Friday, 15 July 2016


If ever there was proof that God has a sense of humour it was when I was ordained to priesthood. When I hit the half century mark Church wasn’t on my bucket list, I was saving for a world cruise on the QE2. God was more likely to be mentioned when I stubbed my toe and Jesus didn’t really appeal other than to discuss whether he and Mary Magdalene had had sex.

Nonetheless, as I began attending services at St Martin’s-in-the-Veld, Joburg, I had that ‘new convert’s’ romantic perception of religion and clergy. Probably a hang-over from my convent boarding school days when the only posters we stuck on our walls were of the pope and various saints.

So I was quite shocked when a woman who had dealings with the higher echelons of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa made disparaging remarks about clergy who “slept around” and “reallocated” funds.

It was the best thing that could have happened to me.

With my rose tinted glasses relegated to the dustbin and a healthy dose of cynicism I came to understand that Church is, at best, a messy organisation – a peculiar balance of humanity at its best and its worst. If you are looking for miracles, look no further than your nearest parish and how it has survived personality clashes and varying levels of competence, humility and servanthood.

Ignorance is
But the years passed and I’ve been jogging along with a sense of ‘knowing the Church’.  Then the One with the quirky sense of humour had yet another belly laugh as I began writing my mystery series.   Having worked as Archbishop Njongo’s media liaison person for seven years and been a Susan Howatch fan, my first novel was inevitably set within Church. The main protagonist is a former PR guru testing a calling to a monastic vocation but who has to solve a couple of murders with the help of the folk running the agency.  Alec Fergusson is white middle aged and a doddle for me to write about.

A strange thing
Then, as I began the next novel, a strange thing happened. Alec began taking a back seat as Archbishop Shakes Khumalo assumed centre stage. At first I wasn’t too bothered. After all I’d spent many years within the ANC, I’d trained for priesthood in Soweto, I’d worked for Archbishop Njongo. It also helped that Shakes spent several years in the UK where he studied Law.

Of course I could write from a black archbishop's perspective.

But as Shakes drew me into his worldview I came to understand how much I still have to learn. How patient my black friends and associates have been with me all these years and why I have to rely on black editors to help keep Shakes credible.

There’s no turning back. The series belongs to Shakes and its meant to be a fun read. But against the backdrop of the #blacklivesmatter vs #alllivesmatter debate and at a deeply personal level, I know that I have to dig ever deeper into his world.  Not because it will make him more credible but because I must.

A wake up call
My unease increased when I shared this Facebook post,

and a dear friend responded ‘Black lives matter’.

That brought me up short.

The following morning at around 4:27 I watched a CNN interview with Dr Brian Williams, the black trauma surgeon who had treated the Dallas policemen shot during a Black Lives Matter protest march.  

Emphasising that he didn’t want to detract from the pain of the slain officers’ families, Dr Williams told how he too feared for his life outside the hospital. He spoke of the need for more open discussion about race. “How can we understand each other better,” he asked. “We need to stop talking over each other, to truly listen to the other side, to not shut each other out.”

Other interviews followed and, as the slow winter dawn stretched across Kommetjie, I came to understand that until and unless we erase the vulnerability of and dehumanisation of black people, all lives can’t matter.

As with all cataclysmic events an iconic picture emerges. My bet is that this is the one that will epitomise the Black Lives Matter movement.

Facebook user R. Alex Haynes posted: “This is my best friend that I have known since we were 8 (20 years now). “Her name is Leshia and she has a 5-year-old son. She went to Baton Rouge because she wanted to look her son in the eyes to tell him she fought for his freedom and rights. They haven’t released her as of yet but she’s fine.”

Hopefully, the US discussions on racism will spill over into South Africa where the sin of differentiation and privilege bubbles and boils.

Where is Church in all this?
The Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Southern Africa has transformed, If I’d made Shakes white, he wouldn’t have been credible.  But I am acutely conscious of the cringe-worthy unconscious racism that still exists among clergy and laity alike.  It’s a spin-off of privilege, the sense of white is right and better. (Anyone tried to introduce choruses in a traditionally white parish lately?  ever wondered why so few black parishioners serve on committees?)

Of course there are exceptions but, while we Anglicans don’t usually  sink to the depths of the preacher from another denomination who told his congregation that white people were better off because they work harder, we have at many levels yet to truly listen to each other. To respect each other. To see God in each other.

Because I haven’t made the Shakes series a soapbox for racism it is in the detail of his life that I am made aware of his daily realities. The white suffragan bishop who disapproves of any efforts to “Africanise” the Church. The difficulty he has in dealing with an apartheid era security operative and his guilt for abandoning his Sowetan boyhood friends on his journey to success – first as an advocate and then as a church man.

Yet again, God has nudged me out of my comfort zone.

Not the Samaritan
I felt this as I preached on the Good Samaritan last Sunday. I’d filled an emergency pulpit gap and was relieved to find it such an easy reading. But no matter how I leaned on past interpretations this nagging voice kept saying “it’s about being in the ditch.”  I realised that for too long I’d viewed myself, my congregants and my Church as the Samaritan – duty bound to minister to those in need and less privileged.

The Revd Dr Marcia Mount Shoop

In the US the Revd Dr Marcia Mount Shoop, preached that same day on the same reading at the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville North Carolina .  A consultant, author, and theologian who focuses on healing and spiritual growth around issues of violence, race, power, privilege and loss, she was far more eloquent than I was in Ocean View Cape Town.

A moral ambivalence
Addressing white supremacy and the moral ambivalence of white dominant institutions around race and power question she urged, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are at a crossroads as a nation and as a faith. The road behind us is washed out—we cannot go back, we cannot un-see what we have seen, we cannot deny the blood on our hands, we cannot deny the moral ambivalence around the very category of full humanity that rests at the foundation of our most hallowed institutions—our justice system, our education system, our government, our economic system, and yes, even the church.”

She spoke of how duty is an attempt to tidy up the ambiguity of our human situation. “And while our human minds like simple, clear, non-negotiable answers to life’s most complicated questions, ambiguity abides—and calls us to a deeper place from which to define our morality, our responsibility, indeed our humanity. Far deeper than our learned reflexes of duty is our blood chilling vulnerability: mine, yours, ours.”

Snoop elaborated, “And while the normative culture of mainline Christianity has taught us the language of helping the “least of these,” white culture, white patriarchal culture has told us lies: that we can somehow secure our safety, our well-being on the backs of others and make ourselves less vulnerable than everyone else. As white dominant institutions, Mainline churches have not often considered our own profound vulnerability.

“What if we are not the Good Samaritan? What if we are naked, barely conscious, and beaten within an inch of our lives on the side of the road? ….. What if being Jesus followers is less about being the one with the power to help and more about telling the truth of just how vulnerable we really are? This is not duty. This is not pity. This is our humanity.

“White culture has distorted our shared humanity and our full humanity because it formed us with an expectation of safety and self-protection. White culture has tried to tell us we can erase our vulnerability, our grief, our fragility, our uniqueness, our idiosyncrasy—and from this attempted erasure we have learned repetitive, dehumanizing habits. We are habituated to ask “How can we help?” But rarely do we ask, “How can we change? How can we be the change?”

“White supremacy is a powerful demon that must be exorcised. This does not mean all white people are bad, this means the culture spawned by white supremacy is a disease that afflicts us all—it permeates our instincts, our muscle twitches, our gut reactions, our intimacy, our self-understanding. Jesus, help us, help us not be afraid to tell you the truth of our affliction.”

For her full sermon go to:

Or maybe we should all simply watch this 14 year old white boy's You Tube video:

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