Bill Burnett: Anglican bishop and charismatic renewal leader
On a recent visit to the Western Cape I spent some time with John de Gruchy at Hermanus discussing our proposed book on the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa. We both agreed that Bill Burnett (1917-1994) was a key figure in the charismatic renewal, not only in South Africa, but among Anglicans throughout the world and among many denominations.
Bill Burnett was also an important figure in South African Christian circles at a significant period of South Africa’s history. He was Anglican bishop of Bloemfontein, Grahamstown and Cape Town, and was also General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time of its transformation from being the Christian Council of South Africa. He was in many ways a controversial figure, as the following newspaper cartoon shows, and yet there is no adequate biography of him.
In our research for the book, we have found that people’s assessments of him vary enormously. Some Anglicans regardhim as the greatest Archbishop of Cape Town, and think that since he retired the Anglican Church in South Africa has been going downhill. Others think that his period as Archbishop of Cape Town was an unmitigated disaster, which his successors have not yet managed to put right.
While our book cannot be a biography, we will have to make some assessment of his role, and I’m putting down some rather disconnected thoughts about it here, partly to help clarify my own thinking on it, and partly in the hope that others, with somewhat different experience, may be able to contribute to our knowledge and understanding.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bill Bendyshe Burnett (1917-1994) was an Anglican bishop in South Africa, and was Archbishop of Cape Town from 1974-1981. He was also Bishop of Bloemfontein and of Grahamstown, and General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). After his experience of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” he became influential in charismatic renewal circles, not only among other denominations in South Africa, but all over the world. Yet the nearest we have to a biographical source is his autobiography, The Rock that is higher than I, edited privately and published after his death by his wife Sheila.
After reading it, I doubt that he intended to have it published in its present form. It reads like a very rough first draft, which seems to indicate that he was still working on it when he died, and his family had to publish it in an unfinished form.
Fully half the book is taken up with Burnett’s early life, and his experiences in the Second World War, especially as a prisoner of war in Italy. This is generally well written, and forms a coherent narrative. It looks as though it may have originally been written for his family, for children who asked him “Daddy, what did you do in the War?” I wish my father-in-law had written such an account — he too was captured at Tobruk, and escaped from an Italian POW camp.
The second half of the book, which covers his time at St Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown and his ministry as an Anglican priest and bishop, is much more sketchy, consisting of a series of disconnected anecdotes, many of which raise more questions than they answer. This is a pity, since this is the part of the book that would be of most interest to most readers.
I first met Bill Burnett in 1960, when he was Bishop of Bloemfonein. It was the inaugural conference of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF), held at Modderpoort in the Free State snd I attended as a student. Since the conference was being held in his diocese, Bishop Burnett was the celebrant at the first Mass of the conference, in the priory of the Society of the Sacred Mission (an Anglican religious order), and he also read the first paper, on “The theological roots of Anglicanism”.
In the afternoon he read a second paper, on “The Church of the Future”. He said that people are generally unsuccessful in relating the rapid advance in technical knowledge to what really matters. The Church must bring a theological basis back to the centre of our lives. Intellectuals are out of touch with modern theologians. People must become more aware of the theological purpose of what they do in everyday life. Many church buildings in this country are mock-Gothic and out of touch with reality. This could be rectified if architects knew what a church is for. The church should use modern skill, knowledge and materials to build more functional buildings. In music we wallow in Victorian slush — as far as art is concerned, the church is wearing clothes which are out of date. Modern art is symbolic, and ideally adapted to the use of the church. In the experimental liturgy there is no blessing — the congregation is told to go out into the world and “be the church.” The Church of the future must be reunited, and the Ceylon scheme of reunion is a good pointer in this direction. Denominational apartheid is an evil which must be remedied. The Ceylon scheme will keep the ancient scheme of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. The Church must become indigenous in each locality, but this must not be paramount, as the word “Anglican” seems to suggest. The emphasis is often too much on “Anglican” and too little on “Communion”. The church over the whole world is too “Anglican” — too “English”. How can we be indigenous and yet remain Catholic? Nationalism must not cause us to lose our Catholic principles. We must really BE the people of God. The Church must be built around the altar, font and pulpit as the buildings are. We must live as if we really are in the dying and rising community which is the Church. You do not become a Christian and then join the Church. We are baptised into a body, a community – the Church, which is the Body of Christ. We must become what we are by virtue of our baptism. The altar and pulpit enable us to do this. We are Christians, and we must become what we are. We neglect the Holy Spirit too much. One cannot see God and live – our preaching must say this, but because we are dying with Christ, we must also rise with him. Worship is not merely one of the things the Church does – the Church is a worshipping community. We place our lives and all that we have on the altar, and receive all this back to become the Body of Christ. The perfect union with Christ will come at the Last Day – at the consummation. At every Mass we are waiting for the bridegroom.
As an impressionable teenager this made a great impression on me, which is why I made extensive notes, and included them in my diary. I also later discovered that much of what he described and was advocating as part of Anglican faith and practice was already there in the Orthodox Church, and had been all along, but that is part of my story, not his.
One thing that has puzzled me a little was that when they prayed for the bishop in the Diocese of Bloemfontein, they used his middle name, and prayed for “Bendyshe our Bishop”, yet in Grahamstown and Cape Town it was his first name that was used, “Bill our Bishop”. A minor point, perhaps, but one that one hopes to find explained in an autobiography, and it is things like this that make the book seem like a published first draft rather than a finished work.
In the chapter dealing with his time at St Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown, in the immediate postwar period, Burnett notes that he and the other students were influenced by the theology that had begun to emerge from the resistance to Nazism in Germany, and says that he was more impressed with Paul Schneider than with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though he does not compare their theology or give reasons for his preference.
Perhaps he intended to expand on this later, and this too gives the impression of a rough draft. But then he says (p. 123), “If I were to write about every parish or diocese in which I have ministered I would have to write many books. I give notice that I have no intention of doing so.”
And so his ministry as assistant curate at St Thomas’s Church in Durban and as school chaplain at Michaelhouse is covered in less than a page, which contrasts sharply with the amount of detail in his account of his life as an escaped POW. His time as Vicar of Ladysmith is similarly sketchy, dealing only with a description of some of the tramps who came to the vicarage asking for help. This is supplemented by a letter in an appendix; the letter, from John Henderson, a parishioner in Ladysmith, describes how Bill Burnett influenced him and others to train to become Anglican priests. The sketchiness, however, leaves one with the impression that Bill Burnett did not value parish ministry very highly.
The same applies to his description of his ministry as Bishop of Bloemfontein. There are a few disconnected anecdotes, but nothing of substance. When Burnett was nominated as a possible candidate for Archbishop of Cape Town one priest in the Diocese of Bloemfontein commented, “Very few of the people here with whom I have discussed the matter want Bishop Burnett. As you know he was bishop here and I have yet to find any clergy or laity who look back with much pleasure to the time of his episcopate. The CSM and AA sisters found it a traumatic experience to coin an Americanism. No doubt he has gained in maturity and judgement since then: but his present ? enthusiasm for Pentecostalism continues to make him a dubious character in the eyes of some.”
In the light of that, it is interesting that Burnett has only positive things to say about the Community of St Michael and All Angels — that they ran “a splendid little school” and made a great contribution to the development of the nursing profession in South Africa. So one is left wondering what the “traumatic experience” could have been.
In this chapter, too, however, an element of bitchiness appears, which grows stronger as the book proceeds. He describes the way in which English-spealing Anglicans and some Afrikaners distanced themselves from the policy of apartheid, and says “These people and their friends of whom Miss Louisa Marquard was one, distanced themselves completely from the apartheid philosophy and practice, and, in some cases, this meant leaving the Church as well. Their predicament and sufferings were unknown to people such as Archbishop Joost de Blank, and Bishops Trevor Huddleston and Ambrose Reeves, who did not have the opportunity given to us and for which we thank God as we remember the courage and integrity of these friends.”
This again raises more questions than it answers. Why did their distancing themselves from the apartheid philosophy and practice mean “leaving the Church”? And what is the significance of their predicament and sufferings being unknown to the bishops mentioned, none of whom was ever Bishop of Bloemfontein, nor did they ever have any pastoral ministry there? It just comes across as a very nasty piece of innuendo. Trevor Huddleston (who was not a bishop during Bendyshe Burnett’s time as Bishop of Bloemfontein, but was responsible for training the novices at the Community of the Resurrection’s mother house in Mirfield, England), wrote a book, Naught for your comfort, in which he criticised the philosophy and practice of apartheid, and described the effects of the practice as he observed them as a pastor in Sophiatown, and the ethnic cleansing which took place there in the mid-1950s. The implication seems to be that if he had known of the way in which Burnett’s Free State friends had distanced themselves from apartheid, Huddleston would not himself have criticised it. That doesn’t make any sense, so why mention Huddleston’s name at all at this point? This kind of bitchiness does not seem to be evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, but rather of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-23). I know this because I myself have often fallen into the same temptation.
At this point Burnett owes it to his readers to say what it is that these bishops said or did to cause him to mention their names here. Perhaps he might have done so if he had lived long enough to prepare the book for publication, but as it is the reader is left hanging, wondering what is going on.
The following chapter deals with Burnett’s time as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, which is again marred by bitchiness, as he describes the arrest and trial of Dean ffrench-Beytagh, and concludes by saying that he went to England “where he was able to bask in the glory of his anti-apartheid stance”.
It was when Bill Burnett was at the South African Council of Churches that it collaborated with the Christian Institute in drafting the “Message to the people of South Africa”, which was a theological critique of the ideology of apartheid, and described it not merely as a heresy, but as a pseudogospel. He quotes part of a summary of it in his book, and says, “This is simply a small taste of our ‘Barmen Declaration’. It angered the National Party Government and, I suspect, bored the English-speaking people, and it changed nothing.”
I don’t think the last statement is true. Black Christians who read it said it was nothing new, it was something that most black Christians knew. It was the whites who needed to read it, they said. And for whites who read it seriously, it posed a choice: choose this day whom you will serve, the false god of apartheid, or the Lord. Even those who denied that there was such a choice did not remain unaffected. For some, even some in high positions in the National Party, a seed of doubt was planted.
Bill Burnett was elected Bishop of Grahamstown, and in 1972, soon after he moved there, he experienced “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, which revitalised his ministry. While in Grahamstown he introduced the Human Relations and Reconciliation Programme, to challenge racism in the church, and this involved setting up “challenge groups” that would challenge instances of racism.
The charismatic renewal movement in the Anglican Diocese of Grahamstown started with a priest in Queenstown, Peter Campbell, and once the bishop himself had been “zapped” it spread rapidly in the diocese, and Burnett tells of instances where clergy who were initially sceptical were drawn in. He was asked to give a testimony at the South African Congress on Mission and Evangelism in Durban in 1973. The Congress, organised by the South African Council of Churches and African Enterprise, an interdenominational evangelistic organisation, marked the first large meeting of “evangelical” and “ecumenical” Christian bodies in South Africa, but the Pentecostals and Roman Catholics were not really included. Bill Burnett and David du Plessis, however, introduced a Pentecostal element.
Bill Burnett was elected Archbishop of Cape Town in 1974, and clergy from Grahamstown who were asked about it were generally more positive than those of Bloemfontein, cited earlier. They thought his pentecostal experience had made him a better pastor.
In Cape Town the Archbishop’s residence, Bishopscourt, became a centre of renewal, and developed a community. Several young men who thought they might be called to ordained ministry went to stay there to test their vocations. Burnett describes how dying parishes were revitalised, and people were healed. But when the synod of the big and unwieldy Diocese of Cape Town refused to divide it into smaller and more easily manageable ones, Bill Burnett resigned, and devoted himself to the Support Ministries Trust, which he founded to promote charismatic renewal in parishes, and internationally in a simialr organisation called Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA). In some places the book appears to muddle these two. He travelled widely, attending renewal conferences, and conducting retreats and seminars. Much of this part of the story is told in short pericopes, lacking details, especially of dates and people involved. Even where people’s names are mentioned, we are told little about them or their background.
The book ends with a kind of polemic against “liberation theology”, which Burnett seems to have equated with the “Kairos Document”, which was produced in late 1985, and signed by a number of clergy and lay leaders of various denominations, and then circulated. Burnett does not quote from the “Kairos Document”, nor does he even describe its content, but criticise it, leaving the reader to guess what exactly he is criticising. I would say that many of his criticisms are valid, but what he is criticising is not “liberation theology”, and so his criticisms in effect create a caricature of liberation theology. He is doing, by implication, what he implies that Bishops de Blank, Huddleston and Reeves were implying against his friends in the Free State. This implied cricisms of implied views for implied criticisms of other views becomes far too nebulous, and by the end of the book it appears that Bill Burnett had lost the plot, and so the charismatic renewal ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper, running into the sand and leaving little to show for itself.
I don’t think this book does justice to Bill Burnett, or to his role in South African Christianity. The first part is well told, but, apart from some formative experiences, does not relate to the second. The second, describing his ministry as a priest and bishop, is scrappy and badly told, though it is evident that his ministry had three phases: the first, developing theological convictions expressed in the “Message to the people of South Africa”; the second, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to live according to those convictions in joyful freedom; and the third, a kind of withdrawal into embitterment and carping criticism, with the joy apparently dissipated, which also seems to affect the way the rest of the story is told.
There really needs to be a full biography that will look at both the good and the bad points to do justice to Bill Burnett and his ministry, and the way it influenced the church and society or failed to do so.
So much for his autobiography. At this point I’ll write mainly on my own memories of him at various times.
I first encountered Bill Burnett in 1960, at the inaugural conference of the Anglican Students Federation, held at Modderpoort in the Free State. In 1963 he spoke at a conference of a group called “Faith in Action” in Grahamstown, where he spoke on “The theology of church and state”. In July 1963 he spoke at another conference of the Anglican Students Federation, and again in July 1964, about a book called The primal vision by John V. Taylor. It was on Christian presence among African religions, and remains one of the best books on the relationshop between Christianity and African traditional religion and worldviews. His review made it sound sufficiently interesting for me to buy and read the book.
He was invited, year after year, to speak at the ASF conferences, partly out of courtesy, because he was the local bishop, but also, I think, because most of the other students, like me, regarded him as a good theological teacher. I certainly admired him and looked up to him.
At the time of the publication of the Message to the people of South Africa he was present at some of the follow-up meetings. At one such meeting Bill Burnett opened by saying that there had been a group meeting, calling itself the “Obedience to God Movement”, which had been trying to think of ways of disseminating the “Message”, and getting the churches to accept and act on it. He said he couldn’t, as the General Secretary of the Council of Churches, lead such a movement, though he might be willing to do so if the churches failed to respond as they ought to the Message, and the Obedience to God Movement begins to develop into some sort of
Confessing Church. Beyers Naudé said that every effort should be made to get the churches to accept the Message officially. Ian Thompson, a Presbyterian minister, got up and spoke strongly in
favour of a Confessing Church, and many people suggested having a mass meeting, or a teach-in, or all kinds of things to get the
A few of years later I found myself in Durban, and responsible for a parish in which youth groups were being taught some really sub-Christians stuff and bad theology. I can’t go into the details here, but I turned to Bill Burnett, then Bishop of Grahamstown, as a kind of theological adviser I could trust, and asked him what I should do. He replied that since his fairly recent experience of baptism in the Spirit he had realised that the one who does God’s work is God. A few weeks later he was in Durban, speaking at the South African Congress on Mission and Evangelism, but also at a charismatic prayer group at the Roman Catholic Cathedral, together with David du Plessis, of the Apostolic Faith Mission. That was amazingly ecumenical, and as a result I became involved in the charismatic renewal movement in Durban.At another meeting he spoke to an ecumenical group, organised by the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, many of whom were from Pentecostal churches, and I was interested to see Bill Burnett preaching social action to the revivalist, and revival to the social activists. It seemed to me that he was bringing together two things that should never have been separated in the first place.
When I moved to Zululand in 1976, the charismatic renewal had been going for a long time there, and Bill Burnett spoke at a diocesan conference, where one of the learly leaders, Canon Philip Mbatha, said, “Lord now lettest thouy thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” In the beginning, in the 1950s the charismatics in Zululand had been accused by others of being Zionists and not really Anglican, and so seeing the Archbishop of Cape Town involved in it seemed like a vindication.
But in the 1980s Bill Burnett seemed to change. I’ve noted some of the changes in my review of his autobiography; he seemed to become more negative, and making carping criticisms of others. In his autobiography, though he rejects apartheid, he does not criticise the architects of apartheid very strongly, and at times goes out of his way to praise them. He reserves his harshest criticism for those in the church who opposed apartheid. But none of those he criticised were radical revisionist theologians. On the contrary, they were all pretty conservative theologically. Their criticism of apartheid was based on the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ. Trevor Huddleston, in particular, wrote a theological critique of apartheid in his book that prefigured the Message to the people of South Africa.
Erica Murray, a friend who worked closely with Bill Burnett over a long period, said the change had begun when he was zapped. But if so, I had not been aware of it. Richard Girdwood, another friend I saw recently, who has been working in Cape Town for several years, and was himself invcolved in the charismatic renewal in Durban in the 1970s, said that coming to the Diocese of Cape Town long after Bill Burnett had left, there was still a bad legacy. There had been division, with charismatics being favoured at Bishopscourt, and non-charismatics being made to feel like second-class Christians. Bill Burnett had bought his own staff from outside the diocese, thus appearing more like an occupying power (my interpretation, not Richard’s words) than the bishop of the diocese, and he gave more attention to charismatic conferences overseas than to the problems of his diocese that demanded his attention as bishop.
So Bill Burnett is a complex figure, and something of an enigma. If we are to write a book on the charismatic renewal, he will be one of the central figures, yet there are still so many unanswered questions.