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Leader comment: Tutu’s passing

31 December 2021

THE Anglican Communion does not have a formal process for saint-making, though it agrees that time should usually elapse for seeing lives in historical perspective before they are formally commemorated. There is a refreshingly democratic element to its approach, with its tacit acknowledgement that saintliness is not attached to fame and influence, but breaks out just as often in the backwaters of God’s priestly people. Most candidates (of whatever denomination) would respond with horror at the prospect of being elevated to the ranks of the officially sainted — or with laughter. Can anyone imagine another response from the late Desmond Tutu?

As our obituary notes, the spirit of humble service which brought him to the fore in South African politics when many black political leaders were incarcerated was also responsible for the much rarer (and saintlier) relinquishing of such prominence when those leaders were released. Humility was a key element in the Archbishop’s make-up — and, if it was forgotten occasionally, then it was enforced by his family. The editorial in the current issue of Theology (prompted not by prescience of his death, but by a review of Michael Battle’s Spiritual Biography of Dr Tutu) argues that it is honour enough to include him in the calendar.

In his biography, Battle does, however, propose that the process of saint-making (rather than saint-recognition) can be seen in Dr Tutu’s story. He was refined by the fire of apartheid during his early years, and, later, permitted himself to be placed in its crucible once again as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He told once of a funeral service held for him by close friends, so real at the time was the threat of assassination. Perhaps that is a clue to his charisma: he lived (despite his faults) as a resurrected being, in the way that all Christians are called to live, and yet so few manage. The image of such a life as being one of fearlessness and humour must not be allowed to die with him.

Looking forward

THE turn of the year brings an invitation to introspection. This exercise is shunned by many, it is true. But, for a second year running, the planned distractions of abandon and excess, although permitted, are being strenuously discouraged. The desire to say “good riddance” to 2021 is strong, of course; but we recall a similar sentiment at the end of 2020. It is possible to honour the losses of the past year, including those who have died, while celebrating the lively possibilities of the year to come.

The essayist Charles Lamb, susceptible to gloom, expressed this 101 years ago, as he imagined himself surrounded by pious tombstones. “Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that ‘such as he now is, I must shortly be’. Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Years’ Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821.”

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