ECUMENICAL DIALOGUE


Rev. Fr. Dr. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua

Director: Department of Mission and dialogue

Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja

 

When I was a child, my father Okhifo Omonokhua inculcated in me the strength of unity akin to the priestly prayer of Christ for unity: “Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us” (John 17, 11). It is important that every Christian should read the whole of John 17 to feel the passion and flavour of this prayer. Jesus admonished the disciples to resist the temptation for selfish ambition, worldly gains, desire for power and vain glory. After the ascension of Jesus Christ, the unity of his community was threatened in the time of the apostles. This was occasioned by the admittance of the Gentiles into the Church. This led to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). This Council was convoked by the apostles of Jesus. The disagreement between Peter and Paul (Galatians 2) was reconciled in such a way that none of the apostles saw the need to begin a separate Church to become a general overseer.St. Paulappealed to the Christians in Corith: “I urge you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not to have factions among yourselves” (1 Cor 1, 10).  This appeal is most relevant in our world today.

 

It is interesting to note that the Church in the time of the Apostles remained united and survived as one Church for a very long time and thereafter the divisions which may be summarised as follows:

  • The post Chalcedonian schism (about 470 AD) which gave rise to the Neophisite churches of the East.
  • The Great Schism of 1085, caused by an unfortunate quarrel between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople over jurisdictions, which gave rise to the present Orthodox Churches, under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul – Turkey).
  • Luther’s Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that gave rise to the split of what was left of the Church in the West into Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants have continued to split since then.

 

The division in the Church was indeed a scandal and contradiction to the will of Christ (1 Cor 1, 13). Efforts to restore Christian unity by some separated Churches was conceived in 1910 but not much was achieved until 1961 when Christian bodies merged with the International Missionary Council to form the World Council of Churches (WCC). The Catholic Church declined membership and has remained a non-member until today, even though there is a lot of common reflection and action between the two bodies. The Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) was formed as a Nigerian counterpart of the WCC. This was why the Catholic Church in Nigeria, following the position of Rome, did not join the CCN. In November 21, 1964, the Second Vatican Council came out with a document, “Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)” to provide guidelines and principles for Ecumenism.

 

On August 27, 1976, some Church Leaders of the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) and the Catholic Church in Nigeriaarrived at the decision that they should form an organization to work together on common concerns. The Christian Association of Nigeria founded in 1976 was like an expanded form of the CCN plus the Catholic Church. Right from the beginning there were some other churches in Nigeria who did not belong to the two groups mentioned above. They were accommodated under the general vague title of “Others”. The “others” eventually became two groups within CAN, the “Aladura Group of Churches” as they were called then, and the rest who came under the name of “evangelical fellowship”. These were the FOUR groups within CAN for a long time. It is only recently that the fifth group sought and was given an autonomous identity as Pentecostals. It is on record that their admission was not without a heated debate! Today, there are branches of CAN: Zonal, State and Local Government. CAN has Women and Youth Wings, a National Executive Council consisting of 105 members (which elects the President), and a General Assembly of 304 members (which ratifies the President’s election). The Motto of CAN was and remains: That they all may be one (John 17, 21).

 

The founding fathers of CAN did not envisage that a time would come when a state CAN, would need a civil court to validate or invalidate an election as against the biblical injunction that Christians should settle their differences internally to avoid scandal in secular courts. Perhaps some Christians have forgotten St. Paul’s exhortation: “With all humility and gentleness, and with patience, support each other in love. Take every care to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together” (Ephesians 4, 2). This chaos consequent upon struggle for power is a key indicator to re-evaluate the original vision, mission and specific objectives of CAN through a thorough study of the principles of ecumenism and the theological basis for Christian unity. I hope to develop this in the next publication.

 

CAN is not an army put in place to defend Christians against Muslims. Rather CAN is an association whose main objective is to promote unity among Christians and peaceful coexistence with people of other faiths. This is the essence of the directorate of Inter-faith and Ecumenism of CAN. It is unfortunate that the present terrorism in Nigeria has become a major distraction to CAN who cannot just sit down to watch the destruction of Christians and Churches. This is however giving a negative impression that CAN prefers “defence” to dialogue. I plead that while Christians continue a serious inter-denominational dialogue (ecumenism); let the Muslims too not relent in their inter-sect dialogue to enable both religions prepare adequately for inter-faith dialogue in the name of one God, to restore peace and security inNigeria. Otherwise the Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC) and all other inter-faith bodies will be seen as a photo trick. Indeed, the present situation in Nigeria calls for a thorough examination of conscience. We need to ask ourselves what exactly we want from ecumenical dialogue. In the Old Testament, all the true prophets claimed that they were not worthy whenever God called them to a specific mission. It was that feeling of unworthiness that created a space in their lives for God to take charge and use them as his divine instruments. May God deliver us from any ambition that is contrary to his will! Amen