By Mark Michael
A Nigerian bishop in the United States, backed by his diocesan board, has reversed his decision of three years ago and changed his diocese’s affiliation from the Church of Nigeria to the Anglican Church in North America. The Church of Nigeria has suspended him from ministry in response.
The decision by Bishop Felix Orji, OSB, who leads the Anglican Diocese of the West, occurs amid concerns by the Church of Nigeria’s primate, Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, about potential liberalism on same-sex unions in the ACNA. Orji also expressed concerns about efforts by the Church of Nigeria to establish a fully independent Anglican church in North America.
The Diocese of the West’s board voted 16-1 to join the ACNA, though one of Orji’s suffragan bishops, Bishop Celestine Ironna, rector of Christ Anglican Church in Marietta, Georgia, will remain affiliated with the Church of Nigeria, as will its cathedral in Houston.
“We should not do things simply because we want to do so and because we don’t want to be under ‘white people’ or the cheap blackmail that ‘ACNA will/might bless same-sex unions in the future,’” Orji wrote in an October 28 statement circulated by the Church of Nigeria’s media outlet.
“No Anglican province is sinless — I know that because I’ve done ministry in four Anglican provinces. It is a horrible thing to imply of our GAFCON partner,” he said, speaking of the way the Church of Nigeria had categorized the ACNA.
The contention about the ACNA’s reliability on traditional marriage likely stems from a March 2021 dispute within the ACNA over a pastoral letter issued by the church’s bishops that discouraged the use of the term “gay Anglican.” Dozens of ACNA clergy signed a protest letter that urged churches to become places where gay people could “share all their story, find community, and seek support.”
But Ndukuba condemned the pastoral letter as too weak, describing it as “tantamount to a subtle capitulation to recognize and promote same-sex relations among its members, exactly the same route of argument adopted by The Episcopal Church (TEC). … These actions which fueled the crisis that has broken the fabrics of the Anglican Communion should not be repeated by ACNA.
“The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA,” he said.
The Church of Nigeria has taken a series of steps toward creating an independent jurisdiction within North America that is not part of the ACNA.
In 2005, under the leadership of then-primate Archbishop Peter Akinola, it created CANA, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, to receive parishes that were severing ties with the Episcopal Church, most notably a group of several large churches in the northern Virginia suburbs. CANA’s first bishop, Martyn Minns, had led Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, out of the Episcopal Church.
Orji’s Diocese of the West was created by CANA in 2011, when he was consecrated. The Diocese of the West now comprises 40 churches in 24 states and four Canadian territories. Many of the 84 clergy listed in its 2021 diocesan directory have Nigerian names. Others, like Orji’s canon to the ordinary, the Rev. Don Armstrong, are former Episcopalians. Armstrong led part of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Colorado Springs into CANA in 2007.
When the ACNA was formed in 2009, CANA was a member jurisdiction, but its bishops and churches also retained an allegiance to the Church of Nigeria. In 2019, Ndukuba’s predecessor, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, consecrated four bishops for ministry in United States, and created the Anglican Diocese of the Trinity. The four bishops and the new diocese had an exclusive allegiance to the Church of Nigeria and were never part of the ACNA.
The Church of Nigeria then asked CANA’s two dioceses to choose between membership in the ACNA and the Church of Nigeria. The Virginia-based CANA East diocese, led by Bishop Julian Dobbs, voted for affiliation with the ACNA, and is now the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word (the Rt. Rev. Bill Love, former Episcopal Bishop of Albany, is part of this diocese). Orji’s diocese, CANA West, chose the Church of Nigeria.
A year later, the Church of Nigeria created the Church of Nigeria North American Mission (CONNAM), identifying its mission focus as Nigerian Americans. Orji was designated as the CONNAM’s coordinating bishop. In 2021, Ndukuba consecrated Holy Trinity Cathedral in Houston as a center for CONNAM’s ministry.
He returned to the United States in June to dedicate new CONNAM churches in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey.
Orji’s departure seems to have been triggered by a final step toward independence for CONNAM, the October 7 approval of bylaws for the body that fully incorporate it as a distinct church, indicating an intention to remain permanently in North America.
In his statement, Orji indicated that he had always believed CONNAM would be temporary, and cited a letter from Akinola that said of CANA, “we have no desire to cling to it. CANA is for the Communion, and we are more than happy to surrender it to the Communion once the conditions that prompted our division have been overturned.”
“It is up to each of us to believe the truth or to deceive ourselves,” Orji added. “But let it be said that the three Missionary Bishops of CANA/CONNAM (Bishop Minns, Bishop Dobbs, and Bishop Orji) have said the same thing. We cannot all be lying. We all got this understanding from the same source, and we all got into trouble for reminding the [Church of Nigeria] of this promise made on its behalf by her former Primate.”
Archbishop Foley Beach of the ACNA welcomed Orji and his diocese. “Over the last few years, Bishop Felix Orji and I have maintained a personal friendship,” Beach said. “In the midst of a complicated situation, he has demonstrated integrity and sacrificial leadership, and I am happy to have received him.”
A statement by the Church of Nigeria said that Archbishop Henry C. Ndukuba “deeply regrets the recent public utterances and actions of Bishop Orji against the authority of the Church of Nigeria, which has precipitated a moment of crisis in the mission field in North America,” and he “prays for quick resolution and peace, urging all members and clergy to remain calm.”