Intrigued, I dug a little and found more information on the web site of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB). Specifically, I found a biography by the Reverend Dr. Elijah Olu Akinwumi, of Jacob Kehinde Coker, a founder of the African Church of Nigeria. It lays out the early history of the African Church and its separation from the Church of England, expressed in the ministries of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).
The specifics of J. K. Coker’s life are interesting, and I can recommend reading this concise biography in full. However, I was struck by the issues over which J. K. Coker led a group out of the authority of CMS, and some interesting parallels with current Anglican struggles.
First, this was a movement that rose in reaction to the largely English leadership of the colonial church. Dr. Akinwumi writes of lack of respect for African clergy and lay leaders who were often better educated than their white colleagues and leaders. This reflected, as will not surprise, the racist conviction that no African could be as intelligent or able as a European, whatever his education; and that, therefore, ministry could not be left in African hands. (The paper includes some striking, and damning, quotations.)
The controversy came in the context of Muslim evangelism in the country. According to Dr. Akinwumi, there was some connection between CMS leadership and racism and the success of Muslim expansion:
“As stated earlier, the European missionaries quickly detected the brilliance of Africans and feared that they would be ousted if care was not taken. A series of repressive measures were therefore taken to discourage African workers. Stringent rules and regulations were introduced into the church regarding polygamy, baptism, confirmation and marriage which kept many traditionalists from coming forward for baptism. Islam spread more quickly in areas such as Abeokuta, Ijebu, Lagos and Ibadan where Europeans stayed for many years, as opposed to areas like Ilesa, Ondo, Ekiti, Niger and the Delta region where Africans pioneered the work….”
Circumstances like this opened the eyes of African Christians to the contemptuous attitudes of the European missionaries towards them and therefore paved the way for movements of autonomy.”
Where Africans led, and especially where Africans were able to make some accommodation to African cultures and practices, the Church grew. The CMS, on the other hand was not willing to make such accommodation.
And in that controversy, as Dr. Akinwumi notes, a significant issue was sexual mores, and specifically, polygamous marriage. As noted, the CMS took a hard line against participation in the Church by polygamist men (although the cause might just as well have been European racism and cultural imperialism, and not specifically to repress better-educated African colleagues). The new African Church, led by Mr. Coker, made more accommodation for polygamist men in the laity, although not, ultimately, in the clergy.
The critical moment in the formation of the African Church and its separation from the Church of England came on October 13, 1901. Mr. Coker seems to have been caught up in a difference between the English bishop, one Bishop Tugwell, and his African assisting bishop, Bishop James Johnson. Coker was People's Warden of St. Paul's Church, Breadfruit, in the area of Lagos. Bishop Tugwell thought Mr. Coker not sufficiently supportive of Bishop Tugwell's authority, apparently because Mr. Coker had relayed to the bishop concerns of some parishioners about a newly appointed priest. Mr. Coker thought himself bound by his position to forward these concerns to the bishop. From his subsequent actions, it appears Mr. Coker may have agreed with those concerns, although he may have simply disagreed with the authoritarian approach of Bishop Tugwell. In any case, on October 12 Mr. Coker resigned as Warden, and on October 13 a group of parishioners voted and decided to leave the St. Paul's and form their own congregation.
Dr. Akinwumi's description of the actions of departing parisioners is itself interesting:
Those who had any money belonging to the church paid whatever they had collected. They then went into the church to remove their personal belongings including the cushions they had on their seats. They abandoned the idea of sending a telegraph to London to inform the home church about what was going on because it would constitute a delay. In their opinion, they had moved out of Breadfruit and had formed a new church on the 13th of October, 1901 though they had no idea where they would meet.
Clearly, they distinguished between property of the Church of England and their personal property, and took only the latter.
Dr. Akinwumi reports that the division left Bishop Johnson publicly in tears, and that there were those voices of moderation, seeking some delay from Bishop Tugwell so as to provide time for those moderates to perhaps persuade dissenters to stay. However, despite pleas from those moderates, and from “all the priests in Lagos,” Bishop Tugwell refused. Even as he installed the new priest, the dissenters were meeting to form their new body.
Once established, the African Church under Coker’s leadership began to reach out to other independent Nigerian Churches. Coker advocated intercommunion among African churches, even though they differed over whether it was acceptable for clergy to be polygamous. Coker felt there was enough in common for them to worship together. However, others in African Church leadership disagreed, and ultimately most of these discussions were unsuccessful. However, the African Church did continue, and does continue so as to enter now into ecumenical conversations with CN-A.
As I read this history, I couldn't help but be struck by the resonance with current Anglican arguments, once again being expressed in Nigeria. The conflict between European/Western and local African cultures in the Church, and issues of colonies, imperialism, and racism; the expression of those differences in issues related to marriage; the concerns of competition with Islam; the differences between international and local Church leadership; decisions over Church property; and efforts to unite local, like-minded Christian bodies are all markedly parallel. In truth, "everything old is new again;" or, as the Preacher said, "There in nothing new under the sun."
Is there anything to learn from this? I don't really know. Certainly, it is worth attention, but there are also arguably differences. But perhaps there is one thing to learn, or at least to hope for. It's been 106 years since that first group left the Anglican Communion to form their own. It's taken that long for two bodies of Nigerian Christians with a common heritage to enter ecumenical discussions. Now we're concerned about the Anglican Communion as we have come to know it. Provinces of the Communion are highlighting differences and taking stands, with Nigeria notable among them. Changes at this point seem inevitable; separations and realignments seem certain. We can all pray that it won't take us 100 years and more to start talking again.