The Anglican Church of Nigeria deserves to be taken seriously.
Firstly, because of success in evangelism and mission. It is the fastest growing church in the Anglican Communion (27 new Dioceses were created in the 1990’s and another 70 in the 2000’s; membership now numbers approximately 18 million).
Secondly, because of faithfulness in dealing with major challenges. For example, how to adapt structures quickly to cope with this growth, and with the bewilderingly rapid modernization that characterizes much of Africa, and how to maintain prophetic witness and pastoral care in the face of the violent attacks on the Christian communities by Boko Haram in the north-east of the country.
Because of this it has been a great privilege for a small number of us from the Church of England to visit Nigeria at the invitation of the Primate, Most Revd Nicholas Okoh, and to take part in the annual Divine Commonwealth Conference taking place in the capital city Abuja. The impressively organized gathering is taking place at the magnificent National Christian Centre, with Bishops, clergy and laity from many of the Dioceses coming together to listen to talks, take part in bible studies and seminars, pray and worship and have fellowship.
Okoh gave the opening address on the first evening, on the topic of “contending for the faith” (Jude 3) in the face of false teaching within the church and temptations and persecutions from without. While there was an allusion to the infiltration of secularism and the heterodoxy of liberal teaching in Western churches, there was mostly humble acknowledgement of problems within the Nigerian Christian and political scene and a calling of the church back to the authentic message of the Christian Gospel and personal faith in Jesus Christ. This has continued to be the tone of the conference.
The worship has been a wonderful mixture of the solemn and the reverent with traditional Anglican liturgy and hymns, and the vibrant and joyful with praise band, choir and superb soloists leading the choruses. Many of the women are decked out in magnificent coloured print costumes and headdresses, and so its an amazing spectacle when the big congregation are dancing in praise to the Lord together. A very moving hour of prayer was led with thanksgiving, intercession and invitation to be open to the Holy Spirit interspersed with song, and the second day concluded with a “revival hour” – a Scripture-soaked message of encouragement preached by a Bishop.
At the same time the conference is featuring talks on such topics as “persecution in the early church”, “the challenge of Islam” and “soldiers of the cross in Nigeria’s early Christian history”, as well as seminars on subjects like “spiritual warfare” and “making your parish come alive”. For these Christians, it’s clear that faith in Jesus is a comfort and joy but also a serious business. These are people whose faith is simply expressed: God exists and the Bible is true. But at the same time there is a depth of experience of living in relationship with God and of understanding of the complex issues in the country. Among the leadership there is a determination that clergy and laity should be better trained, but also a desire that this should enhance not cut across vibrant faith.
Being at this conference has been an encouragement and a challenge. We thank God for the Church of Nigeria and pray for her people, and also pray for some of this joy in worship, evangelistic zeal and commitment to truth to be more prevalent in the Church of England.