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Fr Aelred Stubbs CR

02 November 2006

FR AELRED STUBBS, who died on 17 October, aged 81, was one of the most remarkable Mirfield Fathers of his generation. At a crucial period in South Africa’s history, he deeply influenced a whole group of black ordinands, including Desmond Tutu. He exercised an often dangerous ministry to opponents of apartheid, including his close friend Steve Biko. Undergirding everything was contemplative prayer.

Eton and a wartime service as an officer attracted him to community life and fostered a capacity for leadership. In 1949, after Oxford, he had a decisive encounter with Fr Raymond Raynes, the Superior of the Community of the Resurrection, who brought him back to faith. Realising that he had always wanted to give himself unreservedly to Christ, he went to Mirfield in 1950, and was professed, deaconed and priested in 1954. But for Aelred, being a monk was always more important than being a priest.

In 1959, CR sent him to be a tutor at its theological college in Johannesburg. So began his lifetime’s commitment to South Africa’s sufferings, struggles and hopes. In 1962, after Desmond Tutu was ordained, Aelred arranged for him to study in London to prepare him for theological teaching and future leadership. In 1974, Aelred was so keen for him to become Bishop of Johannesburg that he declined nomination himself.

For years, CR’s campus had been attacked as a multi-racial society in a white area. From the 1950s, tensions increased as apartheid was enforced. It was widely known that Fr Trevor Huddleston, the champion of Africans, was Prior, and that black political leaders and the multi-racial Liberal Party regularly met there. First CR’s secondary school (“the Black Eton”) and then in 1962 the theological college (of which Aelred had become Principal in 1960) were closed by the authorities.

In reaction to such closures, four churches resolved to create a Federal Seminary at Alice, Cape Province. The bishops asked CR to run the Anglican college. But the Superior, Fr Jonathan Graham, rejected the proposal as subversive of Catholicism. Aelred strongly disagreed. The Churches must stand together against apartheid. Aelred convinced General Chapter, and eventually the Superior.

In the mid-1960s. Aelred received a long letter from Steve Biko asking for help in understanding Christianity. He already knew the Bikos, an Anglican family. Steve went on to become leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. Some saw him as a future prime minister. But he was killed in police custody in 1977.

For more than a decade, Aelred was Steve’s spiritual mentor and in 1978 published a memoir and a selection of his writings. Aelred met regularly with Steve’s political group, which included Mamphela Ramphele, later Vice-Chancellor of Cape Town University. This group revolutionised Aelred’s political attitudes. His ministry altered their picture of the Anglican Church.

Dr Ramphele, who became an Anglican, wrote: “When our community was scattered by arrests, detentions, deaths in detention and banning orders, this Mirfield monk was our most constant support both in terms of spiritual and material needs.”

The government regarded the Seminary as dangerously multi-racial. In 1974, it was informed that it would be expropriated in a month’s time. Aelred had ceased to be Principal on health grounds in 1972, but made a visit the very day the news was received. After compline, he leaned against the wall outside the chapel and wept at its coming destruction. Yet just when he felt torn apart between feeling totally at ease with the black activists and alienated from many white Anglicans, he was proposed as Bishop of Port Elizabeth.

Paradoxically, it was in Port Elizabeth in Holy Week 1977 that he was arrested by the police and strip-searched. Special Branch also raided the Johannesburg Priory. In June, he returned to England. During General Chapter, a dapper young man from South Africa House turned up, stayed to lunch, and handed him an order forbidding his return.

As a novice, Aelred had felt drawn to the more Benedictine side of the CR tradition. Before his banishment he had discussed his very hectic life, both with General Chapter and Biko, and whether he was being called to a life of intercessory prayer on the model of the enclosed nuns of the Society of the Precious Blood whom he had often visited. Now that he could not return to South Africa, Chapter agreed that he should try this vocation in Lesotho in the grounds of a multi-racial convent established by SPB. Three weeks after his arrival, Biko was killed by Port Elizabeth police.

After four years, CR recalled Aelred to take over Emmaus, its house of intercessory prayer which had moved from a Manchester council flat to a redundant vicarage in a partially derelict area of Sunderland. He was later joined by another Mirfield Father also strongly influenced by SPB. The essence of Emmaus was being with God, mostly in silence apart from mass and the offices, for the sake of people. Though Emmaus had been a great spiritual resource for many, CR decided to close the house in 1993, partly because CR numbers were falling, partly because some believed that it was not within the CR tradition.

Thereafter, apart from a year in London when he had extensive surgery, Aelred lived at Mirfield. Three years before he died, he moved to a nursing home nearby. He desperately missed the CR life which had sustained him for more than 50 years.

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