Wednesday 2 October 2013

Remembering Archbishop Emeritus Philip Russell

Yesterday at Provincial Synod we remembered Archbishop Emeritus Philip Russell. Here is the Eulogy delivered at his Memorial Service at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on 28 September 2013, by the Ven Richard Girdwood.

Philip Welsford Richmond Russell was born on the 21st October 1919 in Cowies Hill, in what was then Natal, of an Australian mother and an English father. He died on St James’ day, the 25th July 2013 in Adelaide Australia.

Originally Philip trained as a quantity surveyor. When World War II came along he decided that he could not bear arms and so it was decided that he would do war service as part of a bomb disposal unit in the South African Engineering Corps. For his deeds of heroism in disabling bombs, at huge personal risk, King George VI decorated him with an MBE. It was during this time Philip felt the call to priesthood and after the war went to St Paul’s in Grahamstown to prepare for ordination. He was made a deacon and then ordained priest in the Diocese of Natal. As he developed in ministry he became interested in the Institute of Race Relations. As a parish priest in country towns, he started expressing his doubts about apartheid in sermons. He remembered very clearly that it was at a church council in 1962 where, for the first time he saw black people and white people sitting together and talking.

It was while he was Vicar of St Agnes Kloof, in 1966, that Philip was chosen as the Suffragan Bishop of Cape Town. (In those days Natal called the priest in charge of a parish a Vicar, only changing to Rector in 1970)

In 1970 Philip was elected as the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Port Elizabeth. He showed himself capable of innovation in the setting up of this new diocese by deciding that while there would be parishes, they would not have any parish boundaries. Part of the reasoning behind this decision was that people were able to move around and choose a church in which they would grow and be spiritually fed, and parish boundaries were a hindrance to effective pastoral care.

In 1974 Philip was translated to be Bishop of Natal. It was during this time that I, as an ordinand of the diocese, got to know him. It was Philip who gave me my first license in the church – as a lay minister in my home parish.

In 1980 he was named Archbishop of Cape Town by what was then called the Episcopal Synod of the Church of the Province after the Elective Assembly of the Diocese of Cape Town was unable to decide between Desmond Tutu and Michael Nuttall as the next Archbishop. It was as what has been termed an Interim Archbishop that Philip excelled. As the successor of Archbishop Bill he had the daunting task of trying to draw the Diocese of Cape Town together again. As the clergy here will know, the diocese had been divided in a most destructive way by the Charismatic movement.

Philip has been described by Archbishop Thabo as “one of the unsung heroes of our Church”. He filled the ministry of Archbishop, again in the words of Archbishop Thabo, “... with great graciousness, and was clearly God’s man for those difficult times between 1980 and 1986.”

Philip retired to Natal in 1986 and was succeeded by Desmond Tutu. Interviewed in Australia before his death, Philip had joked that he was known by friends at the frail care where he lived as “Bishop one-one” — unlike his friend, the more famous Tutu.

Philip had a quiet sense of humour and he could make fun of himself. There was a time when what were called ‘gaitered clergy’ – namely Archdeacons, Deans and Bishops – would wear gaiters, frock coats and top hats as their ordinary daily clothing. There was a special little black rosette which was worn on the hat band of the top hat. When a friend of Philip’s gave him just such a rosette, he had it sewn on the floppy hat he used everyday when he went walking.

Philip was an ardent supporter of human rights through the S.A. Institute of Race Relations and the Civic Rights League. His had a strong sense of the importance of matters ecumenical which led him to be an enthusiastic and active member with Archbishop Denis Hurley of Diakonia in Durban, as well as the Vuleka Trust, the South African Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

After the death of his wife Eirene, Philip moved to Adelaide, Australia, where three of his four children had settled. In 2006 he suffered a stroke which necessitated his being moved to a frail care facility. He was a popular member of the community there, as he moved around on his walking frame.

Philip had a strong theology of the ministry of a bishop. This was given expression in the seal he had designed upon his election to Port Elizabeth. The symbols on the seal were a bishop’s throne, a crosier, a ring and a mitre. He used this seal, suitably amended, for each of the dioceses of which he was bishop. His ministry to clergy was always caring and wise. One of his pieces of wisdom for clergy who were trying to discern where God wanted them to serve next was “Allow the church to discern where you should be ministering.”

While he was bishop of Natal Philip was approached by a young rector. He was experiencing quite some hostility from members of his parish. Most of the clergy will have experienced a time when new in a parish when the sheep, for a variety of reasons, attack. Philip said that this young priest should remember that it was their church. He had newly arrived and there would be a time when he would go, but they would still be there. He should listen to, and ask about, the expectations of the people of God in that parish. Wise words for any of us involved in parish ministry!

Each of us in the cathedral today has our own memories of Philip. Today we not only remember him and his ministry, but also give thanks to the Lord of the Church for sending us such a man. We pray for his children as they mourn his death and we pray for ourselves that we might follow in the path of faithful service to the church and the world shown us by Philip Welsford Richmond Russell.