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When Can Churches Dissolve Marriages?

When Can Churches Dissolve Marriages? Daily Law Tips (Tip 639) by Onyekachi Umah, Esq., LL.M, ACIArb(UK)

Nigerians are very religious and traditional too. A 2019 report reveals that according to The World Factbook by CIA, out of the estimated population of 200 million, “Muslims are 51.6%, Christians are 46.9%, traditionalists are .9%, and persons with unspecified religion are  5%.” Since there is a federal law on marriage with enormous benefits, most people in Nigeria, marry according to law, religion and tradition. From experience, most exposed/educated couples feel incomplete/unprotected without an English/statutory marriage; they feel adulterous and far from their religion/religious heads without church weddings and are perceived as disobedient and prodigal if they fail to have traditional marriages. This work focuses on dissolution of church marriage, when church marriage is not a statutory marriage.

Well, there are two basic types of marriages in Nigeria, English marriage (Statutory, Court or Registry marriage) and Customary marriage (Traditional, Native, Cultural marriage or Pure religious/church marriage without government notices). English marriage is a marriage between one man and a woman in accordance with the federal government laws and policies on marriage while Customary marriage is a marriage conducted according to the native law and customs which often allows a man to marry more than one wife. 

Legally speaking, there is no marriage known as “Church Marriage” rather church wedding is part of statutory/English Marriage. While English marriage must start from the office of the Registrar of Marriages, prospective couples are allowed to compete their marriage exercise in the office of the Registrar in the presence of at least 2 witnesses or to compete it in a licensed place of worship in the presence of at last 2 witnesses. It is at the completion part of an English marriage that wedding in a church comes into play and some people. This is the reason most people refer to English Marriage as church marriage/wedding.  It must be noted that any wedding in a church without necessary paper works (including a Registrar’s Certificate) from the office of the Registrar of Marriages at the Marriage Registry is not an English Marriage, where a couple knowing that such documents are required, knowingly fail to obtain such documents. Click to read “3 Steps to a Valid English Marriage”.

Since there are only 2 types of marriages in Nigeria, a person that is married but not married under English law, must then be married under customary law. Courts hold mere church weddings/marriages as not being English Marriage but rather customary marriages or it is nothing at all, where parties (prospective couples) knowing that Registrar’s Certificates are required, knowingly fail to obtain them. It is so, because such marriage cannot be said to have been done within the federal law on marriage (the Marriages Act) rather it can be said to have been done according to the church rites, custom and tradition of a certain religious group/denomination. Some people refer to such celebration as mere church blessings that is done without an intention of creating an English marriage, it may even be after a proper traditional/native marriage. Click to read related works on marriages. 

English/Statutory marriages can only be dissolved by High Courts. And, High Courts cannot dissolve customary marriages. Like Justice Oputa, likened ordinary church marriage without notices to customary marriage, such church marriages cannot be dissolved by High Court. One may conclude that mere church marriages/blessing can be dissolved by their makers; church rites, customs/practise & liturgy (including the Canon laws for Roman Catholics), if they pass as customary marriage. Note that, where a church wedding is part of a statutory marriage, a church cannot dissolve such marriage. It is beyond the powers of any church/religious denomination and only a High Court of a State or the Federal Capital Territory can handle such.


  1. Wikimedia Foundation, “Religion in Nigeria”(Wikipedia, 19 August 2020) <> accessed 24 August 2020. 
  2. Sections 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 33, 34 and 35  of the Marriage Act, 1914.
  3. Itse Sagay, “Nigerian Family Law”( Malthouse, 1999) P.66, citing Akwudike V. Akwudike [A/7D/61]((1963) 7 ENLR 5 where Idigbe J (as he then was) reiterated that any marriage other than under the law, is native marriage or it is nothing at all. 
  4. The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on validly of marriage) in the case of ANYAEGBUNAM v. ANYAEGBUNAM (1973) LPELR-507(SC)
  5. The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on types of marriages in Nigeria) in the case of  CHINWEZE & ANOR v. MASI & ANOR (1989) LPELR-851(SC)
  6. The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on the meaning of English/Statutory Marriage) in the case of AMOBI v. NZEGWU & ORS (2013) LPELR-21863(SC)
  7. The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on the requirements of a valid Marriage, whether English and Customary Marriage) in the case of MERIBE v. EGWU (1976) LPELR-1861(SC)
  8. The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on the church blessings/marriage without intention to create English Marriage) in the case of Christopher Anyegbunam V. Catherine Anyegbunam (19 April 1973) Law Reports of East Central State 1973, Vol.3, Part 3, P.243. 
  9. The decision of the Court of Appeal (on the position of the law on church marriage) in the case of MOTOH v. MOTOH (2010) LPELR-8643(CA)










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