Home to Rome
WHEN I took on the editorship of the Forward in Faith magazine New Directions last year, I did not expect to become the shortest-serving editor in the magazine’s history; but these things happen. I submitted my resignation on a Friday morning in February, before the March edition went to press. Feeling the need to lie low for a few days, I jumped on an afternoon flight out of Heathrow and headed to my usual bolthole.
As the plane gained height, it flew directly over Fort Belvedere, the home of Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales: he signed the Deed of Abdication there in December 1936. I comforted myself with the thought that at least I hadn’t had to step down because I was in love with an American divorcée.
A few hours later, I was sipping Apérol on the Campo de’Fiori, enjoying the surprisingly warm Roman evening with unsurprisingly warm Roman friends. Back at home, the gossip-mill went into overdrive, and came up with “Editor of New Directions resigns and goes to Rome.” It was true; but this time only literally.
The magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and I wish my successor well.
I MAY not have crossed the Tiber, but I have certainly crossed the Limpopo — at least for now. I have been in South Africa since the beginning of March: contributing to the “Christianity in South Africa” course at the University of the Western Cape, and continuing my fieldwork for the Cowley Project.
The Dean of Cape Town has kindly provided me with a study in the cathedral precincts, which stays cool in the heat of the day. Occasionally, I am driven from it by the local trumpet-busker, who stands just outside the enclosure. His repertoire consists entirely of “Close to you”, “When the saints go marching in”, and “Fly me to the moon”. He plays nothing else — except, apparently, at Christmas.
Technically, my little cell is the Metropolitan’s robing room; and the crozier that the Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, uses when he pontificates in his metropolitical church stands in a corner. An engraved plate records that it was originally a gift to Geoffrey Clayton, “from the communicants of Chesterfield Parish Church”, where he had been Vicar, on his consecration to Johannesburg in 1934.
After his translation to Cape Town in 1948, Clayton became an unlikely leader of the early fight against apartheid, although he disapproved of the overt politics of priests such as Trevor Huddleston. On Ash Wednesday 1957, he signed a letter to the Prime Minister, Hans Strydom, stating the South African bench’s refusal to co-operate with the National Party’s plans to force the segregation of Christian congregations.
Shortly afterwards, he suffered a massive heart attack, and, by the time Strydom received the letter, Clayton was dead.
IT WAS in Cape Town that the BBC tracked me down to comment on the disgraceful treatment meted out to the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, over his nomination to the diocese of Sheffield. With hindsight, my only regret is that I tempered the thoughts that first sprang to mind. It left me wide open to being out-quoted a few days later by the chairman of the Westcott House Common Room in the International Business Times.
The Third Sunday in Lent turned out to be “TB Awareness Sunday”. Tuberculosis remains a very real problem here, and the Church plays a leading part in encouraging people to be alert to the symptoms. At the cathedral, the litany was sung in procession, and Fr Michael Lapsley SSM preached: he is “Canon for Reconciliation and Healing”, and the director of the Institute for Healing of Memories.
The hooks that have replaced his hands since the attempt on his life in 1990 glinted in the light at the front of the nave. We exchanged a few words afterwards. He was
about to fly to the Middle East: his memoir, Redeeming the Past, has just been translated into Arabic.
Things are a little different from when I was here last year. I had the honour of representing Archbishop Tutu at Bishop John Salt’s funeral in February; but he has now retired from public ministry, and the cathedral community is feeling his absence.
Happily, work has begun on repairing the roof, but now whoever is leading the 12-o’clock Angelus has to decide which of the loud bangs is an over-enthusiastic roofer, and which is the noonday gun. It is hoped that the nave will be watertight before the winter sets in; but funds are still needed.
EASTER is almost within sight; and I am in a topsy-turvy place. At night, the constellations of the stars are all upside-down; and at choral evensong, cassock, surplice, and hood feel like three layers too many. I already know that out here the Palm Sunday ceremonies involve bountiful soft green palm-fronds, freshly cut from trees near by, instead of the rationed dried versions that get shipped to us back home. I hope that there will be an ill-tempered donkey.
The University of the Western Cape, meanwhile, is a fairly long drive from my lodgings at Llandudno. The hazards along the road range from herds of goats to the white minivans that function as an unofficial bus service. The vans undertake and overtake at high speed, depending on where their drivers think there may be space in the road ahead.
The goats are more predictable; but I have already found that nothing focuses the mind quite like glancing into the rear-view mirror and realising that the windscreen of the car behind is already peppered with bullet-holes.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.