“. . .Abasi m’ikp”daha y’ami ikp’imeme inno.”

On her 60th birthday, Deaconess Aniette Augustus Akpan remains grateful to God for the opportunity she was given through the Deaconess Order/Women’s work platform provided by the Methodist Church Nigeria to serve God majorly among the women. The platform also provided her windows of opportunities, including giving hope and voice to the hopeless and the voiceless, especially in a seemingly man’s world, impacting the lives of young women (the Ladies/Girls Fellowship, now Daughters of Wesley). Sadly, Deaconess Akpan is burdened that the Deaconess Order need urgent restoration before it goes into extinction. According to her, ‘currently, it appears as though life is gradually and subtly sniffed out of the Deaconesses’ Order. We in the Order seem to be ‘helpless.’ We may need someone or some people outside the Order to help recover and restore the dignity of the Order.’ The Good News is that there is hope. We have a mother, a green light, the wife of the prelate, Methodist Church Nigeria, Deaconess Maria Aba, who is active and passionate about the Deaconess Order in Methodist Church Nigeria. 

Deaconess Akpan, the fifth Conference Coordinator of Women’s Work (2004-2011), Methodist Church Nigeria is burdened by systematic challenges’ which sadly, ‘has visibly rendered the ‘trained women workers’ somewhat redundant and subservient.’ According to her, ‘to further give flesh to the ‘skeletal’ plan of scrapping the once respected and revered Order of Deaconesses, it was noticed that candidates who went into the training as Deaconesses were encouraged to switch to train as priests.’ The list of Conference coordinators from the creation of the Women’s Work office includes late Deaconess Olori Gbadebo, Deaconess Nancy O. Johnson, Deaconess Rhoda Ada James, Deaconess Nancy O. Kennedy-Johnson, Deaconess Anietie Akpan, Deaconess Aniema Ndifreke Udofia, Deaconess Nseobong Umana, and currently Deaconess Alice Iji.

Methodist Church Nigeria offers one of the best trainings for the Deaconess Order. The election of Deaconess Ibironke Oworu as the new President of Diakonia Region Africa/Europe (DRAE) in Germany attests to the richness of the Deaconess Order, Methodist Church Nigeria. Patriarch Professor Bolaji Idowu, the first Patriarch of the Methodist Church Nigeria’s idea of establishing the Deaconess Order points to a clear ‘theology of women.’ Patriarch Idowu realised that women were an untapped resource especially ‘in a new development of Lay Mission with lay missionaries and deaconesses working with people not reached by other agencies.’ Unsatisfied with the low attendance of religious services and ministry among women, especially in the Methodist Church Nigeria, Patriarch Idowu developed a profound missional theology of women in relation to the role of women in the church shaped by vocation and discipline but not servility. Patriarch Idowu’s introduction of the biblical Deaconess Order in the Methodist Church Nigeria is to provide trained, un-ordained women to minister to the needs of the people in ways that ordained clergy cannot. 

Deaconess Akpan’s observation on the Deaconess Order on her 60th birthday raised the need to bring women back to the church in the same strain as the Ancient Deaconess Order in the early church. The birthday celebration of Deaconess Aniette Akpan brings to the fore the importance of the apostolic Deaconess Order in Methodist Church Nigeria and the need to revive it. The Church of Greece, not too long ago, established a School of Deaconesses, which eventually developed into a school for social workers.

Deaconess Akpan was born on May 25th, 1964, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. Her parents, Mr. Augustus N. Akpan and (a Sierra Leonean woman) Abigail Akpan, a Sierra Leonean woman, were committed to Methodist membership at Edemaya circuit in Ikot Abasi Diocese. Deaconess Akpan attended Convent School, Efut Abua and Primary School, Atu Street, both in Calabar, Cross River State (1971-1976). Deaconess Akpan went to Methodist Secondary School Ete, Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State (1976-1981) for her secondary school.

Deaconess Akpan’s burning zeal to serve the Lord came to her because of her active participation in the Scripture Union during her secondary school days. She knew not, nor had she seen or encountered any deaconess in Methodist Church Nigeria before she decided to join the order of deaconesses. Initially, her late father did not support her decision, and it took the intervention of some family members to convince her father to allow Deaconess Akpan to go into the ministry.

Deaconess Akpan’s journey in the ministry and training for the Deaconess Order started in 1981 at Methodist Theological Institute, Sagamu. After her training, she served as a matron at Methodist College, Edem Idim Ibakesi, Ikono, Akwa Ibom State (1983-1985); Edemaya Circuit 1985 – 1990; Ndiya Circuit -1990-1992; Diocesan Women’s Work Coordinator – 1992-1995. In 1995, Deaconess Akpan travelled to the United Kingdom to further her training. She studied at the University of Birmingham’s Selly Oak College and graduated with a Diploma in Women’s Leadership in 1996. On her return to Nigeria, she was posted to the Diocese of Uyo, 1996-1998. In 1998, she went to the University of Uyo on study leave without pay for a bachelor’s in science in Sociology and Anthropology. She graduated in 2003 and moved to Wesley House, Lagos, Methodist Church Nigeria’s headquarters. In August 2004, at the Conference at Kaduna, Deaconess Akpan was officially made the fifth National Women’s Work coordinator until 2011.  

Deaconess Akpan’s service and dedication extended beyond her official roles. She served as the matron at Methodist Girls’ Secondary School, Utu/Ikpe, Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State, from 2011 to 2018 and continued to contribute as a Women’s Work Coordinator in various circuits. Her commitment to the church and the order of deaconesses was evident in her service at Utu Circuit, Diocese of Ikot Ekpene (2018-2019); Nsiak Circuit, Diocese of Ikot Ekpene: (2019-2021), and Ikpe Anang Circuit, Diocese of Ikot Ekpene – 2021 to September 31st, 2022, when she voluntarily retired. With great respect and honour, we acknowledge Deaconess Akpan’s decision to retire voluntarily from active service in the Deaconess Order, Methodist Church Nigeria, a testament to her selflessness and dedication to the church and humanity.

The call for the renewal of the Deaconess Order is not limited to Nigeria or Africa. From a global perspective, we have been discussing restoring the Order of deaconesses for several decades. For example, one of the conclusions (VIII) of the Inter-Orthodox Symposium, “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church,” which was held on the Island of Rhodes in 1988,  noted that “The apostolic Order of deaconesses should be revived…The revival of this ancient Order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified in many sources…Such a revival would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world in many spheres…and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time…The revival of women deacons in the Orthodox Church would emphasize in a special way the dignity of woman and give recognition to her contribution to the work of the church as a whole.”

To better serve the pastoral needs of the people in our dioceses, our immediate communities, organisations, and the world as our parish, the renewal of our Deaconess Order could offer windows of opportunities to equip and send workers for the primary mission of the social work profession to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Every effort to restore the Deaconess Order within the borders of our episcopacy in a timely fashion is needed to reverse the extinction and decline of the Order.

The recovery of the Deaconess Order does not ‘constitute an innovation, as some would have us believe, but the revitalization of a once functional, vibrant, and effectual ministry in order to provide the opportunity for qualified women to offer in our era their unique and specific gifts in the service of God’s people as publicly commissioned and authorized educators, evangelists, preachers, counsellors, social workers, et.al.’ In the Nigerian context, beyond the difference in the Order’s liturgical vestments, the decision as to whether the deaconesses would perform added liturgical functions in our time remains theological and the missional direction of the Council of Bishops.

The renewal of the Deaconess Order calls for prayer, careful consideration, adequate preparation, and education of the people who will be called upon to the Order. There is also a need for careful articulation of the qualities and qualifications of the candidates for the Order, bearing in mind that the renewal requires that the role and functions of the deaconess be identified, properly defined, and clearly stated.

We celebrate Deaconess Akpan at 60, an embodiment of humility, grace, and selflessness. The rest of your years shall be the best in Jesus’ name.

Mma Etubom mmi,,

Yak Abasi Adian Uwem ku Uwem unô..

Idaresit Usen Emana