Sunday, 18 October 2015


By the time I was deaconed my spirituality may have been shot but I admit to feeling I’d died and gone to heaven.

A political tango
On entering the Church I’d handed in my ANC membership card but I was still a political animal. So working as Archbishop Njongo Ndungane’s media person was more than a privilege. It was a tango with the country’s ‘Struggle’ history. An adrenaline high.

Njongo attended school at Lovedale College in Alice, cradle of many black political leaders. It was while serving a three-year sentence on Robben Island as a political prisoner that he received his calling to priesthood. Upon release he had a two year banning order slapped on him.

I initially assumed that he was such a stern critic of government’s failures to deliver on its promises to the poor because he’d come out of the PAC, a party left of the ANC. But I would come to understand that it was his equal commitment to South Africa and the Kingdom of Heaven that made him a moral force difficult to ignore.

Famously he even made Nelson Mandela mad. Criticising Madiba’s government for, among other things, failing to ensure that old-age pensioners in the Eastern Cape got their money, he reportedly said, “Madiba magic won’t be solving our problems.”

Although Thabo Mbeki had succeeded Madiba by the time I started working for Njongo, I found it exceedingly difficult dealing with the president’s director general, the Revd Frank Chikane. Clearly the ANC leadership had still not fully forgiven the Archbishop.

A new experience

In many ways Njongo’s Africanism was a new experience for me. It was less about race and more about the future. He was quick to condemn inefficiency and corruption and I revelled in drafting his speeches and press statements.

He taught me that the only ‘African time’ was ‘on time’. A lesson which stood me in great stead in township churches where they tended to be relatively empty as the service started and slowly filled in time for Communion. 

In Alexandra, where I was standing in for several weeks, I restarted my first service after 40 minutes, explaining that I wanted everyone taking Communion to have had the benefit of confession and absolution. Ninety-percent were on time the following week.
Incidentally Jongo’s first political experience was as a teenager in the Cape flats township, Langa. On a Sunday afternoon, on their way to a soccer match, he and some friends took a short cut through Freedom Square where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the PAC, was addressing a crowd.

Njongo recalls, “We stopped to listen and he captured our minds with his charisma, his authority, his directedness. He was talking about the pass laws being at the heart and core of the oppression of the black person and that we had to do something about it.”

Years later with a master’s degree in theology from King’s College London, Njongo would become bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman. Among many other achievements he represented the Anglican Church twice at the Vatican. 

The last 'normal' Lambeth

Also important for me was the fact that he had chaired the 1998 Lambeth Conference committee for human sexuality. The consequences still reverberate. It was probably our last ‘normal’ Lambeth. 2008 was boycotted by about 200 bishops. 

Now Lambeth 2018 is looking iffy.

Convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury almost every 10 years since 1867, a Lambeth Conference is, in Anglicanspeak, one of four 'instruments of unity'. The others being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting.

Unlike the Pope, Canterbury is a figurehead and the Communion is an international association of autonomous national and regional churches. So Lambeth is not a governing body it simply expresses "the mind of the communion" on issues of the day. Its resolutions are not legally binding but historically they have been influential i.e. until now.

Not of one mind

Fact is the global Communion is not of one mind on lesbian and gay (LGBT) issues. While America has a gay bishop, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda are pressing for the criminalisation of homosexuality.

The 1998 Conference, called by Archbishop George Carey, is where the proverbial hit the fan. 

Of the 749 bishops who attended 11 were women. 

Some Provinces had finally crossed that gender Rubicon.

The hottest topic was homosexuality. In those days agenda matters were first discussed in committees and then debated in open plenary sessions conducted on Westminster Parliamentary lines.

Archbishop Njongo chaired that committee, a 30 hour session involving 60 bishops from across the world.  

It is important to bear in mind that there can be a vast difference in how, for instance, a bishop from North America and one from Uganda interprets the Scriptures.

An anvil of pain
Years later Njongo would say, “Our work was hammered out on the anvil of pain”. 

Despite massive theological and cultural difference the committee came up with a proposal. The idea was to avoid too much detail and allow the 38 Anglican provinces to return home and discuss the matter. This was supported by another 140 bishops.

But conservative politics won the day. George Carey yielded to pressure for a fuller resolution on homosexuality. So the proposal was debated in a mere one-and-a-half hour open plenary session of 600 bishops, spouses, observers and guests. 

All in the full glare of the media! 

The result was ‘Resolution I.10: Human Sexuality’ which is often referred to as the demise of our global Communion.

In short it upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union. It declares that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage i.e. gay priests must be celibate. It also refuses “to advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions or ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

The Primates (archbishops) and the Consultative Council were directed to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources.

Resolution 1:10 was passed by a vote of 526–70. The 180 executive hours put in by Njongo’s committee were ignored. In fact an amendment stating that "homosexual practice" (not necessarily orientation) is "incompatible with Scripture" was passed by a vote of 389-190.

Subsequently 182 bishops issued a  public apology to gay and lesbian Anglicans. They included Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

Gay was normal
You may wonder why a heterosexual priest is so concerned about LGBT issues. Bear in mind that I was middle aged before I took out my spiritual insurance policy and joined the Church. In my circles ‘gay’ was normal. My lifelong best friend is a lesbian.

Over the years I have ministered to parents, counselled gay priests, waded through shattered heterosexual marriages entered into by gay men desperate to live by ‘Christian’ values. I have feared for the lives of guilt ridden Christian teenagers.

Resolution1:10 has been one of my biggest challenges as a priest.

More recently I edited a book for the Church of Sweden in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians argued the case for reinterpreting our sacred texts. 

How I wish I’d had access to their reasoning earlier in my ministry. 

The Anglican Church continues to be affected by Resolution 1:10. 

I’m not  declaring our conservatives wrong. But surely we can all be drawn out of the corners of our conviction, just as happened in Njongo’s committee?  

As also happened with other key issues such as slavery, gender equality and apartheid.

Archbishop Justin Welby, now the symbolic head of some 80 million Anglicans worldwide, has called a meeting of all archbishops for January next year. Among other things the structure of the Church is to be reviewed.

To quote a Lambeth Palace source: The archbishop felt he could not leave his eventual successor in the same position of “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere”.

Welby, a former oil executive who was involved in reconciliation processes in Africa before he became the symbolic head of Anglicanism. He says the Lambeth 1998 resolution must be respected as must our different cultures.


Amidst talk of each Province doing its own thing but still calling ourselves Anglican he was asked if are about to undergo divorce?

His reply: “It’s more like sleeping in separate bedrooms.”

Meanwhile, I’m seriously considering compiling a dictionary of Anglicanspeak. A language that has evolved from within our corridors of episcopal power over centuries. Not generally spoken by the people in the pews, the more common phrases include ‘bonds of affection’ and ‘instruments of unity. It is particularly useful when outsiders claim we are a Church in schism.

I also keep reminding myself not to confuse Church with God.

PS. You may enjoy this You Tube interview with Archbishop Justin Welby.

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