Ogundana: A life lived in full

As I joined numerous friends, family and the Anglican Church of Nigeria to celebrate the life and times of the Rt. Reverend Elijah Oluremi Ogundana, I will reflect on what his sojourn with us meant for the church and the community he loved and served so diligently.

The exemplary life and times of Bishop Ogundana, is the result of a combination of attributes, hard work, endurance, determination and unwavering moral conviction, even if it meant taking on the entire world all by himself. At the end of it all, we can describe him as a child of grace and destiny and a blessing to the church, his hometown, and to the people of his generation. Ogundana is certainly a testimony to the mercy of God, one whose birth reminds us of the prophecy that a child was to be born who would be a stumbling block to many. Ogundana would, on the score of his influence and popularity, be accorded a veritable place of honor among contemporary Anglican bishops. There was no dull moment in his entire life, be it as a priest in the church or as a public servant during his little foray with the state.

Bishop Ogundana’s splendid biography written by his lawyer son Babajide Ogundana which will launch on December 11 at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs to commence a week long funeral celebration of the late Bishop, is a personal interpretation of a father’s life by a son, who had the advantage of witnessing history as it unfolded around the many parsonages, the Cathedral and the Remo bishop’s court where his parents were privileged to live and serve God. Written in beautiful and eloquent prose, it is a testament to the church, of course, but also to the goodness of God to the family and the lineage from which he came in Iluomoba, Ekiti State. The story of Bishop Ogundana’s life, birth, growth, upbringing and career in the public service, his call to the priestly career, and his consecration as a prelate, make for fascinating reading because it is not just a long journey in the service of the church, but equally a journey in politics, and community service. As a biography, we can say that it ultimately describes a well-fulfilled life, but it was also a life full of exceptional trials, and triumphs that stretched from the Bishop birth to his retirement and transition. Ogundana had an independent mind and was a practical and courageous cleric. He was an admirable person and his life career was remarkable. He schooled at Christ School, Ado Ekiti, the Eton of Ekiti land in those days when the Anglican moral values and good manners instilled in boys were central to secondary school education.

Given his restless mind, strong principles and his discontent for what passed as old time convention in the church, very few priests of his personally trait would have risen to the top of the profession as a prelate. But he was destined to get to the top and he did that in all the professions he had even those prior to becoming a priest.

From his humble birth in Iluomoba, Ekiti State to his death a month ago, he experienced life in many shapes and forms. He was a teacher, an agriculturist, a public servant, a priest, a bishop, and a social entrepreneur for his home state. It is a puzzle how he managed to fulfill all these different roles without succumbing to the kind of pressure that would have laid many others low. At each stage he encountered enormous challenges but he overcame each and every one of them. Throughout the book, Babajide provides glimpses of a truly ethical life of the Nigerian past from which his father drank, of how Nigerian institutions and people were once held to the highest standard, and how society demanded accountability as a way of regulating communal and national life. The ethical values that governed social and political life were based not on religious teachings alone, but on traditional customs and habits of the heart that guided the high and the low in both their public and their private lives. Regrettably, as Babajide explains, these ideals are gone today. The very common situations we encounter in contemporary Nigeria today, where political appointees posing as worthy leaders of their people steal billions of naira and loot their national treasury with impunity. Ogundana’s early beginning was the era when a father would say to his child, “remember the child of whom you are” a reminder that carried a great deal of weight, ensuring the honor and dignity of the lineage and the proper ordering of the society at large. Of course, there are still clerics in the rank and file of the church who summon the courage to preach truth to power such as it happened in a Lagos church a few years ago, when a preacher told a party leader who came to his family church to thank God for gaining his freedom from Kirikiri jail, to which he was sentenced for allegedly defrauding the state, to ‘Go and Sin no More.’ Fortunately, this is an indication that all is not lost in the church of our birth.

Bishop Ogundana’s training as a seminarian at the old Melville Hall in Ibadan (now Immanuel College of Theology) where he met my late father Venerable Michael Olupona was a baptism of fire involving occasional conflicts with some senior priests. This was no surprise, given his youthful rebellious behavior in the earlier years of his life and during his secondary education. All of these experiences prepared him for a career in the priesthood that would involve alternating periods of upheaval and success. I suppose that he succeeded where others had failed because he developed confidence in himself from day one. It is this confidence that gave him the strength and the energy later in life to engage church and civil authorities at practically every stage of his career. I recall what happened on the day of his enthronement as the Lord Bishop of Ijebu Remo diocese when the officiating priest called on the delegates to come out to take their oath of office and swear their obedience to their new bishop. The delegates were slow in coming out, led by quite a number of dignified personalities, including Chief Mrs. Awolowo. Suddenly Ogundana stepped out to repeat in clear language that members of the Ijebu Remo diocese should come out! Here was a man who had just arrived to take possession of his cathedral, and he wasted no time in exhibiting a no-nonsense attitude to members of the congregation and elected church officials, irrespective of their status and class.

I never knew how much I had in common with Ogundana until I began reading his biography. I greatly admire his impatience with mediocrity; his intolerance of authoritarianism, and his desire to make a difference in whatever position he found himself, as well as the way he never imitated the old obsolete status quo but created new structures in response to the challenges of life that faced him and those under his care. Perhaps the greatest reason for his success as a cleric was that because he never allowed fear to steer his vision and mission, his progressive agenda would always be pursued without fear.

This is a lesson for Nigerian leaders, church or non-church that have found themselves in position of power to change the lives of the common people for the better.

Babajide’s book is a meticulous and wide-ranging work. As an account of the life and times of Bishop Ogundana, it conveys the substantive essence of the man’s life: his birth, upbringing, and growth, and his career in public service before and after ordination. Babajide also provides information concerning the life and politics of the church, the challenges and achievements of his father, church constitutional matters, and abundant information about the creation of the new diocese where the respected Chief and Mrs. Awolowo and the Ikenne cohort wielded substantial influence. The book is a lesson in the history of the Anglican Church, a church that began as a state church that never broke free of the influence of the civil politics, as this memoir beautifully reflects. However, the book also provides a framework for deep soul-searching in a church that many of us view not only as a place of worship, but as a heritage, inheritance, and a home. Very, very clearly, we are exposed to what many have often considered to be a challenge in the polity, structure, and history of the Anglican Church. Make no mistake; the episodes are not isolated cases. One can replicate them in many places throughout the length and breadth of the history of the church.

The enduring value of this biography and the lesson to be learned from the stories Babajide has told about his father’s life is not about apportioning blame to any of the people mentioned in the book. It is clearly an indication that all is not well with the Anglican Church and that those who love the Church must do something about it. This is not an isolated case. We are privileged to have the opportunity to read about this bishop. I know of many, many children of the Anglican clergy whose experience of life in the vicarage was equally difficult. The impact of such acrimonious relationships among the rank and file of the clergy on the church itself is enormous, and may partly explain why many youth and children from great Anglican families seek succor and spiritual guidance in places outside their fathers’ church.

The biography covers a wide range of moral, ethical, theological, and cultural themes, including stories of abundant gracefulness as well as intermittent bitterness on both sides of the deep division and cleavages in the Church. These stories are exceptionally delicate, yet they are the product of the ordinary life and times of many people who were raised or lived in the parsonages.

This book is a must-read for every Anglican and for members of the general public who are interested in the affairs of the church, not only because it chronicles the life and times of a great Nigerian prelate, but because of the lessons of life that are embedded in the work on individual, personal, spiritual, and societal levels. Babajide does an excellent job of balancing a critical perspective on the Anglican Church with a call for the restoration of its dignity and glorious past, which contemporary Nigerian life has deeply eroded. A judicious reader will quickly discern the great degree of appreciation the author has for the organisation to which his father dedicated his life. As soon becomes clear to any reader of this book, it is precisely because Babajide is so personally invested in the Church that he draws our attention to both its merits and the ways in which it has fallen short of its great potential.

Reading this book raised many questions for me, including why the appointment of bishops in Nigeria has become a major issue of crisis in the Anglican Church, whereas in England, where the tradition originated, many are satisfied with preferment. In England, whenever the cathedral preaching roster announces the invitation of a Canon professor from Oxford, a cathedral that is normally empty is suddenly packed full, because many of the congregation take delight in listening to the Canon of the church preach a good sermon. Many of these church fathers do not dream of ever “having a mitre in their pocket” (to use a phrase that is credited to the late Primate Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye), not to mention ever wearing one in their lifetimes.

Ogundana ran the race to the end with a stoic mind, he was never disillusioned, obstinately glued to position he considered to be right, and content to run across the grain of contemporary opinion he judged wrong.

An intensely hard-working man with a passion for politics, he had opportunities to serve his state and the nation. In his capacity as the Chairman of Oduduwa Investment and at a lesser rank as a member of the Ado Textile Mill board of directors, he demonstrated his cleverness and honesty. He showed Nigerians that there is nothing wrong in a cleric dabbling into state and national politics. The lesson for us today in Nigeria is that people of conscience and deep fear of God ran away from serving the nation, we are left with state and national governance filled with people who have no fear of God in dealing with their fellow men and women. How else do we explain why our leaders steal millions of dollars meant for providing good education, health program and good roads to foreign accounts while they watch citizens of their nation suffer in abject poverty. Why do we wonder that foreign governments who have ample information on where Nigerian looted assets abroad are kept are reluctant to surrender them? While they want to keep the money, which through our foolishness and greed have transferred to foreign accounts, they are also very much aware that upon their return to Nigeria, the assets will be re-looted by the same privileged group in the corridors of power. Because we are incurably corrupt most countries do not want to do business with us. Yes, we do not think much of this corruption cancer that has inflicted Nigeria.

In the life of a great person, a little rain does fall. Like some other religious leaders before and after him, his bishopric equally faced challenges and it witnessed a period of faction and rebellion that temporarily split the Remo Anglican Diocese into two camps. Undoubtedly, the conflict took a toll on him, his family, and many on the other side of the divide. The ultimate negotiation for peace was torturous, but at long last, the Remo church was reconciled into a unifying whole and today it is the seat of the Archbishop of the Lagos diocese, Most Reverend Fape. The storm of life as the scripture promises the elect has not prevailed against his church.

May the good Lord comfort all who were victims of this crisis and may Ijebu Remo Diocese continue to grow from strength to strength.

Well done thou faithful servant of God. Enter the rest of their Lord.

Prof. Olupona wrote from Harvard University.



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