Our father who art not an arrogant colonial

Trevor Huddleston
June 18, 1999

The jacket photograph wonderfully captures a very substantial part of the spirit of Trevor Huddleston, the man so many in South Africa came to know as Father Huddleston. It shows him with the tower of the Church of Christ the King behind him and two township urchins next to him. He had an extraordinary appeal for children in Sophiatown, as Don Mattera illustrates in his description of him during the encounter with armed police at the Odin Theatre in 1953 when he intervened as the police tried to arrest ANC leaders, and thereby prevented a massacre outside the cinema.

He seemed to have the magnetism of a Pied Piper when he walked the dusty streets of his beloved parish. Children instinctively reached out as they shouted happily, "Fader, Fader". That drew forth an answering love for and commitment, to them and to their fathers and mothers, which burned as a passionate zeal to see the end of apartheid, a system that had visited these whom he loved and who adored him with untold and totally unnecessary suffering.

It was to be a fatherhood without the debilitating paternalism of a missionary steeped in an arrogant colonialism. Sophiatown and the people of Sophiatown, their liveliness, their resilience, their boisterousness, their affection and warm love and their suffering and the treatment that trampled their dignity underfoot callously day in and day out, helped him to find himself and provided him with a worthy cause to which he committed himself and for which he gave his life.

The bit of the church that sticks out at the back of the picture symbolises the crucial significance of spirituality in his life. It was not politics that drove him to do and say what he did so eloquently and to such great effect. No, it was the God whom he encountered in the regular daily round of meditation, the community liturgical offices and the Eucharist who made it impossible for him to pass by on the other side of the brother/sister whom he saw being treated as if they were rubbish. How indeed could he say he loved God, whom he had not seen, if he were to be indifferent to the suffering of those he saw being dealt with so callously, those who were created in the image of this God? The picture in a way reminds us of the absolute centrality of the spiritual, of prayer and quiet in his tremendously busy life.

It is clear from the word go in the preface of this book that we are not going to be served up a hagiography. It is a work by someone who loves Huddleston, but who loves truth more and knows that his subject will not be harmed by the truth; and so we are given an honest portrait, warts and all. I did not know that Father Trevor had suffered from depression as severe as that revealed here - certainly not in his Sophiatown days; nor did I know that he could be as cantankerous as he is shown to be in his later years. All that comes out in this book, which, mercifully in my view, spares us any speculation as to why he turned out as he did; whether, for instance, being deprived of his parents' love and attention had a deleterious effect on him.

So far as I am concerned he was one of the most whole people I have ever met, able to pour extraordinary love and affection on others, and able to elicit wonderful love in response.

Children are not stupid - they seem to have sensitive antennae that can spot a dud a mile off - and children everywhere fell for Father Trevor and knew they were dealing with the genuine article. I know because I was one of them, and almost all of us would attest to the fact that there was not a hint of anything untoward in his relations with those who loved to sit on his lap. I used to, and it was great fun to be one of his "creatures", as he called us. Nothing was too much trouble for him. When I had TB he visited me, a 13-year-old totally unimportant township boy every week for two years and made me believe I really mattered. And he did something similar for Hennie Leggatt, whose own account of Father Trevor's caring is described in the book.

The book also describes what it calls the hidden years up to 1943 when Huddleston went to Sophiatown and his development and growth to become the acknowledged white spokesperson of the oppressed. It conveys how he used his eloquence and passion, his skill at generating publicity and his courage in speaking out against the awfulness of apartheid. He was increasingly persona non grata with the government and many white people, so it was not surprising that when the Freedom Charter was signed in 1953 in Kliptown, he should have been given the highest award of the ANC, the Isitwalandwe ("greatest accolade").

People were shattered when he was recalled. Oliver Tambo, it is reported, wept. Father Trevor accepted because he had taken the vow of obedience, and returned to Mirfield. But his fame, enhanced by his superb book, Naught for your Comfort , which turned many university students in Europe and the United States into anti-apartheid activists, meant he really could not be a good novice guardian. He was too much in demand. He had to tell the world about the evil that was apartheid. It became his burning passion to help to destroy apartheid. Everything was subordinated to this cause and if he was not working at it he fretted.

He threw himself into his work as bishop of Masasi in Tanzania and formed a valuable and lasting friendship with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania. But it was not Sophiatown. It was not South Africa. He sought to make himself redundant so that a Tanzanian could become bishop after him, and so it happened.

It has been said that he was full of himself, that he liked publicity, and so on. But he had to be photogenic, telegenic, a media star, to get people to pay attention to the cause he espoused. And he was also very humble: he compared himself unfavourably with Michael Scott and he was ready to return to the UK to become a suffragan bishop. As in Sophiatown, he decided to live among his flock as the first bishop of Stepney. As in Sophiatown, his home in Commercial Road was overrun by street kids.

He was greatly loved by most for his caring and his love. Those who did not like him were annoyed by his stance against racism, especially that directed at immigrants. He took on Enoch Powell. He was involved with the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund, helping clandestinely in South Africa with the legal costs of those appearing in political trials and supporting their families. He went to Mauritius and very soon became archbishop of that Francophone Anglican province. He used to boast to me that I was archbishop of mere Southern Africa whereas he was archbishop of the entire Indian Ocean. He became engrossed in interfaith dialogue and the wonder of multiculturalism and our essential unity as the human family in all its rich diversity, but it was apartheid that was his consuming passion. He said that he would not die before apartheid died.

He really was marvellous with young people and could inspire them wonderfully, as in 1988, when 250,000 converged on Hyde Park Corner to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday and there was a massive concert in Wembley Stadium.

He lived to see apartheid die. He attended the inauguration of his friend as president of South Africa on May 10 1994. Perhaps he had been a little unrealistic to return to South Africa and expect things to have changed dramatically. He could not take his stay in the nursing home where blacks were still largely ordered about by whites. Many of his friends were busy trying to make this new dispensation work and did not have much time at their disposal to be with him. So he went back to England a sad man.

We owe a very great deal to him. He ensured that apartheid remained on the world's agenda until it was destroyed. And the Huddleston we knew and loved emerges clearly in this book. How I wish, though, that it had included his final triumphant return to South Africa, when his ashes were carried home after the memorial service in Westminster Abbey by Alfred Nzo, South Africa's minister of foreign affairs, to be received at Johannesburg airport with a red-carpet welcome by the then-deputy president Thabo Mbeki and a military guard of honour. He was then taken by motorcade with police motorcycle escort to Sophiatown's Christ the King Church for a memorial service. His ashes were interred in South Africa and he was acknowledged as a true hero of the struggle.

Yes, indeed, we encounter the essential Huddleston in this biography. But why is the book marred by so many mistakes that good editing should have removed? Walter Sisulu was never a leader in exile; Tom Mboya was a Kenyan not a Ugandan; it is (Hector) Petersen not Pederson, Mphahlele instead of Mpalele, Madibane rather than Malibane, etc. This saddens me, for it spoils a beautiful book about a beautiful person.

Desmond Tutu is emeritus archbishop of Cape Town and visiting professor of theology, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, United States.

Trevor Huddleston: A Life

Author - Robin Denniston
ISBN - 0 333 78045 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £20.00
Pages - 295

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