A TALE OF THREE PRIESTS

Twenty years ago last month a saintly and elderly black man called Jonah Gunduza, with a gentle, well seamed face and grizzled hair, a youngish white man called Mike Stebbing, with a gammy leg and a taste for gin, the Blessed Virgin Mary and monasticism, and myself, were ordained in Harare Cathedral.  Twenty years on, where are we?

The Vicar of Dibley's Parish Council

I am in Ararat, Victoria, Australia.  A long way from Zimbabwe, but a place as romantic, fascinating and interesting to a Zimbabwean as is Zimbabwe to an Australian Araratian.  I am still, thank God, a parish priest.  Parishes are where Anglicanism's strength, sanity and raison d'etre reside.  All my sorties into diocesan offices and affairs over the past twenty years, although often enjoyable and even stimulating, have never seemed quite of the essence.  The Vicar of Dibley's parish council, with its lovable and only slightly caricatured bumbling, yokel members, filled me with the delight of instant and affectionate recognition!  They possessed, it seemed to me, a double authenticity.

I have been parish priest in a Zimbabwean country town, on an island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, in the Victorian Western Districts in Australia and now on the edge of the Wimmera.  I retain my faith, though it is very much less rigid and cocksure than it used to be, and I feel, I think rightly, that I am further from sanctity than I was when I started.  To feel thus could well be a sign of authentic sanctity! 

Old Jonah

Jonah Gunduza I have lost contact with.  He will have long since retired having served out his priesthood with quiet and unquestioning devotion through a brutal civil war to Zimbabwe's independence.  Now, I trust, he is either in Abraham's bosom, or remains a fount of benevolent and patriarchal sanctity and wisdom in some beautiful Zimbabwean country village where the turtle doves croon all day and AIDS has not yet scythed too thick a harvest.

Bare Bottoms, Huddleston and Mandela

Mike Stebbing is now a CR Father at Mirfield.  He says in a recent letter to me, ".... Twenty years is a nice thought.  I think you've done more with it than I have.  My life involves a lot of wiping of old men's bottoms and not much else.  Priesthood takes strange forms.  I have spent quite a lot of the last year looking after Trevor Huddleston, who is marvellous but exhausting.  This took me to India for four days as he had to go there to receive a great prize just two months after breaking his hip, so I went as his nurse.  It was marvellous to see India...The other really great thing about India was meeting Nelson Mandela.  You don't appreciate just what an exceptional man he is till you meet him in the flesh - so relaxed and poised and unpretentious and with the absolute integrity which is always so impressive..."

Mike in very much his own way is an impressive man too.  We were at university together, but did different degrees and were poles apart politically.  We moved in different circles.  Only later, when deacons together in the diocese of Mashonaland, did we grow into mutual appreciation and a friendship prepared to tolerate each other's very different perspectives. 

A Be-Cassocked Swaggie

Mike was always a political radical who identified totally and uncritically with the underdog. He loved to wander around barefoot like the Africans, he learned their language and desired, above all else, to live and work among them.  He served a long and uneasy deaconate in a rich white suburb of what used to be Salisbury and is now Harare.  He appreciated the gin and cocktail parties, but not the attitudes, politics or crass materialism of his parishioners and he was often in trouble of one sort or another.  He was blessed by a tolerant and very wise Rector, a CR Father, who became Bishop of Matabeleland and also by a gentle and understanding bishop.  So in spite of several scrapes and against the odds, he made it to the priesthood and was ordained at the same time as I was.  He used to visit us in Kadoma, hitch hiking down in a well-washed white cassock and bare-feet, an unholy but holy swaggie.  There we would eat and drink and gossip, disagreeing politically and agreeing theologically.  He remembers being admonished by my first little son for his table manners.

Ironic Sanctity

He had a yearning for extreme service to his Lord and so persuaded our Bishop to let him look after a large Mission District, where he lived in a small hut, went about barefoot and ate a largely African peasant diet.  These were dangerous times with guerrillas about.  Another eccentric white Christian living in and ministering to a leper colony further up the road from where Mike was working was murdered and there were violent incidents much closer to him.  It became expedient for Mike to move from his hut and beloved African people and so eventually he ended up at Mirfield, a monk known as Fr Nicholas, spending much of his time nursing old and decrepit fellow monks.

It is one of our sweet faith's ironies, is it not, that a sanctity consciously sought is rarely achieved.  Thus Fr Nick did not achieve romantic sanctity as an indigenised white African peasant priest, but he achieves it, surely, as a homesick white Zimbabwean in miserable grey Mirfield, unromantically and uncomplainingly wiping old men's bottoms.  Praise God for such sanctity in him and in all those throughout the world who, in the spirit of our Lord, do similar work.

1995