An African Face for the Church in Ghana

Interview With Archbishop of Accra

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ACCRA, Ghana, APRIL 11, 2010 ( The Catholic Church in Ghana is now just over 125 years old, and it is making the transition from being a missionary Church to one that is truly Ghanaian, with local languages being used for the Bible and worship.

Though this process is well under way, there are still many challenges to overcome.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Gabriel Palmer-Buckle, the archbishop of Accra, Ghana, considers the progress and the work still to be done.

Q: Your Excellency, the refrain of the missionaries was: «That Africa must be evangelized by Africans.» How much is this the reality now in Ghana?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: In fact it was Pope Paul VI who sometime in 1969, I think, at the foundation of what we call the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of African and Madagascar, said: «You must have an African Christianity.»

Q: And is this happening in Ghana?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Very much so, very, very much so. We have now 19 dioceses in Ghana, and all the bishops are Ghanaian. In fact there are dioceses in Ghana that have had a fourth generation Ghanaian bishop. The last foreign bishop I think left the shores of Ghana in the early 70s.

Q: What was the importance of these early missionaries for the Church in Ghana?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: We have to thank God for them. You know they began in 1880, the SMA Fathers — the Society of the Missionaries of Africa were the first ones to come to the south, Elmina near Cape Coast, the shores and they started the evangelization gradually along the coast and northward.

Q: With great physical suffering … I mean for these Europeans to come to Ghana must have been…?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Actually Ghana in those days was called the graveyard of the white man because many died of malaria within six or eight weeks of their arrival there. But we must thank God for the persistence, perseverance. … The missionaries kept coming. The men came, the women, the Lady of Apostles, that’s the female congregation of the SMA, they also came in 1882, I think, and they accompanied them, gradually to evangelize the south. In the north they had the SMA, who descended at that time from Ouagadougou, in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, and they settled in 1906 in Navrongo and they started the evangelization of the northern part also gradually descending into and meeting in the middle belt of the country. Today if you look at the statistics of Ghana, there must be I think roughly about 1,400 priests, and of these 1,400 about 1,000 are Ghanaian, are indigenous.

Q: So it’s a good foundation?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Very much so, we have about 800 sisters, religious, of whom I think half or more are also indigenous, they are Ghanaian. We have about 600 religious brothers more than half are also Ghanaian.

Q: So there is great hope for the local church?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Well, very great hope, in fact many more challenges because the people … the country has a population of about 22 million. The Catholic population is a little bit below 20% of the overall population. The Protestants — the Anglicans, Methodist, Presbyterians, the Baptist and the rest — they are about 18% also, a little bit more than the Catholic population. The Muslims are about 16%. The Pentecostals are even more now. They got in only somewhere in 1929…

Q: But they are growing fast?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Very fast they are about 24% of the population. So Ghana can boast of 68% of the population being Christians.

Q: The Ghanaian people have a deep love for the Word of God. In fact it is stated or reputed that if somebody comes to the market place and starts preaching, those in the market will stop and listen because it’s the Word of God. Where does this love for the Word of God come from?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Not only do they preach the Word of God, you’ll find it even on vehicles, written on vehicles Exodus 14:14 or Mathew 7:7: «Ask and you shall receive» and people know the Scriptures quite well. I would have to say that we must give credit to the Protestant churches and particularly to the Pentecostals for heightening the love of the Word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible, but I must also say that we’ve been working together in an ecumenical setting. For instance: Last year Ghana celebrated its 50th anniversary as an independent country, and one of the projects of the Christian Council and the Ghana bishops’ conference was to distribute a million Bibles to young people who are in the junior high schools. We’ve already distributed about 250,000 – not [just] the Catholic Church, [but] the whole Christian family and we are still distributing further because our people love to read the Scriptures. They love to go to the Bible.

Q: Ghana is not only Christian, but there are still a lot of traditional religions in Ghana. What would be the different expression of traditional religion still existing in Ghana today?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: From our last census which took place in the year 2000 only about 8% of the population still belong steadfastly to the traditional religion.

Q: Would this be animist? What kind of religions would we be talking about?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Well, the word «animism» is no more being used very much because animism means believing in spirits. We believe in the Holy Spirit, but we are not animist are we? But what is the difference is that they believe that the forest has a spirit, the waters have spirits, the rocks have spirits, you know all of creation has spirit and they are still living in those things and what we admire them for is their respect for creation, their respect for the ecology which, unfortunately we Christians can blame ourselves for watering it down. So it is one of the things that we are now taking up: the protection of creation, the conservation of the environment which we have taken from them, and we are heightening it and there is a good resonance with the traditional religion it seems.

Another thing that we have to give credit to them for is that they have maintained our traditional governance: most of our chieftaincy rites rituals, which are embedded in their religious culture, and they’ve kept them going. They have also kept the family together, the sort of respect in the family between father, mother, parents, and children; they have maintained quite a lot of it and we are beginning to see that Christianity, at a point in time, emphasized more the individuals’ salvation as against the communitarian, community, social perspective of the history of salvation. We are taking that also from them and heightening it you know.

Q: Becoming a Christian sometimes means abandoning some one or more of these traditional aspects. Where and how is the Church trying to find a balance in this regard?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: We’d have to admit that from about 1880 to about Vatican II the mentality was that everything traditional was pagan, was very demonic, and was not good. Thanks to Vatican II, the Church has allowed us to appreciate the values in our culture. We are now beginning to realize that there is a lot of similarity, for instance, the rites of our people. I come from Accra; they have a rite for outdooring of a child when the child is born. They outdoor the child on the eighth day…

Q: What is that?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: That means giving a name. They bring the child out to the public. They give it a name, and the name is normally the name of one or the other ancestor who had lived a good life so it is believed that the ancestor then protects the child. The child becomes a property no more of his or her parents alone but of the entire clan, and the clan takes its responsibility toward the child. This is a beautiful rite. In fact I had to do my doctoral thesis on that to show its simila
rity to baptism, through which a person is born anew into the family of God and then is given a name, which identifies him or her with Christianity.

Q: Baptism is integrated into this traditional ritual?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: In many places what they do is they have the traditional ritual very early in the morning because it must happen before sunrise and then they have the baptism in the afternoon on Saturday.

Q: There are some elements of traditional religion that the Church has to redress like polygamy and issues like this. How does the Church work with the local and the traditional cultures to try and address these kinds of problems?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Not only for polygamy, we also have very violent widowhood rites and other rites that we are now trying to deal with for example…

Q: What would be some of these examples?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: When a woman’s husband died, she was maltreated, and she was subjected sometimes to some form of cruelty in some cases she was driven out of the house…

Q: Because they thought that somehow she was responsible for the death of her husband or?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: In some cases ignorantly it was so thought, in other cases it was some sort of a shock therapy for her to get over the pain of having lost her husband. There are very positive aspects and negative aspects — because of human wickedness sometimes the negatives have overshadowed the positive, but I must say that, above all the good rites, as you say polygamy for instance where a man married two or three wives, had children; they all farmed with him on the farm, they acquired property together, the kids were more or less farm hands and everything. Now, the difficulty of Christianity has been to come in and tell the man: send 2 of your wives away, send your children away…

Q: What do you do?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: What do you do? Just like Abraham had to, in the book of Genesis to send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, and if you look back today you have to admit that some of the present problems go further back to those who trace their origins to Isaac and those who trace it to Ishmael. It’s very sad so we have been caught up in the Church; we know how to deal with this particular situation.

Q: Practically, a man comes to you: I want to become a Christian, I want to be Baptist, I’m in a polygamous relationship, I have four wives. How does the church respond to a situation like this?

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Officially we tell them what the Church says: One man one woman. We normally advise them, the man to choose the oldest wife, the one with whom he is at, but we also try to help them to take care of the children and the women without necessarily making use of what we call the marital offices that offend Christian morality of adultery and the rest of it. And it’s not easy. There have been cases where the offspring of these women, together with the man, have blamed the Church for ruining their family system because in many, many places they have lived at peace with one another: The boys have identified with the three women as their mothers, in the absence of their father, the women have taken care of all the children. This is an ideal situation of course. There have been other situations where it wasn’t too ideal, with a lot of rivalry between their mothers and their children and that has created a lot of pain.

So what we try to do is to accompany them through growing. Once they accept Christ, you must accompany them to grow in their faith, and as they grow in the knowledge of their faith, by the grace of God, those who have been baptized do away with what we call the sinful remains of a thing like polygamy or like the widowhood rites or other rites that may not be in consonance with the Catholic or the Christian faith.

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