The Church of Nigeria and the Anglican Communion – “From Communion to Association: Nigerian disconnections”

by Francis Bridger and Graham Kings

Republished, with permission, from
The Church Times, Friday 23 September 2005,
which entitled it 'Why Archbishop Akinola is Wrong'

Last week the Church of Nigeria announced that it had changed its constitution. In doing so, it made a key disconnection. Although to many, this may have seemed less than earth-shattering news, for Anglicans everywhere, the implications of the Nigerian decision are profoundly serious and may have Communion-splitting consequences.

The details of the Nigerian constitutional change are important. Clause 3.1 of the original constitution stated that "the Church of Nigeria shall be in communion with the See of Canterbury and with all dioceses, provinces and regional churches which are in full communion with the see of Canterbury." The amended version deletes reference to Canterbury and replaces the rest with "all Anglican Churches, Dioceses and Provinces that hold and maintain the historic Faith, Sacrament and Discipline of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church..."

So, at a stroke, the Archbishop of Canterbury is dismissed and disconnected as the 'pivotal' instrument of unity (The Windsor Report, paragraph 108) and the Communion is redefined in terms of an association of those who agree with Nigeria's interpretation of orthodoxy. The next clause of the amended version asserts that "in the interpretation of the aforementioned formularies and in all questions of faith, doctrine and discipline, the decisions of the ecclesiastical tribunals of the Church of Nigeria shall be final."

In consequence, the universal Anglican Communion with its historic bonds mediated through, and focused on, Canterbury has been replaced by a confessionally defined subgroup in which the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury are no longer mentioned. This is a significant signal of mistrust.

Where, then, does this leave the Windsor Report in which so much hope has been placed? The Nigerian decision, despite statements from Archbishop Akinola to the contrary, drives a wedge through the vision and spirit of Windsor and of the Primates' Meeting in Dromantine, Northern Ireland. Wedges create splits. Where Windsor envisaged a Communion-wide process of striving together over contentious issues, including a graded process of ('voluntary') discipline, the Church of Nigeria sees only a localized authority centred on the cultural and historical particularities inherent within itself.

The Church of Nigeria has also determined that it will set up "Convocations and Chaplaincies of like-minded faithful outside Nigeria" where parishes who are at odds with their diocesan bishop may find alternative (Nigerian) episcopal oversight.

Such an action is in direct opposition to the Dromantine agreement which placed a moratorium on cross-provincial interventions.

Next month, Bishop Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Egypt, will host the third major conference of Anglican leaders of the global south in Cairo. During a service in Islington this Sunday, he commented: "After the unilateral action of ECUSA, all African Bishops accepted The Windsor Report as the way ahead. This remains the right process, and should not be delayed, nor anticipated unilaterally."

In the United States of late, while many still remain intransigent, there have been some signs of an increasing willingness between various groups to seek ways forward, with the express purpose of moving ECUSA away from the brink of a split. The planting of Nigerian Convocations in the US will not help.

In the UK, there are two dangers. The first is that we shall be tempted to see the Nigerian decisions as merely the actions of a country far away. Nothing could be more shortsighted. The Nigerian Church is the biggest player in Africa and is already subsidizing provinces previously supported by the USA. Where it leads, others will follow, though perhaps not so many as Archbishop Akinola thinks. We should rejoice in the fact that the centre of gravity in world Christianity has now decisively shifted from North to South and that many Africans now worship in the Church of England, including the next Archbishop of York. The mission-shaped church is already alive and kicking and we have much to learn from it, even as we are kicked.

The second danger is that some, not least Evangelicals, may fail to see the implications of the Nigerian statements and, in their concern rightly to uphold the Church's historic teaching, may actively support the stance taken by Nigeria. This would be a grave mistake. At this critical time, the key loyalty of Anglicans of all traditions must be to a renewed Communion and to Canterbury as the central instrument of unity. Evangelicals who are tempted to align with an Evangelical Archbishop from overseas need to keep on reminding themselves of the fact that they hold an Anglican, not a separatist or a Presbyterian, ecclesiology.

No doubt the Nigerian Church believes it is honouring the truth of the Gospel. But for the sake of that same Gospel it needs to think again about the implications of its recent decisions. Specifically, Archbishop Akinola should consider returning to the Windsor process. As church leaders from the global south gather in Cairo, they should recognize that a personal focus of unity is crucial for the Communion. Bishop Anis commented: "We are delighted that Archbishop Rowan, the head of the Anglican Communion, has accepted our invitation. We believe his attentive listening to us, and the sharing of his vision with us, will be of pivotal importance to the future of the Communion."

Revd Dr Francis Bridger is Chair of Fulcrum and Visiting Professor of Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, California. Canon Dr Graham Kings is Theological Secretary of Fulcrum and Vicar of St Mary's Islington.

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