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Diary

22 April 2016

ISTOCK

Cowley to Cape Town

IT’S not every day that one has breakfast with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. I was in Cape Town in February on a research trip, and was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time talking to him about the Cowley Fathers. He celebrates the early service at St George’s Cathedral on most Fridays when he is in town, and it draws quite a crowd.

On the morning in question, just before the offertory, visitors were invited to introduce themselves. People had come from all over the world — including a group from his home parish in the Transvaal — but the couple sitting next to me turned out to be from Henley-on-Thames. It’s a small world.

The service was trilingual: Dr Tutu consecrated the elements in Xhosa, with its rising and falling tones and distinctive clicks, and continued the Eucharistic Prayer in Afrikaans, before returning to English for the Lord’s Prayer. During communion, the Transvaal group started singing. I cannot tell you what they sang, as my own grasp of Xhosa leaves much to be desired; but their enthusiasm was evident, and it lifted the spirits.

After the service, the Dean of Cape Town, the Very Revd Michael Weeder, invited me to join him — together with the Archbishop, his wife, and others — for breakfast at a café, and, together with the diocesan Dean of Studies, the Revd Richard Cogill, we made our way there.

When he was Archbishop, Dr Tutu made a point of encouraging people to keep Cape Town tidy, and would pick up litter wherever he went. In his 85th year, he finds it difficult to bend down, and walks with a stick; but this has not dampened his commitment to the campaign. As we walked, he used his stick to point out various bits of litter, which were then picked up by Fr Weeder and Fr Cogill, and deposited in the nearest bin.

I was roped in to help, and so our little procession made its way down St George’s Mall, the two Deans and I going ahead of Archbishop Tutu, removing little pieces of paper, sweet wrappers, and other offending items from his path. There’s a parable in there somewhere.

 

Strangely warm

IT WAS odd spending much of Lent in summer clothes; but I enjoyed the experience. At St Philip the Deacon, in District Six, the Cowley Fathers’ old parish church, I was personally welcomed at the start of mass and treated like a celebrity afterwards.

Since the declaration of the area as “whites only” in the 1960s, and the subsequent demolition of homes, many of the members of the congregation have commuted back to St Philip’s Sunday by Sunday, determined to remain rooted as best they can in their families’ parish church.

At St Michael and All Angels, Observatory, in Cape Town — smoke, maniples, and birettas — the diverse congregation sang Merbecke lustily, and Fr Richard Girdwood welcomed me like a long-lost friend. He plied me with Sunday gin after the solemn high mass (at which the preacher was the Archdeacon of St Albans, who also happened to be in town), and I hope that by now he is enjoying the start of his retirement in New Zealand.

St George’s Cathedral, although still incomplete and with an enormous hole in the roof that the authorities are seeking funds to fix, is magnificent. I arrived for my first visit just before midday, and found the cathedral staff — clergy, secretaries, cleaners, handymen — gathered at the front of the nave. When the thunderous noon-day gun sounded from Signal Hill, they all rose and began to recite the Angelus.

I dare say I’ll be returning to Cape Town before too long.

 

From Tutu to Tutu’s

BACK in the northern hemisphere, it turned out that there is a large room named in honour of Desmond Tutu at his alma mater, high up the Students’ Union tower at King’s College, London. “Tutu’s” has a cracking view down the Thames, and doubles up as a performance space.

I was there because I had promised a young friend of mine that I would go and see him as Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro. I say “young”, and it seems that only recently we celebrated his GCSE results; but George turned 21 in the autumn, and now sports a bushy auburn hipster beard, on which the jury is still out.

He did not have as many lines as I was expecting, which was a shame, as he sings nicely. It emerged that the director — as if the behaviour of most of the male characters in Mozart’s original wasn’t enough to make the point — was aiming for a particularly “feminist” interpretation, and Bartolo was duly eclipsed by Marcellina.

Without a programme (some elements of student theatre seem not to have changed very much since I was an undergraduate), this was pretty baffling. The fact that she was Figaro’s mother was made forcibly, and I headed back down the Strand with my ears still ringing with cries of “Madre!”

 

Going West

A FORMER Vicar of St Gabriel’s, Pimlico, Fr David Skeoch, died in March. He was one of those people whose personality exceeds their diminutive stature — rather like Archbishop Tutu, come to think of it — and the stories told of him are legion.

I know, however, that many of his friends feel that the anecdotes that made it into his obituary in the Telegraph furnished only part of a full picture of the man and the priest. He was for a time chaplain to the late Graham Leonard at Truro and London, and he came to mind as I drove into Truro on Easter Monday, on the first of a few days’ break in the West Country.

It was quite a journey down. Storm Katie, having already driven us to light a smaller-than-usual Easter fire in the church porch two days earlier, raged at full throttle, with gale-force winds and torrential rain. It took nearly the whole day, but, with an old friend for company in the car, the time passed quickly enough. The terrible weather meant that the pub lunch we had planned was soon abandoned in favour of a time-saving picnic-in-transit; so we stopped at Waitrose in Sidmouth — where John Keble is said to have done much of his thinking (at Sidmouth, that is, not in Waitrose) — to pick up the necessary accoutrements. We were just emptying the day’s detritus into the car-park bin when the trolley attendant came over.

“Hello!” he exclaimed, dripping wet but beaming from ear to ear in his hi-viz fluorescent waterproof jacket.

“Hello!” I replied, in my not-quite-waterproof quilted Barbour, wondering what he wanted while putting on my best press-the-flesh smile.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, looking crestfallen. “I thought you were one of the directors of Plymouth Argyle.”

I do hope that, before the next board meeting at Home Park (yes, I looked it up), one of the directors of Plymouth Argyle gets mistaken in the car park for a jobbing church historian who writes for the Church Times.

 

Dr Serenhedd James is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House.

 

Correction: Lampeter is in Cardiganshire, not Carmarthenshire, as stated in last week’s Diary.

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