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In memoriam: Philip Russell, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town

31 July 2013

I’ve just learned, via a Facebook friend, of the death of Philip Russell (1919-1994), a former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, at the age of 94. Since I knew him for nearly 50 years, I thought I would write down a few memories of him.

My main memory of him is that we had different, and sometimes diametrically opposed views on just about every theological issue we ever discussed. Not that I disliked him or anything. He was a nice bloke. But we just never seemed to see eye to eye theologically.

Theological disagreements are not necessarily a bad thing either. You can have a gut feeling that something is wrong, but when you have a theological debate about it you have to articulate why you think it is wrong. So St Athanasius had a gut feeling that Arius’s views on the nature of Christ were wrong, and it was through the debating of the issue that the Symbol of Faith, sometimes called the Nicene Creed, was formulated.

My earliest encounter with Philip Russell was at a lay conference at Michaelhouse School in Natal in October 1964.

The lay conferences were arranged by the Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, and were one of his better ideas. They were held at Michaelhouse School every year during the Michaelmas holidays when the school was closed, and people went by invitation of the bishop. People were only ever invited once, to give as many people as possible a chance to attend. They were invited from every parish in the diocese, young and old, male and female, black, white, Indian and coloured. I was then a second-year student at the University of Natal.

Such gatherings were frowned on by the government, to such an extent that in almost every report on me that the Security Police sent to the Minister of Justice, up to 1980 and beyond, they noted that “in October 1964 he attended a multiracial conference in connection with the Anglican Church.” So obviously those conferences really bugged them.

A few clergy attended, mainly as speakers on various topics, and one of them was Philip Russell, who was then Vicar of the Parish of St Agnes in Kloof. One morning Bishop Inman asked me to lead Mattins in the chapel, and afterwards Philip Russell congratualted me on it, and said that he was pleased to hear “a good lay voice.” Parsonical voices were quite common in those days, it seems.

The difference of opinion arose when we were in a discussion group of about 10 people, sitting outside on the lawn in the spring sunshine. Philip Russell joined our group, and somehow we got into a ding-dong argument about worker priests. I was arguing in favour of them, but Philip Russell was strongly opposed, though he was willing to allow one exception — where priests had a ministry in their place of work. His conception of worker priests was sending dog collars into industry. I thought that in their secular jobs, the ministry of worker priests would arise from their baptism rather than their ordination, and was precisely the same as that of lay church members doing the same job. Their priestly ministry would be exercised in the gathered church.

Philip Russell after his enthronement as Anglican Bishop of Natal on 16 December 1974, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Saviour, Pietermaritzburg

Philip Russell after his enthronement as Anglican Bishop of Natal on 16 December 1974, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Saviour, Pietermaritzburg

We never did see eye to eye on that issue, though once, in 1980, when I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, Philip Russell, who by that time had become Bishop of Natal, asked me to speak on the topic at a clergy gathering in his diocese. I don’t think his views had changed much, but some of the clergy had kept raising the question of self-supporting clergy, and so he agreed to a discussion on the subject. The first time we had argued about it I was a student with no experience, spouting untested theories. Sixteen years later, however, I had spent a couple of years as a worker priest in the Anglican Church (in Namibia) and was responsible for their training in Zululand, and had also read the works of Roland Allen, who argued most cogently for them. So I think it was to his credit that he was willing to listen to views that he strongly disagreed with.

After the Michaelhouse Conference in 1964 I had spent a couple of years studying in Durham, England, and returned to South Africa in 1968, preparing to be ordained as a deacon by the same Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, who had organised the annual lay conferences. He was planning to send me to the Missions to Seamen, which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about (I had an aversion to any kind of ministry where clergy were called “Padre”). Philp Russell was then Bishop Suffragan of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town, and liaison chaplain for the Missions to Seamen in Southern Africa, and at the request of Bishop Inman I went to a gathering of the chaplains in Port Elizabeth to meet my future boss, Jimmy Wilson-Hughes, who was chaplain of the Missions to Seamen in Durban. There were about 10 chaplains there, from all around the coast, from Beira to Walvis Bay.

One evening Jimmy Wilson-Hughes and Philip Russell had been out, and were late for supper, and when they came in we had saved their supper for them, and served it playing the part of efficient waiters. Jimmy-Wilson-Hughes and Philip Russell were impressed with the service, and when they had finished eating Philip Russell called for “the Guggenheimer ’47”, and we sent in two wineglasses filled with sunflower oil. Philip Russell tried it, and spat it out at once. He was not amused at first, but later appreciated the practical joke.

A few months later, in May 1969, when I was assistant chaplain at the Missions to Seamen in Durban there was another incident. Philip Russell was visiting the Missions to Seamen in his capacity as liaison chaplain, and I had to fetch him from his daughter’s house and bring him to the Mission. Jimmy Wilson-Hughes was busy with something else, and I had to fetch him in my beat-up old rustbucket Peugeot 403 station wagon, which I had bought a couple of months earlier for R350.00. It had had to have metal plates welded to the floor to cover the rust holes before it would pass the roadworthy test. It was really beneath the dignity of an Anglican bishop to ride in, even a bishop suffagan. But it was to become even less dignified.

It was a busy Saturday morning and Durban was packed with weekend shoppers, and the traffic was heavy. As we were driving down the Esplanade (which may be called something else now), we had to stop at a robot (which, being interpreted for readers from the UK or elsewhere, is a traffic light). And as we did so, the clutch linkage, a metal rod, broke.

When the light turned green, therefore, Bishop Russell and I had to get out and push the car until it was moving enough to be able to get it into gear, and then jump back in, only to have to repeat the procedure at the next robot. This was usually accompanied by much hooting from the cars behind, who were impatient with our slow progress.

I did not see Philip Russell much after that for the next five years, but we were involved in some correspondence, I went to Namibia, where I became a worker priest. Philip Russell was elected Bishop of Port Elizabeth, and was also convener of the Liturgical Committee of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa.

The Liturgical Committee had the task of revising the church services and the calendar. They issued some trial services in 1969, which we used,  and sent comments to the Liturgical Committee, some of which they incorporated in the next revision, called Liturgy 1975.

In 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and a few months later I was banned, along with one of my fellow deportees, Dave de Beer. Several people I knew, including some close friends, had also been banned or detained without trial at various times, so such things were not all that unusual in those days. I was banned to Durban, and while I was there the Liturgical Committee sent out its proposals for the reform of the Anglican Church Calendar. They planned to drop the commemoration of several saints (mostly ancient), and to introduce the commemoration of several others (mostly modern, ie Post-Reformation).

Among the Feasts the Liturgical Committee was planning to abolish was the Feast of St Peter’s Chains, on 1 August. In the old South African Prayer Book it had been a Red Letter Day (well, Italic Letters, actually — they didn’t use red letters when printing it). That meant that it had a first Evensong and was observed with some solemnity. Ever since I had been confirmed I had tried to be at Mass on that day, and as I came to know more and more people who were banned or detained without trial or otherwise targeted for particular personal oppression (apart from the general oppression of the apartheid system) I used to make a special point of praying for them on that day.

When eventually I myself was banned, it was some comfort to know that the church as a whole was praying for me on that day, whether intentionally or not, whether they knew it or not, because such is the nature of liturgy that the prayers we pray are those of the Holy Spirit and not just of human intellectual awareness.

But now the Liturgical Committee were proposing to abolish the Feast of St Peter’s Chains; not just to demote it to a lesser commemoration, but abolish it altogether.

I wrote to Bishop Russell, saying that I saw this as a betrayal of all the church members who had been banned or imprisoned or banished or exiled. But he was adamant, and offered, as a kind of consolation prize, to introduce a new commemoration of the martyrs and confessors of the 20th century. But that wasn’t the same thing at all.

After I was banned, I had several well-meaning people come to me, and ask how the church could support banned people. But they didn’t really want to know, because they already knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to pass resolutions in synods and church council meetings. The resolutions would contain phrases like “we deplore in the strongest possible terms”. and “arbitrary action against”. The resolutions would never, of course, actually contain the strongest possible terms, because those would be unprintable. So in effect they were empty threats to use the strongest possible terms. One such well-meaning person came and asked me for advice on the wording of such a resolution, and I gave it, but they didn’t accept it. They asked for a gnat, and weren’t too happy when I gave them a camel.

There was a lot of talk in those days about “prophetic ministry”, and I think some people thought that passing resolutions full of abstract nouns and screech marks was a prophetic ministry. But if you want to know what a prophetic ministry is, here are the readings for the Feast of St Peter’s Chains, now abolished:

1st Evensong: Ezek 2:1-7; Acts 3:1-16
Mattins: Ezek 3:4-11; Acts 11:1-18
2nd Evensong: Ezek 34:11-16; John 21:15-22
Epistle: Acts 1:1-11;
Gospel: Mark 10:28-31

Now there’s real support.

The aim of the Liturgical Committee was to make the liturgy “up-to-date” and “relevant”, and in their view commemorations like St Peter’s Chains were obsolete.  The problem with “relevance”, however, is that those who are over-concerned with it almost inevitably end up supporting the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be.

Liturgical language, even Anglican liturgical language, even pop/folk liturgical language, is quite different, and much more powerful, than the language of our constitutions and statutes and wishywashy humanistic resolutions, even if we do threaten to use the strongest possible terms.

Consider this Anglican hymn:

They have come from tribulation
And have washed their robes in blood
Washed them in the blood of Jesus
Tried they were and firm they stood.
Mocked imprisoned, stoned, tormented,
Sawn asunder, slain with sword,
They have conquered death and Satan
By the might of Christ the Lord.

I don’t even have to sing it. Even typing it brings tears to my eyes.

But “We deplore this in the strongest possible terms” leaves me as cold as the news of Steve Biko’s death left Jimmy Kruger.

Or consider the pop/folk equivalent. I have it on a record sung by Pete Seeger.

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

The very moment I thought I was lost
The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

We deplore this in the strongest possible terms.

I liked Philip Russell, he was a nice bloke.

But theologically we were worlds apart.

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