Crossing over to 2011 in Ghana

Crossing over to 2011 in Ghana

New Year celebrations in Ghana have a markedly different feel to those you will have experienced in Scotland, Wales and England.

People party; of course they do. However, the largest gathered celebrations are for Christmas. Instead, a great many Ghanaians choose to herald the dawn of another year by attending a 'Crossover Service', often from around 8pm or 9pm at night to well into the early hours on 1st January.

These occasions are opportunities to look back in prayer with both gratitude and, as appropriate, regret, solidified by a commitment to learn and change (what the Christian tradition calls repentance: a  reorienation of our lives towards the good). They are equally marked by anticipation for the future, and an appeal for God's grace to enable us to negotiate as-yet-unknown paths, opportunities and perils.

The service relayed this year by GTV (Ghana's national television station) came from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, Mamprobi, Accra. It blended some of the familiar dress, hymnody and  style of Methodism in the American tradition, from which it originates, having spread out of Keta in 1896, with a strongly African spiritual flavour - charismatic in style, though not necessarily in theology.

AME also connects the common experience of slavery for people of African descent in what are now respectively the US and Ghana. In America, the denomination grew in the South in response to the white churches' failure to disavow slavery around the time of the Civil War.

Looking at the wider belief topography, Catholicism (introduced by the Dutch in 1542) and Methodism, originating from the Wesleyan Mission, remain the largest historic denominations in Ghana, with Presbyerians, Evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists of differing varieties also sizeable groupings.

From the 1960s, there was a significant growth of African Initiated Churches (AICs), seeking to develop and express a genuinely indigenous strand of African Christianity. But today that growth has been outstripped by the expansion of Pentecostal-style churches, many influenced by healing ministries and the 'prosperity gospel' style whereby the Christian message has become sadly captive to American-style materialistic and capitalistic values.

In the overall religious demography of Ghana, some 65-70 per cent of the population overall are actively or culturally Christian in one form or other, 25 per cent are Muslim (Islam predominates in the North) and another five to 10 per cent continue to be formed by African traditional religion. There are also a small number of Quakers and Jews. Secular humanism is even tinier.

In some parts of the country there have been serious incidents involving accusations of witchcraft and deaths associated with these, as documented by Amnesty and other human rights agencies. But generally, despite occasional ethnic-based tensions, Ghana has avoided religious conflict.

When travelling from Accra and Tema towards Cape Coast you can see different Christian groups, Mormons (who have a well-organised 'branded' presence) and some Muslim missions nestling next to each other. Hindus, Buddhists and Baha'is are also in evidence.

The predominantly Christian cultural and religious influences are reflected in the huge number of confessionally inspired store names - from the Praise the Lord Tool Shop right through to Blood of Jesus Hairdressing - which frequently puzzle and entertain visitors!

But in addition to its overall prosperity and stability - mitigated by the challenges of poverty and inequality - Ghana is seriously seeking to model a pluralistic environment in terms of belief and  participation in public life which sets an aspiration for African polity, and other regions of the world too. The unified political and legal framework, mixed economy, legacy of Nkrumah's (impressive, yet deeply flawed by later authoritarianism) nationalist African Socialism, Dankwah's pluralism, and over ten years of continuous democracy, are certainly among the factors that seem to have charted a different path to the religiously and tribally related fragmentation witnessed in Nigeria.

Inter-African regional concerns right now are for the violence in Josh, Nigeria, and the political standoff and threatened civil war in Cote d'Ivoire. As a founder and stabilising force within the African Union (AU), Ghana can play a crucial role in seeking a way beyond damaging confrontation. It will be tough and perilous, though.

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(Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow has been travelling in Ghana over the New Year 2011).

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