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Breaking The Mould!

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Did you know that in 1970, following the consecration of the then provost of the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina, Lagos, the Very Reverend Festus Oluwole Segun (1975-1985), a great cleric, eminent scholar, fearless preacher, brilliant theologian, musician of note, and accomplished administrator, who became the first black Bishop of Northern Nigeria in succession to Rt. Rev. J. L. Mort, it was the former Director of religious programmes at the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the Very Rev. Samuel Hugh Akinsope Johnson (better known as Rev. Sope Johnson), who succeeded him from Saturday, 25th April, 1970 to June 1995?

Upon his return to Lagos from Kaduna, the Rt. Rev. Segun was enthroned in February 1975 as the Bishop of Lagos Dioceses following the retirement of the Rt. Rev. Seth Irunsewe Kale (1963-1974), with his seat at the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina - where he had served from 1960-1970. But alas, Rev. Segun's successor, Provost Sope Johnson, who maintained that culture, society and worship styles had changed everywhere, had, in his (Segun's) absence, broken the mould (i.e. done things in a completely new and better way) by introducing a new communal service; the modern form of worship – the “Series II” book of shortened “Common Prayers,” fashioned after what obtained in England, but which did not enjoy the approval of Segun.

One saying goes, “change is good,” while another says “change is hard,” and so it seemed with the new Bishop who cannot help feeling just a mite uneasy about it. Barely three months after his enthronement as Bishop, Rev. Segun seemed to have got off on the wrong foot when precisely on Monday, 7th April, 1975 he promulgated a decree which not only banned Provost Johnson's method of worship, but also ordered the use of only the book of “common prayers” to conduct morning and evening services, as well as administer sacraments and other occasional service. Equally banned, unless with the Bishop's expressed permission, were the celebration of the Holy Communion at funerals, and the use of the “Missal,” a book of worship. He also proscribed any rite or form, relating or akin, to the Roman Catholic form and ordered the removal of the third altar in the cathedral, placed at the foot of the chancery steps, reserved for the clergy. Not done, Bishop Segun reverted to its statutory position the altar in every church in the Diocese of Lagos, and approved the “optionality” of the glad rags or costumes worn by the priests for Holy Communion Services.

As far as the congregation were concerned, this decree had not only taken the gilt off the gingerbread, it was enough to try the patience of Job. Their reaction, therefore, was one of total rejection of these changes. Getting the drift, they challenged the Bishop that in the probable event of any changes at all, such must enjoy the church's blessing ahead of their promulgation. Members denied bluntly to have ever leaned towards Catholicism, and maintained that they had neither burnt incense nor tinkled bells. Naturally as a result, the battle line seemed drawn between the Bishop and the Congregation that had now rallied to the Provost's defence.

The public eventually got wind of the crisis on Tuesday 6th May 1975 at the 19th Synod of the Anglican Diocese addressed by Bishop Segun, where, sure as eggs is eggs, he stubbornly re-stated his decree, and accordingly forbade such Roman Catholic terms as “Mass” and “requiem.” He was promptly opposed by a vocal faction of church elders who dissociated themselves from this decree, insisting that it amounted to nothing but a clear departure from the normal practice of the diocese. However, by Thursday 15th May, 1975, the situation had pretty much got out of hand when the Bishop, in defence of his cherished opposition to “all tendency towards Anglo Catholicism or Roman Catholicism in the Diocese of Lagos,” put out the candle during a ceremonial service conducted by the provost.

Once again, the same faction of church elders rose to condemn the Bishop's action, and at the end of the service, without much ado, held an emergency meeting which quickly put in place an eight-member peace team to liaise with the church's standing committee and decide the way forward. The peace team had a mandate to request for a meeting with the Bishop, and to also demand the presence of the church's chancellor, Mr. Justice John Adefarasin. Notable among congregation members handpicked to attend the proposed meeting with the Bishop included the famous and respected Chief Dr. Akinola Maja, Chief Dr. E. N.O. Sodeinde, Mr. J.B. Daramola, Chief Mrs. Wey and Mr. N.O.A. Morgan.

Bishop Segun, however, continued to express his intolerance of the mode of worship, up to Tuesday 6th April, 1975. As a boost for him, the Diocesan Board, at a meeting of the executive body of the Anglican Diocese of Lagos, threw its weight behind Bishop Segun when it passed a vote of implicit confidence in his leadership and administration regarding steps taken by him towards the resolution of the two-month old crisis. It “affirmed that the Bishop had acted properly, in accordance with both the constitution of the diocese, and that of the Church of the Province of West Africa.” It even caused copies of the resolution signed by the Lagos Synod Secretary, Mr. Femi Oyewole, and which expressed grave concern over the crisis, and disapproval on the happenings in the Cathedral in particular, and the Lagos Diocese in general, to be sent to Synod members, and pasted on notice boards of all Anglican churches in Lagos. Aside assuring all concerned that the crisis was being well managed, the resolution failed woefully to quell it.

The angry congregation felt short-changed when it discovered that the Rt. Rev. Segun failed to deliver their letter sent through him to the Archbishop of the Province of West Africa, His Grace, Most Rev. M.N.C.O. Scott at the Bishop's Conference held in Lagos in 1975, and accused the Bishop of betraying a trust placed in him. In the said letter (Bishop Segun was also copied), the congregation had demanded that the Bishops at the conference found time to deliberate on the crisis over their cathedral's mode of worship. Members of the “chapter House” had to personally serve a copy of the letter on Scott and had their suspicion of the Bishop confirmed when the Archbishop wrote thus:

“This is a reply to the letter dated 4th August; which you handed to me last Sunday.”

This is what gave birth to their accusation of the “Great Betrayal on the part of the Bishop.” The Bishop, however, disagreed with the agitators that his action was tantamount to a betrayal. In his own defence at the 20th Synod meeting in May 1976, he explained to participants that the last twelve months were indeed a trying period for the church, one that the cathedral was unprepared for, and which it could not have managed effectively. Then he succinctly posited:

“has there been such an inside hob of church demolition as is evident today?”

The response was a resounding “No.” Now encouraged, he proceeded to deliver the coup de grace:

“Evil forces are not merely living up against the church, they are forming a church. And evil seems to triumph, when good men do nothing. But sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, truth will prevail in the end, and justice will have its way.”

The Bishop, in his voluminous address to the Synod subtitled “Very Rev. Sope Johnson,” further lamented that the press had delighted in publishing several libelous and fallacious articles on the subject. But since it was unbecoming of the Diocesan Board to partake of any press controversy, and from which it had deliberately refrained; it was the public that had suffered for not having the facts of the matter as a result. He denounced the churchmanship or the traditional mode of worship in the entire diocese, and lashed out at the intransigence of provost Johnson over it. He stamped his foot on the point that the mode of worship is evangelical, as it is also constitutional. He recalled retired Rt. Rev Kale's opposition towards Rev. Johnson's tendency to Anglo-Catholicism, adding that he not only opposed it when it came to his notice, he directed on Thursday, 17th April, 1975 that the entire diocese should return to status quo.

But in March of the following year, when Provost Johnson declared that he was both hopeless and helpless in the face of Bishop Segun's directives, and as such could not continue to disobey them, the Bishop and Provost as well as other priests in the diocese were called upon by the congregation to either bury the hatchet and revert to the pre-7th April, 1975 mode of worship or simply kiss the church goodbye for peace to reign: The congregation said:

“For ten months, patience has been exercised, until at the Annual vestry meeting, held on February 29, 1976. A resolution was passed by a show of hands (162 in favour, one against with seven abstentions), that the pre-7th of April, 1975, mode of worship in the cathedral, be restored with immediate effect.”

In a literal sense, Provost Sope Johnson and the Diocesan priests were asked to choose between the standing committee and the Bishop who had so far proved unyielding. The no-mincing-word letter was dated Monday, 15th March, 1976, and it stated emphatically:

“If any members of the Clergy is not disposed to carry out the wishes of the congregation, in connection with the mode of worship mentioned above, we would urge them to make their exit, or be replaced by other Clergy, who are prepared to carry out our wishes.”

As the crisis dragged on to the eleventh month, Bishop Segun introduced a pretty kettle of fish to the whole matter when he instituted an ecclesiastical court - a seven-count charge of breach of ecclesiastical order and disobedience of lawful order, given by the Very Rev. Sope Johnson, against the Provost, culminating in his suspension from office, until he was absolved of the charges against him. Bishop Segun also transferred from the parish the Provost's two henchmen, Rev. S.O.M. Adebola, and Rev. J. K. Adekanye, who carried out his biddings. Adebola to Iwaya, and Adekanye, off to Onigbagbo circuits.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the ecclesiastical court trial would have commenced at the Bishop's court, Marina on Friday, 28th April 1978, with members such as the Bishop himself, or Chancellor of the Diocese, The Hon. Justice Joseph Adetunji Adefarasin (1921-1989), as the president, the Rt. Rev. J.S. Adeniyi (assistant Bishop), Rev. canon J.T. Idowu and Rev. Ayo Odukoya in attendance, and of course a lawyer and secretary to take note of proceedings. And as much as the constitution of the church gave the Bishop the power to try any clergyman charged with “false doctrine or unauthorized ritual, or breach of ecclesiastical order”, the document also stipulated that the defendants and court members must be served with copies of the charges. Or where no charges are served, the Bishop must within 21 days state the reason for constituting the court.

Provost Sope Johnson, who seemed to have battened down the hatches and prepared to ride out the storm, responded by going to the Lagos High Court where he filed a civil suit against Bishop Segun and three others namely: Rt. Rev. J.S. Adeniyi, Rev. Canon Idowu and Rev. Ayo Odukoya, and prayed the court to stop his trial by these men. Mr. Justice Boonyamin Kazeem, who would be sworn in by President Ibrahim Babangida eleven years later (exactly on Monday, 7th September, 1987) as one of the 46 wise men and women charged with reviewing the 1979 Constitution, in his ruling of April 1976, ordered the ecclesiastical court, on the one hand, to stop proceedings, and the Provost, on the other hand, to continue his duties, until the determination of the case by the Lagos High Court.

In order to insulate the case from the court and, as a result, save the church from both the havoc of scandal and tragedy which proceedings of this nature can wreck on the parties concerned, the Anglican Archbishop of West Africa, the Most Rev. M.N.C.O. Scott, once again intervened by calling for a ceasefire. The delegation sent by the Archbishop pleaded with Provost Johnson to withdraw his court action and submit himself for a peaceful resolution of the matter once and for all. The late Oba of Lagos (1965-2003), His Royal Highness, Oba Adeyinka Oyekan II (1911-2003), a pacifist, bridge builder and first Christian Oba of Lagos known to have worshipped in a church, expressed disgust over the matter and charged the Synod to do everything in its power to keep the church's pot boiling. Also, the late Alake of Egbaland, His Royal Highness, Oba Oyebade Lipede (1915-2005), who had only four years earlier mounted the Egba throne and would go on to reign for 32 years, also became involved and tried to save the day. General Yakubu Gowon, who then as Nigeria's Head of State, not only worshipped but took time off to wed his beloved Victoria in the church, probably may have chosen not to foul his own nest publicly and as a result decided to cast his net wide by backing the congregation behind the scene. For whatever his role is worth, it was never in the public domain.

Need one remind us here that the call for peace fell on deaf ears? Rather than hearken to the voice of reason, Bishop Segun and three others, through their counsel Afolabi Lardner, introduced another application, which sought the court to set aside its order of Tuesday, 13th April, 1976, that restrained the ecclesiastical court from trying Rev. Johnson, as well as ordered him to continue his duties, pending the court's determination of the suit before it.

However, at the resumed sitting of the court on Tuesday, 11th May, 1976, Nigeria's first Queen's Counsel, first Senior Advocate of Nigeria and 1959 President of Nigeria Bar Association, Chief Frederick Rotimi Williams (1920-2005), leading counsel for Provost Sope Johnson, read a letter it received from Bishop Segun, to the hearing of the court thus:

“in view of the appeal of my brother bishops, I have decided to, and do hereby discontinue the ecclesiastical court, which was contemplated in my letter under reference together with order of suspension, which is hereby withdrawn. It is my prayer and hope, that you will on your part, uphold the provisions of the constitution of this Diocese, and the oath which you took.”

“'Timi, the Law” would, after reading the letter, tell the court that Provost Johnson was not consulted before the letter was sent to the court, which denied both parties the opportunity to meet and work out the terms of settlement. He stated that Bishop Segun had no power to suspend Provost Johnson in the first place, adding that the Diocesan Synod's Constitution, on which he claimed to have acted, was illegal. His submission hinted that several issues needed to be resolved by the court, listing such issues as the lack of constitutional authority on the Bishop's membership of the ecclesiastical court, as well as the power for him to prefer charges in the manner that he had done. While asking the court to proceed with the matter at hand, Williams argued that legal representation by an aggrieved person, did not require the Bishop's approval as claimed by him, and that life should not be sniffed out of the case based on Bishop Segun's whims and caprices of writing the aforesaid letter.

In his ruling of Monday, 17th May, 1976, Justice Kazeem, who noted the motion filed by Bishop Segun and three others, challenging the jurisdiction of the court to deal with the matter, ruled in favour of Provost Johnson that the matter must continue despite the letter. Apart from equally ruling that it was within Provost Johnson's legal right to seek prohibition order from the time he initiated the action, and that the order would have to subsist until it is vacated, or until a new procedure can be brought to substitute the prohibition proceedings, the Judge also held that the case could not be unilaterally quashed by the act of the Bishop, simply because his letter said so.

Therefore, like a long lane that had no turning, the case was eventually withdrawn from the court after three adjournments on the grounds that both parties had agreed to settle the dispute out of court. The parties later reached the agreement when other Bishops intervened and persuaded Bishop Segun to compromise with the congregation. The agreement stated that the controversial mode of worship should not be stopped in its entirety and up till today, the book which Bishop Segun claimed was similar to “Roman Catholicism” is, as part of the agreement between him and the congregation, now used twice in a month.

Born in Ijebu Ode on 20th March, 1915, Rt. Rev. Segun was educated at: Our Saviour's Primary School, Ijebu Ode; St. Andrew's College, Oyo in 1933, where he trained and graduated in 1937, as a school teacher; Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, where he bagged a Bachelor's degree (1945-1949); Union Theological Seminary USA, for his Bachelor of Divinity degree; University of Ife, Nigeria, where he also picked an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1971.

Lastly, it might interest you to further know that the present Provost of the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina, Lagos is the Very Rev. Pelu Johnson, son of the former Provost, Very Rev. Sope Johnson. Since the child of a hen is sure to scratch in the dust, one can also be sure that the younger Johnson won't just be up to the mark, he would, his father, make his own mark too.

Rev. S.O.M. Adebola is presently the Lord Bishop of Yewa Diocese, Ilaro, Ogun State, who was once a Vicar in St. Paul's Anglican Church, Breadfruit Lagos, as well as Archdeacon of Lagos.

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