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Celebrating A Spiritual Giant, A Formidable Soldier of Christ And A Great Man of God@80: Tribute to the Rt. Revd Dr Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi, MTh, DMin

—Dr Stephen Ayodeji Fagbemi

 Published January 12th, 2011


One of the key lessons to draw from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, during their fiery furnace ordeal as recorded in the book of Daniel is Principle based on their personal knowledge of Yahweh. This informed their readiness to die for Yahweh’s cause. Although preachers quite often dwell on the miracle of divine intervention and their divine deliverance from the furnace, it is essential not to overlook their readiness to die even if their God chose not to deliver them from the fiery furnace. ‘If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us…But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’ (Dan.3: 17-18). It would seem here that not only were the Hebrew trio confident of divine intervention but they were also prepared to die should God decide not to intervene. This would not be because God is incapable of delivering them but because of divine freedom, his sovereign right to choose to do or not to do. Standing up for what you believe is symbolic of great integrity. Anyone who cannot stand for something cannot stand for anything. This is something that is most lacking in our country today especially among our politicians who enjoy running from one political party to another to sustain themselves; yet it would seem to me to be summarise the person of Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi, the first bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Akure (1983-2000) and someone I am proud to call my father-in-the Lord. He is a man of integrity, courage and unparalleled principle, even to a fault.

As is often said, ‘some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’. For Emmanuel Gbonigi, he was not only born great he has also achieved greatness. His greatness does not consist in material wealth, neither was he born in a royal family. Rather, his greatness consists in his Christian upbringing and in his personal knowledge and encounter with God in Christ Jesus. The ensuing transformation shaped his life and made his greatness.  

The man Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi, a native of Irun Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria, was born on January 11, 1931 at Oke-Agbe, Akoko to late Pa Jeremiah and Mrs Comfort Adeyiola Gbonigi when his father, Pa Jeremiah Gbonigi was a catechist at Oke-Agbe. His birth occurred when his catechist-father was taking a church service on a Sunday making the birth very special. After his elementary education at both Irun and Kabba, he passed his Standard Six examinations in 1946. Between 1947and 1952, he worked as a primary school teacher at St John’s School, Ogidi, now Kogi State; St Stephen’s School, Uro-Akoko; and United School, Igasi-Akoko. On receiving his calling to the Christian ministry, he proceeded to train as a catechist at Melville Hall, Ibadan from 1952-1954. After his training he was posted to St Peter’s Church, Aremo, Ibadan (now Cathedral) until 1956 when he returned to Melville Hall, the Anglican theological institute, Ibadan for his ordination training, which he completed in 1959.

At College he demonstrated his leadership qualities and abilities; he held many posts among which were the Librarian; the Captain of the Boys’ Brigade Officer Cadet Company; and President of the Student Christian Movement. In his final year after the merging of Melville Hall with the Wesleyan Methodist Training Institute, to become Immanuel College of Theology, Emmanuel Gbonigi became the Senior Student (President of the Student body).  In all these, one thing that marked him out was his deep spirituality. It is said that there was an evident transformation in his life after his training, which can only be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

On completion of his training he was ordained into the Holy Orders first as a Deacon in 1959 and later as a priest in 1960. He served his title at St John’s Anglican Church, Jago, Ibadan, from1959-1963. From there he was sponsored by the Diocese of Ibadan to do a course in Christian Education specialising in Youth Work at Westhill College, Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK, between 1963 and 1964. On returning to Nigeria he was appointed the Diocesan Youth Chaplain and Bishop’s Chaplain to the Bishop of Ibadan. He demonstrated great skills and excellence to the extent that he was appointed to teach at Immanuel College of Theology from 1966-1971.

In 1971, the Revd Gbonigi left for the Unites States of America to start a course of study at Perkins School of Theology of the Southern Methodist University, leading to the award of the degree of Master of Theology (MTh) of the University in 1974. During his studies he served as a priest at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Dallas, Texas, USA from 1972-1974. Later, Revd Gbonigi proceeded on recommendation to Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, to pursue the degree of Doctor of Ministry (D. Min), which he completed in 1976.

Dr Gbonigi returned to lecture at Immanuel College in 1976 and remained there until 1981. At Immanuel College of Theology, Ibadan he held various positions of responsibility the climax of which was his appointment as the Vice-Principal of the College in 1978.  In 1979, he was preferred Canon of St James’ Cathedral, Ibadan and in 1981 Canon Dr Gbonigi was elected and appointed the Provost of the Cathedral Church of St James, Ibadan, a position he held until he was elected bishop for the proposed Diocese of Akure by the College of Bishops of the nascent Church of Nigeria, in December 1982.

On the feast of St Matthias, on February 25, 1983, the Very Revd Dr Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi was consecrated bishop of Akure alongside the Ven. Jeremiah Akeredolu and the Very Revd Abraham Awosan, who were consecrated bishops for the proposed dioceses of Akoko and Owo respectively, at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Oke-Aluko, Ondo. 

March 2, 1983, remains a red-letter day in the history of Christianity in Akure, especially within the Anglican Communion. At a very solemn but colourful service, at which I was present, presided over the Most Revd Timothy Omotayo Olufosoye, OON, STh, DD, Archbishop, Metropolitan and Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Bishop Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi, MTh, DMin, was duly enthroned into the real, actual and corporate possession of the bishopric of the new Anglican Diocese of Akure.  This was not only a new phase in the life of the Gbonigi family but it also marked a new phase in the history of the Christian faith in what was until then Akure and Idanre Archdeaconries.  St David’s Church, Ijomu, Akure, which had first received missionaries in 1897, when Christianity first got to Akure, and had been the seat of the Archdeacon of Akure Archdeaconry thus became the Anglican Cathedral in the Ondo State capital. With the inauguration of Akure Diocese, St David’s Church became the church to house the throne-Grk. kathedra- of the bishop, the symbol of the teaching and preaching ministry of the diocesan bishop.

It was an epoch-making event and every one agreed that a spiritual giant had arrived Akure.  The events of the following 18 years were a great testament to this. It was on December 31, 2000 that Bishop Gbonigi bowed out of full time Episcopal ministry preparatory to attaining his 70th birthday on January 11, 2001, the statutory age of retirement for Anglican clergy in Nigeria,

The diocese that began with about 58 places of worship and 30 church workers had grown enormously; with more training being organised for both clergy and the laity. He identified what was necessary and as soon as he believed the diocese had had enough respite from the demands of getting a new diocese, he moved the diocese into starting a secondary school later called St Matthias Anglican High School, Akure, following the old St Matthias’ Teachers’ College. A nursery and primary school was also established called Bishop Falope Memorial Nursery and Primary School Akure, in honour of late Canon (later Bishop) J.A.I. Falope, an erstwhile Principal of St Matthias’ College.

It is difficult to quantify the many contributions or skills of this great man of God.  It soon became evident that Akure had been blessed with a great pastor and teacher, a fearless preacher of the word and a great prophet of God.  With the darkness that beclouded our land with incessant military administrations Bishop Gbonigi became the ‘Prophet Amos’ or ‘Prophet Jeremiah’ of our time. Successive Military Governors or Administrators in Ondo State quickly realised that they had a great opponent in Ondo State. Truly Bishop Gbonigi kept them on their toes. Even the Federal Military Government was not spared, through his eloquent sermons and the apt and powerful Bishop’s Charges delivered to the Synods of the Anglican Diocese of Akure. His was like a voice crying in the wilderness. Even when it seemed like a lone voice he never gave up; neither was he afraid of what the military might do, as long as it was a cry against injustice. To say that he was fearless, bold and courageous is simply to state the obvious. 

Bishop Gbonigi was among the first, if not the first, to publicly criticise the Buhari/Idiagbon regime when he said detention without trial is ungodly and unjust, apparently referring to the incarceration without trial of many politicians from the defunct Second Republic, including the late Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, who was eventually discharged and acquitted. Rather than acquiesce, Baba Gbonigi continued without fail during the successive regime of Ibrahim Babangida, the evil genius. 

No history of military rule and their exit from Nigerian politics will be complete without a mention of the role of Emmanuel Gbonigi the fearless Anglican bishop who spoke against unrighteousness, injustice, crime, greed and dictatorship.  Indeed, no one will forget his inspired sermon that predicted an unprecedented divine intervention to bring an end to the power-drunk, brutal and wicked era of Abacha, the man in dark goggles. Ondo State will forever remember the ministry of the first Anglican Bishop of Akure.

This ministry was built on prayer and genuine conviction. The midday prayer he personally led in his office is a tradition that cannot be forgotten. Much more, his ministry was rooted in integrity. He would not compromise his principle for any reason, not even for monetary gain. It would be recalled that during the crisis that engulfed Nigeria precipitated by the Abacha Regime he was invited to Abuja along with others to discuss the way forward. While all were offered money for fuel Bishop Gbonigi did not collect any money. When he was called to present a position paper in Lagos during the Abdusalam-Akhigbe Government, the money that was given to participants, Bishop Gbonigi brought to his diocesan synod at Igbaraoke and donated for a charitable cause.

It is impossible to overstate the value of his ministry as a diligent teacher and gifted expositor of the word of God. Bishop Gbonigi’s sermons were mostly expository. He preached as though he was with St Paul or any of the other apostles when they wrote their letters to the young churches in the first century.  His was a diligent and careful exposition taking seriously the questions of exegesis rather than eisegesis, a skill that is not found among many of today’s televangelists and pastors.  As one of his students in the Diocesan Lay readers’ School in 1984 and 1985, I cannot forget how this has also impacted our own ministry. Apart from his loving reconciliation spirit, it is largely due to his sermons that Igbaraoke Archdeaconry began to contemplate returning to Akure Diocese after the initial politics that saw them withdraw from the application for the proposed Akure Diocese in 1981.

The awe and reverence in his conduct of worship has been a great challenge and inspiration to us and, indeed, to many serious-minded clergy. Photographers who ever encountered him in a church service would remember he took exception to undue and excessive interference of photographers in worship. To say that he is a disciplinarian and a loving minister is to state the obvious. The combination of these two attitudes should remind any theologian of the divine attribute of righteousness wherein love and justice are held together without contradiction.

Bishop Gbonigi’s contributions to Christian theology in Nigeria and beyond are unquantifiable. Like Bishop Awosan, Baba Gbonigi taught many in Immanuel College who are today leading bishops and Archbishops in both the Anglican and Methodist Churches in Nigeria. His commitment to theological education has produced many pastors, graduate priests and theologians. His recent investiture as Chancellor of the West African Theological Seminary, Lagos where he had formerly served as Chair of the Governing Board is a further testimony to this.

Many have also benefited from his efforts in securing both local bursary and overseas scholarship for pastors to study theology within and outside Nigeria. I am a beneficiary of this and I could not write the story of my postgraduate studies without duly acknowledging his efforts and encouragement. Here is a theologian who has raised many theologians; a father of bishops and scholars in whom the rare combination of theology and spirituality is displayed with dexterity and comfort.

Bishop Gbonigi’s leadership role as Chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC) Nigeria for many years endeared him to many evangelical pastors and youths in the Anglican Church of Nigeria.  

Although he is said to be in retirement these last 10 years, Baba has hardly been idle. He has continued on the vanguard of justice and peacemaking, challenging injustice and calling for an egalitarian society. His role as the President of Yoruba Parapo can hardly be forgotten plus his efforts at reconciling different Yoruba socio-cultural groups. He has earned the respect and admiration of all, Christians and non-Christians alike.

At 80 Baba Gbonigi continues to serve the Lord and his society. His involvement in the formation of the Congress on Christian Ethics in Nigeria (COCEN) in 1997 is not to be forgotten.  By his calling and ministry, Baba Gbonigi has achieved greatness and has touched the lives of many. The man who did not go to secondary school equipped himself to an enviable academic level. His knowledge of both English and Yoruba languages is impeccable, to the extent that journalists named him a reporter’s delight.

As it is said, behind every successful man is a diligent and great woman. We celebrate the support of Mrs Alice Ebun Gbonigi who has supported Baba since their wedding in 1961. Mama’s own sterling qualities are evident in the quality of leadership she provided for the Diocesan Women’s Organisations in Akure. Those of us who have met her on the home front and elsewhere would attest to the grace of God upon her life. We rejoice in the Lord for the beautiful and godly children with which He has blessed them.

On his 80th birthday, we celebrate the life of a learned and godly man of God, a no-nonsense cleric, a theological teacher and mentor-theologian, a fearless and courageous preacher, a dedicated pastor and a spiritual giant, a reporter’s delight, a Church prelate and a 20th Century African Church Father; a true Anglican evangelical in whom there is no guile. Indeed, we celebrate a father of EFAC Nigeria, a formidable soldier of Christ. It is remarkable that this man of God is being celebrated in his lifetime. Many activities have been lined up to celebrate his 80th birthday in Akure from the 10th to the 15th of January, 2011, among which are a Holy Communion Service at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure on Tuesday 11th January; a Book Presentation in his honour and a thanksgiving service at the Cathedral Church of St David, Ijomu, Akure on Saturday the 15th at which the Primate and Metropolitan Archbishop of Nigeria is expected to preach, followed by a befitting reception.

This is a well-deserved celebration by a servant of God per excellence. Punctuality in worship and meetings, neat clerical and Episcopal habits endear him to so many of us so much that we cannot afford to be careless with our robes and clerical wears. As a result of the training I received from him in the lay reader’s school during my days as a reader, I have since cultivated the habit of using ‘wash and wear’ or any appropriate materials for my surplice. So many are the lessons that we have learnt from Emmanuel Gbonigi that they cannot be catalogued here.

Here is to wish Baba Emmanuel Bolanle Oluyide Gbonigi, the first Anglican bishop of Akure diocese, a man I am proud to call my father-in-the Lord, a very Happy 80th Birthday. Igba odun, odun kan o!



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