As reported by Nigerian Tribune.
After unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the Nigerian belief system, in 1842, the first (arguably) successful Christian mission expedition anchored in Nigeria’s faith logic. Through challenges with unity and leadership tussles, and commendable attempts to ensure religious harmony, despite Nigeria’s multi-religious nature, as the world begins the celebration of the week of Christian unity today, RITA OKONOBOH, in this report, examines how Christianity has fared in Nigeria in the past 145 years.
When the first known traces of the Christian doctrine found its way into the shores of Nigeria, it experienced various rejections, most of which bothered on the concept of understanding how one man could be said to have been born specifically to die for the sins of mankind.
There was a belief system in what may best be described as the mysterious – this is evident in Nigeria’s traditional worship system and its influence even till date – but the concept of a God, the Trinity, death on the cross, the crucifixion and the like, was more or less something of a fairy tale. Then, came the establishment of the first church in Nigeria, built in the memory of Reverend Henry Townsend and Reverend John B. Wood, on September 6, 1898.
Through challenges of acceptance and many significant activities, much of which is recorded in many available books on the history of the church in Nigeria, the Christian faith got its roots, and gradually expanded throughout the country. As more people embraced the faith, so did more denominations emerge, and which further threatened the unity of the Christian fold.
Thereafter, there arose differing interpretations of the Bible, especially with the Old Testament and New Testament practices. From dressing to speech, study of the Bible, how services are held, and even gender issues, Christendom in Nigeria, as we know it, does not hold one voice in this regard. A national example of these variants in practice, has its root in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) founded in 1976.
“That they all may be one,” is instructively the motto of the CAN, which is supposed to be the umbrella organisation of all Christians in Nigeria. Interestingly, in the past, even within the organisation itself, there had been pockets of disunity, especially as it related to taking up leadership positions and style of governance.
This is no surprise though, considering the fact that different denominations with diverse forms of worship make up CAN. Even within mega denominations, there are pockets of internal crisis, with some leading as far as suing fellow members of a church to court.
Iheanyi M. Enwerem, in the text, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicisation of Religion in Nigeria, shares insight into an interaction with the then national Secretary-General of CAN, Mr. C.O. Williams, who spoke on how CAN came into being.
“It all started with a telegram which the Christian Council of Nigeria received towards the end of its general assembly held in Jos in August 1976 from the then Major General Shehu Yar’Adua, the Chief of Staff at the Supreme Military Headquarters, inviting church leaders to a meeting at Dodan Barracks – the seat of the military government. The meeting, which lasted ‘barely forty minutes,’ turned out to be a gathering of Christian leaders of a large number of denominations. Present at that meeting were 33 church leaders from 13 denominations, namely: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, the African Church, Presbyterians, the Salvation Army, the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN), the Apostolic Church, United African Methodists (UAMC), the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), and the HEKAN churches. The church leaders, who were present at the meeting, had themselves recorded later as the ‘Foundation Members of the Christian Association of Nigeria.’
“At that meeting with the church leaders, ‘the Chief of Staff read out an address which dealt with vital issues.’ Mr Williams did not elaborate on what these ‘vital issues’ were, except to say in effect that ‘the government was about to consult [the church leaders] on the “[National] Pledge” which was being recited in the schools and wanted to know [their] opinion.’
“Unprepared to give an impromptu response to the address, and apparently wanting to speak with one voice, the church leaders delayed their response and assured the Chief of Staff that a prepared rejoinder would be brought to the government at a later date. Meanwhile, immediately after the meeting with the government, Mr. Williams stated: [The Christian leaders] suddenly had a brain wave and thought: if the government could call the church leaders together, why is it that we could not call one another together; why should we wait for the Government to call the various denominations? So, we decided there and then to retire to a convenient spot — all the church leaders. And the most convenient spot at that time was the Catholic Secretariat. So we all went there, and that was how we decided to form CAN. We did not plan it before; it just came about like that. Of course with the antagonism mounting against Christianity in the country, the formation came just at the right time.”