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For Desmond Tutu on his 90th birthday: The archbishop f...

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Opinionista

For Desmond Tutu on his 90th birthday: The archbishop for all people, even those on the edge

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Chris Ahrends is a recently retired Anglican priest. During his ministry, he was chaplain to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, subdean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town and a canon of one of the Anglican dioceses in the Western Cape. He was the founding director of the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust, later folded into the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

As we approach Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 90th birthday on 7 October 2021, Chris Ahrends ponders his legacy, and the Anglican Church’s continued rejection of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is an extract from Ahrends’ second anthology of poetry, Sacred Awakening – a Collection of Poems, Reflections and Illustrations, due for release in November.

One still crying in the wilderness

Sadly, the Anglican Church, both locally and universally, has a long history of not answering the questions asked by those on the edge and who may appear different.

Among the latest of these rejections of the questions was the response of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to recommendations put to the church’s 2019 Provincial Synod (the highest decision-making body) regarding the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community. The Anglican Church has refused to recognise gay marriages and to date has forbidden its clergy to perform such marriages or even bless such ceremonies. The homophobia displayed by some members of the church, even at the Synod, was tremendously hurtful.

What made this more disappointing, more painful, was that this was the same church that under Desmond Tutu’s leadership had come out so forcibly against apartheid’s abuse of human rights. Now, contesting yet another of the human rights desperately needing recognition, the same church was turning its back.

Desmond Tutu’s long and illustrious ministry in the church had always reflected the best of Anglican values. His ministry marvellously mirrored the essential teachings of forward-thinking Anglican theology – a theology based on love, inclusion, forgiveness, acceptance, participation, justice and liberation. Tutu seemed infused with a daily experience of a God who cares for everyone on this planet and indeed, for the planet too!

This gave him the ability to see the specialness within every person. He longed and worked for a world in which every person counted and was able to share their special giftedness without fear – a world in which the colour of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation, or even the size of our nose, he would add, could penalise us from being who we are.

That’s why he had fought against the rabid racism of his time. That’s why he fought for the ordination of women in the church and that’s why he’s spoken out clearly in favour of the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church, saying, on one occasion, that if God was homophobic, he’d rather go to the warmer place! 

The sad truth is, however, that on this issue, Tutu and the church weren’t aligned. When one of his daughters was to marry her woman partner, Tutu wasn’t allowed by the Bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to say a prayer of blessing at the wedding ceremony.  

In an extraordinary twist of fate, the Anglican Bishops of his church – the church he had served with such dedication and distinction and with such loyalty and steadfast faith – were able to do the one thing that the apartheid government couldn’t do in years – shut Tutu up!

In his 90th year, I know the church will make every effort to honour this remarkable prophet within its midst – a priest and bishop who should be remembered for his undying longing to see every person awaken to their God-given, wonderful unique self and have the right to share it with the world.

Here is my inadequate tribute to Desmond Tutu as well as my very inadequate recognition of all who have felt the church’s rejection over many, many years – those on the edge, whose questions aren’t heard or answered. To all who feel unheard by the church, especially the LGBTQIA+ community, please know that there is an Archbishop who has consistently sought to make a place for everyone in God’s world…

The poem is distinctly imperfect and even a little childlike – exactly as, I believe, Tutu thinks of himself: imperfect and always chuckling at how odd it was that God should use him for such a task.

Still Crying in the Wilderness – for Desmond Tutu on his 90th Birthday

Voice of the Voiceless, they called him;
Baptised Mpilo Desmond, a gift
from a poor teacher’s home
in the Wes-Transvaal,

born in the midst of the Great Divide,
to become pastor to the people!

No future without forgiveness, he predicted;
But only after he had demanded,
“Let my people go!”
in the tradition of
Moses and Luthuli and King,
the Mahatma, Romero,
Ngoyi and Maathai
to name but a few.

In silence he prayed, alone in the mornings,
through long dark nights,
(sometimes, for whole days),
recalling the names of those
in prison, and especially

the children whom he always

held close to his heart.

On the streets, he marched,
in protest and in song, carrying
the hopes of the wounded,
the youth and all who longed to

become We, the People.

At gravesides, he blessed

the fallen, whose bodies were broken

in cold cells without reason, and
on the streets of the townships
and even in the

back of police vans.

Loudly he proclaimed, from pulpits

and lecterns, that freedom is indivisible, and

till all are free, none are free,
and for weak and strong,
Life is One,

in which all belong!

Over and over, he taught,

with his hands in the air, that
black and white, straight and gay
women and men, ordained and lay, that
local and foreigner, homeless and sojourner;
ALL are children made in the image

of the One God.

Down the street, he danced,
that bright day, when at last
Madiba walked past his prison gate,

on his release, saying;
“I greet you in the name of peace!”

And then in the end,

he led a commission

for uncovering the past,

of some of the truths
so, at least a few mothers,
could know, at last, where

their beloveds lay buried.

But since that bold voice,

through age has grown silent,
few Words have been spoken,

and some ask, are the prophecies broken?

For voiceless seem those
who follow the path he

walked before them.

We look to the churches, and see
no outrage, no vigils, no fasting;
So little sharing by those who are wearing the
robes of compassion, while
children go begging, their
mothers are beaten, and
grandmas use pensions
to feed the five thousand.

Sadder still, from the synods, we hear
a message so clear:

Gays may not marry;
Women shouldn’t hurry, for
Men aren’t quite ready to end
Patriarchy; and the Youth

should refrain from sex before marriage, which
is the domain of those who claim

heteronormativity.

Saying little of our beloved Mother Earth,
whose destruction and pillage in village
and forest…
Oh God, senzenina?

(Pause)

…and while many wept, grieving the silence,

new voices emerged, shaking and breaking

the norms and the rules:

a girl-child fighting for eco-justice,

women overcoming femicide,

teenagers redefining sexual identity,

young adults reclaiming spirituality,

and even some men reframing masculinity…

Yes, the voices remain, though not quite the same,
but they’re still pointing the way,

he’s wanted us to go on this,

his 90th birthday!

***

Blessed Birthday, Arch, and thank you for being so consistently ahead of us. DM

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