The question is always asked, why do Christians want to come together? The question has biblical as well as theological implications. Christians of all persuasion and confessions want to unite because our Lord wills His church to be one in mind, spirit and witness. The beginning of the ecumenical movement in Nigeria has the future and way out in ecumenism.

The teaching of the Bible about the oneness of the Church is clear. The Bible teaches that the work of our Lord was ‘to gather into one the Children of God who believe into one community of love. Christian unity applies to common relations to God in Christ and mutual relations to one another. It is based upon that which is eternal and divine, namely the choosing and calling of people by Almighty God, the incarnation of the eternal word of God to redeem souls disunited from the source of life.

Moreover, in the High Priestly prayer of Jesus Christ in Jn.17 we see the prayer for unity of believers. The basis for the unity is that there is absolute unity between the father and the son. There is therefore no division in the God-head, why then should there be division among the followers of the God-head? This unity in Jn. might be seen as a spiritual unity which is the basis of any true fellowship. While this passage may be talking about organic unity, what is essential is that Christians come together and in one accord we accept our Lord as the Head of the church and through the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, Christians worship together in humility, love one another as the Lord has loved us and bury all differences that divide them.

Contemporary protestant theologians have made various attempts to formulate a theology of unity. Some hold the belief that the unity of the church is spiritual and invincible and that it is not impaired by empirical divisions.

J.R. Melson wrote: Unity is an essential attribute of the invincible of the church, but in its visible state the church must not consider diversity to be the same as unity. There are other scholars like the Roman Catholic scholars who considered diversity as inimical to the study of the church and would want to see a return of all those separated from the one true church.

There is no doubt that Christ wishes the church to be one, but the statement of Paul Tillich has to be taken seriously. That if a united world church came into being or existence, new divisions would occur”.

The role of the ecumenical movement is to overcome the divisions which have become obsolete. The ecumenical movements hold that unity does not imply uniformity and that diversity is essential for unity. The role of the church, therefore, is to demonstrate to the world that ambiguity can be held together, so that the way to true human unity may be manifested. The development of regional and National Council of churches has enabled the churches to come together at a more local level to discuss matters of common concern.

In Nigeria for instance, we have the Christian Council of Nigeria(NCC), and the Christian Association of Nigeria(CAN). The CCN is protestant in character while the CAN is more embracing, embracing the Catholics, the Aladura Communion and the Orthodox protestant churches.

There are still divisions among the churches in Nigeria, The fact of denominationalism itself is a division inherited from the colonial divisions of the churches brought into the country. Despite all endeavours of the churches to come together for efforts, there is still rivalry and tension among say the Anglicans and Methodists the Catholics look down on the Pentecostals from which at the same time, they have to learn a lot all these things still happening in the church in Nigeria, the real ecumenical fellowship which is one of the heart is yet to be fully realised in Nigeria.

A particular example of ecumenical effort in Nigeria was the attempt to form an organic church union(1965). In the first place, the union was limited in its scope involving only a few churches like the Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterians, The church union therefore, could riot have been representatives of the church in Nigeria, Also, because of petty jealousies over bishoprics, desire to cling to partisan church property and the proper appreciation of the fact of the union, the fate of the union was then sealed hence, we look for the day when the real unity of the church will be established in Nigeria.

It is interesting to note that the government acknowledges the pluralistic nature of Nigerian society both in ethnicity and in religion and is attempting to create a welfare or secular state where freedom of religion is so much tolerated. As noted earlier, we have church agencies for ecumenical experiments in Nigeria, These agencies are CCN/CAN, the Aladura Communion and the Catholic Secretariat. We hope soon, that the church in Nigeria will become one with the Lord, one faith, one Baptism and one God who is the father of all, over all through all and within all.

Particular Issue on Ecumenism-Eucharist

Eucharist is otherwise referred to as the Lord’s supper, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s table, or the breaking of bread. It is the most sacred of all the means of grace as well as the highest service in the church of Christ. At the same time, the Eucharist has equally served as the source of disintegration among Christians.

Points of disintegration

  • The qualifications of partakers vary from church to church. For example. the issue of monogamy, baptism, and confirmation serve as conditions for partakers.
  • In the eucharist liturgy, the essential requirements are repentance, faith and steadfastness, new life, thankfulness and communion with neighbours. Though some churches do not emphasise these
  • Time of administration: Some churches do it once a year, while some once a month and others in the evening.
  • Some do it in the morning, others in the evening
  • Some hold the service in the presence of the congregation. Others close the door against non-communions.

Some churches set the age at 12 years while others 21 and above

These variations have equally accounted for the disunity which permeates the life of the Christians.

The Future of Ecumenism in Nigeria

Ecumenism as a means for peaceful cooperation and co-existence is not new to the Society, to which Nigeria belongs. There is a consensus among African Traditional Nigerians scholars that it was the British colonizers who changed the material and spiritual circumstances of the people by compelling them to participate in colonial economic activities, dominated by profit motive and individualism, thus for the first-time individualism as opposed to communal feeling began to rear its head in the Nigerian society cultural nationalism which grew up in the late 19th century was a reaction of colonialism.

The first nationalists were clergymen. Edward Blyden often called the father of cultural Nationalism, spoke against the attempts of the colonisers to destroy African culture. In his speech” The Return of the Exiles and the West African Church” delivered in Lagos 1891, Bylden called for the establishment of an independent African church as a way for recovering African personality though the exercise has not been successful.

Even though there are attempts to bring all churches together in the formation of CAN so that various demonstrations of the Christian church in Nigeria can share fellowship in worship, discuss strategies for joint evangelism and unite to champion Christian cause in Nigeria, we still discover that there are many things that divide the Christians.

One can immediately think of theological division and related problems. Questions about which church has the right to dispense the true sacraments, such as the Eucharist and the Baptism? or which form of Baptism rite is correct: Is it by affusion or by immersion can there be mixed marriages among say the Catholics and Non-Catholics too prevalent? Among churches we have more human and psychological problems, there are still prejudices traditions and superiority complexes. The Catholics still feel superior to the protestant tradition, the more orthodox feel superior to the Pentecostal churches.

It will not be overstatement, If I say that it is natural that when there is a common foe, a group naturally comes together to ward off the foe. It is after that they can go back, maybe to continue with their dissension. This is what we experience in the issue of Christian cooperation in Nigeria. The group only comes together in times of need or crisis for the church but down in their hearts these groups still harbour dissension, inferior or superior feelings “holier-than-thou attitude and these attitudes constituted impediments to the ecumenical co-operation in the church.

One can foresee a bright future for ecumenism in Nigeria considering the following moves. The Nigerian Evangelical Fellowship has been formed. It has ten member churches belonging to the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar. In 1976, a new ecumenical body was formed, the Christian Association of Nigeria with a Secretary General, the Secretary General of the Christian Council of Nigeria, as members of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and indigenous churches.

Another powerful council of the church is the Nigeria Association of Aladura churches founded in 1960 with members of over 90 indigenous denominations and a total of 1.2 million Christian constituencies.

Other similar councils are linking indigenous churches. The three ecumenical institutes have also been established. These include:

  • The Institute of Church and Society was founded in 1904 by the Christian Council of Nigeria and the world.
  • Pastoral Institute in Bodija which also works in close relationship with the Institute for Church Society.
  • The National Institute for Religion Sciences founded in Lagos in 1975 is involved in the training of secondary school teachers of religion.