The arrival of the Orthodox Christian tradition in West Africa

Pastille a1

The western regions of Africa were evangelised by the Roman Catholic Church, by the Lutheran, Calvinist and Methodist traditions of the Protestant Reformation, and by the Anglican Church, which came to Ghana’s Cape Coast in 1751[1].

The Christianity of the first centuries, faithful to the spirit of the Fathers of the Church, to its theology and its spiritual tradition, inseparable from the doctrinal basis of the Orthodox faith of the seven ecumenical councils and the ecclesiology of an indivisible Church, was unknown in West Africa.

The arrival of the “true faith”, the Orthodox faith in the inspiration of the Spirit, at the dawn of the third millenium, is the full baptism of African nations, of their cultures and their traditions. The nation is a gift from God, a mystery inaccessible to our reasoning without the divine Revelation that the Church, through the Holy Spirit brought down at Pentecost, safeguards through the seal of Apostolic Tradition and the conciliar life of local churches. The constitution of nations, within the history of salvation, is a necessary step towards the divine economy of ransoming and redeeming humanity that has fallen away from God’s grace. Man, made in the image of the glorious Body of Christ by the Father’s “two hands”, the Word and the Spirit, was at the dawn of creation, like all creatures and worlds which appeared from nothing through the creating word of God, in a state of unstable perfection. All God’s work mystically calls on us to return to God’s plan, by the inspiration of the Spirit, by becoming a Church. The aim of creation in God’s plan was to become the Church, so that love of mankind could lead to perfect union with God.

« All that God created in different natures is united in Man, like in a melting pot, to join together become perfect, like a harmony composed of different sounds[2]».

Nations[3] are a prefigurative icon of the Church, because there is a mystery of the nation which our intelligence cannot grasp and which only the Church can reveal. They are called on to enter into the Church, and through the Church come to a new life in Jesus Christ. In its historic destiny from a human point of view, the unity of the nation is preserved by opposition to all that is considered to be foreign to its values. It creates a history which perpetuates its memory and guarantees its originality and uniqueness. This often requires it to grossly exagerrate its image, the image it wants to show to itself and to other nations. It magnifies the deeds it sees as making it distinct and specific, thinking them incomparable to those of other nations. The result is idolatry, of its own image and of its own history, as it turns past glories into idols, worshipping them through an exaggerated and often unconscious glorification of its identity. Only the Cross of Christ can help them free themselves, by giving them true liberty through the grace of the Spirit to remove the stumbling blocks that they unjustly boast of and by loosening the bonds of undesired captivity and constraint.

To participate in building the Church, nations must give away the “riches” that slow them down, and become “poor in spirit” by laying their past glories down before the Cross of Christ. For it is only through the Cross, through the glory of Easter, the triumph over death, over the hatred of justice and over all separation from love, that the history of people of every nation, every language and every culture becomes, whatever hardships they may face, a glorious march towards true life.

By becoming daughters of the Bride of Christ, the Church, reborn through baptism, nations share in the prerogatives of the Church. The figures of biblical typology – the patriarchs, the prophets, the righteous – will be stars to light them on their journey. Purified by Noah’s Flood, prefiguring baptism, they are made holy by the blessing of Melchizedek, chosen by the justification of Abraham, set aside by the birth of Isaac, freed from Jacob’s bonds by the Lord Jesus Christ, who “through prophetical figures of perfect righteousness, through the patriarchs, founds the Church, purifies it, sanctifies it, chooses it, sets it aside and redeems it[4]“. They, like the patriarch Abraham, must leave the land of Ur[5], on fire from the furnace of godlessness and deprived of the dew of divine grace, leave the house of their fathers (Gen 12:1), in other words worldly values with no promise for the future, and turn to the Promised Land, illuminated by the commandements of the Gospel, by becoming the melting pot of peace, justice and equity and by living according to ethics which do not forget the sanctity of life and which care for the poor and abandoned.

They must maintain and protect creation which was “made to sing the praises of its Maker[6]“. The world created by God, despite human aggression and denial of its holiness, is still in the eyes of its Creator a sacrament, a holy work given to mankind so they may let God’s glory shine through. Nations, in Africa and elsewhere, must, through their obedience to the Father’s Word revealed in Jesus Christ,  their faith in the doctrine of the Gospel and their acts of justice, become an offering like Isaac that God will accept on the altar of His Church (Gen 22:6-10). Like Jacob, who was “an olive tree bearing much fruit in the house of God” (Ps 51:10), they must, despite all ills of history, entrust the souls of their children to the full grace of God which fulfils all hopes, so they may enjoy the fruits of God’s blessing: “May the Lord give you dew from heaven and fertile earth, and abundance of wheat and of wine!” (Gen 27:27). For God, faithful to his covenant, “willl give to those who seek” (Heb 11:6).

Nations are called to enter the Lord’s inheritance, and to form one people of many languages and cultures, without this diversity precluding the unity of the body of the Church, but rather, through the symphony of hearts and the grace of the Holy Spirit, composing a perfectly harmonised hymn in the language of the Gospel “in one love, one soul, one sentiment”
(Phil 2:2).

When the field of the world, now planted with “wheat and tares”, is harvested at the end of time, and all the nations of the world belonging to God enter into the Church to form one people, this will be the inheritance promised to the Son by the Father in David’s psalm: “Ask and I shall give you all nations as an inheritance, the ends of the earth as your domain” (Ps 2:8), “All the nations you have made will come and fall down before youm Lord, and they will glorify your name unto the ages, for you are great and work wonders, you alone are God”
(Ps 85:9-10).

By turning to the light of Christ to become a Christian nation and form, together with the other nations, the chosen people of God, the nation that trusts in God’s mercy is enlightened by divine glory and covered by the shelter of its wings.

[1] The Anglican mission to Ghana began in Cape Coast in 1751 with the arrival of Pastor Thomas Thompson, from the Society for  Spreading the Gospel. Pastor Philip Quaque was Ghana’s first Anglican priest. He began his pastoral work in 1766. The first Anglican mission in Nigeria, the Church Missionary Society, began in the 19th century. The young Ajayi was the first person baptised, in 1852, and later became the first Anglican bishop from Nigeria, in sub-Saharan Africa. The first missionary of the Church Missionary Society arrived in Nigeria through Badagry in 1842. A larger group of missionaries joined them in 1845. The mission to Yoruba country was founded in 1852. The mission to Niger started in Onitsha in 1857. By 1935, there were 5 dioceses in West Africa. Two were in Nigeria: the diocese of Lagos was foundes in 1919 and that of Niger in 1920. These two dioceses, along with Sierra Leone (1852), Accra (1909) and Gambia (1935) formed the African Province.

[2]   ibid., page 103

[3] Nation: derived from the Latin nascere (nascor, natus sum), depending on the context meaning – to be born, to grow, to originate, to take form, to be made, to derive from, to be and to exist

[4] Hilaire de Poitiers, Traité des Mystères, page 75, Coll. Sources chrétiennes N° 19, Éditions du Cerf, 1967

[5] “Ur” means furnace in the Chaldean language.

[6] The universe is not a consumer good, but a sacramental world, an ocean  of mysteries. Man is not an economical creature, but a liturgical creature, whose aim is glorification in God. After this, he is a creature of communion, who cannot find happiness in individual accumulation of cunsumer goods, but who is made for giving and sharing.” Archimandrite Placide Deseille, Foi chrétienne et écologie, L’Église orthodoxe et la protection de l’environnement, Diversité et unité dans l’univers et dans la société des hommes, page 20, Monastère Saint-Antoine-le-Grand, Métochion de Simonos Petra, 2004