Couldn’t get back to sleep last night, and so got up, made tea, found a book to read: Trevor Huddleston: A Life, by Robin Denniston (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999). I noticed that I was reading his biography on his birthday–a certain appropriateness there.
And who was he? When he died in 1998, this is what Nelson Mandela said: “He was a pillar of wisdom, humility and sacrifice to the legions of freedom fighters in the darkest moments of the struggle against apartheid.”
Here is a bare-bones outlines of his career. Born into an upper-class family in 1913, after ordination he joined the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican religious order, in 1939. When he was 48, he became the last white bishop of Masasi, in Tanzania. Later he became bishop of Stepney, in East London, and finally, based in Mauritius, archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean. He maintained his opposition to apartheid until it fell. He died in 1998.
Here’s my own story in regard to Trevor Huddleston. It began when my sister, for my 17th birthday, gave me his book, Naught for Your Comfort, about his experience with apartheid. After reading the book, I wrote to him (walked out at midnight and mailed the letter), and to my astonishment received a reply three weeks later (I still have the letter). Our correspondence eventually led to my going to the theological college maintained by his community, the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, West Yorkshire, for the first two years of my theological studies. The first time I saw him, at Mirfield, in 1961, aged 21, I was too shy to speak with him.
Then in 1967 I encountered him in London, when he was preaching at the Royal Chapel of St Peter in Chains, the very appropriately-named chapel in the Tower of London (the dedication comes from Peter in prison: Acts 12:1-17). When I spoke to him afterward, he appeared to remember our correspondence, which moved me greatly. Later again, in 1984, when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he preached in the University Church at Harvard, I spoke to him again; and once again, he appeared to remember me: “Yes, from Vancouver!”–this from a man who met thousands of people. I am moved to this day to believe that he did remember me. Frankly, I want to believe that he remembered me. We want to be remembered rather than forgotten, do we not? (“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom!” Luke 23:42.)
My final encounter and my only real visit with him took place, back at Mirfield, in 1996. I had just finished a Merton pilgrimage in France, and I found myself at the end of it with a few unplanned days. Realizing that it had been 40 years since I had read his book in 1956, I decided to go to Mirfield on a retreat of repentance for how limited had been my response during those four decades to the call of God that had come to my youthful self through that book: “Forty years long was I grieved with that generation ….” (Psalm 95:10, the daily morning psalm, the Venite). The word “forty” in the psalm connected with my recognition that I had read his book forty years before, and off I went. At my first evening meal there, he was pointed out to me, sitting on the other side of the refectory in his wheelchair, aged 83. Once again I was too shy, at first, to speak with him. More to the point, I was overcome with emotion arising from the thoughts of my own mortality suggested to me by the recognition that 40 years had passed since I had read his book.
The next day I saw him out on the lawn, sitting in his wheelchair, reading. (When I got close enough, I saw that he was reading a detective story, a Ngaio Marsh.) I carefully stood out of his line of vision, weeping, until I had gained control of myself and could go up to him and speak to him. Again to my astonishment, there was a flash of remembrance, and we settled in for a long and delightful conversation. He had just returned from a sojourn at Buckingham Palace, to which, together with other personal friends of Nelson Mandela, he had been invited by the Queen for some personal time with the great Madiba. (“She didn’t want him to have to run around the country seeing all his friends; so she gave him a wing of the palace for a week.”) Just before that he had taken part in a private invitational event for religious leaders called by the Dalai Lama to discuss the possibilities of world peace. (“What a fine young man he is,” he said. Well, everything is relative: in 1996, he was 83, and the Dalai Lama a mere 61.) As our conversation proceeded, I realized that my perspectives on social justice as part of ministry, and an essential dimension of the life of the church, had their root in his book, something strongly reinforced by the ethos of the College of the Resurrection. (I remember the principal exulting when South Africa was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961.)
As the afternoon ended, he asked me to sit beside him at dinner, which I did. There he told me some stories about his tussles with Margaret Thatcher about South Africa, and the wonderful story of how Desmond Tutu became a priest. (“This is really Desmond’s story, but he’s not here; so I’ll tell you.”) My memory being imperfect, let Desmond Tutu tell his own story, in Trevor Huddleston: Essays on his Life and Work, about what happened when he was eight or nine.
We were standing with my mother on the balcony of the women’s hostel where she was cook when this white man in a big black hat and a white flowing cassock swept past …. You could have knocked me down with a feather, young as I was at the time, when this man doffed his hat to my mother; I couldn’t understand a white man doffing his hat to a black woman, an uneducated woman. … it made … a very deep impression on me and said a great deal about the person who had done this.
I recall saying to him (and he agreed) that it was wonderful, almost providential, that in those days men wore hats: perhaps in a hot country like South Africa they still do. Later Desmond Tutu stayed at a student hostel run by Trevor Huddleston’s community, where he came to know him well, and where he discovered his own calling as a priest. Arguably it was this act of old-fashioned courtesy that through the later leadership of Desmond Tutu helped to save South Africa from a bloodbath in the tumultuous declining years of the apartheid system.
I had somehow lost my copy of Trevor Huddleston’s book, perhaps in a box misplaced during a move; certainly I know I would never have let go of it intentionally. When I got home from this trip, I told my sister about the encounter, and that I no longer had the book she had given me. Now my sister, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, is more subtil (King James spelling) than all the beasts of the field (see Genesis 3:1): and lest you think I am being disrespectful to my sister, let me say that contemporary biblical scholars see the serpent of Genesis as the symbol of the goddess—who was, understandably, not popular in the patriarchal Judaism of the time when Genesis was edited. Her response to my account of my meeting with Trevor Huddleston was low-key, on the level of “uh-huh.” I now realize that, as usual, the wheels had already begun to turn. She bought a copy of the book from an antiquarian bookstore, sent it to Mirfield for his autograph, provided packaging and postage for its return, and gave it to me for Christmas. Tears again. The book remains one of my great treasures. Then in 1998, my daughter Megan went to New York for a holiday, and brought me back a copy of The New York Times, because she knows I am a newspaper junkie. In that issue I found his obituary, covering more than half a page. He died on April 20, 1998.
A friend had given me a signed photograph of him on the occasion, in 1961, of his ordination as bishop of Masasi. I have treasured it ever since; but it was only after another friend pointed out to me the likeness between the photograph and the figure in my great painting (that story is on my website), that I recognized that once again I had been drawn to an iconic holy man, indeed a beautiful old man. When the photograph was taken, he was only 48; but his face in the photo tells me that he was already well on his way to becoming the holy man who moved me so deeply when we met and spoke.
So I salute him today, his birthday. He is one of my great heroes, and more than this, a great 20th-century hero of the faith that does justice. I like the way the Muslims say it: peace be upon him.