Giles Fraser: Being canny in the raw church

14 January 2009

The Cathedral Church of the Ascen­sion in Sefwi-Wiawso, in Ghana, challenges all my Western assump­tions about the way a cathedral is supposed to look. Forget Salis­bury or Durham. This cathedral has no roof, no doors, no windows. Instead, it was a cleared piece of rough ground, where cement, breeze-blocks, and hard labour have combined to describe a rectangular space with a precarious-looking first-storey platform. When worshippers have had their use of it, the children take it over as their football stadium.

Last Saturday night, amid clouds of incense and terrifying hornets the size of matchboxes, I was installed as an honorary canon by a gathering of Ghanaian and Nigerian priests. The next day, at an epic eucharist that went on for four hours in the beating sun, we prayed and danced and sang. I preached about our all being united by our common baptism. The con­gregation cheered. Crisis in the Angli­can Communion — what crisis?

But crisis indeed looms for the people of Sefwi-Wiawso. From the grey edifice of the cathedral, there is a magnificent view of mile after mile of deforested landscape. Here in the re­mote west of Ghana loggers have cleared the forest to create vast farms for cocoa. At the moment, the price of cocoa is high. Near by, gold continues to be mined, and again the price is high.

So the people are doing just about OK. But, as the trees have gone, so the rains bring more and more erosion of the soil. After such intensive cocoa farming, what soil there is may not have all that much left to give. And when the soil gives up, “just about OK” will easily tip over into crisis.

A few local chiefs have made big money from logging, but pretty much everyone else is extremely poor. In the remoter villages, life is especially tough. But the Church is here, and it is energetically making a difference. The diocese of Sefwi-Wiawso is just two years old, and most of its churches are less developed than its cathedral. Fr Andy, a Nigerian priest on loan from the diocese of River State, showed us his church — simply a bare patch of red earth.

The dynamic Bishop of Wiawso, the Rt Revd Abraham Kobina Ackah, has not been paid for 18 months; nor have any of his Ghanaian clergy. He frets constantly about how he will make repayments on his car loan. This is church in the raw, lived day by day.

The fact that Bishop Abraham has to be quite an operator, ducking and diving with the local chiefs and foreign clergy, reminds me that this was probably how it was with the bishops of the Early Church. It is not a trait of any English bishop I can recall, but I rather admire it. In places like this, bishops need to be canny and tough.

Canon Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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