a sermon presented in St Andrew’s Church on January 23 2022

 by Revd. John Wilkinson.

Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu 1931-2021

1. Readings.

We began with the two Bible readings of the day.  Both[1] have a theme in common: making things good and well in the life of the people of God.  Paul lists the kind of people we are: a church made up of many kinds of people, but we are one body.   Luke tells us about Jesus: God’s Spirit in him, bringing good news for very poor people, for people who are in prison, for all who are being badly treated.  Desmond Tutu is such a Christian in our time, one who would not rest till his land was saved, Jesus’ gifts accepted, and a new and better life celebrated in his own country, South Africa.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:21-31a, Luke 4:14-21

2. First meeting

My family first met Desmond Tutu in 1988.  He spent a week here to lead the celebration of Birmingham 100th anniversary of its becoming a city.  He spoke to children; he dedicated a new primary school; he met leading people of church and city.  One evening he was the star of a teenage music and dance evening.  We had three children of that age group and insisted on taking them.  We’ve never forgotten the youngest, Samuel, just nine years old, getting onto the floor and dancing heartily with Desmond Tutu (we have a picture to prove it!).  His last day ended with a big rally at the Aston Villa football ground – probably some of you were there.  Let’s give him his full title: he was the Rt. Revd. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town.  He died on Boxing Day this Christmas.

3. His earlier life

Desmond is famous for getting a big shock when he was 16. He’d become a server at Church of Christ the King, in Sophiatown, a ‘black’ area of Johannesburg which the government later demolished.  There he came under the influence of Trevor Huddleston, a radical (white) priest from England.  A writer suggests that Huddleston was “the greatest single influence” in Tutu’s life. The shock was when Fr. Huddleston doffed his hat to Tutu’s mother.  For a white man to give such a respectful gesture to a black woman was unheard of in apartheid South Africa.

During Desmond’s childhood, the government developed a limited education programme, the so-called Bantu School Programme for black South African children.  Desmond managed to get out of that, and so began to learn the big white and black world.  He later went to college where, during a debating event, he met for the first time, Nelson Mandela a lawyer – the future president of South Africa.  They wouldn’t meet again until 1990 – Nelson was imprisoned for 27 years.  Desmond was ordained and then studied theology further here in England, at Kings College London, and also had pastoral experience in two very different areas, one in London, and one in a small, prosperous village in Surrey.

There’s a wonderful example of how Desmond, when back in South Africa, was developing his person.  He was walking on a narrow path when a white man approached.  At that time, a black man would be expected to step aside, but Desmond did not.  The man said, “I don’t get out of the way for ­­­­_ _ _ _” – I’m not going to repeat his grossly insulting word.  Desmond did not fly off the handle; instead he performed a mock graceful move of his hand and said, “But I do!”

4. After ordination

During the early 1970s, Desmond’s theology developed; from his experiences in Africa and from his discovery of Liberation Theology, growing in South America and elsewhere.  He was also attracted to Black Theology, and attended a 1973 conference at the famous Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, he said: “Black Theology is… not an academic, detached, theology. It is a gut level theology, relating to the real concerns, the life and death issues of black people.”

Jumping now over time: in 1986 Desmond became Archbishop of Capetown Winnie Mandela and Coretta Scot King (widow of Martin Luther King) were present.  Once, during a meeting with the South African white government, Archbishop Tutu suddenly set aside the cold language of diplomacy and cried out: “Why are you making us suffer in this way?”  The white President, F. W. de Klerk (who later became the Deputy President under Mandela) replied: “Since you speak that way, I will also speak to you from my heart: We are afraid of a change because we think that black people will take revenge.” Tutu replied: “I promise you, our people can never revenge, because our people have not lost their humanity” – a bold and maybe reckless promise, but it has proved true.  Meanwhile, Desmond Tutu privately met with Western bankers and persuaded them to support economic sanctions against South Africa, which was instrumental in the overthrow of apartheid.

5. After Mandela’s freedom

In the last days of apartheid, once Nelson Mandela was set free, Desmond bowed out of being a political spokesman.  He also realised that freedom for black people meant also freedom for women, and he also began to manage the issues of homosexuality.  His main work was, however, to take Christian conscience onto the nation’s stage: he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (T.R.C.), as Mandela had asked him to do.  The aim was to heal the wounds of the past: those who were guilty of cruelty and abuse could escape punishment, but only on condition that they confessed all that they had done wrong.  This was criticised by some, but it really did become a foundation of truth and reconciliation.  From this come pictures of Desmond, a man so often laughing and joking, not to mention dancing, weeping into his hands as he listened to confession of extreme cruelties some people had performed.  In my view, this is Christianity in full action at a challenging time.  The T.R.C. was a major step towards a new future.   But when, after Mandela, a new African National Congress government began to show corruption, Desmond did not fail to look at them also and say his famous, “I warn you!  I warn you!” just as he had said to the apartheid government.

6. Thanksgiving

Desmond Tutu – here is a man whose life has won great celebration.  He was a Christian who followed Jesus, in truth, in prayer, in courage and in fulness of life, including fun and dancing.  He stands beside Nelson Mandela as one of the two who, after all their years of suffering, succeeded in preventing civil war and founded a fair and democratic South Africa.  The country has its problems of course, and its weakness, quarrels and corruption.  It has however also given the world an example we should give thanks for, admire, know and treasure.  I think we have seen in Desmond a Christian in our time who could not rest till his land was saved, the Holy Spirit’s gifts accepted, and a new and better life around the land in the wine of celebration.