Richard Burridge

The Father I knew: A tribute to Desmond Tutu

The Father I knew: A tribute to Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu (Getty images)
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The tributes being paid to Desmond Tutu this week often begin with words like ‘activist’, ‘campaigner’, ‘protester’, ‘fighter’ or ‘opponent’. They then go on to list the issues and ‘-isms’ he opposed, such as apartheid, racism, sexism, and so forth. They draw attention to how he championed human rights, or the liberation of black and coloured South Africans, women, or LGBTQ people. While these things are all true, sometimes in the last few days it seemed as though Archbishop Tutu had become a blank screen upon which anyone could project their own issues, passions, pains or concerns.

Yet these popular descriptions miss the heart of the person that I knew over four decades, someone who insisted on ‘being’ before ‘doing’, contemplation before action, or who said he wanted to be a ‘quietist’ more than an activist. 

When I got to know Archbishop Tutu, I soon learned that he needed to spend hours in silence and prayer before he could speak. He said he had to take ‘in from God’ before he could give ‘out to people’. Whenever we met, the first thing he would do (after enveloping me in a bear hug) was to insist we join together in a prayer before talking. Even for an action as simple as getting into a taxi, he would ask the driver to pray with him for care, for safety, and for others on the road before they set off.

I first met Archbishop Tutu in May 1990 after years of trying to invite him to come to Exeter University, where I was Chaplain, to give a special lecture. For a long time the authorities in South Africa refused him a passport. When he was finally able to come to Britain, it turned out his visit would be on the same day as the first formal face-to-face negotiations of Nelson Mandela and the ANC with F. W. de Klerk and the apartheid government back in South Africa. Suddenly, this coincidence catapulted Tutu to the top of Britain’s security list lest any incident with him here might jeopardise the peace discussions back home. At Heathrow, as the rest of passengers remained seat-belted, armed police escorted Tutu and his wife, Leah, off the early morning plane to meet me in VIP security. Despite his insistence that we needed to take the Eucharist, there was no time for it as we raced in armoured cars to Reading station. The train was delayed. When we finally boarded, the poor steward asked me for our breakfast order and was confused when I asked for a small bottle of red wine and a slice of bread as soon as possible. ‘Bread for everyone?’ ‘No, one piece of bread.’ ‘Shall I cut it up for you?’ ‘No, the Archbishop will break it.’ And his final despairing attempt to help: ‘Would the Archbishop like it buttered?’ As we celebrated Holy Communion with police protection at 125 mph, I marvelled at this mixture of spirituality and modernity as the Lord was present to us in the Eucharist and prayer for the state of the world.

Desmond Tutu and Richard Burridge (Credit: Richard Burridge)

I was amazed by Tutu’s stamina and I witnessed how his public life was sustained by his spiritual discipline. At the end of that long and tiring first day, I told him that he was doing a live interview on BBC Radio 4 at 7am before then presiding at the early Cathedral Eucharist. He calmly announced that he needed waking up at 4.30am for his prayer and meditation – and his morning jog. The image of armed Special Branch officers running alongside the diminutive figure in his episcopal purple tracksuit in the early morning mist along the River Exe, followed by prayer and the sacrament, and a demanding radio interview, remains with me today: the physical and the spiritual, the public and the private, the political and the religious, all united in this extraordinary man.

Since that first visit, there wasn’t (until Covid) a year that went by when I didn’t make at least one visit to the Archbishop, whom I quickly learned to call ‘Father’ in the traditional but simple respect for the priesthood. In 1998, while he was chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was invited to spend a couple of months in Cape Town with him for research on his theology for a book about how the Bible was used under apartheid. His commitment to the principle of justice for all, regardless of race, colour or the ‘shape of their nose’ (a line he used a lot to provoke laughter at his own expense – although he also used this example seriously in Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis can have different shaped noses), is well-known. It was often asked whether his sense of justice arose from a political ‘theology of liberation’, an approach which first begun in South America among the poor communities oppressed by right-wing military regimes and was viewed with suspicion, even by the church, as being too ‘communist’.

Was the apartheid regime’s accusation true that Tutu was at heart an atheist or communist who twisted theology and Bible in that light? His commitment to the ‘struggle’ and to ‘liberation’ is seen as early in a 1964 letter to the then Dean of King's College London, asking to stay on after his undergraduate degree to be allowed to take a Master’s: 

‘I would, I think, want to have a shot at it. In a sense it is part of the struggle for our liberation. Please, I hope it does not sound big-headed or, worse, downright silly. But if I go back home as highly qualified as you can make me, the more ridiculous our Government’s policy will appear to be to earnest and intelligent people.’

In 1982, Tutu defended himself against accusations of atheism and communism from the Eloff Commission, appointed by the apartheid government to investigate the South African Council of Churches, of which Tutu was then the general secretary. Here it was evident that his constant stress on the dignity of all human beings was in actual fact deeply rooted in his faith and his reading of the Bible. He began simply: 

‘I want to show that the SACC and its member churches have their agenda and their programmes in this matter determined by what the scriptures have revealed as the will of God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ 

His detailed defence statement was full of biblical quotations and scriptural references.

A year later, his contribution to the collection Apartheid is a Heresy was also predominantly a Bible study, arguing that ‘apartheid contradicts the testimony of the Bible categorically’. Similarly, his eight-page rejoinder to P.W. Botha in March 1988 is packed with more scriptural references, and states: 

‘The Bible and the Church predate Marxism and the ANC by several centuries. Our marching orders come from Christ himself and not from any human being.’

Tutu’s mentor, Father Timothy Stanton from the Anglican monks of the Community of the Resurrection (based in Mirfield, Yorkshire, but with a distinguished history of service in southern Africa), perfectly summarised Tutu’s approach. At the 25th anniversary service to celebrate Tutu having been consecrated as the first black bishop in South Africa, Father Timothy preached that: 

‘Those were the days of Liberation Theology, Black Theology, African Theology, Contextual Theology, but it’s not from the exponents of these that the Archbishop quotes. The only book that the Archbishop quotes from extensively is the Bible.’

Tutu’s commitment to the biblical principle of God’s love for everyone, was there almost from the very start. He often told me about how when he was eight-year-old boy on the streets of Sophiatown (a suburb of Johannesburg) he was amazed to see a young priest in a soutane ‘doff his wide-brimmed clergy hat to my mother’. That a white Englishman could wish her ‘Good morning, Madam’ had a huge influence on the young Tutu, giving him that ‘sense of the unique worth of a person as a beloved child of God’.

Tutu in London with (from left) Richard Burridge, Jonathan Sacks and Rowan Williams (Credit: Richard Burridge)

This sense was then reinforced through his early experiences serving at the daily mass with Archbishop Trevor Huddleston (who visited him daily when he had TB in his early teens) and other clergy of the Community of Resurrection.

It is this basic, but iron-clad belief which enabled Tutu not just to survive beatings, tear-gassings, insults and other extraordinary pressures, but to go on declaring and demonstrating to others the love of God for everyone, a love which he renewed through the basic principle that each day must begin with prayer and meditation, worship and the sacrament. I remember one morning we were celebrating the daily Eucharist with his team at the offices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when lawyers from P.W. Botha arrived with a legal writ for Archbishop Desmond. Tutu just carried on with the liturgy – while John Allen, his public relations adviser, took them aside to explain that ‘God was more important to the Arch’. P.W. would just have to wait.

In 2004, I hosted Archbishop Desmond and Mama Leah for three hectic months at King's College London, during which I chaired a three-way dialogue between Archbishop Desmond and the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Archbishop Rowan and the Chief Rabbi carefully picked their way through the various ‘minefield’ questions that their staff preferred us to avoid but, sitting between them, Archbishop Desmond threw caution to the wind. At one point, he suddenly threw his arms wide open to demonstrate the universality of God’s love, shouting ‘God loves ALL!’, only to knock his distinguished dialogue partners off their chairs.

Sadly, I was not able to attend his most recent birthday because of the pandemic, so my last visit was to his usual daily communion on his 88th in 2019. He recorded a brief personal video for an upcoming dinner to celebrate my own ‘retirement’ as Dean of King’s. In it he reflected upon his time as a student of King’s, explaining that his teachers had not been ‘hoity-toity’ (a typical Tutu-ism) but had made him ‘feel so special, as if you the only student being cared for’ – a wonderful echo of that anonymous English priest who made his mother feel ‘so special’.

Desmond Tutu was a man who had seen great sorrow and suffering, both of his beautiful yet torn, divided land, and in his own persecutions. Yet he remained a person of great happiness, humour and encouragement, always rooted in prayer and the sacrament. It was a mix of spirituality and humanity which made it a joy to be able to call him ‘Father’.

The Rev’d Canon Professor Richard A. Burridge is a biblical scholar, author and priest. He was Dean of King’s College London from 1994 to 2019