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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 (1919-2013), 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.

I liked Philip Russell, he was a nice bloke, but theologically we were worlds apart.

One of our biggest theological differences was over the church calendar. Bishop Philip Russell was chairman of the Liturgical Committee of the Anglican Church when it decided to remove the feast of St Peter’s Chains from the church calendar. I pleaded with him to retain it, and thought that removing it was a betrayal of all church members who were banned or imprisoned or detained without trial, but he was adamant that it must be removed. I’ve said more about that here.

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