Weekend Post Column

I cannot say that I had always acknowledged that Christianity and politics would always shape my life the way they have. In my early years I had been inclined to be an avid scholar, and I was committed to my studies and envisaged a professional life for myself. Christianity was always a lukewarm affair in my upbringing, and hardly ever a dominant factor in the life of my family. And yet, what Christianity was practiced at home was without doubt in the Anglican Church.

Of course, coming as I do from New Brighton, Port Elizabeth my early influences were firmly embedded in the church. I remember the fascination I used to have for Canon James Calata of Cradock and Fr James Gawe of Queenstown – two Anglican priests who were active in the Cape Congress, and who were constantly under arrest, harassed by the police, and in Revd JA Calata’s case endured many years of banning orders.

In my early years at Lovedale Institution in Alice, I remember how fascinated I was during a visit by Prof ZK Matthews who came to address us in the SCA about Christianity and Politics. I do not know that I remember much about what he actually said to us as, in my case a 14 year old boy. What I do know and it stayed with me for ever, was how a black person had achieved such staggering heights as an educated person to be called a professor.

From then onwards my journey and formation took the predictable path: university, student politics, banning orders, prison, exile, and back. At no stage however had it occurred to me that I had a calling to ministry, until, that is, I had a strong sense that a career in law was never going to offer me fulfillment. Yes, it is true that at Fort Hare I was one of those who came under the influence of the likes of Fr Aelred Stubbs, CR, Fr Desmond Tutu and Revd Simon Gqubule of the Methodist Church, our university Chaplains.The Calatas and the Gawe became irresistible models, and the ministry of my parish priests like Fr James Haya and Douglas Mbopa became irresistible. As a student activist I was comfortable in both the Christian societies like the ASF and the UCM, as much as I was in the ANC Youth League underground, and later in the Black Consciousness Movement. I had an amazing fascination with ideas, challenge and activism. I was always eager to confront received notions and to test them. I was always very vocal about radical ideas and thinking. In time I found my Christian convictions very liberating.

And so it was that in April 1978, having escaped the clutches of the security police and banning orders, my wife, daughter and I found ourselves in Lesotho, at the start of an unpredictable exile. While I was there I was offered an opportunity to take up a scholarship at King’s College London to read Theology. For the first time in my university career, I was in a scholarly environment that challenged us to think and to think critically. I was at a place where my claims to faith were being tested and where my activism was receiving a strong philosophical and intellectual grounding. It was by any stretch of the imagination an exhilerating experience. By the end of my Theology studies, I had come to the firm conviction that I was destined for the priesthood.

Having spent a year at theological college in Oxford I felt humbled to be ordained by the Bishop of Oxford on 3 July 1982, at a ceremony held at the gargantuan Milton Keynes Shopping Mall. This was followed by three years as a curate in an ecumenical parish in Milton Keynes, then one of the developing new towns where community was being shaped and identity discovered.

My ministry then led me from Milton Keynes, to a working class parish in south Birmingham, and from there to the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

This week then marks the 30th Anniversary of my priesthood. I am the first to say that I was an unlikely ordinand, who came late into vocation and with a background in law and politics. I was never quite sure where that would lead me but I trust that God had a plan for my life. I could say with confidence that my intellectual and political orientation always made me a curious observer of the faith of God’s people, with a pastoral sense that I was called to get alongside God’s people in their daily struggles for life. It seemed appropriate that such an event was worthy of celebration, and to thank God for the trust and guidance that I have experienced through life. It was also important also to celebrate what one has been able to offer in a variety of situations of ministry in the world.

It was therefore appropriate to come to the place where it all began, at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, New Brighton. It would have been an event dedicated to all who have shaped my life in ministry especially the likes of Fr Douglas Mbopa of St Stephen’s, Fr James Haya of Holy Spirit Kwazakhele, Bishop Bruce Evans, Fr Aelred Stubbs, CR, Fr Desmond Tutu, and of course, my late mother Ruth. It would also have been an occasion to dedicate to the ailing former President Nelson Mandela whose towering influence on my generation has been invaluable. It has been an insight into human resourcefulness, and the essence of humanity; it has been a drive for a better humanity; and it has been the belief that we can shape our world for the better. All of these have been constant themes in nelson Mandela’s Presidency during which I was privileged to serve as Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission.

To be candid, it had never occurred to me to desire any higher office in the church that was in the giving of others. I was content to present myself without shame for who I was. I was jealous always of my commitment to the truth and to independence. It did not surprise me that, on the two occasions where I allowed myself to be persuaded to stand for office as bishop, I was never elected (one was in Port Elizabeth, where at least one of the black priests is reported to have protested that I could not be elected because I was more of a politician than a priest. I thought that was the highest accolade one could favour me with!). Indeed, I thanked God for that because I reasoned that my calling as a theologian and critical thinker would remain untempered with.

I acknowledge though the honour that especially the Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba entrusted to me to serve as Rector of the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown since 2011. It has been a singular privilege to help restore the church’s passion for quality clergy precisely of the kind who shaped my own life here in the Eastern Cape. The College of the Transfiguration is on the verge of becoming a fully registered and accredited higher education institution. It remains our desire that my family, friends and comrades be invited to support this venture in every possible way, so that we can have a seminary we can all be very proud of.

However, we have decided to postpone this cerebration in honour of Madiba, at this critical time in our nation’s history. We believed that it was correct that we join in a singular heart and mind to unite in prayer with the whole nation, especially to pray that as a nation we may recover our moral bearings. The cerebration will now be held at St Stephen’s Church on Saturday 7 September 2013.

N Barney Pityana

3 July 2013.

Last Modified: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 16:13:48 SAST