Today, as I write, is Candlemas (2 February), the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which draws the season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany to a close. It is rather a ‘bitter-sweet’ day, as we celebrate with Simeon and Anna their recognition of the one who comes to be their Saviour, our Saviour – but also recognise that he must taste the pains of human suffering, if he is to share with us the promise of heavenly life.
We find the bitter and the sweet together so often in life. I have just returned from the Anglican Primates’ Meeting, where I felt both great sorrow at the painful divisions that led some Primates to stay away, and yet also was profoundly touched by the depths of our shared worship, Bible study and discussions. We did have some ‘business’ issues to address (including the harassment of Anglicans in Zimbabwe and persecution of Christians in Pakistan; political developments in Egypt, Korea and Sudan; violence against women and children, and the murder of the Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato; and climate change). But for the most part, we took counsel together on what it means to be a Bishop and a Primate in the Church of God, sharing one another’s joys and burdens in conversation and in prayer. In the cold Irish winter, sheltered at the Emmaus retreat centre, we were conscious of our weaknesses, and our interdependence, and kept those who were not present alive in our hearts, through a lit candle, remembering Christ, in whose body we are all members together, as our light.
Prayer and fellowship, study and reflection, are our bedrock, as we seek to care for one another, giving mutual support, and taking counsel with one another. Our aim is to deepen our relationship – especially on a spiritual level – and to help one another grow in Christ, by the leading of the Spirit, and so to be faithful to our individual and shared callings. This is the task of all Christians wherever we find ourselves: as Primates, in the Synod of Bishops, in Dioceses, and at Parish level and within our families too. We do not choose who we find ourselves alongside, and we often have very different backgrounds, or expectations, or personalities. It is not easy to get along with everyone, all the time, and sometimes we will disagree quite strongly. But wherever we recognise Christ as the cornerstone in the life of another person, we have no option but to continue striving to be built together as God’s ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2). And so I came home full of hope that, without underestimating the challenges in our Communion, we nonetheless still have something dear to us, to hold on to and to cherish.
There have been other bitter-sweet moments in the life of our own Church. It saddened me greatly that the consecration of the Rt Revd Sebenzile Elliot Williams as the first Bishop of Mbhashe was only able to proceed after the courts threw out unsustainable challenges to his election. Of course, the church must uphold both the spirit and the due processes of our canons and the laws of our nations. But it perturbs me that when people do not get their own way through following the proper courses, there is such a temptation to dash to a lawyer to try to overturn what should be accepted with grace. We should take to heart Paul’s admonition that secular legal action is our last resort (1 Cor 6). At times, sadly, that point does come, as we found in the Diocese of George – so now we wish them a fresh and ‘sweet’ beginning, following the election of Revd Canon Brian Marajh as their new Bishop. He will be consecrated on 7 May. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.
Your prayers are also asked for Nelson Mandela, and all who love him. He is an old man of 92, and we cannot hope for him to stay with us for ever! We thank God for all he has done for South Africa, and the inspiration he has been to so many beyond our borders. But we must also commit him into God’s hands, asking, as the ancient prayers say, that when his time comes, he may have a ‘good end’ and not be afraid to make that final journey to his eternal home, trusting in the one who gave his life so that we might know the life of heaven with him. But until that time, we ask God to strengthen and uphold Madiba, and surround him with his love and care.
In the three years since becoming Archbishop of Cape Town, I have been twice to the Holy Land – a place of great bitterness and sweetness. Most recently Lungi and I travelled there last October as the guest of Mickey Glass, a former executive officer of the Jewish Board of deputies. Later this month I shall return, to participate in an international conference at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, which will consider the theme ‘Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance’. I have found it humbling to listen to stories from all faiths, all backgrounds, and to walk alongside those from every background who desire a just and lasting peace. There are both parallels and differences with our own painful history. It is my deep prayer that we might be able to share the best of what we have learnt, in order to support and encourage Israelis and Palestinians, and the whole international community, to keep striving urgently for justice, and a sustainable solution for everyone. So soon after Christmas, as I continue to ponder the enormity of God taking human flesh as a baby, I am struck once again by the need to for us to see and encounter others – especially those ‘others’ who are different from us – as children of God, bearing his divine spark, living with the same human frailties as we do. It is in sharing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we build the trust that is necessary for going forward together.
I hope too, that I shall learn lessons about the public voice of our own Church, and the role we play in our own nations. That will be one of the subjects on the agenda of the Synod of Bishops, when we meet from 7 to 12 February. Please keep us in your prayers as we also elect the new bishop of St Helena. We wish Bishop John Salt a happy retirement and thank God for his ministry.
Yours in the service of Christ
+Thabo Cape Town