Thursday, 31 August 2017

Commemorating Robert Gray

The text of remarks by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba at Bishops School in Cape Town:

Today we give thanks to God for our founder Bishop Robert Gray and his wife Sophy Gray. Thank you, the Revd Terry Wilke, for the invitation and thank you, Mr Pearson, educators and students for your warm welcome.

Today we celebrate the 169th anniversary of the arrival on our continent of Robert Gray, first Bishop of Cape Town and the founder of this school. As you will hear shortly, in the prayer the Church prays to commemorate him, we remember today “the constancy and zeal” with which he laid firm foundations for Anglicanism in Southern Africa.



Only 38 when he came to Cape Town, Robert Gray showed his zeal and his strong commitment to education in one of his first letters home to his son, Charles. Telling Charles that he and his wife, Sophy – who became famous in her own right for designing churches – that he and Sophy had rented the Protea estate – now Bishopscourt – Robert said he was embarrassed at taking up residence in what he called “so grand a place.” But, as justification for doing so, he added that its buildings comprised 33 rooms in all and “about 16 of them,” he said, were “admirably suited for pupils.”

The rest, as you all in this school know too well, is history. Not only did he start Bishops in the former slave-quarters at Bishopscourt, he went on to found St Cyprian’s School and Zonnebloem College, establishing a tradition in which Anglican schools throughout our country have become beacons of South African excellence.

Yet at the same time as celebrating the constancy and zeal of Robert and Sophy Gray, we need to acknowledge the context in which they operated – that they were people of their time and of their class – young and privileged, very English colonial settlers. Moreover, when they arrived the Church could justifiably have been regarded as – to use the language of our friends in the #RhodesMustFall movement – the religious arm of the colonial project.

In the same letter to his son from which I have quoted, Robert Gray went on to write of the autocratic British governor of the Cape in the following terms. In the letter, he refers to amaXhosa in words which I will not repeat here in case I offend you:

“Sir Harry Smith is to return to-day ; every-one seems astonished at his rapid movements and success, and all admire him greatly. The – here Gray describes amaXhosa in words we would not use today – all gave in as soon as he was governor. He has [also] brought the Boers to submit to our Government, and he does what he likes with every one; he made all the … again I will censor him … [Xhosa] Chiefs kiss his toe. But I do not profess to understand yet what has been done, for I think of nothing but ecclesiastical matters.”

To his credit, in time Gray came to think of matters other than ecclesiastical – he went on to encourage the establishment of missions to amaXhosa, and a decade later he collaborated with Harry Smith’s successor as governor, George Grey, to establish another school at Bishopscourt — this time for black South African children. This was the school that was to become Zonnebloem College.

But in this project too, we see how the Church acted as the religious arm of empire. In a soon-to-be-published book on the history of Zonnebloem, the authors – Janet Hodgson and Theresa Edlmann – describe vividly how the two Grays, Robert the bishop and George the governor, saw the college as a place in which the sons and daughters of defeated African chiefs could be removed from traditional influences in the Eastern Cape, in Lesotho and other places, and brought to Cape Town. Here these children would be turned, in the authors’ words, “into English gentlemen and women, subservient to the culture and traditions of their colonial guardians.”

Whatever the intentions of the two Greys, their plan only partly succeeded. Hodgson and Theresa Edlmann write:

“A tradition of English and European-based education in South Africa was indeed established. But in the midst of inculcating western cultural, religious, economic and social norms, the community of students that passed through Zonnebloem College also ultimately contributed significantly to the emergence of African intellectual traditions and the beginnings of the Black Consciousness Movement in Southern Africa...”

So as we remember Robert Gray and his legacy, seen both here and throughout Southern Africa in churches, schools and hospitals serving both black and white South Africans, let’s give thanks to God for Robert Gray, and for the foundations that he laid, flawed as they were, in so many areas of life and from which we all benefit. Remember always that despite our flaws, frailties and weaknesses we can make the world a better place.

Let us pray our Church’s prayer for Robert Gray:

Merciful Lord, you sent your servant Robert Gray
To lay firm foundations for the Church of this Province
Grant that, thankfully remembering
The constancy of his labour and zeal
We may build up and strengthen your Church
Through Jesus Christ our lord. 

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