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In Memoriam: His Grace Bishop Athanasius Akunda

4 January 2019

We were very sad to learn of the death of His Grace Bishop Athanasius Akunda, Bishop of Kisumu and Western Kenya. He was a friend and colleague for the 13 years that he worked in South Africa.

Bishop Athanasius Akunda, when he was Rector of the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg.

Fr Athanasius had been a school teacher in Kenya, where Archbishop Seraphim Kykkotis ordained him as a deacon and sent him to Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA for further training. When Archbishop Seraphim became Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, with its headquarters in Soshanguve, had asked to unite with the Orthodox Church, and needed someone theologically trained who could catechise them in English, and as Deacon Athanasius was nearing the end of his training in America, Archbishop Seraphim invited him to come to South Africa to do that.

He arrived on Ascension Day, 13th June 2002, and I went with Grace Magu, a fellow-Kenyan who was working in the Archbishop’s office, to meet him at the airport, and on the way back took them to the top of Linksfield Ridge to show them something of the layout of Johannesburg.

After a couple of days with the Archbishop Fr Athanasius came to say with us, and a few days after that, on 17th June, we had a rally for Youth Day at Soshanguve, where he was introduced to his flock.

We had planned it as a catechetical event, to which all congregations of the former African Orthodox Episcopal Church were invited, and held a Requiem (Mnemosyne, Panikhida) for those who had been killed in Soweto and elsewhere in 1976, who were commemorated on Youth Day, and explained how the Orthodox Church commemorates the dead. Soon after that Deacon Athanasius began giving catechetical teaching in Soshanguve and Winterveld.

Deacon Athanasius Akunda with a catechism class in Winterveld, 2002

He stayed with us until he was able to rent a room, and later a house in Soshanguve, and we travelled around together, visiting people and teaching, taking one or two other people with us, who could both teach and be taught. On these journeys I got to know Deacon Athanasius, and he shared with me a vision he had for teaching the Christian faith through literature, and partly with that aim in view I began reading the short stories of Chechov.

Simon Thamaga and Deacon Athanasius Akunda. 2002

We worked with Simon Thamaga, the former Archbishop of the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, who had been baptised as a simple layman, and then was tonsured as a reader and ordained as a priest before his death in 2004, visiting the AOEC congregations as far away as Dennilton in Mpumalanga.

Axios! Ordination of Fr Athanasius to the priesthood at Pantanassa Church, Melrose, Johannesburg, by Archbishop Seraphim of Johannesburg and Pretoria. 14 July 2002

Within a month of his arrival, on 14 July 2002, Deacon Athanasius was ordained as a priest and Pantanassa Church in Melrose, Johannesburg, and several people travelled from Soshanguve for the ordination. He also registered at the University of South Africa for his studies for a doctorate in theology, for which I became his co-promoter, and I still have about 15 versions of his doctoral thesis on my computer, as we worked through it over the next few years..

After Fr Athanasius moved to Soshanguve to be closer to the people he was teaching, we continued to see each other quite frequently, as Archbishop Seraphim appointed us as Orthodox representatives to SACTE, the Southern African Committee for Theological Education. And from there we were drafted into SAQA, the South African Qualifications Authority, to participant in the Standards Generating Body for qualifications in Christian Theology and Ministry. A wide range of Christian denominations was represented there, and one of the things that was interesting was that we, as Orthodox, found ourselves closest to the Zionists in most things.

In May 2003 we organised a leaders training meeting for people from all over the diocese, held at the Cathedral of St Constantine & Helen in central Johannesburg, which unfortunately was never followed up. But a few months later a Catechetical School was started in Sophiatown, which later moved to Yeoville, and Fr Athanasius was made Deputy Dean, and there he endeared himself to the students.

His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa,  at the Catechetical School in Yeoville, flanked by Archbishop Seraphim (left) and Fr Athanasius, the Deputy Dean, (right).

Fr Athanasius also used the Catechetical School as the base for starting a new mission parish in Yeoville, which was becoming a cosmopolitan melting pot, with people of many different nationalities and cultures living there, and soon there was a thriving congregation of new converts, which unfortunately had to close when the Catechetical School itself close a few years later.

Another project we worked on together was a diocesan youth conference at the end of 2006. Unfortunately that too, like the leaders training course, was never repeated.

Teachers and students at the Catechetical School in Yeoville

In 2008 Fr Athanasius was also made parish priest of the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, at first on a part-time basis, in addition to being Deputy Dean of the Catechetical School. He asked me, with the blessing of Archbishop Seraphim, to serve with him there as well. We had been among the founder members of the parish, and he wanted me to help him learn its traditions, so we continued, as before, teaching each other and learning from each other.

Holy Saturday 2011. Fr Athanasius at St Nicholas.

In 2010 Fr Athanasius graduated with the degree of Doctor of Theology in Missiology. His doctoral thesis was on Orthodox Dialogue with Bunyore Culture.  At the time of his graduation we talked of writing a joint book on Orthodox mission and culture, a project that will now, sadly, never be completed.

Fr Athanasius at his graduation at Unisa, 4 October 2010

In the course of his research he returned to Kenya a couple of times to do field work, interviewing people about the history and cultural practices of people and parishes. .

When the Catechetical School closed Fr Athanasius became full-time rector of St Nicholas, where he organised the youth for teaching and service, and was a much-loved parish priest.

At the beginning of 2015 the Patriarch visited South Africa, and announced that Fr Athanasius would be recalled to Kenya to teach in the Patriarchal Seminary there, and he left just after Pascha. His leaving was a huge loss to the Archdiocese, but we had to acknowledge that we had not been making the best use of his talents.

But his time at the seminary proved rather short, and within 9 months he had been elected as bishop of the new Diocese of Kisumu and Western Kenya. And it seems that he has been working energetically there getting the new diocese off to a good start.

With H. G.Bishop Athanasius of Kisumu in Homabay, pastoral work visit. To some point we had to trek due to poor Road network. Glory to God (Photo Amadiva Athanasios).

He fell ill in the USA about 6 weeks ago, and sadly did not recover.

Bishop Athanasius visiting Uganda.

Like any human being, he had his failings and weaknesses, but these were outweighed by his love, his gentleness, his sense of humour, and his pastoral concern for people. In the 13 years we worked together, so many things would have been impossible to do without him. We miss him here in South Africa, but his diocese will miss him even more.

I hoped that I might live long enough to see him become Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, but that was not to be.

May his memory be eternal!


Philosophy, science fiction, capitalism & rural development

3 January 2019

Our first Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch for 2019 was attended by more people today as the universities are closed, and many people are still on holiday.

Duncan Reyburn kicked off by saying that he was reading about the philosophy of William Desmond, an Irishman. OK, I nicked the following from Wikipedia, but it is more or less what Duncan said, and saved a bit of typing, giving a brief summary of Desmond’s ideas..

Neoinklings Literary Coffee Klatsch: Annalet van Schalkwyk, Tony McGregor, Duncan Reyburn, Val Hayes, David Levey, Janneke Weidema

  1. Univocal: This potency is that of intelligibility and identity. It is a potency most clearly seen as the driving force behind modernity. The univocal potency helps manifest intelligibility and gives determination to the ethos.
  2. Equivocal: The equivocal potency is marked by its indefiniteness and difference.
  3. Dialectic: Characterized by mediation, the dialectic sense places emphasis on self mediated wholeness.
  4. The Metaxological: From the Greek ‘metaxu’ meaning ‘between’, the metaxological is a view of the ethos from the between as overdetermined. Emphasizing mediation, it leaves the between open (as opposed to the dialectical) and emphasises the interplay between sameness and difference. The metaxological considers the between as overdetermined and does not attempt to constrict or define the between or the ethos as whole or progressing teleologically. It is a more robust consideration of the agapeic origin as overdetermined good

Duncan is reading Being and the Between and Ethics and the Between, but said that the books are horrifically expensive.

Duncan was also reading Gulliver’s Travels to his daughter Isla, aged 4, and she was loving it. That is one of those books that has layers of meaning that one discovers when re-reading it at different ages. I found the same in Bleak House which I am currently reading. I would have missed a great deal of the story if I’d read it when I was younger, before I knew the difference between Common Law and Equity, for example.

David Levey returned our copy of The Owl Service by Alan Garner, but said he hadn’t enjoyed it as much on the second reading. All the professional critics seem to think it is his best book, but we preferred Elidor. We returned David’s copy of Boneland, see my review here. It seemed to question the nature of reality and what is real and what is fiction, and reminded me of a science fiction short story I had read when I was about 15, The New Reality by Charles L. Harness. For me, at least, that story was a preparation for accepting Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts.

Duncan Reyburn said the different paradigms sounded like a multiverse, and that was the theme of a film currently showing, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Janneke Weidema brought us down to earth in the current universe by mentioning Peter Storey’s new book, I beg to differ: Ministry amid the Teargas. She had been peripherally involved in some of the events described in the book. Peter Storey was a Methodist minister, and had at one point been Methodist chaplain to the prison on Robben Island, and had got to know many of the political prisoners held there.

Annalet van Schalkwyk, who has been working on an article on the struggle of the people of Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape to protect their land from rapacious mining companies, had also been reading A Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni, set in the same area. Annalet said she had become very interested in the history of the area, and I suggested that she should read Sir Harry Smith: bungling hero. We had discussed that at an earlier gathering, along with several other books on the same topic. Yet another book mentioned was The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Days of Their Independence.

Tony McGregor had been reading a much more recent book dealing with the same issues in the present, Democracy and Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics, by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

In her article on the struggle of the people of Xolobeni Annalet had made use of some of the books of Walter Wink to provide a theological interpretation of the events, especially Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament and Unmasking the powers. My part in the discussion that followed on that is fairly fully described  in a blog post I wrote nine years ago on Social Justice and evangelism, so I won’t retype it here. But I will say that back in 1975 or so I was catechising a couple of fairly recent converts to the Christian faith, and I recommended that they read a work of fiction, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the silent planet, to get a whiff of the Christian worldview and ethos. Shortly thereafter we had a Bible study in which we were discussing the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities, the Archontes and Exousiae, And the “mature” Christians in the group were flummoxed, and didn’t have a clue what it was about, But it was the two novices who clicked and said “It’s all in that book!” — meaning Out of the silent planet.

We also briefly mentioned BookCrossing, which is an interesting way of passing on unwanted books — ones you’ve already read and are unlikely to want to read again, or ones that you have more than one copy of.

If you’re interested, see here:




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St Paul’s Theological College 1968 (Part 5)

18 December 2018

Continued from Part 4.

For those who may have jumped into this in the middle of things, this is a kind of “1968 in retrospect” series of posts, when I was spending a term at St Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown, South Africa,  towards the end of the year. Some students from that year recently held a reunion with the college warden, Canon John Suggit, and you can see more about that on the web page here. If you’d like to start this series from the beginning, Part 1 is here.

Wednesday 30th October was a college holiday at St Paul’s, perhaps because it was halfway through the term  At Mattins in the college chapel the only ones present were the Warden, John Suggit; the sub-warden, Duncan Buchanan; Brian Angus and me. Brian and I were the “extra” students, who had just come in for one term after studying overseas.

Elizabeth Suggit, aged 11.

People just messed around most of the day. Chris Holmes came to my room to have a beer, and then we went and played the “Chopsticks” duet on the common-room piano. The warden’s daughter, Elizabeth Suggit, aged 11, came in and we tried to teach her to play it too. Chris Holmes was giving her driving lessons in his Mini bakkie, and she said she was going to get her driving licence on her 18th birthday. Howard Lancaster recently reminded me that on one of their lessons Chris was giving her parallel parking lessons by pulling up alongside a Rolls! The owner stuck his head out of his lounge window and told them to clear off!

Another memorable thing about the college holiday was when Mike Bands was standing with a glass of water on his forehead. He lay down on the floor on his back and then stood up again without spilling any.

A day or two later Elizabeth Suggit was ill in bed with tonsillitis, and I gave her a copy of The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber to amuse her. On a gardening day a group of us sawed up some trees that had been cut down in the driveway, and Chris Holmes came to take them away in his Mini bakkie. It had front-wheel drive and was so loaded down with the logs that I had to sit on the bonnet to keep traction on the front wheels.

Chris & Sue Holmes, November 1968

Chris Holmes once took me to see his mother, who lived in a caravan park. Lots of people in St Paul’s had taken photos of his sister, who was reputed to be a beautiful model. I didn’t meet her on that occasion, but did later, and thought she hid her beauty behind too much make up. In the late sixties women either wore too much make up, or none at all. I’m not sure whether that preference coincided with ideological differences, but I generally found the company of those who didn’t wear make up more congenial.

Some of the St Paul’s students continued to frequent the Rhodes University Anglican Club at lunch time on Fridays, where the profits from the simple lunch were given to the Grahamstown and District Relief Association (GADRA), It was a different way of dealing with the problem of high unemployment, which was the cause of the number of beggars on the streets mentioned in the previous post.

GADRA: feeding children of the unemployed

The Anglican chaplain at Rhodes University was Roy Snyman, and the Anglican Club met in a room on the Rhodes campus. Roy Snyman was a rather old-fashioned 1950s-style Anglo-Catholic, and seemed to run the Anglican Club at the university a bit like a teenage youth club. He was a nice bloke, but the set-up seemed a bit paternalistic to me. There were posters on the walls extolling religion along with a few more contemporary ones urging people to make love, not war.

Roy Snyman at the Rhodes University Anglican Club

I was struck by the contrasting ideologies that seemed to be dividing the Christian world at that time. A few years earlier John Davies, who was later the Anglican chaplain at Wits University, had read a paper on Religion versus God to the Anglican Students Federation. In it he spoke of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity”. The Rhodes Anglican Club appeared to be extolling religion. And the leaders of the UCM appeared to want the opposite of religionless Christianity. With their “God is dead” theology they wanted religion without God rather than Bonhoeffer’s notion of God without religion.

For anyone who might be interested, I’ve discussed some of the contrasting leadership styles and ideas on student and youth ministry, and in the ASF and UCM, in an article on Youth Ministry, so will not take up more space with it here.

Rod Smith and Molly Wood at Rhodes University Anglican Club

For the ideological side, Western Christianity at that time seemed to be divided  into those who wanted Christianity to be more “spiritual” and those who wanted it to be more secular. In my undergraduate days we had called them pietists and social activists. I found myself in agreement with someone who once remarked that in that particular battle, “both sides are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny”. The social activists were right in affirming that the Christian faith had social and political consequences in the life of the world, but wrong in denying that sound doctrine and a spiritual life were important or necessary. And the pietists were right in affirming that spiritual life and sound doctrine were important, but wrong in thinking that denying the social consequences of what they professed to believe, a denial that undermined the very doctrines they claimed to be upholding.

Liz Pringle and Mary Hofmeyr at Rhodes University Anglican Club

My term at St Pauls, free from the pressure of exams, and with access to a good theological library enabled me to discover the work of Fr Alexander Schmemann, the Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, whose book The World as Sacrament, later enlarged and reissued as For the Life of the World, resolved the problem for me quite neatly. For more details on that, and where it eventually led me, see here.

Visiting the Rhodes Anglican Club also worked the other way round. Sometimes Rhodes students came to services at St Paul’s. On All Saints Day Claire Isted came to Evensong, and Tony Gregorowski and I walked back home with her afterwards for sherry. I had met her back in 1965, when a group of us drove 500 miles from Pietermaritzburg to Grahamstown to listen to an academic freedom lecture, and camped out in her flat. I likened such things to Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, which described angel-headed hipsters “who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity”. Actually the trip had only taken 11 hours in Maimie Corrigall’s brand-new six-cylinder Ford Zephyr, which could cruise along at 100 miles (not kilometres) hour. It was more sobering when four years later a priest, David Poynton, was killed driving that same road, after hitting a stray animal in the dark.

As Tony and I were walking back to St Paul’s a sportscar stopped alongside, and the passenger was Jane Lurie, who had been an undergrad with me in Maritzburg four years earlier. I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to her and Clair Isted, and others we knew back then.

Rhodes University main building, 1968

At St Paul’s we also had Bible study, something we had never had at St Chad’s in Durham. Not formal lectures in Old Testament and New Testament, but actually sitting around and looking at the text rather than reading scholarly commentaries. We were going through I Thessalonians, and it was interesting to see how people waffled off the point, but also how much one could get out of the text if you really looked at it. Of course it helped that John Suggit was no mean New Testament scholar in his own right, but he also let the text speak.

One Sunday at the Joy-Joy Sunday School it was very hot, so a lot of the children were wearing no clothes at all. Afterwards a woman came in great distress and wanted us to pray for a child who was sick. We said we would go to see the child on the way home, and she said Oh no, she could not possibly have white men in her house, it was too dirty, and she said she would bring the child. We said if the child is sick he couldn’t come out, and we would go to him, but that idea upset her still more and she disappeared up the road and we could not find her again.

There was one hymn in the Xhosa hymn book that we sang where the rhythm of the words fitted the rhythm of the music, and I liked it. Lizalis’ idinga lakho. I later discovered that it was Nelson Mandela’s favourite hymn, and it was sung at his funeral. It was composed in Xhosa, rather than translated from English, and that may have been why it sounded better. It always struck me as odd, though, that the Zulu Anglican hymn book did not seem to have the same problem of clashing metres. Zulu and Xhosa are fairly similar linguistically and share a lot of common vocabulary.

I was not sure that I liked the idea of Sunday School. Teaching children in a classroom situation did not appeal to me, and when I did it a couple of years later, at St Paulus School in Windhoek, I hated it (see the link to Youth Ministry up the page). But Joy-Joy was different. It was more like street preaching than Sunday School, and the kids were there because they wanted to be there, not because their parents sent them. They came in response to Hamish Holman playing riffs on his saxophone.

Thelma Suggit

We had Evensong in college and then again when John Suggit took Rod Whibley and me down to Christ Church, the one founded by the lady of Evangelical Principles, where Rod (known as Fred) sang the office and I preached. The congregation sang rather mournfully, I thought. John Suggit said afterwards that he liked my sermon, but my delivery was rather mournful. It must have been the atmosphere of the place.

We went back to his house and played bridge and scrabble. Playing bridge was one of the useful skills I had learnt at St Chad’s College in Durham, where we spent many Sunday afternoons and evenings playing it, especially in winter,. John Suggit’s wife Thelma was quite a keen bridge player, and often had students around to play.

To be continued.






St Paul’s Theological College 1968 (Part 4)

13 December 2018

Continued from Part 3.

I had another letter from my friend Alastair Wyse who had tried to set fire to Westminster Abbey in protest against the church being so obsessed with buildings, reinforced by one from another fellow-student from St Chad’s College, Graham Mitchell, who had recently been ordained and had just attended his first ruri-decanal meeting, at which one old bok had appealed for £67000 to prop up his pinnacles.

The answer, for me, seemed to come from Colin Morris, whose book Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward seemed to provide the answer:

Obscenity is our zealous begging of money off people and organizations who are more amenable to our blackmail than our message in order to restore our crumbling edifices or to build new ones which are materialized lies — for the reality of our spiritual life would fit neatly into a telephone booth.

Fifty years ago, of course, people knew what a telephone booth was, but I doubt that anyone under 40 could even picture one today.

Four months earlier, at St Chad’s College, on the afternoon before the final doctrine exam, I faced the choice: read Colin Morris, or read the magic book, Quicke’s Doctrines of the Creed. Reasoning that Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, I prayed that the Spirit would protect me from writing heresy during the exam, and read Morris instead. I passed.

Meanwhile, back at St Paul’s, I posted Alastair Wyse’s letter on the college noticeboard. It was more coherent than his first hasty one posted on his way to set his fire, and he had had plenty of time to reflect on it in his cell in Brixton prison. Most of the people at St Paul’s thought he was nuts and that a psychiatrist should be called to defend him. I suppose that is how most people would have looked at St Francis as well, they don’t think he was “achieving” anything. He wasn’t, in the words of one of the St Chad’s tutors, “helping his cause”. Michael Keep said, “why burn tombs when they will just spend money on restoring them?”

But it was, as his letter made quite clear, a symbolic prophetic protest; those who have eyes to see, they will see. Those who have ears to hear, they will hear. But whether they hear, or whether they forebear to hear, you shall speak my words to them, for they are a rebellious house. And if anyone needed a psychiatrist, it was surely Ezekiel. So there were differing views in 1968, that year of student protest. And a couple of days later I learned that Alastair Wise was being seen by a psychotherapist, for whom his parents were paying £25 a week.

I showed the letter to Basil Moore. He said he could see why he had done it, but didn’t believe in kicking corpses, and the church in England was dead anyway. He said there was more point in attacking the church here, because the church counts for something in South African society, while in England it counted for nothing. I disagreed with him there. In South Africa the church was being attacked by the government, among other things because in things like the Message to the People of South Africa the church was undermining the government. It went beyond previous protests from church leaders, because it attacked not merely the practice but the ideology of apartheid. It was not merely saying that the government was going about things in the wrong way, it was saying that the government was doing the wrong things.

James Moulder

James Moulder, another Methodist minister, came to the college and gave an address at Evensong, which seemed much more positive than the kind of things Basil Moore was saying. He spoke about the place of dogma. He took the Anglican Revised Catechism and the Message to the People of South Africa, and compared the two statements. He said something was needed which combined each of these two statements of faith. The Message needed to be stated in such a way that it could be used for preparation for church membership.

And that seemed to embody for me another of the differences between the church in England and the church in South Africa, between St Chad;s College and St Paul’s College. The Church of England was seeking to be “relevant” (intransitively so), and so was trying to change its theology to fit the world. In the Message to the People of South Africa the church was telling the world it must change to fit the theology.

As G.K. Chesterton had put it in his book Orthodoxy sixty years before, “The modern young man will never change the world, for he will always change his mind.”

Ted Goodyer

There was another seminar on punishment. this time on capital punishment, led by Ted Goodyer. As South Africa had more executions than any other country, this would seem to have been a relevant issue. But nobody seemed concerned about it and we kept drifting on to the subject of just and unjust laws. Nobody seemed to be concerned about capital punishment, which was probably why the rate of executions was so high. I wrote in my diary:

There are other problems which beset us, and there does seem to be a connection between a demand for capital punishment and imperialism. And South Africa has now entered into the imperialist expansionist stage of her history and is trying to reach out and build an empire, to draw Malawi and Zambia and even Tanzania into her orbit. South Africa is thus not psychologically and sociologically ripe for the abolition of capital punishment, or for putting the national flag on shopping bags and toilet seats as they do in Britain, now that the British Empire has been dissolved. But if one had suggested the abolition of capital punishment or putting the Union Jack on lavatory seats at the time of the Relief of Mafeking, it would have been ignored, or considered unthinkable, outrageous. So our debate did not really stay on the subject.

Bob Commin

The seminar was followed by a 24-hour vigil of prayer for racial harmony, so Dozy (Bob Commin) woke me at 4:00 the next morning, and after my turn I called Cliff Horsman and Mike Keep. It was concerned, in particular, with the Transkei elections then taking place.

One afternoon I went down town with Rod Smith to take some photos of the place, and we were accosted by several strangers. One was a girl with long hair and too much glue on her false
eyelashes. She asked in a windy far-away voice who we were and where we were going. She seemed to think whatever we said was very romantic. We referred to her as the unknown goddess, but not as beautiful as the statues of Greek goddesses. If Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships, this one would have been likely to have launched about ten.

Those we met on the way back were younger, and male. Because of the high unemployment in Grahamstown at that time (I don’t know if it is any better today) there were a lot of child beggars in the streets. These kids were peculiar. They were aged about 10-12 and when they saw people coming, they might run 300 yards to meet them, and then stand about 10 yards off and whine and mumble something inaudible.

Somerset Street, Grahamstown, November 1968

I once asked one what he wanted and it turned out to be a long “Pleeeze” repeated several times and then “huuungry, two cents, bread” after every ten “pleese”. But their voice changed from whining dog to normal human when shouting to their friends in the next block. The whining was completely off-putting, and hardened my heart against giving them anything. They stopped behaving like human beings.

But then there was an old woman who came to the college to ask for money. She had no papers and so could get work and didn’t have the right to live anywhere. Everyone gave her money when she came, because she was one of God’s poor and is completely human and did not whine like a dog. Begging did not diminish her, it did not take away her human dignity. She still stood as one human being before another. She greeted us in the street, said hello in a normal voice. But the kids didn’t. They neither behaved as human beings, nor did they treat anyone else as human. They could say nothing except this whining “pleez” long-drawn-out, so soft as to be inaudible from a distance.

Michael Bowen, Alan Schmidt and Nicky Suggit, 26 November 1968

But on one occasion Alan Schmidt, son of Theo Schmidt, one of the students, came running, afraid of the old woman who had come to the door, He thought she was a witch, He feared that she would lift her hand and fire would come out, or that she would say a word and turn him into a frog. He kept creeping out on to the tennis court to see if she was still there, and really did seem to be terrified of her.

We had a visit from Fr Gerard Beaumont, of the Community of the Resurrection, who played songs for us on the piano. He played mostly hymn tunes, many of them of his own composition, and we sang them standing around the piano in the common room.

Back: John Cooper, Bob Commin, Andy Oram, Hamish Holman, Cliff Horsman.
Front: Liz Suggit & Alan Radcliffe.
At piano: Fr Gerard Beaumont

He belonged to a “Twentieth-century Light Church Music Group”, which did not merely aim to produce pop church music, but as the 20th century is now almost 70 years old, he had music of all periods. Much of it was the sort of music that would appeal to middle-aged British housewives, the sort of “Knees-up mother Brown” that could be sung by the Bingo crowd. But some of them would be good anywhere, especially the tunes to For all the saints and At the name of Jesus.

There were more pastoralia sessions, with Duncan Buchanan, and this entailed reading a book called Basic types of Pastoral Counselling by Howard Clinebell. I found it exceedingly bourgeois, and the situations it described were mainly those of middle-class white suburban Americans. In my time at St Chad’s I had developed an aversion to northern-hemisphere bourgeois theology, and I questioned the relevance of it in the classes. It seemed to me that none of it would be of any help in counselling people like Alan Schmidt’s “witch” woman, who might be more numerous in South Africa than the kind of people Clinebell dealt with.

And now, fifty years later, I see that there is a new edition of Clinebell’s book, which, the blurb claims, “will help readers be sensitive to cultural diversity, ethical issues, and power dynamics as they practice holistic, growth-oriented pastoral care and counseling in the parish.

And it still seems as bourgeois as ever. Being “sensitive” to problems is not at all the same thing as helping people to solve them.

Continued in Part 5.




Wormholes and tunnels

8 December 2018

The main topics of conversation at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch this month was two literary tropes evident in Alan Garner’s early books and several others — first, the boundary between different worlds, and secondly, underground tunnels.

Cafe 41, Arcadia, where we hold our monthly literary coffee klatsch

Concerning other worlds, there are writers like Tolkien, who set his main stories entirely in another world of his own imagining. Then there are writers like C.S. Lewis, who has his characters travelling between our world and another, whether to other planets, as in his space trilogy, or in a different dimension, as in his Narnia stories. Except that in That Hideous Strength, where, following the example of his fellow-Inkling Charles Williams, he has the other world irrupting into this one. And Alan Garner does that too, in his first two children’s novels, and even in Elidor.

The means of literary transition from one world to another are various. For some it is by means of wormholes, In one book I have just been reading, Black House there are some rather good descriptions of such boundaries or transitions as “slippage”. Quite ordinary things, like a house and the road leading to it, begin to seem alien and oddly out of place. In Lewis’s Narnia stories it is a wardrobe made from wood from another world, or a picture. In his space trilogy it is a road at disk leading to a slightly sinister house, as it is in the case of the eponymous Black House

Black HouseBlack House by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago I picked up my copy of The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, which I had read 25 years ago, and reread the first couple of chapters. It’s about a boy, Jack Sawyer, who travels across America in search of a talisman that will heal his mother. Then I saw Black House, by the same two authors, and took it out to see what else they had collaborated on. Only after reading the first 50 pages did I realise that this was a sequel to the first book, in which Jack Sawyer, now grown up, has become a police officer, and then retired to the Wisconsin countryside seeking a quiet life.

But there is a serial killer threatening the nearby town, and the local police want Jack to help them catch the perpetrator. Jack at first refuses, but then finds himself drawn in, as the killings seem to have links to his earlier journey, which involved hopping into and out of another world, which he called “The Territories”. It’s not a conventional murder mystery, since we know who the perpetrator is before the police do, and we also know that he is demonised, or at least influenced by a creature from another world.

I was not sure whether to give it three stars or four. The story held my interest, even though I thought some of the descriptions were too long and drawn out. I usually find confidential asides from the author to the reader annoying, and in this book whole chapters were written like that, especially the earlier ones. It had some good descriptive passages, and some very mediocre ones. One of the better ones was this evocative description of a seedy hotel:

The lobby of the Nelson Hotel always smells of the river — it’s in the pores of the place — but this evening the smell is heavier than usual. It’s a smell that makes us think of bad ideas, blown investments, forged checks, deteriorating health, stolen office supplies, unpaid alimony, empty promises, skin tumors, lost ambition, abandoned sample cases filled with cheap novelties, dead home, dead skin, and fallen arches.

But when such descriptions go on for three or four pages I want to say to the authors, “Stop messing around and just get on with the story.” I think I liked The Talisman better. But in both I found the “other” worlds somehow unconvincing. — “The Territories”, as the main other world is called, does not seem to hang together. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’s Narnia, it’s a kind of premodern place without electricity but it somehow doesn’t seem believable.

The other trope was underground tunnels, which seem to feature a lot in fantasy stories and in children’s stories generally. Most of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, for example The Mountain of Adventure,  feature underground tunnels somewhere. C.S. Lewis has them in The Silver Chair. Tolkien has them in abundance, both in The Hobbit and in several places in The Lord of the Rings. But after Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen every other underground tunnel sequence in literature seems tame.

David Levey lent us Boneland, a much later sequel to The Weirdsonte of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, where Professor Colin Whisterfield is grown up, and searching for his sister whom he had lost when he was twelve, a period of his life that he can no longer remember.He said it is very weird, and very different from the first two books.

We talked a bit about how few children’s fantasy/adventure stories had been written in a southern African setting, and how most of those available are set in other countries and are cultureally strange, and require lots of explanations.

Reading to the children.

On the first Sunday in December, after having the Hours and Readers Service in Mamelodi, I read to the children, Kamo (10) and Shabi (7) from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had first asked Kamo to read from a children’s book of Bible stories, on Jesus and the blind man, which was also the Sunday Gospel. She read it quite competently. So I suggested that she read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to her brother in the mean time, and if she didn’t manage, I would read her the next chapter next time. Val, as she listened to me reading, was struck by how English the story was. I had begun by explaining about the wartime evacuation of children to the countryside. At one point in the story there was a picture of the eponymous wardrobe. “What’s that?” I asked the children. “A cupboard,” said Kamo. “Wardrobe” is a fancy word.

I tried to write a children’s book with a South African setting, Of Wheels and Witches, and David was about to say something about the use of these tropes in that, but we moved quickly on to discussing other books. But, perhaps rather weirdly, in the light of Boneland, my recently-published The Year of the Dragon features some of the same characters as adults.


Racism and Prejudice

3 December 2018

The other day I came across a question on Quora: What is the difference between a black man and a white man?

How would you answer that question?

I thought about it for a while, and looked at the other answers that had been given. None of them seemed satisfactory. Eventually I wrote an answer of my own, short and pithy. It was one word: Albedo.

I could not think of any other answer that would not manifest racism or prejudice or both.

We are told there are two men, and that one is black and the other white. And that is all we are told.

To assume anything else, beyond the information given in the question, is prejudice.

We are not told, in the question, what country the men live in, or whether they live in the same country or different counties. We are told nothing about their age, wealth, education, occupation or marital status. We are not told about what language they speak, what religion they are, or their cultural background. .

To make assumptions about any of those things is prejudice.

The only difference between the black man and the white man, on the basis of the information in the question, is albedo.

If you answered in any other way than with Albedo or a synonym, perhaps you need to ask yourself another question: How racist are you?

St Paul’s Theological College 1968 (Part 3)

1 December 2018

Continued from Part 2

After 10 days at St Paul’s I was beginning to get the hang of the place, and to make comparisons with St Chad’s College in Durham, where I had spent two years. I was also relishing the freedom to study whatever interested me without the pressure of having to prepare for examinations, which most of the other students had to do. By way of comparison, I wrote in my diary on 15 October 1968:

Mattins and Mass in Afrikaans. I suppose I have now been here long enough to make some sort of judgement on the place, and make some comparisons with St Chad’s. In obvious things, the discipline here is far stricter, but that doesn’t matter, because it is at least a genuine expression of some sort of Christian community. At St Chad’s the rules were ignored because there was no cohesion, the confusion and loss of identity which was the dominant feature of St Chad’s may be yet to come here. St Paul’s may not yet have experienced the winds of change, and doubts and confusion that have hit the Church of England. There is some measure of concord between principles and practice, between politics and theology and liturgy. The Warden, Fronnie Suggit, is also a very good bloke. One cannot say of him, as we did of John Fenton, “White man speak with forked tongue.” Fronnie is a man of no guile. His practice reflects his principles. He is gentle, loving and concerned. He takes an interest in people, and tries to understand them. Fenton was remote, insulated by his risqué jokes, and making of outrageous statements without being able to show what they mean in practice.

John Suggit and Gerald Francis working at building repairs.

That was my contemporary reaction, but after 50 years it perhaps needs some qualification and explanation. John Suggit, the warden of St Paul’s, was nicknamed by the students Fronimos, or Fronnie for short. I got the impression that for most of the students it meant something like the opposite of the way I described him above — they spoke as though it meant subtle and full of guile. But I thought that John Suggit spoke with authority, and not as the scribes. And in Orthodox theology at least a Christian fronima means something like what the late Harry Blamires referred to as The Christian Mind.

John Fenton was the principal of St Chad’s College, and known as “The Prin”. I liked him, and thought he was a nice bloke, but had huge theological disagreements with him, described more fully here Of babies and bathwater: English theological and ecclesiastical reformers | Notes from underground and here 1968 in retrospect | Khanya.

High Street, Grahamstown, with the Cathedral

As a result of those disagreements, mainly about liturgical theology,  he had written to John Suggit to say that he could not understand me, and could not recommend me for ordination because he didn’t know how my mind worked, and perhaps John Suggit could understand me better. But he did say that I didn’t like services, for reasons explained in the links above. He had written to the Anglican Bishop of Natal to the same effect, since that was the bishop who had sponsored my studies. And it was apparently for that reason that the Bishop of Natal wanted to send me to the Missions to Seamen — “You won’t have so many services there”, he said.

Chris Ross, elected head student for St Pauls for 1969

But they got it wrong. I did like services, and I was interested in liturgical theology, but back in the 1960s we talked a lot about existentialism and authenticity, and the services at St Chad’s lacked authenticity because the principal said he didn’t believe in the Kingdom of God. And when we asked him why, if he didn’t believe in the Kingdom of God, did we have to go to Mattins and Evensong in the college chapel, his reply was, “Because you’ve got to do it when you get into a parish”, and that didn’t strike us as existentially authentic. So at St Paul’s I found a copy of Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology and read that. It wasn’t his best book, but it was a start. And I found that the services at St Paul’s did not lack authenticity; they fitted the ethos of the college.

And so I went on to write,

Fenton gives unconvincing reasons for doing things, because you feel that he himself has not been convinced. Fronnie seems to do things only when he himself is convinced about them, and though I think in some things he is wrong, at least his conviction is genuine. That at least makes it possible to bargain, to compromise, to agree to differ. And coming here has also exposed, once and for all, the myth that “overseas” things are better. Certainly St Paul’s is better than any theological college I have seen elsewhere. The system may be open to criticism on many grounds, but whatever its faults, it works. More than ever I am convinced that it would be desirable for some English ordinands to come here — not only because it might broaden their outlook to go to another country (which is the only advantage I can see in sending South Africans to England), but also because they would get a better theological training.

Also concerning worship, a letter appeared in the Port Elizabeth Evening Post, from the Afrikaanse Skakelkomitee in Uitenhage, which expressed great shock at the UCM services: the inappropriateness of the sensual racket of jazz, and that worship should be an occasion for tears of guilt. They went on to say that anyway they thought that the whole thing was just a front for the introduction of “multiracial co-worship” and that it would mislead the Bantu who do not have the length of Christian tradition behind them that the whites have.

On Saturdays the students at St Paul’s did gardening. After tea we were digging up weeds, and Cliff Horsman, the senior gardener, wanted me to get rid of morning glory which was covering a tree, yet they are sold as seeds for flowers; nasturtiums also he regarded as weeds. I wondered if, in the case of the morning glories, it had anything to do with the rumours that the seeds could give a psychedelic high like LSD.

I found it interesting that at the third Anglican theological college in South Africa, St Bede’s in Umtata (now spelt, more accurately, Mthatha) the students also did gardening, but unlike those at St Paul’s, they grew vegetables rather than flowers, which they ate in the college dining room. At St Chad’s, the students were gentlemen, and did not do gardening.

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

Rod Whibley, Ewart Collett and Cliff Horsman (the chief gardener) — all dressed in jackets and ties for the official college photo..

At tea we had been chatting about punishment executions and Mike Bands, a student who had lived in Zambia, told us of the massacre of the members of the Lumpa Church in Zambia a few years ago. They were non-political, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, and would not join the United National Independence Party. Some party activists tried to intimidate them in an effort to persuade them to join, and this led to a few skirmishes, and some policemen were called in to tell them to cool it. One policeman, who was a friend of Mike’s, went into a village with a few others, and they were speared, and after that the army was called in to wipe them out.

Some St Paul’s students, dressed in jackets and ties for the official college photo.
Back Row: Bob Commin, John Cooper, Mike Bands, Chris Holmes, Steve Hayes, Mike Keep
Kneeling: Tony Gregorowski & Rod Smith

Saturday afternoons were usually spent relaxing. The more energetic played tennis, while the others watched, or read books. We were usually joined by the children of the married students and staff.

Tony Gregorwski and Elizabeth Suggit (then aged 11) reading a comic.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon I had tea with David Bell, one of the married students who lived in a
house over the road from the college. He had spent four years in England about 12 years ago, and was going to the Diocese of Pretoria when he was ordained. He had three children: Catherine, who was ten, Michael, and a baby, Claire.

David Bell

We talked about the church, and compared theological colleges, and the Church of England with the church here, and then Canon Hinchliff came in — Peter Hinchliff’s father (Peter Hinchliff was Professor of Church History at Rhodes University, and had written the definitive history of the Anglican Church in South Africa). David asked Canon Hinchliff where he was trained, and it turned out that he was an old Chadsman as well. He had done his degree at Hatfield College in Durham, and then gone to St Chad’s at Hooton Pagnell, because at that time it was still divided, with undergraduates in Durham itself, and the graduate students at Hooton Pagnell.

He talked about it for hours: how he had been ordained deacon in St Mary-the-Less by the Bishop of Jarrow, because he turned 23 on the day of the ordination, and Bishop Moule said the oath would not be valid if taken on a Sunday, so he had to be done all on his own with only two or three other people present. And then he told of his curacy in West Hartlepool, with plague and naval bombardments by the Germans, and after that he had come to South Africa. But he still speaks with a north England accent. Quite a fascinating old man. When he left it was too late for supper at college, so Jill Bell said I could stay and have some with them, and while it was cooking Catherine took me out and showed me her garden, with a vine and two air plants, which flower without roots.

Children of St Paul’s staff and students in Chris Holmes’s bakkie.

In writing this, I feel that I’ve stepped out of, or into, the pages of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Time seems strangely telescoped or distorted. Here I am writing about things that happened 50 years ago, and it feels close, like last week or last year. And I’m writing about hearing an old man talk about things that happened fifty years before to him, and that seems impossibly remote. Is that just an imaginary effect, that when we are old things that happened when we were young seem close, but things that happened before we were born seem remote? But it’s not just that. Cars in 1968 were not all that different from cars today, and you can still see the odd 1968 model Volkswagen Beetle driving around, but in 1968 seeing a 1918 car was a noteworthy event. In 1968 the first Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets were beginning to enter service, and you still see them today. But in 1968 you did not see a Vickers Vimy or a Sopwith Camel swanning around the sky.

Continued in Part 4.