Reflections On The History Of The Diocese On The Niger

During the Synod of the Diocese of Awka held at St. Peter’s Church, Abagana, on Saturday 7th day of May, 2022, Archbishop Maxwell Anikwenwa (OFR) made a pertinent comment and I quote, “History is important. The people that do not know their history will surely miss their way.” Unquote. He further emphasised, “If we must be faithful, we must look backwards (i.e – history), look forward (ie – today – tomorrow) and look up to heaven.” This comment challenged us to have a brief reflection on the History of the Diocese on the Niger to present an accurate story about the origin of the Diocese so that we may be certain concerning the things that have been accomplished among us.

The history of the Diocese on the Niger stems from the missionary endeavours of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from the 27 day of July, 1857 led by Samuel Ajayi Crowther. As the mission grew, it became necessary to consecrate Crowther a Bishop to lead the Mission.

THE RT REV. DR OWEN C. NWOKOLO PhD. M.A. (Nig) B.A. (Hons) Dip. Bishop on the Niger

The ministry of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther has been a topic for discussion nationally and internationally. In this country, every section and tribe claim that he is the progenitor of their Mission. The missionary work of Bishop Crowther is often presented to suit the side that is telling the story. Over the years, some historical facts appear to have been distorted. And it appears that nothing has been done to present a uniform story about what happened in the past. Our aim in this presentation is to stimulate that quest to present a verifiable chronicle of the missionary enterprise in the Church of Nigeria, as it relates to the Diocese on the Niger.

There is a claim that the Diocese on the Niger started in 1922 with Bishop Bertram Lasbery as her first Bishop With this claim, Diocese on the Niger is expected to celebrate her Centenary as a Diocese this year, 2022. However, Diocese on the Niger is not celebrating Centenary this year, 2022. Why? The simple answer is that the Diocese on the Niger did not, in fact, start in 1922.

Over the years, till the present, the Church Year Calendar of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) consistently reflects 1864 as the year the Diocese on the Niger started. Another page in the same Church Year Calendar has it that the Diocese on the Niger was created in 1919, but remained vacant from 1919 to 1922 when it allegedly started. This section of the Church of Nigeria historical record has it that Diocese of Lagos became the first Diocese to be inaugurated in Nigeria on 10 November, 1919 after the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa was divided into two.

Some records even state that Bishop Herbert Tugwell who was supposed to take over as the Bishop on the Niger in 1919 died before he set out to Onitsha the headquarters of the Diocese on the Niger. However, this later statement that Bishop Tugwell died in 1919 before he set out to Onitsha is not supported by any verifiable historical fact. We are not sure how that statement entered historical records. The truth is that Bishop Tugwell did not die in 1919. Records from the CMS Archives have it that Bishop Herbert Tugwell died on 22 July, 1936. What then happened in 1919 when the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa was divided into two? The answer to that question will justify why it is not proper for the Diocese on the Niger to celebrate Centenary in 2022. In actual fact, the Episcopacy of the Diocese on the Niger remains the oldest in Nigeria; meaning also that Diocese on the Niger is the oldest Diocese in Nigeria.

It is understandable that there will be ripples in some quarters at the statement that the Diocese on the Niger is the oldest Diocese in Nigeria. This is because it has long been believed that Diocese of Lagos is the oldest Diocese in Nigeria. Some people might even say that we are looking for trouble, stepping on toes or touching the untouchable. The issue is that this is not a personal matter. We are talking about historical facts.

Diocese on the Niger became the oldest Diocese in Nigeria purely by divine providence. It is not that the Diocese on the Niger is richer or bigger than the Diocese of Lagos: that is not the case. The first-born son may not always be richer than his other siblings. Things go by Divine arrangements. A dispassionate examination of historical facts will reveal how God made the Diocese on the Niger the first Diocese in Nigeria.

In a booklet titled, “How Deep go the Roots of the Diocese on the Niger”, Rev. Canon Sir A. E. D. Mgbemena (Canon Superior) states:

“The position of Onitsha as the only Anglican Bishopric in Nigeria up to 1919 is an irrefutable historical fact. In 1919 when it was decided to have two Dioceses, in place of the one vast Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa, Lagos was the new part that had to be excised from the existing Niger Territories. Onitsha with the area around it was not being created a Diocese ‘de novo’ but was the stump of the on-going Niger Territories, (renamed Western Equatorial Africa), whose privilege it was to keep the old name.”

Canon Mgbemena further states that, “the roots of the Bishopric on the Niger run all the way back to 1864, to Crowther, not to 1919.” He maintained that, “the Bishopric of Crowther was planted in the Niger Mission area. Archbishop Maxwell Anikwenwa also affirms that the history of the Niger Mission dates back to 1864 – to Bishop Crowther.

It is recorded that soon after his consecration in England in June 1864, Crowther was back again to Onitsha by August, that in 1865 he gave a favourable report of the work in Onitsha and that in 1866 he held his first Synod in Onitsha.”

From records obtained from the CMS Archives, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Bishop of West African Territories beyond the British Dominions, was succeeded by Bishop Joseph Sydney Hill in 1893. The Diocese of Bishop Hill covered the same geographical area except for the change of name to the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa. Bishop Sydney Hill chose Ozalla Hill, Onitsha as the headquarters of the Western Equatorial Africa. He died on the 5 day of January, 1894. He was succeeded by Bishop Herbert Tugwell who was consecrated Bishop on 4 day of March, 1894. The headquarters of the Western Equatorial Africa remained in Onitsha when the Diocese was divided into two in 1919.

It is on record that at the division of the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa in 1919, Bishop Herbert Tugwell who was the substantive reigning Bishop chose to remain the Bishop of the Diocese of the Western Equatorial Africa which was later renamed Diocese on the Niger. He simply retained the title, ‘Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa’, pending the change of name to ‘Diocese on the Niger’.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa (Diocese on the Niger) led by Bishop Tugwell did not have any delay in continuing to function. As an existing Diocese with a substantive reigning Bishop, it did not need inauguration in 1919.

Venerable Frank Melville Jones was duly consecrated Bishop for the Diocese of Lagos on the Feast of St Luke, the Evangelist, in the year of our Lord, 18 October, 1919. He was recommended for consecration as Bishop by the Rt. Rev. Herbert Tugwell whose Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa was then being divided into two. In accordance with the Anglican practice, an Archdeacon consecrated a Bishop does not take precedence over an incumbent reigning Bishop even when inauguration is needed. If such a situation exists, the incumbent Bishop takes precedence.

In this situation, however, there was no break in Episcopal leadership from the old Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa to the Diocese on the Niger. Bishop Herbert Tugwell continued his Episcopal work till 1921 when he resigned and went back to England. His resignation took effect from 4th day of March, 1921.

Bishop Bertram Lasbery succeeded Bishop Herbert Tugwell in 1922. Within the few months delay (March 1921 to 25 January, 1922) before he took over as the incumbent Bishop on the Niger, Bishop A. W. Howells who was consecrated on 11 June, 1920 as the Assistant Bishop on the Niger, performed some Episcopal duties for the Diocese on the Niger.

Meanwhile, in a letter dated 26 day of October, 1921, Bishop Melville Jones of Diocese of Lagos was given a temporary commission by the Archbishop of Canterbury (as a supervisory Bishop) to assist Bishop A. W. Howells, the Assistant Bishop on the Niger, to perform some Episcopal duties like ordination of Priests and Deacons, which an Assistant Bishop is not authorised to perform.

One cannot supervise a non-existent Diocese. From the foregoing, the Diocese of Western Equatorial

Africa was an existing Diocese before and after the division in 1919. Onitsha was the headquarters of the Diocese before and after the division of the Diocese into two – Eastern and Western parts. The Eastern part remained Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa which was renamed Diocese on the Niger while the Western part became Diocese of Lagos. Bishop Tugwell who was the substantive reigning Bishop continued his Episcopal duties in the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa (which was renamed Diocese on the Niger) without any break.

 Afterwards, Ven. Melville Jones was consecrated on 18 day of October, 1919 to take over the Diocese of Lagos. By a warrant issued under the Royal Signet and Signed Manual dated the 25th Day of March, 1920, the spiritual Jurisdiction of the said Bishop Tugwell and Bishop Frank Melville Jones were clearly defined, meaning that the Diocese of Lagos legally commenced from 25th March, 1920.

A similar situation occurred a few years ago in the country.When the Diocese of Okigwe North was divided into two in the year 2008, namely, Isi Mbano and Okigwe Dioceses. The then substantive reigning Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Alfred Nwizuzu chose to move his Cathedral from St. Barnabas Cathedral Okigwe to Christ Church, Ezihe. With this relocation, Christ Church, Ezihe became the Cathedral. ‘Where the seat of the Bishop is, there is the Cathedral’. Bishop Nwizuzu retained the title ‘Bishop of Okigwe North Diocese’ and continued his Episcopal duties until his retirement. It was the Diocese of Okigwe with the newly consecrated Bishop Edward Osuegbu that was inaugurated on 13 January, 2009 and St. Barnabas Church once again became the Cathedral. According to the Rt. Rev. Dr Godson Ukanwa, the present Bishop of Isi-Mbano, they applied to the Primate for a change of name in 012 from Diocese of Okigwe North to Isi-Mbano. The application was approved at the Standing Committee held at Yenagua in September 2012. However, the change of name of the Diocese did not affect the age of Isi-Mbano Diocese. Nor did the change make the Diocese of Okigwe older than the Diocese of Isi-Mbano. As it stands, the Diocese of Isi-Mbano retained 7 January, 1994 as her inauguration date, while Okigwe Diocese stands inaugurated on 13 January, 2009.

There are three major points that should not be allowed to becloud the question of the primacy of the See on the Niger over Lagos. The first is that it was said that the Diocese on the Niger was created in 1919 along with the Diocese of Lagos, but that the Diocese on the Niger remained vacant from 1919 to 1922, because Bishop Tugwell who was supposed to take over died before he left Lagos to resume at Onitsha and that the next person to take over was Bishop Lasbery who was appointed in 1922. This argument does not stand because Bishop Tugwell did not die in 1919. He remained the Bishop of the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa for two full years (from 1919) before he resigned. Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa was an existing Diocese which did not need inauguration in 1919. It is clear from this presentation that the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa is the old name of Diocese on the Niger, thus, the issue of vacancy from 1919 to 1922 is not true, and it is therefore dismissed.

The second major point that should not be allowed to becloud the question of the primacy of the See On the Niger over Lagos is the start of the Yoruba Mission in 1843, many years before the Niger Mission of 1857. According to A.E. D. Mgbemena,

“This is not relevant because Crowther was not appointed Bishop of the Yoruba

Mission, nor was he appointed Bishop of the Niger Mission. He was Bishop of the

Territories covered by the two Missions. Thus, Onitsha was the Bishopric for the

entire territory east and west. When Hill became Bishop, he was Bishop of the

entire Nigeria; and the Cathedral he proposed for Onitsha was for the whole

Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa. To assist him were two African Bishops

consecrated with him – Bishop Charles Philips and Isaac Oluwole whom he had

the power to deploy anywhere in the Diocese.”

It is worthy to observe that Bishop Crowther was more of an itinerant missionary Bishop who had the passion to preach the Gospel of Christ in order to consolidate the mission work across West Africa. His jurisdiction as Bishop covered the whole West Africa, except Freetown, Cape Coast and Lagos, each of which was a British colony. Because Europeans lived in these colonies, Crowther, a black man, could not be Bishop over them. He could not even be Bishop over fellow missionaries in Abeokuta and

Ibadan if they were Europeans. To be able to cover the vast Episcopal area, Bishop Crowther chose to live in Lagos which afforded him a good geographical convenience. He was not Bishop of Lagos; Lagos was not a missionary or pastoral centre placed under him; Lagos was for him merely a home in which to refresh himself after his tedious episcopal travels East, North and South. At that time Lagos was a missionary area administered from Sierra Lone. The Colony of Lagos was included within the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa in the year 1898, after the death of Bishop Crowther; the time when white men took over episcopal duties in the then Nigeria. This shows that Crowther was not in charge of Lagos throughout the time he was Bishop.

Meanwhile, Bishops Crowther’s first Synod in 1866 was held on the banks of the River Niger. He maintained Onitsha as the Mission post from where he launched to other parts of the country. In the words of Bishop Crowther himself, in his first Synod Charge;

“Our first station was commenced at Onitsha in 1857, where our dear brother,

the Rev. J. C. Taylor, was landed, assisted by the late Simon Jonas, a Scripture

reader. Their lodging was an oblong veranda-hovel, some three feet wide, just

enough to spread mats on, without any other comforts. In this place they

remained for months, and went out to preach as well as to work, building their

own Mission-house on the spot which we now occupy.”

The third point that should not be allowed to becloud the question of the primacy of the See On the Niger over Lagos is the fact that Lagos developed as the capital of Nigeria and the seat of the then Government. A. E. D. Mgbemena also stressed that, “it should not give ground for anyone to advance it for the misplaced primacy of Lagos over Niger, any more than would London claim primacy over Canterbury for that reason”. It is evident from the above analysis that those concerned should critically examine their records and amend identified errors. In the meantime, it is undeniable that the Bishopric of the Niger Territories dates from 1864 and that it is also the date of the birth of the Diocese on the Niger.

Our people say, “Na diokpala enweghi ego abughi ya ka a ga-eji nara ya diokpala obu” (the fact that the first-born son does not have adequate financial resources does not warrant anyone to deny him his birth rights). Honour should be given to whom honour is due.

In another development, during the recent Church of Nigeria Standing Committee held at the Diocese of Evo in the Niger Delta Province in February 2022, in his bid to justify that the Niger Delta was not part of the Niger Mission, a highly placed cleric from the Niger Delta Province appeared to have made some unjustifiable historical statements during the presentation of his address to the August body.

According to the noble Cleric, “Rt. Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther had served the Church Missionary Society (CMS), of the Church of England as a Catechist in Igboland (Niger Mission), as a Cleric in Yoruba Mission and was sent as Bishop to the Niger Delta Mission…”

The above quotation is nothing other than mere misrepresentation of historical facts. Even if the statement was a joke, such gathering as the Church of Nigeria Standing Committee was not a place for such. The revered Cleric went on to document that Bishop Crowther did not found the Mission to the Niger Delta. He claimed that it was King William Dappa Pepple who founded the Mission in the Niger Delta. He also failed to acknowledge that the Niger Delta Diocese was carved out from the Diocese on the Niger.

The truth is that the Mission to Igboland and Niger Delta is what is at present known as Niger Mission. Both were founded by Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He led the 1857 expedition that established at Onitsha as an ordained priest (not as a Catechist). He later established the Mission to the Delta in Bonny in 1865.

Reporting in his first Charge to the Niger Mission in 1866 (page 11), delivered on the banks of the River Niger (Onitsha), Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther stated as follows:

Last year, 1865, steps were taken to extend our borders; two out-stations were

taken up at Onitsha to be worked each by a catechist, under the superintendence of

Mr. Taylor. A new station was established at Idda, the capital of Igara, under the

superintendence of Mr. Coomber, assisted by two lay teachers. Lokoja, near Gbebe,

at the juncture of the Kwara and Tshadda rivers, was occupied under the

superintendence of Mr. John, assisted by a lay agent. They labour among a mixed

population of Haussa, Nupe, Ekie or Bunu, &c., in the jurisdiction of

Mohammedan government, and under their immediate influence…

During the same year a Mission was also commenced among the people of Bonny,

on the coast in the Bight of Biafra, at present worked by two native teachers, till

we can supply it more efficiently. This Mission will ultimately coalesce with that

of Onitsha, as the Ibo language is spoken in both places…

The information here is that Bishop Crowther was in control directing Church planting in the East, North and South of Nigeria. The fact is that King William Dappa Pepple did not found the Niger Delta Church. P. J. Ross, reporting on CMS centenary celebration in 1957 wrote,

As is well known, Bonny was not in the original plan of the Church Missionary

Society, but how King William Dappa, having failed in his genuine and costly

attempt to introduce Christianity at Bonny on his own in 1861, appealed to the then

Bishop of London, Doctor Tait, three years later, and how the Bishop redirected

the letter to the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, the Reverend Henry

Venn, who in turn referred it to the newly consecrated Bishop Samuel Adjai

Crowther, is now settled history.

P.J. Ross further stated,

Both missions established by the same man under the auspices of the same

Organization, the Church Missionary Society, were under the same

administration until towards the closing years of the Bishop’s (Crowther) long and

active life when he felt that the time was ripe for the implementation of the policy

of self-support which had been promulgated in 1851 by the Reverend

Henry Venn, the CMS Secretary.

Professor Kenneth Dike agreed with P. J. Ross in his book “Origins of the Niger Mission 1841-1891. He said:

The Bishop’s (Crowther) activities were  not confined to the Niger valley. In 1864

King William Pepple of Bonny wrote to the Bishop of London asking that

missionaries be sent to preach to his people. The letter was passed on to

Bishop Crowther. One of his first acts after his consecration was to found the Mission

station at Bonny – the first outpost of Christianity in the Niger Delta. So

successful was the Mission that in 1867 the worship of monitor lizards in Bonny

town was publicly renounced.

Similarly, the Niger Delta people claim the primacy of their See over the See on the Niger. The claim will likely fall as a pack of cards when subjected to critical analysis. The truth is that Bishop Crowther’s missionary enterprise took him from Sierra Leone to Lagos, Onitsha, Lokoja to Bonny and different parts of Nigeria. Though he spent some time in Bonny Niger Delta, the idea that he was enthroned as Bishop at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Bonny is not realistic. St. Stephen’s Bonny became a real Cathedral in 1952 when Bishop Ebenezer Dimieari was enthroned as the Bishop of the Niger Delta Diocese. Though the building was dedicated on the 27 day of February, 1889, by that time, Crowther, the Missionary Bishop was old C.1809-1889 (80 years) and was already faced with heart-breaking victimization from White missionaries. He was sick within the period and left for Lagos where he died on the 31 day of December, 1891. Andrew F. Walls, in his “Crowther, Samuel Ajayi,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H. Anderson, summarized Crowther’s fate in the following words:

In the 1880s clouds gathered over the Niger Mission. Crowther was old, Venn

dead. The morality or efficiency of members of Crowther’s staff was

increasingly questioned by British missionaries. Mission policy, racial

attitudes, and evangelical spirituality had taken new directions, and new sources of

European missionaries were now available. By degrees, Crowther’s mission

was dismantled: by financial controls, by young Europeans taking over, by

dismissing, suspending, or transferring the African staff, Crowther, desolated, died of

a stroke. A European bishop succeeded him.

In the midst of the above circumstances, Bishop Crowther could not have been enthroned as a Bishop when he was 80 years old in a Church that was dedicated two years before his death. Meanwhile, the creation of the Niger Delta Pastorate was for administrative purposes. It was not meant to separate the Niger Delta from the Niger Mission. It is worthy to point  out that the Niger Delta Diocese was carved out of the Diocese on the Niger in 1951. The Deed of Relinquishment reads as follows:

And whereas by a Deed of Relinquishment dated the 31 day of

December in the year of our Lord 1951 signed and sealed by His Lordship, the Rt.

Rev. Cecil John Patterson, Bishop on the Niger, His Lordship did declare and

relinquish and gave his authority episcopal and ordinary and the right to

exercise the same in the area of his then Diocese comprising the Political Provinces

of Calabar and Rivers together with Aba and Bende Divisions of Owerri Province

to the Rt. Rev. Ebenezer Tamunoteghe Dimieari in order that the said Bishop

Dimieari should administer the said area then being duly constituted the Diocese of

Niger Delta;

 And Whereas by a Dead of Acceptance dated the 27 day of April in the year of

our Lord 1952 the said Bishop Dimieari, his Chancellor R.T.E Wilcox Esq; Barrister-

at-law, Archdeacons A,A,D. Spiff and S.M. Nkemena, the Church Wardens of

the Cathedral Church of St. Stephen’s Bonny and representatives of the Clergy

and Laity from and on behalf of the wholeDiocese of the Niger Delta duly

inaugurated did willingly accept responsibility for the conduct and

administration and financial support of the new Diocese of the Niger Delta formed

out of the Diocese on the Niger according to the boundaries stated by the Rt. Rev. C.

J. Patterson, the Lord Bishop on the Niger in the Deed of Relinquishment aforesaid.

The Centenary of the Niger Mission was jointly celebrated by the Diocese on the Niger and Niger Delta from Saturday 9th to the 17 day of November, 1957. On the morning of Saturday, 16 November, 1957, the synods of the Diocese on the Niger and the Niger Delta Dioceses met in joint secession in Christ Church, Onitsha. The Bishop on the Niger, Bishop C. J. Patterson took the chair, and read the following message from His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury:

At the time when the Niger and Delta Dioceses are celebrating the centenary of

the Niger Mission from which they have grown, I send to the Bishops and people

of the two Dioceses the greetings and good wishes of the Church of England,

with my own personal and affectionate greetings also. One hundred years ago the

then Archbishop of Canterbury gave his warm encouragement to the pioneer work

of the Niger Mission, and in 1864 consecrated Bishop Crowther in the

Canterbury Cathedral. With unbounded gratitude to our Heavenly Father for the

increase He has granted, I send this greeting to two fully constituted Dioceses

We have taken pains to restate these historical facts to clarify any misconception concerning the Niger Mission. The old Diocese on the Niger and the old Niger Delta Diocese share many things in common. Even at present, we have one joint Provincial Council and are bound by the same Superannuation fund. It is our belief that we should all work together to cherish and promote our joint history as a Church. Unhealthy sentiments therefore, should not be allowed to becloud our cherished oneness in mission endeavours.

The above is an extract from the Bishop’s charge presented to the first session of the 32 Synod of the Diocese on the Niger, on Friday, June 10, 2022, at All Saints’ Cathedral, Onitsha, Anambra State.

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