To Build or Not To Build – “God at the mercy of politicians and the clergy”
One wonders where to look for examples in the culture of cathedral building in Africa’s antediluvian history. First of all, Africans do not have homeless Gods in dire need of housing. We also don’t believe in an insecure God who needs and demands humanity’s faith in him or her in order to be. Neither do we have the culture that frames humanity as inherently flawed and needful of salvation in some future heaven. But for the arduous work of early European missionaries and colonialists who foisted and normalized the Judeo-Christian ideas of original sin, the devil and a Jewish God by name Jehovah upon us, African society would have had nothing to do with the current Christian charismatic churches, chapels and cathedrals.
Building cathedrals started in the middle ages in Christian Europe. According to the Durham World Heritage Site, “From the mid-twelve century, the church started granting indulgencies (forgiveness of sins) to those who would help build a church or cathedral and therefore rather than going on crusades, which had been a popular means of absolving sins in the late eleventh century, people dedicated more efforts to the construction of houses of God instead”. For Europeans, cathedrals were constructed to represent in architectural form, the supremacy of the Christian gospel relative to other faiths. Their awe inspiring quality was therefore calculated for effect. They stood as testimony and an answer to European man’s inner quest for salvation and represented a place where the European God is to be found.
This is however, not the case in Ghana where Christianity has evolved into a religious enterprise with neoliberal inclinations and the personal ownership of churches.
Given the absence of an indigenous African historical context of cathedral building, the current government’s participation, leadership and allocation of state resources, makes it seem like a neo-colonial project sanctioned by non- African interests in whose hands, the clergy and some in government are being used merely as tools and proxy—a development that has potentials to needlessly institutionalize the subliminal tension between the two major religions in Ghana.
Seducing the secular into the sacred.
What seems to have become lost on some Ghanaians is that cathedrals were a product of European countries where Christianity reigned supreme and unchallenged as official state religion. In Ghana we are constitutionally a secular state. Regardless of this status, there are some in officialdom desperately making kangaroo arguments in typical post-truth fashion to reduce and seduce the secular into an incongruous blend of theocracy and democracy in order to justify state participation. The fundamental question arises: Would the NPP campaign to build a national Christian cathedral if they were in opposition? Why did the party choose to surreptitiously pursue this immediately after the people gave them power to deliver on a developmental mandate? What in God’s holy name is the incentive for which the government has suddenly ignored all it knows to be the pressing needs of the people and hammer home so forcefully, this squared sentimental idea into the round hole of urgent national priority? Many Ghanaians are bewildered by this obvious political subterfuge.
By pursuing a venture that could potentially brand Ghana as a Christian nation, the current administration openly favors and promotes Christianity over other faiths—a blatant discrimination that even the Christ, in whose name the enterprise is being pursued, would not countenance. Yet the selective silence of many prominent Christian leaders in the face of this religious unfairness beggars belief. Will Christians and their vociferous leadership maintain such silence if tomorrow a similar project were being undertaken by a government with state resources for a National Mosque or Shrine in the name of Allah or some African deity? And will those who have spoken in support of the cathedral adduce the same arguments in line with principle?
It is this lack of appreciation of fairness that makes me treat the vituperations of Archbishop Duncan Williams and others like him as representing the voice of the illiteratti over the sovereign power of principle. Will the same reasons be applied to furnish other faith traditions with the same national attention and benefit of government largesse? For obvious reasons, we all know this world isn’t fair, yet God, regardless of how each of us conceives him or her, is fair to all. Those who come to us, claiming to speak in the name of God must first be the epitome of fairness. The government and the clergy must either be fair to all faith traditions in Ghana as God and the people would have them, or they must admit in principled honesty, that they are being unfair as we know is characteristic of the world.
Consideration of these factors further expose a well concealed public secret—that beyond the shouts of a thousand halleluiahs and affirmations of “God is good”, the leadership of Christianity in Ghana seems to feel insecure about what it perceives to be the overt Islamic competition for spreading its sphere of influence. Speculations abound
that this insecurity may well be grounded in the ongoing building of a Turkish government financed National Mosque at Kanda, near Nima. Could the so-called national Christian cathedral be a response determined to equalize and probably outdo the scale and grandeur of the National Mosque?
To build or not to build?
“People sometimes ask, ‘Of what use are cathedrals? Why expend a large sum in erecting a magnificent building, and in endowing those who are to minister in it, when the same amount of money might erect a number of churches where they are much wanted, and at the same time make provision for the clergymen who would be placed in charge of them?”
The above sentiments expressed as far back in 1892, by the then Very Rev. Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Robert Gregory, still reverberate today, more than a hundred and twenty years on.
The thrust of Rev. Gregory’s arguments for the need of cathedrals is anchored on the ancient Jewish text found in the book of Haggai Chapter 1: 4, “is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?” According to Rev. Gregory, “For when private houses are magnificent and the churches are mean, it seems as though that which pertained to this life was everything, and that which was to help and prepare for the next were nothing”
A contrary school of thought which many Ghanaians subscribe to, contests the issue on the basis of scriptures from the same Jewish text which Rev. Gregory pointed out in the Book of Isaiah 66: 1. This text was later referenced by the Apostle Paul in the Contemporary English Version of the Book of Acts 7: 48 says- “But the Most High God doesn’t live in
houses made by humans. It is just as the prophet said, when he spoke for the Lord”.
Between the prophetic polarities of Haggai and Isaiah, the sad and comical reality is, an economically dependent African republic, Ghana, is split and beside herself with both rage and religious fervor, to build or not to build a cathedral in the name of a Judeo-Christian deity historically bequeathed to her some five hundred years ago by European enslavers and colonizers.
It is a general observation that Christianity in Ghana, being itself paradoxically at the forefront of the rise of secularism, could not be the natural progenitor of a cathedral idea. There are no indications of even a gradual shift from its current neoliberal inclinations steeped in the individual and private ownership of churches to justify this. This sorry state of religiosity, do not make the dots connect logically.
Furthermore, a party that struggled so long to come to power to suddenly prioritize a sentimental project above the urgent needs of the masses makes it fail the sequential test of common logic and exposes the influences of faceless forces. It is for these reasons that I want the Ghanaian public to take note of the moral disconnection for which I scratch my head and I ask—will the real ‘forces of darkness’ hiding behind the current administration and the clergy, be bold enough to come forward into the light of God so we all see them?
Amidst a plethora of charismatic churches, prayer camps and itinerant preachers of all shades and kinds, constructing this multimillion dollar cathedral to “celebrate the mercies of God upon our country” in an economy whose cedi is fast falling really casts doubts about the integrity
of this “God”. One wonders why his so-called “mercies” has not, in the first place stopped our cedi from falling and saved our people its harsh socioeconomic consequences. Such emotive and post-truth reasoning that government has so far evinced to justify this project has made many believe that the Christian clergy has succeeded in bringing the state under its spell in a typical folie ȧ deux fashion at the high cost of logic and reason.
With a national capital that has since colonial times been vulnerable to floods, many Ghanaians cannot restrain their antipathy towards this project. The uncompleted structures of the National Museum, forgotten and abandoned after the overthrow of Nkrumah, still show the foundation and its cracking columns as well as rusty iron rods piercing the sky in prayer and supplication, probably awaiting Osagyefo’s return to be continued and completed. It continues to receive foreign visitors who go there to see an exhibition of our national neglect. Osagyefo’s own car, a national relic, is abandoned in the car park of the museum, shamefully rusting and rotting away, while the government and the clergy make provision for a Bible museum to be featured in the National Cathedral.
While this national neglect is ongoing, the state is to spend money to demolish fairly new state buildings to make prime government land available within an enclave reserved to be close to the seat of government and other state installations like the State House and Parliament. Additionally, the huge financial costs involved in resettling members of the judiciary is seen as part of gestures that will make “God bless our homeland Ghana and make our nation great and strong”.
Parents are equally appalled. Many cite an educational system which accounts for much of the labor force that fills the streets of the capital and other urban centers with hawkers and homeless people. One wonders how there can be such commitment to religion under such high social and developmental deficits. How does the church intend to solve the social dissonance that an awe inspiring cathedral would arouse as it resides in a capital neglectfully branded and known in Africa for its ungodly filth and fetid squalor? Why has there not been an initiative by the church to zealously operationalize its own all-time credo of “cleanliness is next to godliness” in partnership with the state? These questions, together with the dry mass of post-truth reasoning reveal the layers of religious grime that continue to blight our national conscience.
The history and life cycle of cathedrals
A retrospective look at the lifecycles of cathedrals in the European climes where they originated may shed light on the current discourse in Ghana. Evidence in Europe indicate that many cathedrals grow from glorious sacred infancies to become emaciated secular edifices in their old age surviving through the support of heritage organizations and charitable touristic visits. Sometimes, their divine spaces have been rented out as warehouses, pubs and discos, restaurants, studios for artists, etc., for which the saints, kings and queens in whose names they were erected could be turning blue in their sacred tombs and catacombs.
Jackson who in 2001 indicated in his journal, “Cathedrals: Who on earth needs them?” also reminds us of the sad end of many European cathedrals. He cited the fate of what was once considered the most sacred cathedral in Christian England:
One of the most chilling reminders of the impermanence of the built heritage of the Christian church is at the perceived heart of the English religious establishment itself, Oxford. Osney Abbey, once the third largest ecclesiastical building in England, now survives only as an artist’s impression on a sign for tourists and with four stones marking its outside edges. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was dismantled and its stones were carted off as in-fill for the Colleges of the secular University then springing up in this most religious of river crossings, Oxford (Jackson 2001: 5).
Cathedrals constructed by European missionaries in Africa have not been spared either. The example of Christ Church built on the site of the last slave market in Zanzibar perhaps offers Ghana a glimpse on the shape of things to come. According to the World Monuments Fund, British missionaries built the Christ Church Cathedral in 1879. “Zanzibar’s tropical climate took its toll on the building and by the time the World Monuments Fund Britain (WMFB) became involved, the cathedral was in danger of collapse.” In 2013, the Anglican diocese of Zanzibar and the government asked World Monuments Fund to help protect this site of conscience. WMFB was awarded a grant of 743,000 euros from the European Union to repair the cathedral and create a heritage center commemorating the abolition of slavery.”
Over time, one thing has stood out; not even God, in whose name and to whose glory millions have been spent, have been able to save his supposed house from ruins. This makes the “God will bless our country if we build a cathedral” argument appear like a line in a children’s fairytale. The reasoning behind such ventures have proved to be religious sophistry deployed in the service of scaffolding the fragile egos of
members of European royalty and nobility with poor Christ, as usual being used to provide the charming excuse.
Counting the cost
Even with slave labour and access to the resources of dependencies in Africa, Europe took at least eighty to hundred years to build most of their cathedrals. This period exceeds the years Ghana has been independent. Only a Martian doesn’t know that sixty- one years of being independent have been years of dependency on the financial charity of the rich imperialist nations—a fact that morally disqualifies us from even thinking about such a project, let alone, having the courage to announce it as a national project to the people.
The fate of God’s house seems to rest on which side the social pendulum swings. But given the state power of the politico-religious elite, it seems that the voices of reason will have to wait awhile for their turn to speak their mind. This may perhaps be possible long after the first foundation stones have cured and solidified, making Christ the irremovable cornerstone of Ghana’s “theocratic democracy”. Under such unfair and divisive circumstances, “…who in heaven or earth would want a cathedral?”
Amarkine Amarteifio, artist. 2018. Accra.