By Sam Eyoboka and Gladys Abugoh
Archbishop Christian Aggrey Ovwoma Apena of Bethseda Church International, close to tears, tells the story of how he parted ways with the late Archbishop of Church of God Mission, Benson Idahosa, and the Anglican Church. Apena’s father was the first pastor in Isoko land, having been ordained on December 31, 1931.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he was close to being ordained an Anglican Church pastor before he was enmeshed in a crisis that led to his exit from the church. “I left the Anglican Church because I had the Pentecostal spirit that they didn’t have. I don’t blame them. I was the first Pentecostal reverend in Delta Province, I was the first Pentecostal bishop in Delta and I’m the first Pentecostal archbishop. I’m the one making bishops now,” said the retired school principal.
How old are you?
I was born May 16, 1931. That makes me 82 years.
How did you come about the name Bethesda Gospel Mission?
In the late 60s, when I returned from the university, full of the grace of God, this place you are seeing, we used to pray here, it was from here that we moved out. As we were praying, the power of God was working mysteriously in this house. When you come, whether you are prayed for or not, you will get well. So people now said this was our Bethesda. We prayed night and day. We had vigils. I was a teacher then, teaching at St. Michael’s College, Oleh. People will come here to wait for me. Those who were sick, before I returned, they would get well.
Isoko was essentially Anglican. Why did you leave the church?
It’s not that I was rebellious, but my activities went against their own doctrines. You may be religiously rebellious. I told them they should pray and fast and they said there should be no fasting; that I was misleading the people to fast. They said I was bringing a new doctrine to the church. Another point of disagreement was the way of giving. We were not giving well. The Lord made me to look round and I discovered that the Isoko man was the poorest among all the communities around. He said they should pay tithe; so I was introducing tithe in different ways, and they said that was not their way of life.
Thirdly, they prayed the same prayer from their prayer book in the morning and in the evening; whether it’s ordinary morning service, evening service; Sunday service, the same prayers will be read. I told them people should be allowed to say prayers from their mind as the Lord leads them to, especially according to the needs of the people and of the area.
Some of the pastors were annoyed with me, asking: ‘Have we prayed all the prayers in the prayer book, why are we going to other things?’ Then I told them that the English people who brought this religion to us had a lot of prayer books now with different types of prayers. So they said I am not an Anglican. So, I started organizing prayers, having vigils on Fridays for miracles, and Sunday nights for praises unto God. They said all those things were un-Anglican.
Then I went to do revival, because I was in charge of Sunday school in the whole of Benin Diocese then, which covers Delta and Edo states. I was establishing Sunday school in all the churches, because I discovered that the children come to church and just play around. I didn’t know it was annoying some people. If you look round today, the children ministry is strongly established; people don’t even know who started it. I had a group that was helping me to go round to establish the children ministry in different places.
I remember in August 1968, we had 320 people baptized in Aboh and Ukwani. I sent them to my father, who was the archdeacon, for baptism.
I gave the report to the bishop, he was excited. Before this time, in 1968, when Bishop Agori Iwe went to Lambert Conference in London, he said God told him to come back home to ordain me as a priest. When he returned on August 26 of that year, he asked me to come and I went to Benin to see him. He told me all that God spoke to him concerning me, saying I should be ordained and he asked me to write an application for ordination.
At that time, I was a student at the University of Ife and, had my reservations, arguing that I was satisfied with what God was using me to do, but, for fear, I agreed to write, but I didn’t write. He himself sent a notice to parishes to ask them whether they’ll like this person to be ordained as a priest or not. After 21 days, the parishes sent him good reports concerning me.
So I was being made ready for ordination on December 20, 1968, but a week to the time, a few members of Adam Preaching Society came forward to oppose my ordination, threatening to pull out of the church if I was ordained. The bishop called me and said I should be patient, that at God’s own time, he would ordain mWhen I gave my report, somebody got up and asked a question.
He said ‘who gave you authority to preach outside; who licensed you?’ I expected Bishop Agori Iwe to say something; but he did not. The attacks were so many! Archdeacon Adam Igbudu said I was disturbing his ministry, that he was the only one licensed to preach the gospel outside. At the end of the meeting, Urhobo and Isoko people agreed to work closely with Adam and Apena; but the Isoko people, because they felt that I was going against Adam, came back and held a meeting in early June 1972 and said I should leave the church.
Did they give any specific reasons for their action?
No real charge; that we were doing things they weren’t doing. So we left the church. After six months, there was a British missionary, Rev. S.G. Elton, who was living in Ilesha. He was organizing all those who had problems with their various churches. He invited us to a meeting at Benson Idahosa’s church in Benin City. He talked to us and showed us what to do; asking us not be annoyed because they pushed us out of the church.
As he was talking, he looked at me and asked me rise up. I stood up, and he said God has asked him to ordain me as pastor for the work of God in Delta Province of then Mid West State. Benson Idahosa had just been ordained then. So that brought me and Idahosa fairly close. On January 5, 1973, I was ordained a pastor by Rev. Elton. So you can now see how we started the ministry. This was how dogged I was, or rebellious to the church. But my joy is that I have never been angry with them.
Under what platform did Elton ordain you? Was Church of God Mission already in existence?
We were already having services here since 1969. From that time, every weekend, we will have vigils on Fridays and Sundays as I said before. Friday was for healing, Sunday was for thanksgiving and praying to God. I was running that without a name. The Church of God Mission had already started in a way; but it was not registered. It was just like a fellowship. Idahosa and Ekhubor were the leaders. I was ordained, not for Church of God Mission. I was ordained for the ministry of God, without a name. I had been in Delta, I was asked to continue working there. This is my house; I have never left here since that time.
So how did the Church of God Mission thing start?
That’s another thing, it’s controversial. From their own story, Reuben Ekubor plus a few others were having a fellowship. Benson Idahosa was a member of Assemblies of God Church. When Idahosa was about to marry, Assemblies of God didn’t want him to marry Margaret, but he had to marry her. So, he left Assemblies and joined this fellowship which was later called Church of God Mission.
Later, we joined them, not as members per se, but joint fellowship. The whole thing was a little clumsy; but I have to say it for the benefit of doubts. Ekubor was not a viral person; he was a little bit elderly. Idahosa was full of life and young. When Idahosa joined them; they were all running this thing together. When we came to meet them, because of the problem they had, Elton advised that they should have a structure in the form of a Mission. So they decided to have The Church of God Mission. We prepared a constitution for them, and made Benson Idahosa President and Ekubor Secretary.
In 1979/80, I had some people from Evangels Temple, Washington DC, they wanted the upliftment of members of this Mission. They gave us lectures for one week about Christian offices and they said it was needful for us to have a bishop or an archbishop. I rose up and nominated Idahosa to be our bishop. It was accepted by all. Before then, Bishop Idahosa was called General Superintendent.
He went to America for a meeting, when he returned in September 1979, he said he would like to be the President and that presidency should be revolving on a yearly basis. Every year there should be an election and that the General Superintendent should be Reuben Ekubor. We all agreed. Later, I told him it was not a healthy thing for us to be having election for church offices because it would generate bad blood and quarrel.
He agreed, but that did not go down well with Ekubor because Idahosa was getting more evangelistic day in day out. He said Ekubor should be the General Superintendent and he himself would have no name. Later, when he came back from another travel, he put the name President on his door. This did not go down well with Ekubor. So we sought the advice of lawyers who told him as General Superintendent, he was the owner of the church, stressing that the name Idahosa was carrying was unconstitutional.
While this was going on, the church leadership seminar which appointed Idahosa as bishop was on. And before we knew it, he had invited people from all parts of the world to come for his consecration, and Ekubor was unhappy and turned round to say it could not happen. He approached a lawyer to stay the action and the court granted his prayer. People had come from all over the world, how could we allow these people go like that?
It would be a big shame. Some of the invitees calmed us down, saying that church work is not like that. We went ahead with the consecration and, thereafter, Ekubor took us to court for contempt which was the first case against Idahosa. The old constitution was all we had, and Ekubor was the General Superintendent of the church. So, we constituted small committee, with me as the chairman, to draw up another constitution.
We drew up a new constitution which made the church head to be a bishop or an archbishop. We didn’t mention General Superintendent. Everything was drawn up in the new constitution and, when we went to court, we presented the new one. The judge adjourned for two weeks and, after studying the new constitution, compared it with the old, he came back and said there was nothing wrong with the new constitution and he upheld it. That is the story of Church of God Mission.
You now became part of Church of God Mission. You were in charge of the Delta area. At what point did you leave and why?
Sometimes some of these things I don’t want to talk about…I don’t want to show that I quarreled with this person because of this or that. I don’t want to prove myself to be a saint and the other a bad person. Frankly speaking, as Idahosa was growing in greatness, he began to do things which I didn’t like.
When I discovered these things, I wrote a letter, I also went ton radio in Delta to say I was no longer in the church, but I still love the man. But as a member of the Church of God Mission, I cut off. I also published it in Port Harcourt. So he came after me. But we didn’t meet again till he died.
Can you recount what happened, what did he accuse you of?
He didn’t accuse me of anything. They came to take a car from me. Which car? He said it was an official car. When I was in Church of God Mission, at that time, I was also a principal and a government worker. I was able to stand on my own. I was not taking any kobo from the church, rather I gave. I had voluntary retirement on February 1, 1983. I still had seven years more, but I decided to retire.
The Lord said I should come out and do His work. When I came out of retirement and they paid me, I used part of it to buy a car, a fairly expensive Peagout 504 SR. I drove it just for one week, and when I went to Umunede for a meeting, I slept in the pastor’s house. I parked this car inside the compound. At 1.00 a.m., they woke me up to say my car has been stolen. Imagine a poor teacher, who had just retired.
We spent up to four months looking for this car, no way! I decided not to worry about it. I complained to the police commissioner. He said I should not worry. Later at the convention of 1985 when T.L. Osborne was invited to preach, he told Osborne about my predicament. Osborne and his wife were seriously touched and they called me and my wife and gave us the key of the car they bought for their son whom they sent to Calabar to minister. This car was kept in the custody of Idahosa. Then Osborne told Idahosa to release the car to me. In 1988, Idahosa was now saying that that car was on official car (laughs). Is that not funny? And that is what he sent four people to come and claim.
When will you retire?
Who will retire me? (laughs). When you retire me, I won’t preach or pray again? I’m just asking. In Anglican, they retire at 70, Catholic too. I’m still strong. You saw people who came in your presence. If I was not still doing what I should do, they won’t come.