The Lowdown Hub

Desmond Tutu, and the last of the political preachers The "Arch" knew how to take his message

In an age of often bland and overlooked church leaders, Desmond Tutu was simply extraordinary: in his charm and charisma; in his ability to reach a wider, global audience that normally had little time for men of God; and in keeping his feet firmly on ground when politicians sought him out in the hope that a bit of his magic would rub off on them.

A single encounter with him was enough to last a lifetime – as I discovered in 2004, when he agreed to my request to give the Longford Lecture on penal reform, an annual event in London. We could have filled the hall 10 times over.

It lives in my memory as a magical night, but also because straight afterwards my father died suddenly. The archbishop found out. He rang and left a message to say he would remember my dad in his prayers. In the midst of all the demands on him, he had made time to comfort a stranger. For anyone else it would be enough, but his humanity ran deeper. The following day I answered a call. “It’s The Arch,” announced Tutu’s unmistakable voice. “I want to speak to you properly to find out how you are.”

Such pastoral concern, of course, is what priests and prelates should be all about, but Tutu’s example, in my experience, is unmatched.

As, indeed, is so much else about him. As a religious leader who made a global impact for all the right reasons, his only near contemporary equivalents are the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, whose role as the head of a self-consciously world church of 1.3 billion souls brings with it a built-in platform.

By contrast, Tutu worked in a country with a regime that for many years did its very best to silence him internally, let alone on a world stage, because it regarded him as a second-class citizen on account of the colour of his skin. In 1953, he had to abandon his first vocation as a teacher on account of South Africa’s apartheid laws.

Nonetheless, Tutu went on to become a pre-eminent preacher-politician of his time.

His rise to leadership in South Africa’s Anglican Church provides a powerful example of how institutional change can come about peacefully. When named the first black dean of Johannesburg Cathedral in 1975, he began as clearly and uncompromisingly as he intended to go on, by turning down the house that went with the job in a whites-only area and making his family home in the black township of Soweto. For Tutu, living his faith each day went beyond saying prayers, doing good deeds and leading services. It meant risking his life to challenge injustice at every turn.

Among his methods was doing that rare thing in Christianity – overriding denominational divides. Through his years from 1978 as Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches, and then from 1986 as the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu persuaded not just his fellow Anglicans but most of the other Christian churches in South Africa to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of something so much more important than their own individual traditions – the shared moral imperative to rid their country of the evil of apartheid by non-violent means.

Tutu was never one to hide the behind the all-too-familiar retort still heard from clerics that priests cannot risk being too political. While our own two senior churchmen, Archbishop Justin Welby and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, prefer the softly-softly approach of hints or the occasional public rebuke to government about what might need to change, for Tutu plunging into political waters was what the Bible demanded. When challenged, he would reply with a question: “when God delivers a bunch of slaves out of bondage, is that a political or religious act?”

Tutu was no one-card politician, either. While it was his part in South Africa’s struggle to build a just society that propelled him into the international spotlight, what the Arch managed to do in mature years was to apply the lessons he had learnt during and after the defeat of apartheid to bigger global issues that affect all societies.

The most obvious was racism, but in that 2004 lecture he reflected too on what he had learnt while chairing South Africa’s painful Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He spoke of confronting past sins in the context of prison reform – of how victims and perpetrators of crime might engage, and about how society might see afresh those who offend against it.

In other words, he brought from the particular circumstances of his country a universal message that could be applied in many other areas of life. In that, he was truly being, as in theory all Christians are called to be, Christ-like, for that above all is what the gospels are about.

On the frontline of a struggle for justice, Tutu’s theology was as simple as it was relevant. When his fellow Anglican prelates in other parts of Africa, and beyond, frittered away their moral authority in seemingly endless battles over sex, sexuality and gender, he pointed out impatiently that he couldn’t worship a homophobic God and saw no difference between discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and discrimination on the basis of skin colour.

Tutu followed the example of Jesus and unceasingly demanded justice for all the marginalised. He therefore came to represent the very best of lived-out, prophetic Christianity, on first the national, and then the international stage. Even those who rejected the doctrines of religion recognised a courage and clarity in Tutu that they admired. And many, in that admiration, were forced to concede that religion – so often blamed for all the conflicts in our world – might just be a force for good.

Desmond Tutu delivers the Longford Lecture on penal reform, in 2004 CREDIT: Peter Stanford

Alongside his personality, his theology and his trademark and very un-saintlike laugh – half a cackle, have a wheeze, with a high-pitched chuckle mixed in – there was also inevitably a certain steel in Tutu. I glimpsed it that night in 2004, when it came to questions from the floor. One man stood up and started a very personal, vocal assault on him, citing a particular incident, unknown to the rest of the audience, in an effort to discredit everything Tutu had said. The archbishop was visibly unperturbed. He refused briefly, politely but absolutely firmly to engage, first in the hall and late when we asked him about it off stage. It was, he said, a distraction; he would deal with it privately.

He knew how to pick his battles, which is the mark of a leader. There was talk over the years about what a good Archbishop of Canterbury he would make. Though the authority of the occupant of Lambeth Palace is modest in comparison with those who preside in the Vatican, Tutu might arguably have made better use of the status as the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Of those Anglican primates he worked under, only Robert Runcie had shown something of the same indomitable spirit. His Faith in the City report of 1985, which challenged Margaret Thatcher’s government by highlighting the social and economic damage being done by her policies, embodied a Tutu-esque sense of how powerful religion could be in the theatre of politics.

Tutu never received an offer of Canterbury – but he didn’t need a historic office as a pulpit in order to make his political voice heard. With his passing, the question arises of which religious leaders, in our deeply troubled and divided world, might follow his example and cut through as he did so as to assert a positive moral and spiritual leadership that transcends borders?

With Pope Francis now 85 and the Dalai Lama 86, there is, arguably, an urgent need for new faces, but the field is thin. Even that line of radical priests who, in recent decades, were propelled by popular votes or revolutions into high office in Nicaragua, Haiti and Paraguay, petered out in disappointment.

It is tempting to think that the decline of institutional religion is the cause, but the rise of agnosticism and atheism is largely a developed-world phenomenon. In many parts of the globe, the societal injustices that Desmond Tutu tackled as a church leader remain, alongside thriving institutional religion.

Perhaps the answer is simply that Desmond Tutu was a one-off, that the coincidence of personality and circumstances that brought him to our attention are unlikely to happen again. For his part, any suggestion that he was a living saint were briskly rebuffed. “When they heard upstairs that there was a prospect of my coming,” he told me, “they said, ‘no, no, no. Keep him down there: we can’t cope with him’.” Our loss is Heaven’s gain.