Wrangling factions of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church on Saturday halted worship at the Nairobi Central Church when chaos erupted, forcing police to intervene.
Hundreds of Christians who had turned up for worship had to leave way earlier than their usual departure time after a rowdy mob disrupted the controversial process of deregistering some members.
Worshippers told the Sunday Nation that a church official was reading a list of individuals to be deregistered when a section of the congregation challenged the process, with some occupying the pulpit, in what led to a heated exchange.
Following the chaos, an official of the Central Kenya Conference of the SDA Church, under which Nairobi Central falls, closed the gathering. This was the second time in as many weeks that such disruption was witnessed.
On July 20, there was a similar fracas, which was captured in videos shared online. The chaos was also due to the deregistration process, or dis-fellowship as it is known in the SDA circles.
According to Sammy Masara, a retired media executive who is an outspoken member of one side of the church divide, Saturday’s process was disputed because some members felt it did not meet the laid-down procedures.
“First of all, you need to give a two-week notice. The venue for the dis-fellowshipping must be known, and also the time. The people who are being dis-fellowshipped must have been prepared through the Matthew 18:15 procedure,” he told the Sunday Nation.
“The whole process of removing a member must start from there then go the whole haul. And none of those things was done.”
Mr Masara added that the church clerk or his assistants should have been the one reading the names but, in this case, it was done by someone else.
The Nairobi Central Church is located opposite Nairobi Area Police Station.
For the past couple of weeks, police presence has been heightened at the church and senior officials in the county security apparatus are said to have been involved in reconciliation efforts.
During the exchange, witnesses said police kept their cool for a while, giving time for a compromise to be reached.
“When it was apparent that the group which stormed the pulpit was not going to calm down, they led away some of the agitators,” said a congregant who only identified himself as Joshua.
Mr Masara said no one was arrested, but that the church service was called off. The worshippers only covered three of the 10 items on the day’s programme, and they had not even reached the scripture reading stage.
“There were no arrests because all those things happened within the church building. The police were also careful. There was no serious fracas, only serious disruption,” Mr Masara added.
The gathering having been terminated, some of the believers stood in groups outside the church, discussing the worsening relations among the factions.
Some could be heard wondering why the “other” group, which had at one time even held their Sabbath at a different location, could not splinter away in peace.
By noon, long after the termination of the day’s programme, a uniformed police officer in a helmet kept patrolling various areas of the church to ensure no more exchanges occurred.
Church clerk Samuel Oyombra did not immediately respond to our query on what the closure meant.
There was a misunderstanding among worshippers on whether it meant halting of only that day’s events or the church stands closed until further notice.
One of the key sources of the dispute is the 2015 election of heads of the Central Kenya Conference of the SDA Church, under which the Nairobi Central Church falls.
Some delegates who attended the election in Karura, the conference headquarters, felt that the process was manipulated.
The fallout from the election saw the registration of a rival section, the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference, as a splinter of the Central Kenya Conference.
In April, members of the Cosmopolitan Conference boycotted the Nairobi Central Church and worshipped at the Technical University of Kenya. Mr Masara was one of them and said it was the first of many such Sabbaths.
On Mr Masara’s side is former university don Charles Maranga Bagwassi and former politician Geoffrey Asanyo, who have been citing various issues with the church leadership under what they term “church capture”, the church version of state capture.
But the Central Kenya Conference leadership maintains that it has been conducting its affairs above board.
“They have been making these allegations year-in year-out and they have been answered satisfactorily each time they do so. We have nothing to hide as a church and this matter has even gone to the courts where they have lost,” Pastor Samuel Makori, who currently heads the East Kenya Union Conference, told the Sunday Nation in 2018.