December 28, 2021

I once had a pee in Desmond Tutu’s old loo in the Archbishop’s House in Cape Town. It may sound slightly blasphemous to admit it, but it felt like a religious experience to be this close to the great man. So much of what was important about Tutu was bound up with his presence, with the power of his personality.

“There are two kinds of egoists in the world,” wrote Rowan Williams after meeting Tutu. “There are egoists who are so in love with themselves that they have no room of anyone else and there are those egoists that are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everybody else to be in love with themselves.” Tutu was the second sort of egoist. Desmond Tutu loved being Desmond Tutu, but in such a way that he encouraged other people to believe that they could also be in love with who they are and take joy in it.

This cuts across what many in his generation thought about being a priest. When I was taught to celebrate the Eucharist, for instance, I was encouraged not to show any personality in my recitation of the holy words of consecration. The important thing as a priest is to get out of the way, to be a conduit between other people and God. Don’t put yourself, your personality, between the congregation and the divine. Don’t modulate your voice, don’t try to inject meaning into your words. Your job is to disappear. Say the words like you are reading from the telephone directory. The congregation don’t come to church for you.

Tutu did it very differently. Some in the old school thought what you got with Desmond Tutu was the Desmond Tutu Show, and they slightly disapproved. But this wonderful little man from South Africa, with his impish sense of fun and Old Testament prophet morality, had a totally different theology from that of the Old School. And it was from this theology that all his activism and politics cascaded — “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”, as the second-century church father Irenaeus put it. Tutu loved that line and it often cropped up in his sermons. It captured his theology in a nutshell.

In other words, Desmond Tutu was very much a Christmas Christian. God comes into the world as a human being so that human beings might regard themselves as divine, a part of the divine life. Tutu once remarked that as all human beings contain the image and likeness of God, we ought to genuflect before everyone we meet.

Tutu often told the story of his parish priest in Johannesburg, the legendary Fr Trevor Huddleston, once doffing his hat to his mother — a white man simply acknowledging the humanity of a black woman being a revolutionary act in the context of South Africa in the Forties. It was a genuflection, of sorts. And this is where Tutu’s theology and politics grows from: all human beings reflect God’s glory, all of them. His hatred of apartheid was at root theological, rather than political — though this is a false binary, of course. His point was that apartheid was a heresy. It was a failure to see God in others; in those who are of a different colour, in those who are lesbian and gay, and most radically of all, in the oppressor too.

But this theology of the person was in no sense individualistic. Perhaps the most important contribution that African Christianity has made to Christianity has been through the development of the idea of Ubuntu — the idea that “I am because you are”. We are not individual cells of separate Godliness, but through God’s presence within us all, we are all brothers and sisters. And so in order to be fully what God intended, we have to be reconciled with those from whom we have become estranged. Forgiveness was not some sentimental touchy-feely emotional weakness, but a tough-minded determination to recognise our own humanity as inescapably bound up with others. Confessing past wrongs with the hope of some sort of reconciliation was a way of putting the pieces of the self back together.

Tutu was hated for this insight as much as he was loved. When he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was putting into practice a version of this theology: that only through forgiveness could a community find the gift of a common future. Forgiveness meant breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat revenge. It wasn’t about having warm and fuzzy feelings about those that had participated in the evil that was apartheid. It was the belief that a future was possible, but only through a process of confession and forgiveness in which the image of God is restored in others. This was a basic priestly insight turned into a political process.

There were times when he got it wrong, of course. His extension of the apartheid tag to the situation in Israel/Palestine was a mistake. Perhaps inevitably, he saw the world too much through the lens of his own history, and was sometimes blind to its differences. That’s why many Jews think of Tutu as a much more morally ambivalent figure.

He was also hated by the hard Left as much as by the Right. Tutu had absolutely no time for Marxism. At heart, he was a prayerful cassock-wearing Anglo-Catholic Anglican priest of a very familiar sort. He wasn’t a political radical, but a faithful servant of the church, with a huge personality, preaching what he saw with enormous courage in wicked times. And it was because he was a priest that the apartheid regime never dared to touch him. He called it as he saw it, including in his vociferous condemnations of the ANC as they descended into corruption and petty infighting. Tutu could be the friend of anyone, yet he was no one’s patsy.

Tutu once said that if he ever walked on water, the South African press would have chosen the headline “Tutu cannot swim”. We forget now how much he was hated and traduced by the whole apparatus of racist apartheid. How his life was threatened. He is now seen as a hero of human rights, which isn’t quite accurate. Yes, he used the secular language of human rights, but it was the Imago Dei — the imprint of God in us all — that was his basic guiding insight.

Will we see his like again in the Church? These days our bishops are largely chosen for their management skills and abilities to run a spreadsheet. Tutu showed us God by being so wonderfully himself, a human being, flawed no doubt, but fully and magnificently alive. His theology and his personality were perfectly aligned. That’s why we loved him. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.