number 8, december 12, 1998

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50 million members, and growing fast

By Jerry Van Marter of Ecumenical News International, reporting on the African Instituted Churches and their interest in joining the ecumenical movement.

Leaders of a number of Africa Instituted Churches (AICs) gave a spirited defence of their churches at the WCC assembly earlier this week. They denied the claim of critics who have charged them with being "schismatic". Their detractors are hypocrites, they said.

Though no accurate figures are available, AICs claim thousands of churches and more than 50 million members across the continent. They were all founded by indigenous African Christians rather than by foreign missionaries.

AIC leaders use the words instituted, indigenous and independent to describe their churches.

Speaking at an assembly padare session, Rufus Ositelu, archbishop of the Church of the Lord Aladura (a West African adjective loosely translated as "divine inspiration") in Ghana, made a point about diversity in church life.

"When you travel to the Netherlands or the United States," he said, "there are thousands of different kinds of Baptist churches and no one accuses them of schism but then they ask all these questions of the AICs.

"They should evaluate our churches by the word of God, not by their own opinions about who is valid and who is not."

Western churches and the mainline African churches which they founded were sceptical, if not hostile, towards AICs, according to Archbishop Njera Wambugu of Ethiopia, general secretary for the Organisation of African Instituted Churches.

The reason, he said, was that "we had to break away from the missionary churches because of a lack of training of our people to be church leaders, and because we resisted colonial restrictions".

Prophetess J.E. Ahme, of the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim in Nigeria, who, with Archbishop Wambugu, led the padare session about AICs, said that these churches needed to be part of the ecumenical movement.

"Now we are excluded, even though we are Trinitarian, believe the Bible is the word of God, and profess that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ." But, said Ahme, AICs were not welcome in organisations such as the WCC "because of international domination of the ecumenical movement".

Rigorously defending her church, she said, "There is a universal truth, found in John 3:16 ( For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life'), but it is applied in many different ways."

However, seven AICS have been members of the WCC for some time, and three more have been accepted as members in the past few days.

The AICs were not syncretistic another accusation frequently levelled at them Nduruso Ngada, of South Africa, said at the padare hearing. "We understand God from the point of view of being Africans. We have our cultures, customs and norms that are the base of our understanding."

Recalling the humiliation of having to register in missionary schools with his "Christian name and heathen name", Ngada said, "I see nothing wrong with Africans worshipping God as Africans."

Wambugu told ENI that schism was a problem for AICs. Many of them had been established by "divinely instructed" leaders and tended to split into rival factions when the founder died. "This is a problem," he said. "Leaders had not thought of succession when they received their call from God."

His organisation was trying to work with AICs "to help them with proper management", he said.

Ahme told ENI after the padare session that AICs needed the ecumenical movement to help them "move into the 21st century ... For too long we focused solely on spirituality".

Ahme, who has a PhD from Oxford University, added, "We need to equip our people to be more involved in civic life, in such areas as health, education and development, and the ecumenical movement can help us if they will."

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Read other articles in this issue:

Polygamy no problem for African churches
Mandela to attend assembly tomorrow
Catholic Church doesn't want to 'dwarf' WCC
Evangelicals work the stream at WCC
Orthodox find the space for dialogue
Padare, the assembly energizer
Unmasking Orthodox claims
Amsterdam had a Message
50 million members, and growing fast
Some quiet nourishment

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor