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Memoir: former Anglican bishop Graham Leonard

6 January 2010

I’ve just seen the news of the death of Graham Leonard, the former Anglican bishop who became a Roman Catholic priest. Ruth Gledhill – Times Online: RIP Father Graham Leonard:

Monsignor Graham Leonard, former Bishop of London who converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest, has died. He was such a great man, a great Bishop of London, a true Catholic priest. We had fun, those of us on the religion beat when he was not just in the news, but making it.

I met Graham Leonard, then Bishop of Truro, in 1976, when he visited South Africa as a guest of the South African Church Union. The SACU represented the “high church” wing of South African Anglicanism. I was a member, and was then living in Durban, and was asked to arrange the Natal leg of Bishop Leonard’s itinerary.

I wrote in my diary on the day of Graham Leonard’s arrival in Durban

Saturday, 28 August 1976
We spent the day waiting for the Bishop of Truro to arrive, and I ran off an open letter to the clergy of the Diocese of Natal about military chaplains in Damaraland. Richard Girdwood had told me that Roger Ellis had consecrated bread and a large quantity of wine to be taken by a lay minster who was a member of a Natal regiment to be taken to Damaraland where the troops were serving. I wondered why the local priests could not consecrate bread and wine — but they are black — and so it is another manifestation of racism in the church and all the Challenge Groups and what not seemed to have no effect whatever.

In the evening the Bishop of Truro, Graham Leonard, arrived with his wife from a tour of the Kruger Park, and I took them up to the bishop’s house to stay with +Philip, who was not going to come to any of the meetings addressed by Bishop Leonard, because he did not want to “support any party” — thus showing that he supports only his own party, that of the “relevant priests”, and was making snide comments about “when we have women priests” when we were discussing Bishop Leonard’s itinerary.

For those not familiar with South African Anglican culture in the mid-1970s (and that probably includes anyone under 50, and anyone over 50 who wasn’t an Anglican in South Africa back then) perhaps some explanations are in order.

I had little time for the “relevant priests”, of whom Roger Ellis was one of the foremost, and Bishop Philip Russell, the Anglican bishop of Natal, another. Like most of them, their theological liberalism went hand in hand with political conservatism. Roger Ellis’s consecration of bread and wine for communion, to be taken by a lay minister into another diocese (Damaraland, which was in Namibia) without the knowledge and permission of the local bishop (Colin Winter) shows this. That went against all the “Catholic” ecclesiological principles that the SACU stood for.

It would, of course, contravene the apartheid policy of the government if their lily-white soldiers received communion from the local priests, who were black, so Roger Ellis ensured that they could receive communion from the hands of a lily-white lay minister imported from Natal, instead of from a black priest in Ovamboland. The “Challenge Groups”, which were ostensibly set up to challenge racism in the church, made no attempt at all to challenge this. In addition to the racist angle, the army probably did not want the troops on “the border” to fraternise with the
locals or receive communion from the local clergy in Ovamboland, as they might then see that the people the government were telling them were “communists” and “terrorists” and “the enemy” were actually their fellow Christians, in which case it might be more difficult to induce the soldiers who were Christians to sell their heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. But the “relevant” priests, like Roger Ellis and Philip Russell, were all in favour of changing theology to fit the world, rather than changing the world to fit the theology. They supported the Challenge Groups, which were a farce, straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

On the other hand, the “high church” party, represented by the SACU, were long past their sell-by date. Their glory days were in the period of the 1930s to the 1950s, when “high church” priests like Trevor Huddlestone challenged apartheid on the basis of Catholic ecclesiology. By the 1970s, however, the majority of the “catholic” party were fearful, timid, and suspicious of anyone who was not of their party.

But Bishop Graham Leonard was not like either side, at least not in his manner, with their petty snide sarcastic jibes at each other. That kind of behaviour was completely absent from his make-up. He certainly had his theological princples, but he argued them simply and clearly, without the petty sniping that characterised both the “relevant” and “catholic” parties in South Africa at that time.

Back to the diary

Monday 30 August 1976

I took the Bishop of Truro up to Maritzburg to address students at the Federal Seminary, where he spoke on the relationship between academic theology and pastoral care, and then later he spoke on marriage and divorce to the Anglican students, and then to a still smaller group on Christian initiation. Sigqibo Dwane, the vice-principal, was all in favour of the abolition of confirmation, as he had been on a commission which had produced the latest initiation report. The seminary is using the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre, and Sigqibo Dwane (whom the students call “Father Dwayne”) showed plans of the new buildings. I said they should not think of putting up new buildings as they could be expropriated as the ones at Alice were. He seemed to think that the revolution would come first. I thought if it did, it would be a socialist government, or a communist one, which would be just as likely to expropriate as the Nats are.[1]

I took the bishop and his wife back to Durban North, and had dinner with Les Lund, after which the bishop celebrated and preached at a High Mass at St Martin’s, after which we had tea and discussion. and he expounded his position on the ordination of women. He saw no objections to women’s ministry, but that the real problem was the ordination of women to the priesthood. Even women in the diaconate is in order. He related this to the priest’s manifesting the headship of Christ.

Tuesday 31 August 1976

The Bishop of Truro came back to St Martin’s for a clergy meeting, attended only by a few, but among them Ron Nicolson and Graham Povall, and Gus Jones from Empangeni (whom the bishop said had been in his area in London, and had caused a lot of trouble. Gus Jones, for his part, seemed to think the bishop had “mellowed”). In the afternoon I took him to the convent, and Mrs Leonard was taken round to see Sister Elizabeth’s bonsai plants, as she is a great gardener. In the evening the bishop again preached for the Women’s Evening Guild at St Martin’s. I was most impressed with him, and he seemed to have a real pastoral concern as he shared what he was trying to do in his diocese.

At the clergy meeting one of the clergy asked Bishop Leonard about Philip’s four virgin daughters who were prophets (Acts 21:9), when Bishop Leonard said he was opposed to women priests. Bishop Leonard replied that he was not against women’s ministry, but that the ministry of a prophet is different from that of a priest.

The following evening, 1 September 1976, Val and I took the Leonards to dinner at the British Middle East Indian Sporting and Dining Club, as a purely informal relaxing evening.

The restaurant was in Greyville, which had recently been delcared a “white” area, from which all the coloured and Indian residents had been ethnically cleansed. The land was owned by the Department of Community Destruction Development, and most of the houses had been demolished pending redevelopment. One building was still left standing, the old Queens Tavern, which was also due for demolition, but was rented to Peter Noel-Barham, who set it up as a restaurant, called the British Middle-East Indian Sporting and Dining Club. It had old newspapers from places like Cairo and Calcutta. They were collecting signatures for a petition for the building not to be demolished but to be delclared a historial monument. Graham Leonard signed it as the Bishop of Truro, and wrote his comments in Cornish.

At dinner he told us of an ecumenical meeting he had attended, and he said he was fascinated by something that the Copts had said. They were thinking of printing their liturgical texts, but were afraid that if they were printed errors would creep in. As a primarily oral culture, they did not trust print. It was an interesting contrast to print cultures, where people tend to think that oral tradition must be inaccurate.

The following day the Leonards left for Johannesburg on the next leg of their tour, and we never saw them again, but we were glad to have met them, and found them most delightful people.

This post is longer than usual, so hope people haven’t found it too boring. But I thought that if anyone ever writes a biography of Graham Leonard (which would be well deserved), this might be material that should be available to a biographer. I doubt that there will be much else available on his visit to South Africa.

  1. The Federal Theological Seminary was established in 1963 at Alice in the Eastern Cape for training clergy of the Anglican, Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In 1973 their campus was expropriated by the government, and for the next few years they had a nomadic existence, using temporary premises. See Tales from Dystopia III: Theological education in a totalitarian state: Khanya. Sigqibo Dwane later became bishop of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church. He had spent many years in England, and was rather Anglicised, which was the reason for the mispronunciation of his name.


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One Comment leave one →
  1. 6 August 2013 1:40 am

    What a great set of insights into the travel experiences of one of the Church of England’s
    great Bishop’s, I had no idea he’d converted to catholicism ,towars the end of his ministry,I’m reading Firmly i believe and truly and enjoying it immensley .

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