the same ruling party as the Federal Government of Nigeria and that shouldn’t have been. I also want to observe that the northerners do not see the danger inherent in this pandemic because the WhatsApp messages we received sometime back connoted that COVID-19 does not exist. And again, we even saw an individual who after washing his hands drank the water thereof. So, for me, I think it’s abnormal and not even when they are still telling us that we have not got to the peak of the pandemic.
International health organisations have come to terms with the truth that we may have to live with COVID-19 until its final exit, God knows when, while observing necessary precautionary measures. Do you think it will be safe for Christians to engage in usual church activities given the rampaging COVID-19 and why?
We are grateful to the Federal Government for the reopening of churches for worship. We are still expecting the state government as directed by the Federal Government to give the protocols to follow in reopening. Once the protocols are given, the church will follow to the letter. Church leaders will ensure total compliance.
COVID-19 caught everyone unawares and even clerics had no premonition about the outbreak of the pandemic, why?
As you said, it caught everybody unawares; we were never prepared for it. Spiritually we were never prepared for it, socially we were never prepared for it and economically we were never prepared for it. Even though we all knew right from the beginning of the year that 2020 is leap year which is usually associated with some unforeseen occurrences, no one thought of COVID-19 or ever thought it was going to get to this level. Maybe we have taken God for granted or maybe we have thought God is always there for us because our faith has not been this way tested. So, we never prepared for it because we have assumed that God being on our side let it be leap year or any year, we will scale through. We never knew it was going to turn out this way because of our faith, because of our religiosity and because of the number of places of worship and adherents of different religions all over the place, so it caught everybody unawares.
Online mode of worship has temporarily replaced the conventional method of fellowship by Christians in churches because of the ban on religious activities by government. Do you think this mode of worship can sustain the faith of believers and how?
Temporarily it can sustain the faith of believers because after all they have something to view and listen to that will encourage them and keep them in their Christian living but it cannot permanently do what it is expected to do because people come to church for worship and fellowship. Now, online services do not accommodate fellowship, that is, the coming together of people. Also, when people come to worship they participate in church activities which enliven them. Such activities include people helping to read the Bible; people helping to say some prayers, people helping to clean the church and people helping to take care of the children. Some of them enjoy fulfillment in such services but now that is gone. In the online mode of worship, the pastor will just minister, say the prayers and do everything all alone. For instance, someone recently called me on phone from Lagos that one old man asked his children to drive him to a church because for him, it is like life had been taken away from him for not being in the church for two months because some people believe that it is only in the church that prayers are answered. Remember when Jesus was telling his followers that a time will come when they will be chased out of the synagogue and the temple, it was to the effect that they will be persecuted or that life was going to be extinct for them (John 16:2). So, for many people when they don’t go to church to worship, it’s like you are taking life out of them. So, the current system is just to keep our members on, just to encourage them so they don’t go back to whatever they were doing before, so at least, they are encouraged as faithful. But then, how long do we do that? So, it cannot totally answer the yearnings of people. So, I will pray that in no distant time we will be able to come together for fellowship and interactions. And don’t forget too that so many of our members only have the opportunity to see one another in the church on Sundays, exchange pleasantries, do business together, share ideas and then go back home to improve on whatever they are doing. But with the online mode of worship, that avenue has been closed. So, it can never take the place of the regular worship life but then it’s just a means to cushion this lockdown temporarily.
Are there economic and or social effects of the pandemic?
Economically, it has affected all suppliers of diesel and petrol to churches as churches’ generators are not in use. Taxi cab drivers that convey worshippers to churches, including tricycles and commercial motorcycles are badly hit. Also affected are those who sell biscuits, soft drinks, etc, for entertainment of children in churches.
What efforts has the Anglican Communion been making to cushion the effects of COVID-19 pandemic on its congregation?
I want to give thanks to God for this opportunity to reach out to our members. The Anglican Church has done greatly in terms of cushioning the effects of the pandemic. Right from the National Church, there was a time during this pandemic when the Primate of our church with other delegates had to meet with the chairman of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha and donated some items worth over N10 million. Aside from that, in some rural areas, specifically my Diocese Oyo, there was a time we got some foodstuffs close to N1 million which we distributed to our members. We also encourage so many of our churches to reach to our members and I am sure that archdeaconry has also made arrangements for palliatives to our members. There is no way the Church can solve all problems, but to the best of our ability we are trying to do the little we can do and people have come to express their appreciation for the little the Church has been able to do.
What word of encouragement do you have for the body of Christ amidst the trial of their faith by COVID-19 pandemic?
Indeed, it is a trial of faith and as someone once said, “A quitter will never win, and a winner will never quit.” So, I want to encourage the body of Christ not to quit; they should remain closer to God. The Bible is so clear when it says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” So, this is the time we should get hooked to the Lord Jesus Christ, get engaged to Him more than ever before because He is the only answer; nobody has the answer. Because if answers were to be available, the United States would have provided the answer; if answers were to be available, China would have provided the answer; if answers were to be available, the United Kingdom would have provided the answer. Ditto Italy, Germany, Spain, Brazil, etc.
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