By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Religion provides an anchor to the lives of believers. The belief in a Supreme Being lends meaning to man’s existence on earth, and the promise of the afterlife makes the toil of life more bearable. Toying with matters of faith almost always brings conflagration in its wake; little wonder church and state can hardly ever be yoked together. In the liberal evolution of the world the church, given its innate conservatism, has met with much controversy.
The confirmation of the openly homosexual Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States on June 7, 2003 whipped up much controversy within the ambit of Christianity, especially the Protestant or Anglican dominion. Nigeria’s Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola formidably opposed the phenomenon to the extent that he was being seen in much of the Western world as an intolerant apostle of conservatism. The redoubtable Rev. Akinola would not bend, stressing that the church should not support what is not scriptural. Anglican bishops in much of Africa, Asia and Latin America severed ties with the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia when it sponsored same-sex marriage, a development rocking the church across the globe. The 77 million worldwide members of the Anglican Communion thus became mired in a crisis that gets more intractable by the day, even as Bishop Robinson was divorced by his husband, Mark Andrew, in 2014.
Christianity is indeed in dire straits. Like the church at Antioch, its many followers are seeing all kinds of visions. Witch-catchers and sundry demon-arresters are today parading themselves as Christian preachers and Pentecostal evangelists. There are more charlatans on the pulpits of Christianity than there are criminals on the streets of Lagos and Onitsha. You can sum up the antics of these so-called Christians with one short sentence: The devil finds work.
The early church found its anchor by the salvation of the soul. The Nigerian church mostly preaches material success. Prosperity is the word. Every pastor stresses that his “God is not a poor God,” and the name of the game is crass materialism. There is no greater trading organization than the church.
All through history, the church flourishes at the worst of times. Nigeria today suits the bill. Christianity has been commandeered for nefarious reasons by the cream of Nigeria’s wannabes. The man-made churches of today are as wonky as all single proprietorships which more often than not die with the owner, or may be transferred to the wife or “Mummy” until fatal fate takes its toll.
There is the need to return Christianity to its roots. The church should go back to its spiritual moorings in the Bible, to wit, when Christ anointed St. Peter. The Catholic Church traces its history to Christ’s naming of Peter the Apostle as the rock on which the church is built, thus naming him the first Pope. The Catholic Church was the universal faith until 1517 when, in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther challenged the Catholic sale of indulgences and the doctrine of salvation by merit. Henry VIII followed suit in 1534, breaking from Rome for marital-cum-political reasons. Thus was born the Protestant Anglican Communion which got a boost when the Protestant Episcopal Church was founded in the United States in 1789.
John Calvin’s efforts during the 16th Century Reformation movements led to the birth of the Calvinists and ultimately to the founding of the Scotch Presbyterian Church by John Knox in 1560. The history of the Baptists dates back to John Smyth and the English Separatists of 1609; and later, Roger Williams of Providence in 1638. The Methodists started out within the Church of England, Rev. John Wesley having founded it in 1738.
The Church of Christ Disciples would in turn challenge the decline of fervor and the factionalizing within Protestantism by carving out yet another faction among evangelical Presbyterians from 1804 to 1832. Joseph Smith received visions of the Angel Moroni as revealed on the golden tablets of The Book of the Mormons to found the faith of the Mormons in 1827 in New York.
Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement in 1870, incorporating the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in 1884; and the church finally adopted the Jehovah’s Witnesses name in 1931.
A major rupture in Christianity occurred in the American cities of Topeka and Los Angeles in 1901 and 1906 when the Pentecostal movement of “speaking in tongues” began as a reaction to the loss of fervor among Methodists and sundry Christians at large. The advent of Pentecostalism has been quite sweeping across the globe.
To take one example of church-founding from nearer home, Samuel Bilewu Joseph (SJB) Oschoffa founded the Celestial Church of Christ in 1947 in the jungles of Porto-Novo after wandering in the forest for three months without food or water. Like the other sects, the Celestial fold has broken into factions since the death of the founder.
The history of the church as summarized here clearly shows that all the other churches in one way or the other were protesting against the Roman Catholic Church, the pristine universal faith. Even as far back as 1054AD, the Orthodox Catholics had broken away from Rome following intractable doctrinal dissension. Even amid the factionalizing, some churches did see the need to come together to form a strong union. The United Church of Christ is a 1957 ecumenical coming together of Calvinists and Lutherans.
The crucial issue to address in the greater need to save Christianity is that the dissenting churches have over the years not fared any better than the original church. Critically, Vatican Council 2 has shown that the church is not inimical to change from within. As Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, he said: “The whole world expects a step forward.” Well over 2,400 patriarchs, cardinals, bishops and religious superiors participated in the proceedings. In an unprecedented display of accommodation, observers from Protestant and Orthodox churches were consulted and sat in attendance at the deliberations. Vatican 2 differed markedly from the 20 previous ecclesiastical assembles of Roman Catholicism that preceded it, and the 16 promulgated decrees, constitutions and declarations are a testament to modernization and liberation. Vatican 2 did more to accommodate the other protesting churches than the First Council of Nicaea which was summoned in 325AD by Emperor Constantine to combat the Arian heresy. Of course the abortive Vatican 1 was undermined by the Industrial Revolution. It was Pope Paul VI who closed Vatican 2 in 1965, proclaiming it as “among the greatest events of the church.” As Christendom’s oldest and largest body, the Catholic Church has used Vatican 2 to provide a shelter for all followers of Christ.
It is unfortunate that factionalizing lingers within Christianity despite the catholic appeal of the universal church. It is as though everybody wants to head his own church, in the manner John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, to wit, “To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Every bloke today adorns the toga of Man of God, even when caught with bleeding severed heads of human beings! Christ is simply seen as the winning brand that can serve as cover for a vast range of practices such as voodoo, juju, magic, grigri etc.
The protesting churches should retrace their steps to the beginning, that is, where the rain started beating them, to redeem Christianity from the disrepute into which it had fallen through crass factionalism. From within all true believers can reform the one Christian church into a great institution worthy of Christ’s name. It is a pity that Christian brethren are still disaffected by the pejorative indictment: Roma locuta; causa finita (Rome has spoken; the case is closed.) But my inquiry shows that Rome has since embraced the modern times with all its plurality, especially with the landmark changes wrought by Pope John Paul 2. Catholic theology has taken into its stride the ideals of social justice, the revolutions of science and the mores of global secularization. Even controversial matters such as homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc can now be argued for or against without the Inquisition stepping in!
Jesus Christ led only one ministry and made faith the cardinal principle of worship. In losing faith in the universal church, the acolytes of the other churches have without apparently knowing it forfeited their stake in Christianity.
The modern day claims of being “Born-Again” holds no water outside the very idea of becoming a Christian through baptism that started in the days of John the Baptist, St Peter, Nicodemus et al, and is still upheld today.
Christianity ought to be all about having faith in Christ’s laid-down institution instead of erecting parallel bodies.
In truth these man-made parallel bodies cannot be Christian. The founders of these other churches could well have named the bodies after themselves – instead of dragging the name of Christ along.
A revolt against a divine mission cannot be mitigated by nomenclature. Christianity is divinity and any breakaway contraption is a distraction courting damnation and the hot flames of hell.
Let’s end with a toast to Bishop Jonathan Goodall who has just resigned after eight years as Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet in England to join the Catholic Church in the drive for universal Christian unity.
*Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, journalist, poet, and public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos