Tales from Dystopia XX: The churches and political prisoners
As the National Party entrenched itself in power in South Africa after 1948, it became more and more intolerant of dissent from its policies and the ideology of apartheid that lay behind them. As a result many people were banned, or detained without trial, or imprisoned for breaking laws that were themselves evil.
In 1959 I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, and began going to church to receive communion on every red-letter saints day, one of which was the Feast of St Peter’s Chains on 1 August. It was just one among many church holy days at first, but from 1963 onwards, when several people I knew personally were banned or detained, it began to take on a new significance.
One of the first such people I knew was the Revd Arthur Blaxall, who was detained, and then convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act. He was known for his ministry among blind and deaf children, but was also a pacifist, and secretary of the local branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Several more people I knew were banned and detained in 1964. One was Elliot Mngadi, the Liberal Party organiser for northern Natal. In terms of his ban he would not be able to attend church services, and when he wrote to the magistrate asking for permission to do so, he was told he could attend services in his own house, provided that only members of his own family were present. Stephen Gawe, who had been vice president of the Anglican Students Federation, was held in 90-day detention.
Suddenly the Feast of St Peter’s Chains took on a new significance, especially the reading Acts 11:1-11. Another name for the feast was the Liberation of St Peter, and it became, for me, a kind of nucleus of liberation theology. I began noticing verses from the Psalms that spoke of setting prisoners free. There was Psalm 146, that spoke of the Lord
Who helpeth them to right that suffer wrong: who feedeth the hungry.
The Lord looseth men out of prison: the Lord giveth sight to the blind.
Then, just this week, I’ve been reading a book, Sacred Britain, which makes some interesting points about the location of churches in landscapes, including this:
[St Martin and St Peter] are two of the most popular dedications for churches within castle walls or next door. St Martin was a soldier who left the army when he converted, saying that as a Christian he could not fight. By dedicating a castle church or one nearby to St Martin, the Church was making a very pointed comment about the whole business of warfare. A dedication to St Peter is often found next to or within castles, which contained dungeons for holding prisoners, to make a similar point. In Rome there is a lovely little church called San Pietro in Vincoli, which means St Peter in Chains. St Peter was imprisoned in the dungeon over which this church was built, but was freed by an angel. Here the Church, which used to provide sanctuary to those accused of wrongdoing, is again making a point. By juxtaposing the spirits and powers of the ex-soldier and ex-prisoner with the harsh walls of the castle and prison, physical force was being counteracted by spiritual force.
I began using the Feast of St Peter’s Chains for special prayer for those who were banned and detained, and urged others to do so, and several people I knew did.
In 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and a few months later I myself was banned, along with one of my fellow deportees, Dave de Beer. I was banned to Durban, and while I was there the Liturgical Committee of the Anglican Church 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).
In the old South African Prayer Book St Peter’s Chains 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. 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 Philip Russell , the convener of the Liturgical Committee, 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; it had to be removed. He 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 before it was abolished in the Anglican Church:
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 11:1-11;
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. And when the status quo meant that people were being banned and detained, it didn’t warrant a liturgical commemoration.
In its dedication of churches and in its liturgical commemorations the church had made some very pointed comments about the enterprises of warfare and imprisonment, but by dropping the liturgical commemoration the church was trying to poke the world with a wet noodle instead.
Of course it’s less relevant in South Africa now that we have a constitution with a Bill of Rights, and people aren’t supposed to be imprisoned without trial any more, but these things can change in a moment in any country, and often have. I’m no longer an Anglican, but I’m a member of the Orthodox Church, which retains the observance of the Feast of St Peter’s Chains on 16 January.
Liturgical language, even Anglican liturgical language, even pop/folk liturgical language, is quite different from the language of synods and similar debating forums, 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.
 The church of San Pietro in Vinculo is not actually built over the dungeon where St Peter was imprisoned, but is rather where his chains are kept, both the ones used when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem, and those when he was later imprisoned in Rome. The church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami now stands above the Mamertine prison where St Peter was imprisoned.
 Parts of this post were originally part of a memoir I wrote on learning of the death of Bishop Philip Russell. I moved it to here because I didn’t think this was the most important thing he should be remembered for, even though it was the most important for me personally.
Some links to related topics:
This post is one of series of posts on memories of life in apartheid South Africa. You can see the whole series at Tales from Dystopia.