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Nigerian Interchurch Families

a report from Chidi Ukwueze

I have tried, time without number, to capture the real nature and situation of interchurch families in Nigeria but to no avail. This is because it is still in the stage of development. To be precise, I was introduced to the Association of Interchurch Families in the UK in the year 2001, when I was having pastoral experience in Lagos, Nigeria. Because of my interest in ecumenism, the Rector of my seminary wanted me to lead our seminarians to Canada for the 2001 conference, but unfortunately we never made it to Canada due to the fact that there was no Canadian Embassy in Nigeria by then; we had to go to Ghana for our visas and things never went fine in Ghana for some reasons which I don’t know. A few months after then, therefore, some couples with mixed marriages were gathered together to bring together a group of interchurch families in Nigeria, and all of a sudden, I was put in charge of the group.

It was not really easy to cope with the challenges at the initial time because I did not know the nature and extent of involvement with the group. However, I used my initiative and arranged for some kind of monthly gathering until I got them organised. Still, the problem of illiteracy arose, as some of them never went to school. But luckily enough, I discovered that some men among them had gone to school and so I had to utilise them to reach to the rest of the members.

We started with two families on the first day. As time went on some other families were introduced into the group. And now we can boast of having groups of interchurch families both in western and eastern Nigeria. I have equally introduced one Reverend in the eastern part and I was happy to hear that he is preparing to attend the conference in Rome, hoping that he will get insights into the nature of the Association of Interchurch Families, and help in the handling of an association in Nigeria.

The couples are from Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian traditions. The group was introduced in the seminary as a kind of pious society like the Legion of Mary, Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph, etc, that we have in the Catholic Church. We have quite a good number of Catholics from outside the seminary who come to the seminary to worship with us. As a result, we have in the seminary what we call the ‘students’ Mass’ (for seminarians) and ‘people’s Mass (for non-seminarians who come from outside). This is because the seminary church is not big enough to accommodate all at once. Meanwhile these lay people do join the different pious societies that we have in the seminary, and in seminary prayers and meetings. So it was the Rector, being aware that some of them are married to non-Catholics, picked two of them to start up the group of interchurch families as one of the pious societies in the seminary. As a result, they meet in the seminary.

Of course, wedding is the main issue here. None of them has got wedded because it is not always easy to convince any bishop in Nigeria with regard to interchurch family marriage. I was sad to hear last year that a bishop in Nigeria expelled a seminarian simply because he attended a wedding that took place in an Anglican church. According to the story, the innocent seminarian did not even know that his cousin was getting married to an Anglican. He was surprised to learn this at the wedding itself, and there was nothing he could do but stay for the wedding, and that’s how he found himself out of the seminary. So what I am saying is that we are still praying that the Catholic Church in Nigeria could recognise interchurch wedding.

The same thing is also applicable to Baptism. It is not all priests in Nigeria that would agree to baptise a child whose parents are not wedded in the Church. As for church attendance, the Nigerian culture (and generally, African culture, I think) is such that puts men in charge of everything. Because of this, it is the man of the house who determines the church his children (and even at times his wife) should attend. This is one of the difficulties one encounters in the pastoral care of interchurch families in Nigeria, because it is taken that one is undermining the role of a man in the family.

I must say that churches in Nigeria still have a long way to go in terms of understanding themselves. I’m sure it will be very funny for you to hear that some churches in Nigeria preach to their girls to marry a man only if he would agree to attend their church. So we are making every effort to bring to their awareness the need for dialogue and understanding. The few interchurch families we have at present are beginning to learn to pray together in their respective families. And we do hope and pray that the issue of their wedding, as well as baptising of their children, will soon be solved.