The primate of the Church of Nigeria has urged members of the Diocese of Sapele who have rebelled against their bishop to repent and have called upon clergy who have broken with the Rt. Rev. Blessing Erifeta to honor their oaths of obedience and to submit to his authority.
On 23 March 2017 a statement from the office of the Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh was released under the signature of the Church of Nigeria’s General Secretary, the Ven. Stephen Fagbemi, addressing the Sapele split. Last December the archbishop intervened in the dispute between the Bishop of Sapele and the congregation of St Luke’s Cathedral which had left the cathedral vacant, with reports the building had become overgrown with weeds and a portion in need of structural repair.
In 2015 the congregation locked Bishop Erifeta (pictured) out of the cathedral during a pastoral visitation, prompting him to lock the congregation out also, leaving them to worship outdoors under tents along the Boyo road. Events reached a head in July 2016 when a clash between soldiers and protesters at the diocesan synod meeting at St John’s Anglican Church in Amukpe in Southern Nigeria’s Edo State in the Niger Delta left five people hospitalized.
Last November the bishops of Warri and Oleh, the Rt. Rev. Christian Ide and the Rt. Rev. John Aruakpor, met with senior lay members of the diocese and traditional rulers in a bid to resolve the dispute. However the sense of the community of elders was that Bishop Erifeta must go.
A petition submitted to Archbishop Okoh in October 2016 listed 67 counts of misconduct, accusing Bishop Erifeta of financial recklessness, maladministration, disrespect to elders and embarking on incessant trips abroad with the diocese funds. However, diocesan secretary Churchill Akure denied the charges.
In November 2016 a provincial committee under the Bishop of Warri met to review the charges, but the hearing broke down. Mr Akure told NDV the complainants “submitted their allegations without evidence and Bishop Erifeta responded with evidence. When the chairman of the committee asked them to bring their evidence, they asked to be given the response of Erifeta and the evidence he adduced, which the bishop objected to and that was how the sitting was aborted.”
Mr Akure stated those who were complaining about the bishop were “just a bunch of evil men in the church,” adding: “Bishop Erifeta is a man of God not without mistakes, he has done well to lead us, he loves the Bible, and he delights more in teaching it and in prayers. No one should discourage him from continuing. He learns every day as he leads us and has improved on himself greatly.”
In his 23 March 2017 statement Archbishop Okoh said the church was governed by certain rules that must be obeyed for the good conduct of its affairs. The Church of Nigeria “recognises the worth of its members who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, true members of the Anglican Church, baptised and confirmed, necessarily submit to the structure of the church, first to its clergy, bishops, archbishops, and ultimately to the Primate who administers the church through proper legal instrument. Hence, every clergy who accept to be ordained swear to the oath of canonical obedience and loyalty to their bishop.”
The protesters had failed to present their case against the bishop and had refused to work within the system of ecclesiastical discipline, he said, leaving him no choice but to conclude the charges brought against Bishop Erifeta were unfounded.
“Anyone who fails and feels unable to bring himself under the governing authority of this church automatically repudiates his membership and has a right to leave or walk away. But no one has a right to hold the church to ransom.”
He added the Church of Nigeria “cannot be held to ransom by any group; the Anglican Church belongs only to those who can operate within and submit to its constituted authority and structures. Any lay member who follows this group must know that he is working outside of Anglican norms. Therefore, anyone who does this is nullifying his right to remain a member of the Anglican Church.”
“The only option now is to take advantage of the Lenten season and repent immediately by returning to the legitimate Anglican Church with an undertaking to forthwith respect the constituted authority and structure of the Church of Nigeria,” he said, adding: “that anyone, clergy or laity, who refuses to repent but continues to associate with this group, thereby rejecting the authority of the Anglican Church in the diocese of Sapele and by extension in the Church of Nigeria stands the risk of losing his right to remain as a member of the Church.”