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A celebration of friendship

9 May 2009

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to attend an event at the African Enterprise Leadership Training Centre in Pietermaritzburg as “an esteemed family friend, fellow traveller and ministry partner of Michael and Carol Cassidy”. It told me too that “Michael has had the preparation of a book on John 17 in process for several decades and he wants to share the final stages of this with you and secure your own ideas and insights as the book is completed.”

I was quite intrigued by this, as it did not sound like the usual run of training courses and conferences, and so after church on Sunday I set off for Pietermaritzburg, and saw a rather beautiful sunset over Bergville on the way.


African Enterprise is an interdenominational evangelistic organisation founded by Michael Cassidy and some friends in the early 1960s.

Michael Cassidy

Michael Cassidy

Michael was born in Lesotho, went to high school at Michaelhouse in Natal (an Anglican church school) and had a deep conversion experience while a student at Cambridge University in the UK. He went to study theology at the Fuller Seminary in California, and with some fellow students had the vision of evangelising the cities of Africa. Their first attempt was a Mission to Maritzburg in 1962, and by the end of the 1960s they had teams in each part of the continent, holding city-wide missions, which they tried to do in collaboration with local churches.

In 1973 they organised a nationwide congress on mission and evangelism in Durban, and in 1976 a Pan-African Christian Leadership Assembly (PACLA) in Nairobi. In 1979 they helped to  organise the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA), which had a profound effect on Christianity in South Africa, and helped to boost Christian concern about and participation in the anti-apartheid struggle.

John Tooke

John Tooke

I first met Michael Cassidy when he spoke at a student conference in 1965, and have worked with several members of the AE team over the years. When I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand in the early 1980s John Tooke and others from AE came and helped with training events, especially in the field of evangelism and church growth.

So having had an association with AE that went back a long way, it seemed a good opportunity to get in touch again. And that, it seemed was part of the purpose. Most of the people there were as old as, or older than me, and also had links with AE going back a long way. John Tooke described it as a Celebration of Friendship, and it was that as much as anything else.

CascadeIn the early 1980s African Enterprise bought the site of their present centre, on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, and established it as their headquarters and as a training centre. They have trained people as evangelists, teachers, community organisers and activists. It is in a beautiful setting with hills and trees and waterfalls.

Michael Cassidy said that he had had the idea of writing a book on John 17 in 1975, and after 35 years thought it was time to do something concrete about it. The provisional title is The church Jesus prayed for, and he shared some of the raw material for the book with the gathering of about 60-70 people, pausing occasionally to give people opportunities to discuss the ideas in small groups, and urging them to share their ideas with him. To begin with, it was their experience of the church, and how it compared with the church Jesus prayed for.

He spoke on some of the key words of the chapter: Truth and Holiness (“sanctify them in the truth”), Joy, Unity, Love and the relationship between them. I won’t describe it all here, because that would anticipate the book. And, perhaps to encourage Michael Cassidy to get on and write the book, John Tooke had arranged for a plaque to be put on the wall of the centre chapel, to commemorate the occasion, as a reminder to Michael every time he passes it until the book is published.


That evening there was a special dinner for Michael Cassidy, which John Tooke referred to as a celebration of friendship, and indeed it was. At the beginning of the gathering he spoke of Durkheim’s concept of anomie, the condition in modern urban society in which nobody knows your name, and said that this conference was the antithesis of that.

Michael Cassidy and John Tooke with the plaque on the wall of the chapel

Michael Cassidy and John Tooke with the plaque on the wall of the chapel

Though we might be a bunch of old toppies, we had been caught up in one way or another with the love that had drawn the AE team together. We are all fruit of this which is the antidote and antithesis of the anomie of the alienated world. We are not strangers, but are drawn together by love, where we can know and be known. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light.

Michael Cassidy said that were three impulses to write this book. One was being part of a Bible study led by John Stott, who spoke of four marks of the church that Jesus prayed for. Michael said he had found another six, making ten altogether. The second impulses was his perplexity at the discrepancy between the church in the prayer and the empirical reality of the church as he found it. And the third one was that he had a story to tell, of his own experience. As a communion hymn expressed it:

Intercessor, friend of sinners
Earth’s redeemer plead for me
Where the songs of all the sinless
Sweep across the crystal sea.

Calvin Cook

Calvin Cook

Another old friend I met there was Calvin Cook, who had been the Presbyterian minister in Pietermaritzburg when I was a student there more than 40 years ago.

One of the things Michael Cassidy did not have anything to say about was “glory”, and he asked several others to speak about that, including Calvin Cook. And Calvin spoke very movingly about it, saying that the English translators of the Bible used the English word “glory” to translate a number of different Hebrew words, one of which was kabod, meaning “weight”. God manifests himself to us as the most real thing we have every experienced — God’s “glory” has that kind of weight, that solidity. He referred to a love song in which the lover sang of the beloved’s golden hair outshining the sun. Glory is both the ultimate substance and manifestation of that substance. Jesus is both the foundation stone to those who believe and a stumbling block for those who do not, and that paradox is the heart of glory.

As the only Orthodox Christian present I was moved to say that the Greek word doxa, the root of the doxy in Orthodoxy can be translated by several English words, including praise, worship, renown, opinion and glory, and that a favourite Bible verse of Evangelical Christians, Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” was often only half seen by Evangelicals, who focused strongly on the first half — that all are sinners, without exception, but they often miss the second half — that to sin means to fall short, and what we have fallen short of is the glory of God, and that salvation means that God picks us up from where we have fallen and sets us on the straight (orthos) path to glory (doxa).

Carol (2nd from left) and Michael (2nd from right) Cassidy with friends at the chapel at the AE Centre.

Carol (2nd from left) and Michael (2nd from right) Cassidy with friends at the chapel at the AE Centre.

It was an enjoyable and interesting couple of days, but I couldn’t help thinking that some things were missing. One was youth. We were all old fogies. Over at one side were the Fox-Fires — a group of young people, members of the AE youth team. They spend a year there doing evangelistic outreach, and they joined in a couple of things, and did some singing and some very energetic dancing.

Fox-Fires dancing

Fox-Fires dancing

The Fox Fires do things like prison evangelism, and after their display of dancing even hardened criminals are prepared to listen to them.

But I found that most people present had not heard of the “emerging church” movement, and “missional” was a word not uttered (at least not in my hearing). Well, I hadn’t heard of them myself until three years ago until I stumbled across them in the blogosphere, but African Enterprise was something that grew out of Evangelical Christianity, and the emerging and missional movements also grew out of that, so in a sense they have less excuse. And I can’t help thinking that what they are missing there is quite important.

As an Orthodox Christian I think the emerging and missional movements are also missing something. But they have asked some good questions, and I think AE also needs to be asking some of those questions. But perhaps that is something I should give to Michael Cassidy as feedback to prepare for writing his book.

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