By Mark Michael
The Most Rev. Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith, Archbishop of Ghana, will become the 12th primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa. His enthronement service is scheduled for June 3 in the Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Asante Mampong, where he will continue to serve as diocesan bishop.
Ben-Smith succeeds the Most Rev. Jonathan Hart, Bishop of Liberia and primate since 2019, who is retiring early after suffering a stroke. The church of 17 dioceses has two internal provinces, Ghana and West Africa. By tradition, the primacy alternates between the two, and after Hart’s announcement of his retirement in March, Ben-Smith began to step into the role, and represented West Africa at the Primates’ Meeting later that month at Lambeth Palace.
Ben-Smith, 58, is the son of an archdeacon, and has served as a bishop since 2011, first as a suffragan in the Diocese of Kumasi, and since 2014, as bishop of the newly created Diocese of Asante Mampong in central Ghana. He was elected as Archbishop of Ghana in 2021.
After his graduation from St. Nicholas Seminary in Cape Coast, Ghana, Ben-Smith pursued further studies in the sociology and philosophy of religion and in comparative religions in South Korea and Wales, and was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Manchester in England. Subsequently, he taught at St. Nicholas Seminary and two universities in Kumasi, as well as at Selly Oak College, Birmingham in the U.K.
The province Ben-Smith will lead is spread across seven West African nations: Cameroon, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, and has an estimated 1 million members. Ghana, the largest of the nations, is home to 11 of the province’s 17 dioceses, and there has been some movement towards soliciting its recognition as an independent Anglican province.
Anglican mission in the region dates to the mid-18th century, when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel began its ministry in what was then known as the Gold Coast, a center for trade in gold and captured slaves. The Diocese of the Gold Coast (now the Diocese of Accra, Ghana’s capital) was founded in 1909. The church expanded rapidly in the first half of the 20th century, maintaining a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition in worship and teaching. It also founded a series of elite schools, which have long been viewed as central to the church’s mission.
The Church of the Province of West Africa was established in 1951, when it numbered five dioceses, two of them in what is now Nigeria. Nigerian Anglicanism, which was fostered by the strongly evangelical Church Mission Society, had long stood apart from the SPG-founded dioceses further west, and in 1979, the Church of Nigeria became an independent province of the Anglican Communion. It has since grown exponentially, and currently claims 18 million members in 161 dioceses.
Growth has been slower in the Province of West Africa, though the church now has outposts in several neighboring countries, former French colonies. The province’s Diocese of Gambia unites parishes in the overwhelmingly Muslim countries of the Gambia and Senegal, as well as Cape Verde.
The Diocese of Liberia dates to 1851, when Episcopal missionary bishop John Payne began his ministry in Africa’s oldest republic, founded several years earlier out of the efforts of the American Colonization Society to relocate freed slaves from the American South. The Diocese of Liberia separated itself from the Episcopal Church to join the West African province in 1982.
The province has been active in the Anglican realignment movement, while also retaining close ties to the Canterbury-based Instruments of Communion. It was one of the first in global Anglicanism to claim that it had broken communion with the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, and in 2008, its primate, Archbishop Justice Akrofi, was among the founders of the GAFCON Movement.
The Diocese of Liberia, however, has retained its full communion relationship with the Episcopal Church, and since the elevation of Archbishop Daniel Sarfo to the primacy in 2012, the province has largely stood apart from GAFCON, while participating actively in the Global South Anglicans group, which generally takes a more moderate stance, and maintains strong links with the Instruments of Communion.
In October 2021, the Archbishop of Canterbury strongly criticized the bishops of the Ghanaian dioceses led by Ben-Smith for their public advocacy of a bill under consideration by the nation’s Parliament that would subject anyone who self-identifies as LGBTQ to a prison term of up to five years. Archbishop Welby subsequently apologized for airing his concerns before speaking with the Ghanaian bishops. The bishops declared in January that parts of the legislation, are “severe and must be reviewed.” Though widely popular among Ghanaians, the bill has not yet been brought to a vote.
Ben-Smith will also certainly play an important public role when the province hosts the 18th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, which will be held in Accra, Ghana, February 11-20, 2023.