The history of relations between the World Council of Churches and the African Instituted Churches is an old one. In the 70s, when the Organisation of African Independent (later: Instituted) Churches was formed the WCC was involved, not least through its Programme on Theological Education. In subsequent years PTE provided considerable support for the Theological Education by Extension programme and for theological seminaries of AICs. The former Sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life had a keen interest in the spirituality of AICs.
As early as 1969 one of the largest AICs, the Kimbanguist Church in Zaire had joined the World Council. It was followed in 1975, at the time of the Vth Assembly in Nairobi by three others: the African Church of the Holy Spirit and the African Israel Nineveh Church (both in Kenya) and the Church of the Lord (Aladura) based in Nigeria. Recently the Native Baptist Church of Cameroon became a member. And several other AICs have made known their desire to be part of the fellowship of the WCC.
But in spite of longstanding relations AICs have the impression that they are not looked at as full partners in the ecumenical movement. Sometimes they are merely objects of curiosity, often they are not understood at all. It should therefore be no surprise that the Office of Church and Ecumenical Relations made relations with African Instituted Churches one of its priorities.
The idea of holding a consultation had been in the air for some time. It began to take shape during a visit of the Most Rev. Ositelu, Primate of the Church of the Lord (Aladura) to the Council in October 1994. When he heard about it he said that Nigeria should be the venue - and a few months later he stood by his promise to host the event.
And so it became possible that from 9 - 14 January 1996 some 34 participants and a "cloud of witnesses" of the Aladura churches gathered in the pleasant setting of the Ogere Conference Centre about 60 kms from Lagos, near to the headquarters of the Church of the Lord. The meeting was conceived on the model of earlier meetings of a similar kind organised by OCER with Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Representatives of African Instituted Churches and African churches founded by foreign missions entered into a dynamic of listening to, and learning from one another. Under the able (and bilingual!) leadership of Dr Aaron Tolen, one of the WCC's Presidents, they engaged in a frank and lively dialogue. At the heart of the discussions were questions of gospel and culture, and of relations between the two families of churches. In many African countries they simply co-exist, caught in their mutual prejudices, and never talk to each other. As one Bishop from a mission-founded church said: "It took the WCC to get us, churches here in Nigeria, coming together around this table".
AICs are often accused of mixing christian rites and African cultural customs. For them however, what matters is the spiritual dimension of these cultural elements and their symbolic representation of many expressions of the christian faith. AICs maintain that in so doing they are on sound and solid biblical ground. For sure they are close to the people, offering a genuine integration of faith and life. Their strength lies also in their strong sense of community, so characteristic of African culture. But AICs are weak on socio-political and socio-economic issues from which they tend to shy away.
Hubert van Beek