In Memoriam: Bishop Duncan Buchanan
Since I heard of his death (through a friend’s post on Facebook) about 10 days ago, I’ve been hoping to see an obituary of Duncan Buchanan, the late Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, but there’s nothing to be found by Google, So i thought I would write something about him.
Not that I knew him as a bishop. After he became bishop of Johannesburg I think I only met him to talk to three times — first when our new Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan was meeting in the Anglican church hall in Fairmount, Johannesburg, and the Dean of Johannesburg didn’t like it, so we appealed to Duncan, and he arranged for us to meet in the chapel of St Martin’s in the Veld at Dunkeld — I’m not sure what the dean thought about that.
The second time I met him was when he was on a team of people interviewing me for a job, which I didn’t get. And the third time was when I went to interview him about his memories of the charismatic renewal movement, about which I’m writing a book.
But I had quite a lot more contact with him before he became a bishop, so my memories of him are mainly of when he was younger.
I knew Duncan by repute even before I met him.
In the early 1960s a group of us from the AYPA (Anglican Young People’s Association) at St Augustine’s Church in Orange Grove (the same parish that had the hall in Fairmount that we used for Orthodox services 25 years later) we were tidying the vestry and parish office and came across a pile of old parish magazines, and we got distracted by reading them, and there was an article about Duncan Buchanan, wishing him well as he went off to college or university. It was dated 1952, and one of the bits in the article that stuck in my mind was his habit of saying of other people’s weak jokes that “It was corny but clean.”
I first met Duncan in the flesh on 4 March 1963, when I went to a meeting of the Fellowship of Vocation, which was a group for wannabe clergy of the Anglican Diocese of Natal, which met once a month in Pietermaritzburg. Duncan was the warden of the fellowship, and came up from Amanzimtoti south of Durban for the meetings, a drive of about 70 miles each way. We said Evensong in one of the chapels of the Cathedral and then had a meeting in the hall. We talked about church history, and also about teaching people to pray rather than go to church. Duncan said it was far better to get on a man’s wavelength than to preach to him, and it is better to talk to men than to women. I thought that that was a bit sexist, but I was new there, so said nothing. It turned out to be one of this themes, perhaps as a result of experience in his parish.
I had just started as a student at the University of Natal, and asked Duncan if I could join the Fellowship of Vocation, which was somewhat problematic, because he needed a recommendation from the parish priest, and I had been in Pietermaritzburg for only a couple of weeks, and had only just met the parish clergy.
Duncan was also involved in Faith in Action, a kind of ginger group in the Anglican Church of those days, which was concerned with things like liturgical reform, and more active laity, and the church being more outspoken about the political situation and such things. Some of us went to a national conference of Faith in Action in Grahamstown, where Duncan was one of the speakers. The group also produced a magazine of the same name, which Duncan edited for a while.
For three years, then, from 1963 to 1965, I saw Duncan fairly regularly at the Fellowship of Vocation meetings. He did not speak at all of them, but got other people to speak on various topics. Once a year the Durban and Pietermaritzburg branches met together at St Agnes’s Church in Kloof, and at one of them a churchwarden spoke about what the laity expected of the clergy, and at another, Alan Paton, a parishioner, spoke on the same topic.
The University of Natal was in the parish of St Alphege’s in Pietermaritzburg, and in many ways it practised what Faith in Action preached. It had a core of active members who took their Christian faith seriously, and tried to put it into action in their daily lives, and in their work. The Rector, Mervyn Sweet, encouraged this, as did the assistant priests, Rich Kraft (who later became Bishop of Pretoria) and Graham Povall.
At the end of 1964 Mervyn Sweet announced that he would be leaving St Alphege’s and going to the UK. A friend of mine, John Aitchison, who was also a member of the Fellowship of Vocation, and I discussed who his successor should be. And the only priest we could think of from within the diocese who might be a suitable successor was Duncan Buchanan. But it was not to be. The man who succeeded Mervyn Sweet turned out to be a dictator, who disliked the laity having too much say, and worked very hard to clericalise the parish. There were some heated discussions at parish council meetings when the new rector introduced private baptisms, and the lay members of the council gave the rector lessons on the theology of baptism, which he did not appreciate.
At the end of 1965 Duncan went to be sub-warden of St Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown, and I went overseas to study at St Chad’s College in Durham. At the end of my studies at St Chad’s, rather than wait for a two-week term in September, I asked the Bishop of Natal if I could rather spend time in an African college to re-Africanise myself after more than two years in Europe, and so he arranged for me to spend a term at St Paul’s where Duncan was still the sub-warden, and so for the next couple of months I saw him almost every day.
I got to know him better then, though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye theologically. One discussion that I recorded in my diary may be worth sharing — Saturday 26 October 1968 (“Fronnie” refers to the warden, John Suggit):
We had Mass before supper, using the Liturgy for Africa, then after supper was Warden’s Hour, a sort of discussion of how the college is being run, and things which could be improved and so on. Some people complained about noise, and said that it got so bad that they couldn’t work. Others said they should then go and ask the people who were making the noise to be quiet, but they said they didn’t feel they could do that, so they just sat in their rooms “seething inside”, said Fronnie, and everyone laughed.
Then followed a general discussion on rules and discipline. Some people complained that observance of rules had become rather lax lately. Duncan said he thought this slight relaxation had led to a greater sense of fellowship and koinonia in the college. I said that the spirit of the rule was observed even if the letter wasn’t, and that this was a healthy state of affairs because it indicates that the rule has a real meaning and function in the college, while at the same time people are not becoming slaves to it. I also had an argument with Duncan and a couple of others who started rationalising about rules, and saying they taught the virtue of obedience. I disagree violently with this, and can see no virtue whatever in obedience per se — and it was this argument that Adolf Eichmann pleaded in his defence — that he was only obeying orders, as if that in itself is a virtue. I can see that it is good at times to obey. It is good to obey the right person in the right circumstances, but obedience is not always right.
We somehow got on to the oath of obedience to bishops, and here I argued with Gerald Francis, who didn’t fancy this very much, and I said that the bishop is given the power of the Holy Spirit, and his decisions are the decisions of the Spirit. Duncan at this point thought I was being sarcastic, and Fronnie said he was quite surprised that I maintained the divine right of bishops. But I do. The bishop derives his authority directly from Christ, and the Church is the Body of Christ, so the bishop derives his authority directly from the church.
Duncan preached a couple of rousing sermons in the College chapel on hope.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I saw Duncan at least once a year at the annual meetings of the Anglican Church’s Department of Theological Education. By then he had become Warden of St Paul’s, while I was involved in in-service training in the Anglican diocese of Zululand. The meetings tended to get bogged down in repetitive arguments about “what kind of ministry are we training people for?” which never seemed to reach any conclusion. People came with all kinds of ideas on paper qualifications, but Duncan once said that he didn’t care what kind of paper qualifications people had when they went to St Paul’s, and that a Matric meant nothing to him. The only thing necessary was that they should be able to read, write and understand English.