RECOGNISING OUR UNSUNG HEROES OF THE 20TH CENTURY. TRIBUTE TO AN IMAGINATIVE MAN OF GOD, THE RT. REVD ABRAHAM OLUYEMI AWOSAN, B.A. (HONS)
In the age of celebrities and cheap popularity, it is hardly surprising that the real heroes of our times are often left unnoticed or unacknowledged. Celebrities are celebrated to a very ridiculous extent while those who 'made' or 'nurtured' them may not be recognised. Even the church is not free of this; we celebrate some ministers of God who suddenly jumped into fame and popularity while we fail to acknowledge those who have worked and laboured tirelessly in very humble manners for the sake of the Gospel. Where are the pioneers of the Christian faith? It took close to 200 years for the Church in Nigeria to recognise the services of the likes of Bishop Ajayi Crowther for all that he meant to the emancipation of the black race.
To a great extent the Anglican Church (CMS, as popularly known) has a lot to its commendation for the evangelization of the geographical entity called Nigeria. Since its inception through the mission of 1842 through the River Niger, it has continued to reach the towns and villages of Nigeria with the light of the gospel. This is most evident in its presence either through a church building or a primary school even in the most remote of villages in so many parts of the country. The CMS and other colleagues such as the Wesleyan Methodists made enormous contributions to education in Nigeria. They produced the early elites of the Nigerian nation.
But on November 7, 1929 was born at Ilesa the man who would later become an Anglican priest, teacher and bishop in the 20th century. He later became a pioneer in his own right, not only in furthering the gospel of Christ wherever he worked but also because he was literally so in many regards especially in the singular privilege of being a pioneering Anglican bishop in two new Anglican dioceses, namely Owo and Oke-Osun. By the very meaning of the word pioneer, things are not always easy, but they work hard to the extent that the succeeding generations of leaders reap much of the fruits of their labour. This is exactly true of Bishop Abraham Oluyemi Awosan. His ministry was characterized by sweat, hard work and creative thinking under the guidance of God.
Following his elementary education, Bishop Awosan received his call to the ordained ministry. First, he completed his training as a catechist in 1952, and was posted to far away Ute, now in Ose Local Government Area of Ondo State between 1953 and 1954, from where he returned to Melville Hall, the Anglican theological college, Ibadan, to train for the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church. He became a Clerk in Holy Orders with his diaconate ordination on December 23, 1956 and was ordained priest in December 1957. He was involved in training of catechists for Ibadan Diocese at Mackay Hall, O?ogbo whilst also acting as the Vicar of All Saints Church (now cathedral) O?ogbo. He left for further studies at St Augustine's College, Canterbury, England in 1960 and returned in 1961 to continue his training job. He bagged his Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours from the University of Ife (now OAU) in 1970. He served in many other positions including being Youth Chaplain to the Diocese of Ibadan and also Canon of St James the Great, Okebola, Ibadan. From 1971, he worked at Immnauel College of Theology, Ibadan, where he taught worship/liturgy. From Ibadan, Canon Awosan was later appointed to be Provost of St Michael's Cathedral, Kaduna in the Diocese of Northern Nigeria (later Diocese of Kaduna) in 1977.
It was in 1982 that an action in the College of Bishops of the nascent Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) was to determine another course for the rest of his ministry. In December of that year, the Very Revd Abraham Oluyemi Awosan was elected to become the pioneering bishop of the proposed See of Owo Anglican Diocese. With his consecration alongside Bishops Jeremiah Akeredolu (Akoko) and Emmanuel Gbonigi (Akure) on February 25 1983, the Right Revd Abraham Oluyemi Awosan became the maiden bishop of the new Diocese of Owo with his enthronement at the Cathedral of St Andrew, Imola, Owo, on March 1, 1983. It is impossible to catalogue the giant strides of this Man of God.
Bishop Awosan who started with very little developed the diocese in so many ways for which he is not always given credit. Why would anyone be interested in this unsung hero? This is a man with genuine interest in the Church of God, who ought to be celebrated for his visionary and insightful leadership; for his dynamism and evangelistic passion; for his ability to relate with and encourage young priests; for his bravery and doggedness in the face of daunting circumstances. I celebrate a man who never gave up thinking about progress and development in the face of challenging situation; a man who was never afraid to be different as long as he could root his actions in genuine Christian theology.
As a liturgist with some publications to his credit including the 'Church Year Calendar' or the Yoruba 'Odun Ijo Olorun', he persuaded the clergy of his diocese to use white liturgical colour at funerals in a context where everyone was used to purple/violet or black because of the pain and sorrow associated with death. But Bishop Oluyemi Awosan, like the early church fathers, looked beyond death to resurrection which is symbolised in white. While neighbouring dioceses were reflecting on the sorrow that comes with death, he changed the focus to glorious resurrection, and that death is only a means to eternity-a very creative theological thinking! What was braver was his ability to move from theological thinking to praxis.
He was a conscientious evangelist and keen church planter who was never discouraged by any opposition to his ideas. Of the 20 churches he planted in Owo Diocese, St Peter's Church Rainbow Owo is an example of how developed, strong and virile, they have become. The start of this church did not receive the support of all and it is hardly a secret that his cathedral was greatly opposed to it. 25 churches were planted during his tenure in Episcopal See of Oke-Osun.
It is interesting that the University of Sunderland where I currently serve calls itself 'investor in people'. I would submit that Bishop Abraham Oluyemi Awosan was truly an 'investor in people' in so many ways; his excellent foresight is not least evident in his systematic but sure approach to training and retraining of clergy in his diocese. His was a policy of training clergy both at home in Nigerian universities and abroad so that the church could benefit from their diverse perspectives-educating the clergy for the edification of the Church. He believed that these people would become the leaders of the church in the future, a principle that has been justified by the contributions that have been made or are being made to the church by many of the clergy who benefitted from the insight of this prophet of God. Apart from formal university education, he secured for many what was then known as 'Overseas Parish Experience' in England. It is to his credit that the likes of Bishop S. S. Olayanju recently retired Bishop Kabba went abroad for further studies, Bishop Nathaniel Fa?ogbon who pursued further studies in Ecumenism at Mindolo, Zambia, the Venerable Michael Atanlogun who underwent Industrial Chaplaincy training at Sheffield, UK, the Venerable Folorunso Asoko who benefitted from his Overseas Parish Experience scheme in England and, of course, yours sincerely, the Ven Dr Stephen Ayodeji Fagbemi who went to pursue his degree in theology in Nottingham, among others.
Bishop Awosan would not be deterred by the meagre funds of the diocese but he was rather creative in sourcing external funding to support the training of his clergy. He was committed to this because he knew that these clergy would later become the leaders of the church. He knew that he would quit the stage one day and hence the need to equip the clergy for leadership. He was right! On November 7, 1999, at the age of 70, he retired from full time ministry as the Anglican Bishop of Oke-Osun with the headquarters at Gbongan. As if to confirm his belief, this visionary man was succeeded by one of the priests he had preferred archdeacon in Owo, who had worked closely with him and had benefitted from the further studies that Bishop Awosan had encouraged-the Rt Revd N.O. Fasogbon. His second provost, S.S. Olayanju, later became bishop of Kabba diocese.
A very astonishing aspect of this man of God was his ability to relate to people of younger generations without difficulties. Although he belonged to a different generation his thinking was very relevant to ours. A great motivator, Bishop Awosan was one of the very first, if not the first, Anglican Bishop in Nigeria, to appoint a Diocesan Evangelist; his support for evangelical outreach and young clergy is remarkable. With the support of his wife, Bishop Awosan was one of the first, if not the first, to create the now famous office of diocesan 'Lady worker' in his diocese; not only that, he also obtained the necessary funding through his overseas links to purchase a vehicle devoted to Women's Work in his diocese. It is to his credit and that of his late wife, Mrs Margaret Bolajoko Awosan that Owo Diocese became a pacesetter in setting up a Weaving Industry to train young ladies for a future career in weaving. Whatever problems he had could be put to the fact that he was probably ahead of his time. 'Investor in people', I would submit, encapsulates a vital aspect of the Episcopal ministry of this Man of God, Abraham Oluyemi Awosan, Bishop of Owo (1983-1993), Bishop of Oke-Osun (1993-1999). He not only engaged in building physical structures for his new dioceses he also engaged in rigorous training and investment in people, lay and clergy. Old habits, they say, die hard; for Bishop Awosan, a former trainer of catechists in Osogbo and later a teacher of priests in Ibadan, it was impossible to get training and teaching out of him and his DNA. In fact, this is a vital aspect of the ministry of bishops.
The magnificent bishop's court in Owo is a testament to his taste and vision and he raised probably more than 70 percent of the funds from connections outside of the diocese of Owo. With his translation to Oke-Osun Diocese at his inauguration on St Paul's day, January 25 1993, he went with the same passion to serve God and his people. To Gbongan it was a second coming as he had been the Vicar and Chairman of the then DCC at St Paul's Church, Gbongan for a short spell in 1971 before he moved to become a lecturer at Immanuel College of Theology, Ibadan.
On the day of his enthronement at Gbongan, Bishop Awosan marked the start of his Episcopal ministry with the planting of a church in a part of the town where there was not one. As if history was to repeat itself, Bishop Awosan started another Bishop's court that was nearly at completion on the eve of his retirement on November 7 1999 on attaining the age of 70. One cannot catalogue the many achievements of this Man of God; ironically he has hardly been duly acknowledged for his many contributions to the physical and spiritual life of the Church and its saints. At the age of 80, Baba Oluyemi Awosan continues to be strong and active. One can only wish him many more years with us, to share his great insights and support the cause of the gospel. The church ignores people like him to its peril. The sooner their resources are tapped the better. Many hearty cheers to this great Man of God, on attaining the age of 80 on November 7, 2009. Many congratulations to a very dear Father-in-the Lord from whom I have received and learnt much and whose vision and ministry have greatly impacted ours.
The Ven Dr Stephen Ayo Fagbemi