Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away last month at the age of 90. Here, TAC contributor Michael Ford recalls his relationship with the human rights activist, theologian, and author—Ed.
It’s the one press cutting I won’t throw away: a “Day in the Life” interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu published many years ago in The Sunday Times color magazine.
Why I’ve held on to it for so long is that, in it, Tutu—then at the height of his influence in South Africa—speaks candidly about the centrality of his life of prayer, how he gets up early to be with God, and how he has always felt sustained in his ministry by the prayers of the faithful elderly who come to the Eucharist day by day. It is an inspirational self-portrait.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s, and there I am in front of the man himself, producing an interview for the BBC between the archbishop and our presenter, Colin Morris. The champion of human rights is in London to record his South African prayer book. I’ve needed to swot up on his background.
Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, a farming town 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg. His father, a Xhosa, was headteacher of the local Methodist primary school. His mother, a Mosotho, was a servant. The children were given both European and African names, and spoke Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana. Later, Tutu learned Afrikaans and English. When, back in 1948, the apartheid regime was voted into office in South Africa, Tutu was just 17. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1961, it wasn’t until middle age, after an experience abroad, that the concept of Black liberation caused him to broaden his horizons and align himself with that struggle. For many years, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner was the only influential Black voice to speak out against the evils of apartheid at a time when Nelson Mandela and leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were behind bars. There were repeated attempts to silence him, with supporters of the apartheid regime brandishing him an agitator and traitor.
Always protected by his immense popularity and an infectious charisma, there was a joyful exuberance about him. The excitable and emotional churchman was appointed Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. But Tutu always made sure he kept his distance from the ANC, the party that spearheaded the liberation movement and has now been in power for more than two decades. He refused to back its armed struggle or support unconditionally leaders such as Nelson Mandela. But Tutu did share Mandela’s vision of a multiracial society in which all communities live together without bitterness or discrimination. He coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe that hope.
After he won the nation’s first free election in 1994, Mandela asked Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated human rights abuses in the apartheid era. Although this was a pioneering attempt to heal deep historical wounds, Tutu found it traumatic and would weep as he listened to testimonies. In later years, he was not reticent in condemning the growing corruption within the ANC. For Tutu, to be neutral was to side with the powerful.
But he didn’t just want justice for Black people, as a leader in The Times stated after his death: “Tutu’s courage was manifest not only in taking on the formidable powers of the apartheid state; he also adopted causes he believed were right if neither popular not expedient. He campaigned early on for gay rights, ensuring that South Africa, almost alone on the continent, has enacted civil partnerships and gay marriage.”
I well remember calling him in Cape Town from the BBC studios in Manchester to record his personal views on homosexuality and the priesthood, a subject frequently in the news. We aired his controversial opinions exclusively on our program: that women and men in gay relationships should be allowed to be ordained as Anglican priests as a matter of compassion and fairness. His views met with opposition from those in the church who maintained that same-sex relationships and the priesthood were incompatible. In years to come, his own daughter would have to leave the ordained ministry when she married her female partner.
Tutu once said that if heaven were homophobic, he’d rather go “to the other place.” So when I was invited by a UK publisher to interview lesbian and gay Christians from Africa, America, and the UK about their spiritual and psychological struggles, I chose a standalone quote from Tutu for the opening page, powerful words he had spoken in Southwark Cathedral, London, in 2004: “To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay, on grounds of their sexual orientation, for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as apartheid ever was.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that the archbishop and I met again, this time at a packed Liverpool Cathedral where we were both taking part in a memorial service for a remarkable woman, Lady Grace Sheppard, whose books on fear, phobias, and dying remain popular to this day. While speaking, I cast my eyes at the other contributors and suddenly noticed Desmond Tutu’s smiling face beaming up at me on the podium and encouraging me on. Stemming from the years of struggle against apartheid, Desmond and his wife, Leah, had a longstanding friendship with Grace and her husband, David, a one-time England cricketer who became Bishop of Liverpool. As a protest against apartheid, he once turned down the honor of captaining the Marylebone Cricket Club on a tour of South Africa. Tutu was astonished and moved by his stand.
As Tutu spoke about Grace that day, I felt his carefully chosen words encapsulated his own theological outlook: “She touched many and became a conduit of God’s grace, God’s compassion,” he said, “because she was not scared to reveal her own frailty, her own vulnerability, as she enabled others to face up to accept their own creaturely foibles, to accept themselves for who they were and not for who they weren’t, to accept that they were not supermen, superwomen . . . only God is all-powerful.”
Tutu went on to explain that in his culture people spoke of ubuntu: a person is a person through other persons. This was intrinsic to the way Tutu saw the world. As he said on another occasion: “My humanity is caught up in your humanity. It is enmeshed with yours. You and I and all of us are meant to live in a delicate network of interdependence—that is the fundamental law of our being.”
I continued to stay in touch with Tutu, and we emailed each other from time to time. He became a spiritual support to me while I was going through a difficult period of discernment. I’m sure he had thousands of correspondents around the world and found it challenging to keep up with them, but he bothered to reply to me and, after all, we did have a particular bond between us: we had both been taught at different times by the same distinguished Biblical scholar, Dennis Nineham, author of the Penguin Commentary on St. Mark’s Gospel and The Use and Abuse of the Bible. We both respected him immensely, for he had transformed our outlook on scripture. In fact, when Professor Nineham died, it fell to me to write to the archbishop and inform him. “He was a superb teacher . . . and I’m the better for it. As are many others,” he replied.
A towering figure of global Christianity, the diminutive Desmond Tutu never lost sight of the everyday injustices and hardships that ordinary people face through oppression, including those rejected by and alienated from the institutional church. His feet were always on the ground, while his eyes looked towards eternity. And he remained grateful. In one of his last messages to me, he wrote: “Thanks dear friend. God has been and is good to us. Much love and many blessings, Arch.”
Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.