I once met Desmond Tutu, or ‘The Arch’ as he was affectionately known. I think it was 2004 and I was an ordinand at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Tutu’s was a name I had grown up with together with that of Mandela. My late mother had spent some years living in South Africa with two of my brothers and was very much part of the anti-apartheid movement there. Something she continued on her return to the UK.
Mandela and Tutu are often mentioned in the same breath: I’ve done it already here. They were contemporaries. Yet their activism and commitment to racial equality in South Africa took a different approach, even if the end result was the same. But Tutu and Mandela need hold no candle to the other; both are luminaries in their own right.
The Arch was heavily influenced by the Mirfield Father’s (CR), not least Trevor Huddleston. When he came to visit us at college he told us about the time in Johannesburg as teenager when he saw Huddleston raise his hat to his mother – the first time he’d seen a white man treat a black woman as an equal. It stayed with him the rest of his life.
Many fail to appreciate that Tutu read theology at Kings and lived with his family in Catford where he was honorary curate of St Augustine’s. He retained his links with and love of Lewisham, and lent his support to various local causes until very recently.
It would be be easy to sanitise someone like Tutu, and no doubt some will try. But The Arch was not someone who could easily be painted by the palette of another. There will also be those who will seek to undermine his memory and legacy. Even as I write, extreme Zionist voices on social media seek to smear him as antisemitic simply because he spoke out about the oppression and persecution of Palestinians by the State of Israel; something he likened to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Tutu was an accomplished politician without ever entering the world of formal politics. He commanded audience and ear in the corridors of power without ever entering those upper echelons of influence. He was a high churchman, finding God in the beauty of dignified worship and anglo-catholic theology whilst serving him in the gutters and drains. He was a servant and a prophet, who ministered to the marginalised and spoke truth to power on their behalf.
Tutu was a beacon of peace and reconciliation in the midst of the deep divisions of his home country. He wept with the victims of apartheid, he risked his life by placing himself in the midst of violence by black people, and by lamenting the violence of white people. He received regular death threats from white supremacists and responded with words of peace.
The Arch was a non sectarian champion of human rights both in South Africa and globally and will be remembered and venerated for it. But one thing sadly lacking in many of the secular obituaries over the past days is reference to what inspired, energised and pushed him on even though the periods of doubt and darkness.
Desmond Tutu was a Christian and a priest. His humanitarian work and life’s commitment to equality between peoples began and ended on the premise that God is love, and in Christ has made his love known for all people. For Tutu, this is what really mattered. For Tutu God is not partisan; he favours no person over the next. Colour, creed, state, sexuality or gender play no part in God’s love. For The Arch, God is blind to these things.
Tutu’s anglo-catholic theology put the Incarnation at the centre of belief about what God came to do in Jesus, and how he set about doing it: that in the dirt and grit and tumult of every day life and in the pots and pans of getting on with it all, God has come among us to sanctify all human life and to raise it up from the mire and clay, to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The Arch now enjoys the fulness of that liberty, and continues his work of prayer for us all in the nearer presence of God.
Well done good and faithful servant. Enter ye, into the joy of the Lord.