It is a common knowledge that before the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was formed, Protestants and Roman Catholics in Nigeria were not on best of terms, as far as inter-religious dialogue is concerned.
This lack of cordiality among native believers from different Church denominations could be traced to the era when western missionaries migrated into Africa.
Eventually, when the missionaries came, bitter rivalries erupted among them over mission territories. Protestant missionaries often settled this among themselves through agreements. But where the rivalry involved Catholics and Protestants, no such territorial agreements were made.
Consequently, there appeared to be more tension between Catholic and Protestant missions than there was among the different Protestant missions.
Then there was the Vatican II – one of the most important councils in the history of Christianity – since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The Vatican II, the 21st Council of the Roman Catholic Church, began in 1962 and ended in 1965.
At this council, one of the major things that took centre stage was the discussion on the relationship of the Church with other Christian faiths and with Jews and people of other religions. This was a watershed in Christian history.
From this point on, the Catholic Church began to warm up towards other faithful from other denominations. Therefore, Vatican II prepared the ground for the emergence of CAN, and it gave the Nigerian Catholic church a better platform to foster cooperation with non-Catholic Christians.
Also, the emergence of the World Council of Churches, All-Africa Council of Churches, Christian Council of Nigeria, Tarayar Ekklisiyoyin Kristi a Sudan – The Fellowship of the Churches of Christ in the Sudan (And later, in Nigeria), New Life For All, and the Northern Christian Association, prepared the minds of many Nigerian Protestants to embrace other Christians.
CAN’s coming into limelight was influenced by the activities of the post-independence Nigerian government with the take-over of many mission schools and hospitals in the country, and elsewhere: Ghana and Guinea.
Besides the anti-mission activities of the post-independence Nigerian government, the growing fear of Islamisation was a critical factor in the formation of CAN, to protect the people from unnecessary religious dominance.
Eventually, CAN was born on the 27th August, 1976 as a Christian pressure group and, euphemistically put, a Christian ‘interest-protection’ association, made up of five blocs: the Christian Council of Nigeria, the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, the Organization of African Instituted Churches, and the Evangelical Fellowship of West Africa.
Today, CAN is better known for its role of defending Christianity rather than uniting them to a level of spiritual fellowship, collaborating with the Bible Society of Nigeria in the translation of the Bible into local languages, as well as rendering some health services.
Unfortunately, a number of issues continue to hamper the body from engaging in genuine ecumenism. Point one: Many Protestants within CAN still look down on other faithful from the orthodox churches. They consider them as not being ‘born again’ and therefore, not pious Christians. They hinged their argument on the belief that orthodox churches are more engrossed in traditional Christian worship at the expense of Pentecostalism.
Some Christian group often decry the Catholics for allegedly not considering some Protestant clergymen in CAN as properly being ordained – they feel that the ordination of such church leaders do not share historical link with first-century Christianity – as such, Protestant clergymen are not qualified to lead ecumenical worship services.
The quest for power is another obstacle to genuine Christian ecumenism. This problem is almost endemic in CAN, and it has a long history. For example, during the 2004 election of the National Secretary of the Association, ‘sectional politics was played out’ that at a point, some delegates threatened to stage a walk out.
The issue of control seems to be the over-riding concern in many CAN elections. Every denomination wants to take control of the affairs of the body, at all cost, just the same way that politicians behave in the secular world. Undoubtedly, the budding and genuine Christian ecumenism will remain elusive amidst this inordinate struggle for power by church leaders.
Perhaps, these divisive factor and superiority greatly contributed to the change in the constitution of the Association, from its initial clause which states that “The Association is a fellowship of churches, working together to promote the glory of God by encouraging the growth and unity of the churches, and by helping them to salvation and all its fruits”.
On the contrary, the amended version of the constitution says, "Christian Association of Nigeria is an Association of Christian Churches with distinct identities, recognizable Church structures and a system of worship of one God in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This Association makes Christ the centre of its entire works and shall promote the glory of God, by encouraging the growth and unity of the churches, and by helping them to lead the nation and her people to partake of Christ’s salvation and all its fruits".
From this modification, it is easy to deduce how the word 'fellowship', a more appropriate word for Christian ecumenism, is replaced by the word ‘association’, a rather loose term that has further widened the gulf of oneness.
The growing corruption, decadence and lawlessness in the land continue to make the people wonder whether CAN is still relevant in nation building, as cases of Christians indicted for corruption seem to be on the increase.
Mr. Adewale Kupoluyi writes from Federal Varsity of Agric, Abeokuta, Ogun State.