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Tutu mourned — but his life is celebrated

26 December 2021


Dr Desmond Tutu, in London in 2010

Dr Desmond Tutu, in London in 2010

CHURCH and world leaders paid tribute this week to the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Dr Desmond Tutu, who died, aged 90, early on Boxing Day morning.

Dr Tutu’s death was announced by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. “South Africa and the world have lost one of the great spirits and moral giants of our age,” a statement said. He was “a living embodiment of faith in action”, it continued, “speaking boldly against racism, injustice, corruption, and oppression, not just in apartheid South Africa but wherever in the world he saw wrongdoing, especially when it impacted the most vulnerable and voiceless in society. . .

“With political leaders in prison and exile, Tutu, as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and later Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, became the nation’s most outspoken prophet for justice. In spite of consistent smears and vicious intimidation by the apartheid regime, he refused to be cowed.

“Whether from the pulpit or in the streets, on trial or confronting cabinet ministers in the Union Buildings, he spoke with a fierce moral and spiritual authority that faced down his adversaries and slowly won their grudging respect.”

Dr Tutu’s failing health had been known about since before Christmas. Many of his friends and supporters had last seen him at a service to mark his 90th birthday (News, 8 October). It was a milestone he had never expected even to approach, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer more than two decades earlier.

The funeral is due to take place on New Year’s Day, in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, where Dr Tutu’s body is lying in state for the two days beforehand. There will be a requiem mass, followed by cremation. Dr Tutu’s ashes will later be interred in the cathedral mausoleum. The preacher at the service will be Bishop Michael Nuttall. Now aged 87, he served, while Bishop of Natal, as “Number Two to Tutu”, until 2000.

This week, the cathedral’s bells have tolled, and from eight o’clock each evening, Table Mountain has been lit with purple lights in his honour. An interfaith memorial service took place before the funeral, on Wednesday, in Cape Town, where the Tutus made their home after retirement.

The current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, described Dr Tutu’s death as “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”.

He continued: “Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.

“A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity, and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.

AlamyPresident Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to the media on Monday after visiting the Tutu home in Cape Town

“As chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he articulated the universal outrage at the ravages of apartheid, and touchingly and profoundly demonstrated the depth of meaning of ubuntu, reconciliation, and forgiveness. . .

“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”

The Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, said: “While we mourn his passing, as Christians and people of faith we must also celebrate the life of a deeply spiritual person whose alpha and omega – his starting point and his ending point — was his relationship with our Creator. He took God, God’s purpose and God’s creation deadly seriously. Prayer, the scriptures and his ministry to the people God entrusted to his care were at the heart of his life.”

“He believed totally that each one of us is made in the image of God and ought to be treated as such by others. This belief was not reached through cerebral contemplation; it arose from his faith and was held with a deeply-felt passion. He wanted every human being on earth to experience the freedom, the peace and the joy that all of us could enjoy if we truly respected one another as people created in the image of God.”

Further tributes were paid by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Archbishop Welby said: “The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (always known as ‘Arch’) is news that we receive with profound sadness — but also with profound gratitude as we reflect upon his life. My prayers and condolences are with his family and all who loved him, with the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, and all of the people of South Africa.

“Arch’s love transformed the lives of politicians and priests, township dwellers and world leaders. The world is different because of this man.

“Archbishop Tutu was a prophet and priest, a man of words and action, one who embodied the hope and joy that were the foundations of his life. He was a man of extraordinary personal courage and bravery: when the police burst into Capetown Cathedral, he defied them by dancing down the aisle.

“He was a man of enormous vision: seeing the possibilities for building the Rainbow Nation long before anyone else, except perhaps President Mandela.

“His vision and bravery were allied with a canny political sense and wisdom, enabling him to be a healer and apostle of peace while so many still saw wounds and war.

“He was a pioneer, the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town, the pioneer of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“He was a great warrior for justice who never stopped fighting — whether it was for those in his own country, for inclusivity in the South African Constitution, or for those suffering injustice around the world.

“When he was in parts of the world where there was little Anglican presence and people weren’t sure what the Anglican Church was, it was enough to say: ‘It’s the Church that Desmond Tutu belongs to’ — a testimony to the international reputation he had and the respect with which he was held.

“Most of all he was a Christian disciple — that was the root of everything else. After meeting him, many would speak of being in the presence of one who brought God close to them. His joy, grace, laughter, hope and life caught up those around him with a sense of Jesus Christ.

“It was Jesus’s love we saw in his eyes, Jesus’s compassion we heard in his voice, Jesus’s joy we heard in his laughter, Jesus’s face we saw in his face. And it was beautiful and brave.

“His greatest love is now realised, as he meets his Lord face to face.”

Archbishop Cottrell said: “One of the great and abiding images of the second half of the 20th century was Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela dancing in the courtroom at the end of the closing session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. . .

“It was a bold and creative way of helping a nation divided brutally between black and white learn to live in glorious technicolour by facing up to the horrors of its past and by putting the Christian imperative for forgiveness alongside the need for truth as the only way of achieving reconciliation.

“And Desmond Tutu was asked to chair it because this incredibly joyful little disciple of Jesus Christ was one of the few people in South Africa other than Nelson Mandela himself, who could unite the nation and carry the trust of everyone.

“In this respect, he was a giant.

“The world itself feels a little smaller without him. His expansive vision of how the Christian faith shapes the whole of life has touched many hearts and changed many lives. The Anglican church in particular gives thanks for one of its greatest saints. But Christian people everywhere, and all people of goodwill, will today be mourning the loss of someone who showed the world what following Jesus looks like and where it leads.

“Our prayers today are particularly with his family and with our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church of South Africa. When I go to my chapel this morning to celebrate the eucharist on this, St Stephen’s Day, I may dance a little jig in thankful memory of this wonderful human being. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

The Queen said: “I am joined by the whole Royal Family in being deeply saddened by the news of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world.”

Boris Johnson said: “He was a critical figure in the fight against apartheid and in the struggle to create a new South Africa and will be remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humour.”

The Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, said: “Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man, and a leader of moral activism. He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations. May he rest in peace.”

A statement from the World Council of Churches (WCC) said: “Desmond Tutu’s convictions and witness especially against racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia continue to inspire our efforts for a world free from these ills.”

The WCC’s acting general secretary, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, said: “We invite all member churches, ecumenical partners, and all people of good will to celebrate a life well and faithfully lived in service to God and humanity, and to uphold his legacy of consistent solidarity with the marginalised communities of this world.”

The director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, John Cooper, said: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu looked evil in the eye and preached justice, peace, love, and inclusion. . . His spirit will live on through the many books he wrote and recordings of talks and sermons he gave. . . They were inspiring when he first said or wrote them and still carry that resonance today. As we hear them, I hope we don’t just remember but feel challenged to reflect on what our own witness to peace and justice can be today.”

Besides tributes to the pivotal part that he played in the anti-apartheid struggle, tributes also noted Dr Tutu’s advocacy of the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church. In an interview published in the Church Times, on 8 October 2006, he said: “There must come a time [in the current debate on homosexuality] when we will have to draw a line in the sand which cannot be crossed, and say enough is enough.”

A former Bishop of New Hampshire, in the United States, the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, who was the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, spoke to the Religion News Service on Monday of Dr Tutu’s “astounding gesture of generosity and kindness” in writing a foreword to Bishop Robinson’s book In the Eye of the Storm (Canterbury Press, 2008).

In the foreword to the book, published in year in which Bishop Robinson was not invited to the Lambeth Conference, Dr Tutu wrote: “Gene Robinson is a wonderful human being, and I am proud to belong to the same Church as he.”

A former secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, Canon John Peterson, said on Monday: “Archbishop Desmond was never afraid to speak his frank opposition to those who condemned people of the LGBT-plus community; instead, he offered love and acceptance to all those whom he titled ‘God’s rainbow people.’”

Leader comment: Tutu’s passing

Paul Vallely: Tutu’s legacy belongs to the future


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