By Bisi Lawrence
The Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos. lies to the West of the island on the waterfront. The church magazine is thus appropriately named, By the Lagoon, for that is precisely where it is at the corner piece of Odunlami Street and “Ehin Igbeti,” to give the Marina its native name.
Today, it stands as an example of baroque style of architecture, only a step away from the fourteenth century. Its opulence has withstood the contest of modem buildings of all types which have sprung up around it for decades; and its walls have seen many momentous events – festivals and funerals, as well as state occasions and celebrations with pomp and circumstances.
For this was at one time the recognized official church of government, during and beyond the colonial era. The cathedral has indeed been a witness to history.
But it was not always a cathedral. It started out as the Christ Church, plain but not all that simple, all the same. When Governor Glover, one of the most lovable of the colonial administrators who lived in Lagos, laid the foundation in 1867, it was clear even then that a much bigger church was in the offing.
The structure that emerged, though modest, was a pace-setter. It featured a clock tower specially added by the Rev. J.A. Lamb who was the Minister in charge of the smaller church that was in use across Broad Street.
It was the first public clock that the country had ever seen, and it immediately made the church known as “Sosi Alagogo”.- the church with a clock. It was so popular that a song was composed for it. That song very soon became a favourite in Lagos primary schools, and was later known and sung in other schools throughout Yorubaland.
The clock-tower motif was retained when Christ Church was rebuilt as cathedral. The building which succeeded the church and stands to this day has a unique existence. Its nearness to the former site of the CMS Grammar linked it with the sponsorship of secondary school education in Lagos; to the Christians in the immediate neighbourhood, it was a source of spiritual inspiration; to the government of the colonial era, it was the other arm of the suzerainty of the monarch over church and satate.
The last mentioned aspect was dramatized by the fact that the foundation stone of the cathedral was laid by none other than His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales. A man of high romantic disposition (he was to later abdicate the British throne as King Edward the VIII over his affair with a divorcee, whom he later married).
That history now lies in wait for the present Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, but that is another matter. Anyway, the hazardous voyage from England, at a time when the steam ship had hardly come into its own, posed little consideration to the man who became known later as the Duke of Windsor. The foundation stone of white marble from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, was duly laid by His Royal Highness on April 21, 1925.
This was. in fact only appropriate as the Church Missionary Society which founded the Cathedral was a part of the Church of England whose head was, and still is, the English monarch. The Cathedral was therefore part and parcel of the British Empire.
“Native”, that is Nigerian or indigenous, priests were not allowed to be in charge of the earlier church until 1918. The first indigenous pastor in charge was The Rev. S.M. Abiodun who had been curate for no less than ten years earlier. A new Constitution approved only a few years earlier made the appointment possible.
When the church became a full-blown cathedral, the indigenous bishops were only appointed as Assistant Bishops to prevent them from assuming the headship of a diocese. The Cathedral was indeed a CMS church totally in matters of administration.
And so, as far back as 1892 the clergy and Lay Representatives of the church had made an impassioned appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury protesting against the consecration of Africans as Assistant Bishops under the supervision of Europeans. But the practice continued for upwards of another half-century.
It was irksome for the laity, let alone the clergy, who were well educated and had imbibed much of the sophistication of the European civilization which formed their backgrounds. But the iron brand of colonialism did not spare even the religious institutions which came into being through Britain. And so the pressure against colonial domination continued even if at a diverse rate, on the political as well as the religion front.
The Bishops of the Cathedral included His Grace, the Most Rev. Leslie Gordon Vining, probably the best known in the history of the church. He later became the first Archbishop of West Africa. He threw the Bishop’s Court open to the young boys of the church, who constantly ruined the lushness of his lawn with their rough football activities.
The Secretary of the Church, a Mr. George Vellacourt, was very protective of the lawn and would drive the children away, to the exasperation of the Bishop. One day, the Bishop could no longer stand the interference of the Secretary. “O, leave them alone, George,” he remonstrated. “I’d rather have children grow on my lawn than grass.” L.G. Vining was indeed an unforgettable character.
Among the indigenous clergy who were in charge of the cathedral at one time or the other, was Bishop S.C. Phillips. He was then the Archdeacon of Lagos Diocese, but acted as the Provost of the Cathedral. He was discipline personified.
Everyone sat up straight when the Archdeacon was in sight, from the clergy to the congregation including the choir. The tone of the assembly on Sunday was of a sparkling timbre. No late-comer dared make a habit of it.
On a memorable occasion, the organist thought it fit to play just the piano at the funeral of the old verger. The Archdeacon allowed him to give out the “intro’- and then held out a hand to stop the congregation from starting the hymn. And then in a voice trembling with anger, he ordered the organist to “go to the organ.” The theme of the sermon was thereby ready-made.
The congregation, used to the stem ways of their priest even as they were, could hardly hide their disquiet. You see, the organist was his own brother, T K. Ekundayo Phillips. But the Archdeacon was the archdeacon. He brooked no nonsense from any quarter, even in public life. Nnamdi Azikiwe, at that time the Editor of The West African Pilot. called him ‘The Fighting Parson”.
But T.K.E. Phillips was also a formidable professional in his own right. He was a giant in the organ loft and, like some great organists before him, he produced a generation of organists from his own loins. His career started on Easter Sunday, 1914 and continued until Easter Sunday 1962 when his son, C.O. Phillips, took over from him.
Between the two of them, father and son, the Cathedral resounded to their ministrations at the keyboard for just short of a century. The organist today, is a lady – a well-known event in Europe but a clear oddity in Nigeria. Maybe another pace-setting feature.
Under these and other masters of music, the choir has continued to maintain a historic heritage of brilliant devotional renditions. The choir stall has spawned some notable musicians of its own too. There was Professor Samuel Akpabot, who once had a popular band, having featured as the pianist in orchestras like the Chocolate Dandies, where he was known as the Colonial Swing Rascal.
Then there was Josiah J. Ransome-Kuti, whose love of music subsequently filtered through to his son, Canon “Dao” Ransome-Kuti of Abeok’Uta Grammar School fame, and then to his grandson, the inimitable Fela-Anikulapo-Kuti and now still vibrant in his great-grandchildren, Femi and Seun. Even in recent time we had Art Alade and his son, Dare, who were both prominent members of the cathedral choir.
That father and son tradition extends to the clergy. Most prominent in that regard were two Bishops, father and son, by the name of A.W. Howells. The father was consecrated on June 24, 1920, and the son on June 24, 1952. In fact, the son, who was the first Nigerian to become Bishop of Lagos. was the grandson of Bishop C. Phillips, who was the father of Bishop S.C. Phillips, ‘The Fighting Parson. “In the case of the present
Provost, his father and even grandfather were both there before him. ..
As the Cathedral broke away from the shackles of colonial domination, the government of the day engaged in a tactical withdrawal. They built a small church for expatriates by the Government House. They did not actually direct that it was meant for only Europeans, but it was so regarded. It was called The Saviour’s Church, but was popularly known as The Colonial Church.
Echoes: Would you know where I can get old books on Lagos, especially those about Lagos during the colonial era? (Jimi: 08022906910)
The university libraries, or bookshops, may help. For the facts of this piece, I am indebted to the late Dr. E.N.O. Sodeinde, whose well-researched brochure of the centenary of the Cathedral Church of Christ I found invaluable.