It was widely reported in the media that a bill to establish Ecclesiastical Court of Appeal in the country, passed through a second reading the Nigerian House of Representatives on Tuesday, 6th of December 2016, in Abuja. The bill was sponsored by Gyang Dung (PDP-Plateau) and eight others. Presenting the bill during plenary, its sponsor remarked that the Ecclesiastical Courts, when established, would complement the regular courts in adjudicating in matters relating to the tenets of the Christian faith.
Mr. Dung explained that the court’s jurisdiction would be limited to individuals and groups that yielded and submitted to its jurisdiction. The Ecclesiastical Court would exercise such appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Ecclesiastical law and Christian personal law. The lawmaker said the amendment bill was seeking 14 alterations in Sections 6, 84, 185, 240, 246, 247, 288 – 289, 292 and 318 of the principal Act. It alters the second, third, sixth, and seventh schedule of the principal Act. It has four insertions in Part 1G, Section 270A – E, Part 2D, Section 285 A-E and a citation. The amendments are supposed to widen the scope of jurisprudence, adjudication and legal practice and bring to reality the administration of Ecclesiastical Christian tenets and law in adjudicating matters of personal Christian law and civil cases, which shall be prescribed in the rule of practice and procedure of the Ecclesiastical courts. Cardinals who will serve as judges of the Ecclesiastical Court shall be drawn from those learned in the law. They shall be required to administer justice by the Christian faith and the laws of the nation.
Many Christians in Nigeria have argued that Islamic Sharia Courts in Nigeria, are duly recognised and funded by the state, and therefore, Nigeria must establish Ecclesiastical courts to meet the needs of the church. Others have insisted that the Nigerian Constitution acknowledges Islam contrary to its provisions in Section 10 which provide that, “The Government of the Federation or a State shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion.”
However, I do not believe that the church in Nigeria requires an ecclesiastical court now for the following reasons:
- The Matrix of Common Law in Cannon Laws: The English Common Law and statutes of general applications which are applicable in Nigeria (except where overridden by legislation), is an extract and evolution of cannons. Sharia Courts were established in the first place because the provisions of received English laws were at variance with the provisions of Islamic personal law.
- Submission to Ecclesiastical Court When Convenient: The jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts (like its Sharia counterpart), will be limited to Christian personal law. The court will have jurisdiction where the subject-matter relates to the devolution of property of a deceased person who was a Christian, matrimonial issues such as the resolution of marital disputes, the welfare of children and other matters relating to the personal life of a Christian. For the court to assume jurisdiction, it supposed that parties must first submit to it. Let’s examine an institution like marriage and see how it would play out in an Ecclesiastical Court viz-a-viz extant legislations on the subject. The Christian marriage, unlike its Islamic and customary counterpart is monogamous. The celebration of monogamous marriage in Nigeria is guided by the Marriage Act. A monogamous marriage in Nigeria is a replica of the English model. It is the voluntary union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. However, under the Act, this does not imply that the union is indissoluble. The crucial requirement here is hinged to the permanent intent of the spouses that the union should be for life. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1970 regulates the dissolution of monogamous or statutory marriages. The attitude of canon laws to the subject of divorce is always tilted to Malachi 2:16 (KJV) which states very clearly how God feels about divorce:“For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.”The Bible’s position is that once a man and a woman are united in marriage and make their vows before God, they must remain married until death with only some exceptions. Jesus said that the only reason for divorce is adultery (Matthew 5.32). When Jesus was asked about Moses giving permission for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus said Moses did that due to the “hardness of heart” of the men. Jesus went on to explain that when a man and a woman are united in marriage, they are to act as though they are one person and he concluded by saying:
“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Mark 10.9)”
Usually, canon law is very reluctant about granting divorce unless it has become apparent that allowing the marriage to continue will endanger the life of one spouse or where the marriage was a nullity in the first instance. Canon law, unlike civil law, will forbid remarriage under certain circumstances. There are many instances where Christians are known to have changed churches when the church’s interpretation of the Bible over their personal lives does not suit them. What then is the guarantee that Christians clamouring for these courts will submit to the courts where they know that canon law may not rule in their favour? For example, a man who wants to leave his wife for another woman would most likely not submit to an Ecclesiastical Court knowing what the court’s verdict would be
- How Will Ecclesiastical Laws Be Interpreted? There is no such thing as a standard Christian legal code that is acceptable to all Christians denominations in Nigeria. According to the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria, the country presently has 23,216 registered churches which could all be safely regarded as denominations, sprouting up in different states and cosmopolitan In an era where every man of God has a calling to establish his own ministry, it is even expected that the number of registered churches will double within a decade. Granted that most churches have belief systems pivoted on mainstream Christian teachings, there are others that hold out beliefs that have been challenged by mainstream churches as heresies. Against this backdrop, how are Christians in Nigeria going to arrive at a common Christian jurisprudence for the proceedings of Ecclesiastical Courts? Apart from the Catholic Church where the Vatican promulgates the Code of Canon Law for the Catholic Church worldwide, other churches do not seem to have unified canons. Unless the different blocs that constitute Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and National Christian Elders Forum can work out a unified code acceptable to all registered churches in Nigeria, there cannot be any centralised system for ecclesiastical courts. We are aware that it is not all registered churches that are even members of these umbrella bodies supposedly representing all churches in Nigeria. In the absence of a unified code, parties bringing up suits before Ecclesiastical Courts must then be members of the same Christian denomination. The cardinals, bishops or judges of the court would then interpret the canon based on denominational provisions of the church to which parties belong. If that be the case, why can’t the parties settle their disputes through alternative dispute resolution meetings in their respective churches?
- Are Christians Asking for Ecclesiastical Courts Because They Need It or Because Muslims have Sharia Courts? Nigerian law has always regarded Sharia Courts as a variant of Customary Courts. The draftsmen of the Constitution made equivalent and elaborate provisions for the Customary Court of Appeal for any states that desired it. Chapter VII Pt. IF and Pt. IIC of the Constitution in Sections 265 – 269 and 275 – 279, provide for the establishment of the said Courts at Federal and States levels respectively. At the Federal level, S. 267 provides that the Court shall:“in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly, exercise appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Customary law.For the States, S. 282 (1) & (2) provide that;
“A Customary Court of Appeal of a State shall exercise appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Customary law.”
Christian scholars and critics of the Constitution have severally argued that the Customary Court of Appeal is not the Christian equivalent of the Sharia Court of Appeal and that the jurisdiction conferred on it by the Constitution has no bearing with Christian norms and usages. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the establishment of Ecclesiastical Courts will not ensure any measure of equality and equity between the two major faiths in the country. Like I earlier pointed out, the bulk of laws received from our British colonial masters are embedded with Christian values and norms. In Exodus 20: 1 – 17, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and divine laws in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which all prescribe the modalities for the relationship between Man and God on the one hand, and the relationship between Man and Man on the other. Our Lord Jesus Christ aptly summed it up in Mark 12: 29 – 31. The Ten Commandments have considerably influenced Western laws and are subtly represented in our received English laws and statute of general application. We (Christians) own the default laws and we do not need an Ecclesiastical Court to prove that to other faiths, but it seems that we are yet to realise this!