Thursday, 26 November 2015


One of the wonderful advantages of only becoming “churchy” after the age of 50 is that it was much like travelling to a new country.

Your senses are in top gear. You get excited about stuff the locals take for granted. You ask: why? You take measure when others feel that’s unacceptable, simply because it’s never been done before. Change doesn’t bother you because you have no norm.

Preconceptions take a dive
For example, I like so many whiteys, had assumed that Anglican Church services would be far less formal in the townships than in the leafy suburbs. Wrong! In Soweto the best of British liturgy rules. Our Sunday altar party would be at least a dozen people, all superbly trained by their guilds.

Our choir was about 30 strong. Although African choruses were integral we also sang those ‘deep English’ hymns from old green hymn books, mostly passed down from parishes on the other side of town that had replaced them with Songs of Fellowship.

Another fallacy is that a black skin guarantees a wonderful singing voice. Not true. The objective is to worship God with the voice you’ve been given.

Incense was mandatory. The swinging of the thurible an art form.

A 45 minute sermon was par for the course and never warranted surreptitious glances at one’s watch.

My misconceptions included an assumption that my parishioners would be far more enthralled by a darker skinned Jesus.

When I suggested we should retouch a large mural so that Jesus would look less like an Oxford don dressed for a Nativity play and more like a darker skinned Middle Eastern Jew, the refusal was gentle but firm.

Fact is, the extra white Jesus is deeply loved. Those early missionaries who worked so hard at branding colonial standards as superior did a pretty good job. They were subsequently affirmed by apartheid, advertising, the education system, movies, nursery rhymes and even toys. 

What some scientist think Jesus looked like

In a country where the colour of one’s skin is still a major differentiator a Messiah of a darker hue doesn’t stand much of a chance. Sure, some parishes have painted their statues dark brown but the pointed Caucasian nose is a dead giveaway. 

The Queen is also loved
I remember taking a BBC TV crew to film a typical Anglican Eucharist in Soweto. The opening hymn (in their honour) was God Save the Queen and the choir, which was at least 60 strong, opted for a black tie and evening dress code. The film crew’s intention was to get a few good shots and then head back to the pool at their Sandton Hotel. 

I had to explain that the parish and gone to extraordinary lengths for their visit, including items by the Sunday School and a major feast afterwards. Initially, they were a bit grumpy but as we headed home three hours later it was declared ‘an experience of a life time’.

Meanwhile, through Archbishop Njongo, I was working closely with Canon Ted Karpf and the Revd Jape Heath in the HIV/AIDS and gay arenas.

Confession time (once again).
Although I’d grown up in a family that regarded homosexuality as nothing to get excited about, few of my gay and lesbian friends had ever shown affection in public. There was a dinner party to which Jape arrived late. His partner had joined us earlier and they kissed each other hello. It was a Damascus moment. 

As I registered my discomfort and was ashamed I suddenly understood how awful it must be for same-sex couples to have to refrain from everyday gestures of affection and the level of trust I’d been afforded in that moment.

I’d always understood how incredibly difficult it was for gay priests to honour the Church’s call for celibacy – usually from married heterosexual clergy. But never quite how this stretched to the daily fabric of their lives.

It didn’t help that HIV/AIDS was still largely viewed as God’s punishment for homosexuality and depraved promiscuity.

An inside job
Ironically, the likes of Njongo, Ted and Jape were being hugely undermined by their own Church.

That brings me to another facet of Anglicanism. Some call it ‘diversity’ others speak of ‘schizophrenia’.

Somebody once told me that theologically the pulpit tends to be 19 years ahead of the pew. For me the fissures were less between clergy and laity and mostly between clergy and clergy.

People in the pews tend to take what they are dished.

The three pillars of Anglicanism, i.e. Scripture, reason and tradition are not adopted or applied in equal measure across the Church. The same priests who laugh off St Paul's injunction that women should cover their heads and are horrified by the Old Testament custom of offering one’s virgin daughter to an overnight visitor, continue to interpret other sacred texts literally.

Instead of examining our sacred texts by taking into consideration who wrote them, the circumstances as the time, the audience and the agenda they ignore reason and wield verses like weapons.

Schism. what schism?
Within our global Anglican Communion we used to laugh off our differences and speak of bonds of affection. We scorned suggestions of a schism because historically the Anglican Church has shown a remarkable ability to accommodate differences.

Jongo would often urge his clergy and laity to come out of their corners of difference and find strength in diversity. He had every right to, having proved this could be done.

I’ve told how at the 1998 Lambeth Conference he’d chaired a 30 hour session, on homosexuality. Sixty bishops of diverse theologies, cultures and traditions had hammered out a proposal on the anvil of their pain. Yet the one and a half hour plenary session that followed ignored their 180 hours of input and produced ‘Resolution I.10: Human Sexuality’.

The resolution upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes 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.”

Behold the chasm
Subsequently 182 bishops would see fit to apologise to gay and lesbian Anglicans in a ‘Pastoral Statement’ but the pain and the resolution remain. That fissure would turn into a chasm.

I was working for Jongo and picked up stories of how several African bishops and their entourages had been financed by American conservatives who had set up camp just outside Canterbury. At the end of every meeting with the Archbishop they would meet to strategise for the next day.

Williams, an academic, a renowned theologian, poet, author and social activist would prove a babe in the political woods.

Despite him having persuaded a gay priest in a relationship to withdraw his controversial candidacy for Bishop of Reading, 250 bishops out of 800 boycotted Lambeth 2008 in protest against his perceived liberal sympathies. 

Photo: Reuters
Instead they hived off to Jerusalem where they held a seven day Global African Future Conference (GAFCON) to address the rise of secularism, HIV/AIDS and poverty.

Notably, Welby has indefinitely postponed the 2018 Lambeth and we continue to tip-toe around that awful word “schism”. We can afford to. Each of the 38 provinces that make up the global Communion does its own thing anyway.

More recently Rowan Williams, has admitted he has "no problem" with legal parity for same-sex couples. But he feels the State rushed into "redefining" marriage without giving the Church enough time to think about it.

His biography, Rowan's Rule, by Rupert Shortt tells how the Archbishop, now a baron, was tackled by a disappointed friend at the Hay Festival: "A venerable Roman Catholic priest and scholar confronted Rowan after the ceremony for 'letting us down', by which he meant gay and pro-gay Catholics hoping for a lead from the Anglicans.

Rowan clasped his head in his hands – a characteristic gesture – in apparent acknowledgement that his questioner (also an old friend) had a point."

He would share with Shortt, "Let me just say that I think the present situation doesn't look very sustainable."

Gay marriage
On gay marriage, he said: "I have no problem with legal parity for same-sex couples. But I'm not sure it's an appropriate use of the state's power to change a social institution. It felt as though we were being bundled into redefining a word without sufficient time to reflect."

On the failure of General Synod to pass the legislation on women bishops (It has since changed its mind), Shortt writes: "Rowan fell into a pit of depression on returning to Lambeth, during which he hardly spoke to anyone but [his wife] Jane – invariably a model of calm as well as charm."

The book also tells of the massive emotional toll Williams suffered over the sexuality battle. In 2005 he had slumped against a doorway during a bishops' meeting and said to a colleague, 'I can't tell you how much I hate this job.'

Shortt’s own recent comment is, "It seems to me that the Church of England has got to the point on the formal affirmation of same-sex relationships that it had reached with remarried divorcees 40 years ago. A once rigid discipline is being gradually relaxed.

"Some traditionalists will see this as yet another example of the way Anglicans have buckled in response to changing attitudes in society at large. But that is not where Rowan Williams is coming from. The pro-gay arguments he voiced in the 1980s and 90s sprang from a belief that church teaching on sexuality might evolve for solid theological reasons, not through a desperation to keep up with the times at any cost.

In describing current teaching as very unstable, Dr Williams is echoing opinions also voiced by other retired archbishops.”

More important things
With millions of refugees needing help, terrorism and police brutality you’d think we Christians would stop worrying how people choose to express love. 

This week I presided at the funeral of a parish stalwart. His last words to his children were: “Love each other, don’t fight.” 

A prophet for our times.

You may find these interesting: 

At COP21, the UN climate summit in Paris, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba joined other members of the international ecumenical grouping, the ACT Alliance, in handing over petitions signed by 1,7 million people, urging political leaders to take decisive action to curb global warming and deliver a strong, fair deal that helps poor countries adapt to their changing climate. In the photo with Archbishop Thabo is Cristiana Figueres, who as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the UN's top official dealing with the issue.

Arcbishop Thabo Makgoba's reflection on Advent :

Rupert Shortt speaking about difficulties Christians are experiencing across the world //

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