The 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd. Justin Welby, opened the year 2022 rather dramatically by self-identifying as a mouse.
His Grace further heightened the drama of this revelation by explaining –by way of elucidation– that, he was as a mouse to an elephant when compared with Desmond Tutu, the late Archbishop of Cape Town (from 1986 to 1996, and before that Bishop of Johannesburg).
If Welby’s personal insight may be surprising to some, that is to one side of the larger point, which is that there can be no question but that the late Desmond Tutu was a remarkable figure.
Archbishops Welby and Tutu
Photo: Lambeth Palace
While most attention has focussed extensively on his time in office through the end of the apartheid era and beyond, Tutu’s earlier and later career also merit consideration.
Thus, it deserves to be noted that Tutu spent four important years in the United Kingdom whence the semi-monastic Anglican Community of the Resurrection had long been an important influence on him through one of its members long connected to South Africa, namely Bishop Trevor Huddleston (after whom Tutu even named his son).
In fact, Tutu served his first curacy in the London suburb of Golders Green, while also studying (Islam) at King’s College. The distinguished Anglican journalist (and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Spectator) Charles Moore, recently related that one of his own relatives, namely Uvedale Lambert also played a particular role. Another keen Anglican, he was a member of the Community of the Resurrection’s lay fraternity, a Guardian of the Shrine of Walsingham, while also a Master of Foxhounds and squire of the Surrey village of Bletchingley. He and his wife, Melanie, “used to hold annual weekends of spiritual study and reflection – known as their ‘gin and God’ parties – in their house, South Park, and its adjoining private chapel. They organised many Christian pageants and missions. Uvedale eventually helped secure the Bletchingley curacy for Tutu, and made sure he and his family were properly housed.”
Moore added that in his view, “it was from this little world that Desmond learnt.. about the ecumenical catholicity of the Church of England” thus it was that at “the gin and God” parties during his time in the parish, that Tutu gave a talk on “Obedience”, and later another on “Merit”.
And according to Uvedale’s daughter, Dame Sarah Goad, “Tutu made a great and favourable impression” as he was “joyous” and “radiated the love of God”, as did his whole family.
Years later, Tutu returned to marry Dame Sarah’s daughter Cassandra and her husband in the South Park chapel.” Moore records that, “Sarah remembers no example of racial feeling against the Tutus in the village, but that he liked to joke about his colour. “You can’t see when I blush,” and pointing out that when he mounted into the darkness of the pulpit, only his teeth were visible.”
Indeed, Moore suggested that, there is some evidence that the very lack of racial animosity which Tutu experienced in England helped embolden him to try to change the terrible divisions in his native South Africa”. The Surrey parish link continued materially later on as, after he returned to South Africa, the parish evidently bought him a car and later, for his ministry in Lesotho, a horse, although Moore added, “I find no evidence that the African curate ever indulged in Uvedale’s passion for foxhunting, but when he returned as a bishop to visit Bletchingley, he appeared in his episcopal robes to bless Richard Gurney, the son of Uvedale’s groom, before the hunt meet. Like Tutu, Mr Gurney benefited from Uvedale’s support early in life, and is now a Master of Foxhounds himself.”
Tutu was born on October 7th 1931, in Klerksdorp (a small largely Afrikaans town) in the Western Transvaal, where his father, Zachariah, was headmaster of a Methodist primary school. Desmond himself was sent to the Western High School in Johannesburg. His education was, however, interrupted for two years by tuberculosis, and it was during this time, while in a sanatorium, that he came to be visited regularly by the then Father (later Archbishop) Trevor Huddleston, who was ministering in nearby Sophiatown. Thus it was that Huddleston became a formative influence.
After finsihing high school Tutu first became a teacher at the Bantu Normal College in Pretoria, taking the opportunity to complete an external degree at the University of South Africa in 1954 and then became a teacher at the Munsieville High School in Krugersdorp. Two years later, in 1958, he entered St Peter’s College, Rosettenville, to train for Holy Orders.
Again, it has been perhaps inadequately recognised in the many tributes to the Archbishop, that his career in retirement well reflected his commitment to be balanced in making criticism of those in power. Thus over time, as the role of the African National Congress (ANC) and later Presidents after Mandela became ever more problematic, he did not hold back from criticism of them any more than he had earlier governments during the time of apartheid.
In the words of one London obituary, “for all his outspoken and sometimes ill-judged utterances, Tutu was a lovable man who exuded warmth, humour and goodwill. His flamboyant personality, his gift for clowning and his high-pitched voice enabled him to win and hold the attention of vast crowds. Often, Tutu’s personal vanity was on full display: he was, in truth, an ardent self-publicist. His personal eccentricity could occasionally be alarming. Visitors to his office would watch him pick up a ringing phone and bellow “Hello Darling!” without having any idea who was on the line. Tutu also acquired the habit of commenting on international issues far removed from South Africa, about which his opinion was of no greater value than anyone else’s. But his message was never less than a plea for justice, freedom and reconciliation. As someone who bitterly opposed apartheid, while never joining the ANC, Tutu filled a vital niche as a genuinely independent voice, impossible to silence and heroically unafraid of confronting the powerful.” (Daily Telegraph)
As the Guardian obituary in London pointed out, of Tutu and Mandela, “in African terms, both were relatively privileged, Mandela (of Xhosa royalty) even more than the highly educated Tutu. There were differences, of course. Tutu was excitable, passionate, easily hurt; Mandela composed and imperious” and going on to note that “At times, Tutu was the despair of his friends. Once he said that if the Russians came to South Africa, they would be welcomed as liberators. An associate sighed, “He had this habit of going over the top.” Tutu’s support of international sanctions against South Africa caused a huge eruption among white people and also in his own church. Some liberal white South Africans classified Tutu’s Nobel peace prize in 1984 as foreign interference.” But it is also to be noted that when, in defiance of the Botha government, Tutu met the ANC-in-exile at its Zambian headquarters, he informed it that, “while he supported its aim of a non-racial, democratic South Africa, he could not associate himself with the armed struggle”. The ANC at first refused to end it but later agreed to suspend it.
He proved a remarkable choice for the role that President Mandela ultimately gave him, after the fall of apartheid in 1994, when he was made chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was set up to investigate the worst atrocities of the apartheid era, stretching back to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. This was South Africa’s unique way of coming to terms with many of the wrongs in its terribly divided past.
The terms of reference were such that if guilty parties came forward, admitted what they had done, told the full truth – and were able to prove that they were acting for a political cause – they would be granted a full amnesty. The ultimate five volume report not only recorded the wrongs of the apartheid era governments, but also recorded that the ANC, in exile beyond South Africa’s borders for 30 years, had committed gross violations in its detention camps, torturing and executing suspected informers, rebellious members and others, and that, even after its unbanning in 1990, it had committed further crimes, including murder, mainly against black political opponents. (And this led the ANC, by then in government, to attempt to ban publication of the final Report).
Such a process was obviously always going to be morally complex at best, but it did mean that, in principle at least, there would be no systematic mass arrests or campaigns of vengeance after power had transferred to the black majority. Nonetheless, P. W. Botha, the penultimate white president, saw it as a thinly disguised form of retribution, while the ANC leaders also bitterly resented the fact that their conduct and campaigns of violence also fell within the Commission’s remit. Yet all this ultimately enhanced the credibility of the process. It was in order to undertake this task that despite being only 64, Tutu retired from the archbishopric of Cape Town in 1996.
He revealed something of the spirit behind his role when he explained that:
“Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.” and further that: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
Friends said he was later saddened and perplexed by the ferocity of the criticism of the TRC by the ANC, the white right wing and some mainstream liberals. While he never joined the ANC, he had had close contacts with its leaders throughout its time as a banned organisation. He was deeply critical of the ANC’s performance in office after Mandela’s retirement in 1999 and was particularly appalled by President Jacob Zuma, who was accused of fraud, corruption, racketeering and tax evasion, causing Tutu observe, I “hang my head in shame”. In 2013 he announced he could no longer vote for the ruling ANC because of its corruption, inequality and use of violence, and its failure to tackle violent xenophobia and poverty in the townships. (He had previously been sharply critical of Zimbabwe’s President also, Robert Mugabe, whom he called a “Frankenstein for his people”.)
What stands out in all this is also what has given him such international recognition, namely his largely political skills as an agent of social change. It is striking just how little attention has been given, in the coverage of his life to any personal theology. Given that he was an Archbishop, to be such a global success in the eyes of a secular world does therefore invite some concern upon this point. In response, however, it is surely correct to say that his passion for improving this world was deeply driven by his faith in the world to come and the specific claims for salvation in Christ as the ground of hope.
His Anglican Christianity inclined quite clearly to the very liberal in all areas, and not merely politically, (as his approach to matters of sexuality and assisted dying made evident). This reflected the fact that the South African church leadership became comprehensively radicalised during the apartheid era, even though in the ares of morality this was significantly at odds with previously prevailing social norms that transcended racial divides. This was sharply reflected in the way that the Anglican church of South Africa has for long been been rather out of step with most of the other Anglican Provinces in Africa and closer to the more radical Provinces of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, TEC in America, Scotland and Wales.
Nonetheless, there is reason to see an underlying doctrinal commitment amidst Tutu’s social radicalism, as he evidenced in saying that:
“In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love Him but how much He loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t.”
and further that:
“…we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.” God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time
This vision conforms with the powerful message of Christian hope. It is surely impelled by a clear belief in the redeeming power of God, even if it is notable in these specific remarks that Christ is not mentioned and the overall drift would seem somewhat universalist. Nonetheless, his personal piety was clearly and specifically Christian and there should be no question that this informed his entire life and ministry, even if it is equally manifest that his legacy is likely to remain defined as more social and political than ecclesial or theological.
The topic of elephants and mice is not, it has to be said, a large trope within theology, but it does so happen that Archbishop Tutu did use such imagery at least once himself, when he said that, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”* It would seem unlikely, but whether and in what way this observation might have weighed upon Archbishop Welby, as he self identified with a mouse is not as yet recorded.