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The Contemplative Struggle: Radical discipleship in a broken world, by Ian Cowley

25 June 2021

John D. Davies reviews a record of encounter and contemplation

IAN COWLEY is a white South African man, born nearly 70 years ago, brought up in the benign rural environment of Natal. If he had fulfilled expectations, he would have become a conventional Anglican gentleman, a superior English-speaking member of the white race.

But Cowley’s life took a somewhat different course. His book is primarily about spirituality; but, to convey his message, he has to tell something of his life-story. This starts with his entry into the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, to study law and business administration. By the time that he started at university, the 1959 Extension of University Education Act had taken effect. This created a scattered establishment of black tribal colleges, segregated on racial and ethnic criteria. The previously “open” universities, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Natal, were restricted to white students only; they became white tribal colleges.

But there were vigorous national student bodies; these functioned on these segregated campuses, but they flourished as racially integrated organisations at regional and national level. For both black and white students, their conferences provided a converting experience, an alternative vision of society, where black and white people could meet as genuine friends and not only on a master/servant basis; and this was at a time when the apartheid machine was grinding ever more successfully, and when hope for change was wearing very thin.

The integrated organisations enabled the generation of courageous, independent-minded students, who were prepared to defy the expectations of parents, teachers, and government. They included the Anglican Students’ Federation and the ecumenical University Christian Movement. For Cowley, they opened up a whole new world. They brought him into contact with impressive characters of all race-groups, people such as the dynamic black students’ leader Steve Biko (who would, in my view, have become the natural successor to President Mandela, if he had not been cruelly done to death by the Security Police).

These ecumenical organisations were viewed with suspicion by some other Christians, notably by Evangelicals who had been caught up in the newly arrived Charismatic Movement. For them, the ecumenical groups were unbiblical humanists, dangerous quasi-Marxists. For the ecumenical types, the Evangelicals were pietistic, concerned only with their individual salvation, indifferent to the injustices experienced by most of the population.

But, for those who were impressed by the Black Consciousness influence, this hassle was merely white people’s games, irrelevant luxury. Bishop Alphaeus Zulu summarised their position: “We Africans have no need of a Charismatic Movement — we have always been charismatic, without any pressure from outside.” People like Cowley were attracted by the Evangelical emphasis on conversion, but it had to include conversion from the heresies and illusions of apartheid, which were otherwise winning all the battles. A new ingredient was being discovered in the Christian mix. This was where Cowley found himself.

Cowley was deeply drawn to the insights of medieval spiritual teachers such as Richard Rolle and Thomas à Kempis, and Thomas Merton of our own day. This is the kind of commitment which underlies his book. Readers who are interested in spirituality will be attracted by his excellent summary of the discipline of contemplation. But, to get there, they will need to work through Cowley’s exploration of the demonic powers of racism, financial injustice, and indifference to the degradation of the environment.

His spirituality has been formed in a situation of loss, of oppression, of cruelty, when all the signs were that the powers of evil were winning. His kind of contemplation draws us to awareness of God’s critique of the disobedience in our human systems, and into commitment to the struggle for the realisation of God’s Kingdom.

And this is not only for South Africa; Cowley was ordained priest in his native land and served in parish ministry there. But he came to England some years ago, and has been a parish priest and adviser in spirituality in English dioceses. For South Africa and for Britain, his book provides a well-formed and personally validated guidance concerning the claims of our Creator upon our obedience and our energies.

The Rt Revd John D. Davies was National Chaplain to the Anglican Students’ Federation of Southern Africa, and Convener of the Council of Churches’ Commission which created the University Christian Movement.

The Contemplative Struggle: Radical discipleship in a broken world
Ian Cowley
BRF £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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