Thursday 20 April 2023

Homily for St George's Grammar School 175th Anniversary Service

 The Most Revd Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop of Cape Town

St George's Grammar School

175th Anniversary Service

St George's Cathedral, Cape Town

20th April 2023

May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. 

Wow! Our school is 175 years old! What an extraordinary achievement, from your humble beginnings – which I learn were in a shoe shop – through the years when you were housed in this Cathedral precinct, to your campus in Mowbray. On behalf of the Diocese and on my own behalf, warm congratulations on this anniversary. Thank you, Mr Cameron, teachers, staff and learners for all that you do in the school and in our community, and especially for inviting me to this prestigious occasion, and thank you to everyone, including the Cathedral staff, who have helped to plan this service.

Reflecting on the meaning of your work in the Cape Town community over 175 years, we need to pay a handsome tribute to those who have gone before us: to the teachers and learners who have sustained and enriched the legacy which we inherit in the 21st century.

In the more recent past, I think particularly of the wisdom and foresightedness of those who, 45 years ago, when apartheid still seemed entrenched, followed the example of other private schools and opened St George's to all races. I think too of the way in which girls have enriched, and have been enriched, at this school since the late 1980s. And in the spirit of our new democratic Constitution, I am proud that you now welcome learners of all faiths to the school. On that note, allow me to express the hope that those of you preparing for Eid will be richly blessed.

In widening the school's reach in these various ways over the years, you have shown that you have “the courage to do what is right”, in the words of your motto. And I hope that you, the current cohort of “Curious Learners, Rigorous Thinkers and Courageous Voices” will continue to show courage as you “move forward with compassion, resilience and hope.”

It is said of Michelangelo, one of the finest artists and sculptors the world has known, that while working in his studio, carving an angel out of a huge block of Carrara marble, he was asked by a little girl, “How did you know there was an angel there?” He replied: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.” I think we can agree that there is an angel in each of us, and what St George's has been doing for 175 years, and is still doing, is discerning the angel in every learner and giving them wings so that they can fly high, so that they can explore, so that they can see life from a different perspective, from a higher vantage point. 

You have done that with distinction, understanding as Michelangelo did that artists and saints and mystics and creative people are not people who see things that other people cannot see; rather, they see things that everyone else sees, but they see them differently. For 175 years, St George's has sought to help young people see things differently, to pursue wisdom and academic excellence, to explore the deep and abiding questions facing humanity, and to find their wings and soar. You have helped young people to develop the courage not to be scared by difficult situations. You have taught them not to be frightened by difficult questions, nor to default into fundamentalism or the kinds of populism that plague many societies in our times.

That is why it's so wonderful that we heard those five verses from John's Gospel a few moments ago. They are difficult verses, and the way the sentences are put together, the way they are structured, mean they don't fall easily on the ear. But in effect what John is saying, in his tremendous wisdom, is something rather simple. He's saying if you want to know your Creator, if you want to be a living sign of our Creator in the world, it's not going to be by exploring deep scientific formulae or by adopting clever philosophical categories. 

No, the way to recognise and honour our Creator is simply by providing, as this school has done, environments in which we can encounter one another, environments in which we can interact with others with hospitality, with respect and with kindness, environments in which we can show a spirit of tolerance, in which we can rejoice in each other's gains, and mourn each other's losses. At its heart, the message, the Good News, is about the way each of us recognises our responsibility to be a sign of God in a very broken world, a sign of the transcendent amongst the poverty and the indignity and the destitution in which so many have to live. 

John understands that it's only by these simple encounters that we convince each other of God, and so every school that bears a faith tradition is called to create an environment where that encounter can be enhanced. Don't you think that's cool? It's cool to be part of an environment in which young people are given agency so they can live their lives with integrity; so they can devote their learning to the service of others who've never had the opportunity to go to school; so they can dedicate their intelligence and their wisdom to providing solutions to the difficult questions of our time.

The great British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written beautifully of how armies may defend nations, but that civilizations are defended by schools. Each of our learners in our schools today is living and learning in a time of radical change and tremendous complexity. We have to prepare our children to make their way forward in environments that are toxic. We need to help them to learn that there are two parallel paths they must take simultaneously: 

    • The one is not to be afraid of asking questions, to be bold in exploring ideas, to refuse to be silenced by populist rhetoric, and to dig deep in searching for answers which make sense to them;

    • The other is that we must teach them that there is a path inside themselves; a path that allows for moments of silence, for moments of stillness, that provide the environment for inner growth and the maturity that comes from having a soul that is constantly expanded. 

Those are the tasks of the school today.

  John is right when he says that we are the custodians of truth; the truth and the beauty of care and responsibility, generosity and hospitality. The ministry of Jesus speaks to these values from every chapter of the Gospels, and schools must be the environment where they are taught again, where they are honoured, where they are valued. 

In a country and a world where many cannot access schools or quality education, we have a duty to provide the best schooling we can, and to teach our young people that the privilege they have of going to school is one which also endows them with the responsibility to contribute to a better future. In that vein, I want to repeat to you a challenge I posed to all young South Africans from this pulpit at Easter: in the words of the American civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, I urge you to stand up and become “angelic troublemakers”.

Please, for the sake of our country's and your futures, dig deep into the radical roots of the old struggle against apartheid, and take up the New Struggle, a new struggle for a new generation, a struggle to regain our moral compass, a struggle to end economic inequity and to bring about equality of opportunity. Earlier generations of South Africans have demonstrated that it is possible to wage a revolutionary struggle in a disciplined and dignified manner, one that is all the more powerful because it is waged peacefully. Please organise among yourselves, and those of you who are old enough, please register with the Independent Electoral Commission, then campaign and vote in next year's elections. We need a peaceful revolution in which young people stand up, reject corruption and self-dealing, and help us to realise the promises of our Constitution.

In the next 175 years, this school and the generations to come will face enormous challenges, with problems which we cannot even imagine. But if we draw on the best lessons and practices of the past, we will have the resources to confront and overcome them and to move forward; to go with confidence into the new phases of history that life will offer us.

In the Christian tradition we are now celebrating Eastertide, a time of new hope and new challenge. Just the other day we read in the Gospel of how Jesus appeared to his disciples, breaking through the walls they had built around themselves, through the doors they themselves had locked so that they wouldn't have to face the challenge of the future. He invited them in that moment to see the broken places in his own life, in his own body, to touch them, and then to find peace. But he didn't leave it there. From that peace emerged the challenge to tell others of their experiences, to go and forgive others, and to make new disciples. 

So as you return to St George's and resume learning and teaching, as you explore and find peace, may you find that it empowers you with a sense of purpose, so that the angels we release in each child and within ourselves will help us to make of this world a Kingdom that is fitting for our Creator.

May the coming years at St George's be your best years ever. 


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