When death comes to find you, may it find you alive – African Proverb.
With emotion, I celebrate the life of a highly respected, noble, kind father and leader, a Patriarch and a Prelate emeritus, Methodist Church Nigeria, His Eminence Dr. Sunday Coffie Mbang (1936-2023). I feel in my heart such gratitude, gratitude to God for having gifted Prelate Mbang to the church and the world. From the vantage point of the glorious world, Prelate Mbang, a renowned theologian, triumphantly and joyously “…have arrived.” Death found Prelate Mbang alive on Tuesday, 16th May 2023, at the Specialist Hospital, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. The Methodist Archbishop of Umuahia, Most Rev Raphael Opoko, explained that Prelate Mbang was admitted a few days ago when he got up as part of his early morning daily devotion to ‘read his bible, and he could not see any word or letter at all.’ According to Archbishop Opoko, Prelate Mbang asked God to take him home though his children did not want him to go. Prelate Mbang was ready to go. Death, a trade-in of our physical existence in anticipation and preparation for our future resurrection, came to find Prelate Mbang alive, like a living baby in the womb, for him to be born into eternal life, as a new child is born at the appointed time.
Prelate Mbang was a deeply spiritual person whose Alpha and Omega – his starting and ending points – were his relationship with Jesus Christ. He took God, God’s purpose, and God’s creation deadly seriously. Prayer, the scriptures, and his ministry to the people God entrusted to his care were at the heart of his life. During his ordained ministry, which spanned over sixty years, he was known as a Student, President of the Student Christian Movement, Husband, Father, Lecturer, Chaplain to the Patriarch/Bishop, Patriarch, Prelate, President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, President, World Methodist Council, and Co-Chair of the Nigeria Inter-religious Council. Indeed, no matter the order of ministry to which he was called, the office he held, or the title he bore, ‘the most distinguishing mark of his ministry was friendship, that friendship into which Jesus called his disciples in The Upper Room on the Eve of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, that friendship into which he calls his followers in every age.’ Prelate Mbang’s ecumenical engagement was one of a warmed heart and not just head knowledge.
Prelate Mbang will be remembered for his leadership longevity and faithfulness to the spread of scriptural holiness for over six decades. He stood on biblical principles, including banning secret societies in Methodist Church Nigeria. For over six decades, Prelate Mbang followed the admonition of Acts 20:28, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams, a former archbishop of Canterbury’s description of bishops resonates with Prelate Mbang as one you could see as “The Gathering Christ”… “someone around whom it is possible to see what the Church is,” the Body of Christ, every one of us, members one of another. Prelate Mbang, beyond Methodism, enjoyed gathering the church for worship and fellowship, for dialogue and discernment of the Spirit’s work in our midst. Across differences in theological perspectives and factions, especially during the Nigerian Methodist crisis, he gathered people and enabled them to speak and respectfully listen to each other. Throughout his ministry, he upheld the wonders of diversity in missional unity. Prelate Mbang worked hard to help us live by St. Paul’s counsel that we are “forbearing in love” and “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Prelate Mbang embodied that missional Wesleyan Catholic Spirit of holding one another in “bonds of affection” in Christ.
Dad Mbang, I will ever remember your broad smile and hearty laugh. I will not forget those moments when your eyes danced with delight when Archbishop Ayo Ladigbolu brought me to your office to introduce me to you as the new Conference acting Editor in 1993. I will not forget that moment in your office when President Olusegun Obasanjo came to visit you in your office at Wesley House, Marina, and how your eyes welled up with tears over the great pain and grief President Obasanjo bore in prison under General Sanni Abacha. I will never forget seeing your head lifted in song during your 60th birthday in 1996 at Tinubu. You loved to sing! I will never forget seeing your head bowed in shame and contrition for the suffering Abacha military junta inflicted upon the NADECO members.
Dad, many will remember your mastery and dignity in leading Conference meetings, how you gently raised your hands in presiding at the Conference Eucharist, and how you always extended your hands to celebrate the peace into which Christ calls us. But, Dad, I will never forget how much you enjoyed a good story and telling one of your own – and you had plenty! Yes, I know I am, but one among so many who can say Prelate Mbang was one of my dearest fathers, mentors, and leaders. I learned much from you, Dad. I was encouraged by you. You challenged me. I appreciated your wisdom borne of many years in ministry. I am grateful for your counsel at the early part of my ministry. Finally, there was about Prelate Mbang, a genuineness, modesty, and holiness that enriched my life and many others.
In remembering the manner of Prelate Mbang’s living and dying, a prayer written many years ago by Theodore Parker Ferris comes to mind: “Teach me, O Lord, not to hold on to life too tightly. Teach me to hold it lightly, not carelessly, but lightly, easily. Teach me to take it as a gift, enjoy and cherish it while I have it, and let it go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes. The gift is great, but the Giver is greater still. Thou, O God, art the Giver, and in thee is the life that never dies. Amen.”
Worthy is the Lamb!