Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Last Sunday’s service turned into a teary and noisy affair at the St. Mary’s Cathedral in Banjul, where the Rev Jacob Okiki Cole announced that he was meditating from the sacred pulpit of the cathedral for the last time as a priest in the Anglican Diocese, after His Lordship Bishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson had asked him to surrender his licence, 14 years to the month of his ordination into the deaconry.
“I shall never mediate on God’s word with you again until I drink with you the wine from the master’s cup in our father’s kingdom,” said Rev Cole, who was revealing the details of a decision of his superior to dismiss him from the clergy of the Anglican Diocese. Cole was ordained in 1994 along with the Rev Francis Edward Rigobert, who was also defrocked by Bishop Tilewa Johnson, after a few months in a lurid but still “unsubstantiated scandal”.
Taking the text for his sermon from the Old Testament reading for the day in Exodus chapter 3, verses 1 to 15, the Rev Cole told a dazed and weeping congregation of a communication he received by text message from Bishop Johnson - currently on holiday in the UK, where he attended the recent Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops - asking him to surrender his licence by Monday, September 1, if he should maintain the “insubordinate act of refusing” to take himself and his family on posting to the church’s mission station in Farafenni. In addition, the alleged text message ordered the priest and his family to immediately vacate their residence on the church’s property on 2 Pignard Street, Banjul. Cole, 40, is married and with three young children.
The priest explained his decision not to comply with the bishop’s order because, as he put it to the now snivelling congregation, he is the most senior of three fulltime priests and has fulfilled tours of duty on posting in the provinces, especially at Basse, where he did three years of service.
He also reminded them that over the years he patiently and quietly accepted his reduction to the status of a non-stipendiary priest, one that he had never opted for when he was ordained.
In 14 years of service, the priest pointed out, he had never been allowed to serve with full responsibility in any parish in Banjul. But the bishop had always designed “abasing” capacities for him as assistant, associate, deputy, sub and other punitive and inconsequential positions as suited the bishop’s whims and fancies.
He spoke of his calling to the priesthood with his O Levels in hand in similar terms as when Moses stood with nothing but a goatherd’s rod in his hand in front of the burning bush and received God’s call. There and then, he said, he decided to offer himself to the ministry and, even though it was a daunting task, he knew God was preparing to give him a new life just as He gave Moses in that mission – a life for the better – one of service.
From that experience and with that enthusiasm, he recalled, even before talking to his own father, he took his school certificate to Bishop Tilewa Johnson and declared his wish to offer himself to the service of God.
But under Bishop Tilewa Johnson, the order today to dismiss him is God’s way of answering prayer and saying to him as He did to Moses – “I have seen the suffering of my people, I have seen the pressure the taskmaster has put them under; I have seen their affliction and I am concerned about their suffering. I have heard their cry”.
“Enough is enough," cried the Rev. Cole to the reply of heart-rending sobs and weeping from broken people in the pews. “No to oppression. No to psychological torture. No to stress. I have never opted to be a non-stipendiary priest. I was forced into it. I have kept my promise to my God. I have never said no to ministry,” he said.
Rev. Cole equated his release to the liberation of the Israelite people from the bondage of Pharaoh, a chance after years in the clutches of a bishop who has only “daily twisted his mind and played” with his future, highlighting his “inadequacies, crying down his lack of a good education”, parading on every opportunity, his human weaknesses instead of grooming what was godly and spiritual in him and guiding what would contribute to his growth to enhance his ministry.
The priest said on many occasions he had come to a decision to quit but his family and close friends would tell him he had freely chosen Christ’s mantle – and he had carried on. “But when things have gone beyond the mark,” the Rev. Cole cried again, "God intervenes. Let my people go!”.
The priest broke down in tears at several points during the sung Mass but an understanding congregation sang along with him to the finish. Many were sympathetic that this release was God’s signal of a better life perhaps to lead him to another part of His vineyard to realise his dream of working and living happily and to enjoy life with his family, a privilege to which Bishop Tilewa Johnson has constantly said no. God, he said, has indeed seen the way the taskmaster has oppressed his people and this is sweet release.
The Rev. Cole said a solemn goodbye to the congregation and thanked everyone, including the church societies – the choir, the sanctuary servers, the youths, the Ushers’ Guild – and those who have supported him through his years of painful ministry, thanking also the one anonymous member who once gave him D10,000 to help him out of difficult patches.
“I ask for your forgiveness if I have ever offended. The Kingdom of God is built on mercy and reconciliation. I have done no wrong; I have not stolen any money. Rather, I have done my little bit to bring the message to the flock. I have given service – be it at two in the morning, in good and bad weather, sometimes in impossible conditions,” he added.
The service was disrupted several times by explosive interventions when angry parishioners rose up to demand answers to questions regarding the direction of their church. “Is this a church?” shouted one.
“Is this the way you let go of your priest without a word of thanks from anyone?” asked another.
Altercation between the bishop’s warden and parishioners erupted again. But soon good sense prevailed in the House of God and the service ended with the most poignant scene of a weeping church elder in his 80s walking beside the Rev. Cole during the singing of the recessional hymn – an open and spontaneous demonstration of the church’s anguish of years and of solidarity with the dismissed priest.
After this unfortunate end to what begun as a shining career, the Rev. Cole leaves behind an entire diocese with only one fulltime priest – his junior – sthe Rev. Sarah Sock-Taylor. There are three other priests who cannot be posted on account of their (part-time) non-stipendiary contracts – the Rev. Priscilla Modu Johnson (the bishop’s wife), the Rev. James Cole and the Rev. James Yaw Odico.