Anglican Diocese of Port Elizabeth

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A Eulogy for Philip Welsford Richmond Russell
First Bishop of our Diocese

At the south-eastern tip of Africa, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean wash up against an ancient land.

They meet the rolling hills which cascade down from the high peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains. The barrier of spears.

It is a rich and fertile land, lush and green, teeming with life. Monkeys in the trees and insects crawling everywhere.

It is a meeting place of peoples. The heart of the once mighty warrior nation, the Zulu empire; a home for settlers from Europe who came in waves from England, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and more; who were joined there by Indians brought out to cut cane in the hot and humid fields.

 

It was into this world that, in October 1919, Philip Welsford Richmond Russell was born.

The son of a true gentleman from England, Leslie Richmond, and his Australian wife, Clarice Louisa. Leslie had been invited to South Africa to work at an import-export agency where he fell in love with Clarice, the daughter of the boss, Samuel Welsford. Samuel had migrated the family from Melbourne first to New York then to Durban where Clarice went to school. The family firm sold goods from the Far East - China and Japan - and cosmetics from the US and England, including my dad’s beloved Melrose healing balm.

 

It was a different world then – no internet, mobiles or TV. Scarcely a landline phone. The concept of live streaming a funeral service from a little Adelaide suburb to homes half a world away in South Africa, Korea, England, Switzerland and possibly Peru would have been beyond comprehension. It was a time when people were told their place in society and made to stay there.

 

It was, though, an idyllic time to be a boy. Plenty of space to play and grow - and the chance to begin to think.

So what was the story then, which took this young boy to become a man who could stand in the spotlight – armed only with his faith – and take on the bullies of apartheid.

A man who guided a Church through deep structural change and healed rifts that threatened to tear that Church apart.

A man with a great sense of humour who always had a twinkle in his eye behind those ridiculously bushy eyebrows.

And yet a man who, in all his 93 and three quarters years, never managed to master the art of lining up the buttons on a shirt.

 

Young Philip and younger brother Jeffery were sent by their comfortably middle-class family first to Clifton Preparatory School at Cowie’s Hill then to what Philip always argued was the best government school in the province, Durban High School.

Never much chop as a sportsman he would have been a formidable opponent across the debating floor.

 

He was always good with numbers so from school went into training, serving articles as a quantity surveyor.

But the dark clouds of war which broke over Europe cast their bleak shadow across our great southern lands.

Already feeling called to serve God, Philip enlisted in the Army in a mustering where he could save people not kill them – the bomb disposal unit of the South African Engineers Corp.

In July 1940, Sergeant Russell sailed with his unit to Kenya and it was there he celebrated his 21st birthday.

His leadership potential was identified immediately by his superiors and he was sent home for officer training – returning as a lieutenant to the war front in North Africa.

Here his work and bravery were recognised with formal mentions in despatches. He was awarded a Member of the British Empire for leading a team which cleared some 200 mines, bombs and booby traps from railway lines for the advancing army and made safe forward airfields for the Royal Air Force.

Then, after the Allies drove the Germans back, the front moved to Italy and Philip transferred to a unit which provided rest and recreation for war-weary soldiers.

 

It was in Rome that he met a pretty young nurse, Eirene, who’d been told by her friends to look out for a man whose chest was so hairy it looked like bootstraps were dangling out his shirt.

A whirlwind romance ensued and they were married in Foggia, Italy, in April 1945 – going on to enjoy nearly 56 years of a happy married life.

Throughout all those years, Eirene was always his touchstone of sense and stability, the hand which fed the streams of visitors who came to our door and his loyal companion in good times and bad.

 

Their first home was in Grahamstown where Philip read a BA at Rhodes and studied at St Paul’s Theological College. Money was tight and they had to take in boarders to make ends meet. But it was a time of joy with the first two children born,  Susan then June.

Philip was made a deacon in 1950 and ordained priest in ’51 – moving to serve as curate in Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital and home of the Natal Anglican cathedral.

Here, the third daughter, Pauline, was born.

 

Philip’s first parish as rector was St James, Greytown, in the Natal midlands, an area of beautiful hills steeped in battlefield history of resistance by the Zulu to British rule.

Here Christopher was born and it is the place where Philip’s ashes will be interred alongside Eirene. United again in death as they were so long in life.

 

From there he progressed steadily up the Church career ladder. Rector of Ladysmith; sent on exchange to Florida and Philadelphia in the United States; Rector of Kloof and Archdeacon of Pine Town just outside Durban.

He was consecrated Bishop Suffragan of Cape Town in June 1966 – where he spent considerable time ministering to far flung country towns.

In 1970, a new diocese was created in Port Elizabeth – an industrial city in South Africa’s Eastern Province – with Philip appointed inaugural Bishop.

Then back to Natal as Bishop in 1974 – moving the bishop’s residence from the posh district of Westville to inner suburban Durban where people could get to his home by bus.

And finally, in September 1981, he was enthroned as the 10th Archbishop of Cape Town – the head of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa and a flock of several million Anglicans stretched across South Africa, the vast desert land of Namibia, the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, the kingdoms of Swaziland and Lesotho and the little British territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha – islands in the South Atlantic accessible only by sea.

 

Each of these steps were major milestones in Philip’s life. Many were greeted with packed cathedrals, choirs in full voice, trumpeters heralding the new incumbent, press and TV coverage.

And there’s more. We can talk of how Philip revitalised the Mission to Seamen, was on the executive committee of the SA Institute of Race Relations - the watchdog which publicly monitored apartheid oppression, of how he represented South Africa in numerous conferences abroad and served on the global central committee of the World Council of Churches.

There’s more to these than just a collection of dates, places and titles you can read in a copy of Who’sWho or look up on Wikipedia. But, today let us rather consider the qualities and character of  Philip than simply recite his CV.

 

An uncle once said to me “Philip is an ambitious man”. He was, but he was not ambitious in the egotistical sense. He was ambitious to make the most of the talents he had and to offer those talents in service.

He was self-confident, full of energy and always well organised. Absurdly so at times, such as taking an indelible black marker to make a stripe on his bed sheets to get them exactly in the right place -  no matter what it looked like.

He was determined to the point of stubbornness – a quality the gentle staff of the Roselin Court nursing home witnessed in the last few years as he felt the frustration of an ageing body unable to keep pace with what he wanted it to do . We thank them for their care.

He was never shy of hard work. Parish priests tell of how on visits he was just as likely to muck in and help fix a blocked drain as he was to hold a theological discussion.

 

On the public stage, Philip is best known for being an outspoken critic of apartheid.

 

He stood in the pulpit and in front of the journalists and said, “This is wrong, this must change and it must change now.”

 

And let’s be clear – this was not a society like Australia where we are free to express a differing opinion. Where you can have a laugh and share a beer in the pub with your opposite number at the end of the day.

No, this was a society at the lowest point in a civil war. Opponents of apartheid would be routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed.

That’s easy to say, the kind of thing we journalists write about every day. But this was no abstract threat. Consider that several of these people were personal friends and associates of Philip.

The glib announcement would be made that so-and-so had slipped on the soap in the shower in detention and cracked his head open; that someone else had jumped to their death from the window of a high-rise building while being questioned by the security police.

Those same security police who would be watching outside from a darkened car, who tapped the phone and raided our home in the hollow hours before dawn.

A brave man indeed.

 

(Actually, the security police didn’t find what they were looking for – he had no manual on how to make bombs or form a terrorist cell. They got very excited about a little cassette tape in an African language, took it back to their office to analyse it for clues. It was, in fact, a series of lessons in how to teach yourself to speak Xhosa).

 

Church leaders had a particular burden in the struggle against apartheid. The architects of that perverted scheme were staunch Christians who believed in a Biblical line about masters and servants. But it made them more cautious in dealing with clergy and the Church than in their ruthless approach to party political opponents. Clergy were given more latitude than other folk. As a family we were very privileged – allowed to have blacks visit us at home, sit at our table. We went into black townships and saw the poverty, a reality which was hidden from most whites.

 

Philip knew that to have credibility in the fight against apartheid the Church must first get its own house in order. It was the right thing to do.

He took real, practical steps. He made sure black priests were paid the same as whites, that they had the same retirement benefits, that clergy widows would be cared for and not simply cut adrift if they happened to be black.

 

He did so in Church which was deeply divided. There was a huge gap between black and white. There were rifts between the traditionalists, the progressives and adherents to what was called the charismatic movement – people who had had a dramatic personal encounter with the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues but whose focus was inward looking on the Church and often devoid of connection to the broader community.

 

Philip was a true leader in that he did not make grandiose statements about good ideas that were never going to happen. His way was to move people on to what could be achieved. As much the sheepdog as the shepherd. To get people to a position where going back would just not make sense.

So it was that the Church was ready to accept his black successor, Desmond Tutu, when Philip decided to retire in August 1986.

 

And apartheid was by no means his only target for change.

 

He fought to advance the rights of women, especially within the Church where he involved them more in decision-making and helped pave the way for women priests.

He was an environmentalist, from long before it became a popular movement.

He demanded better care for the disabled.

 

He did these things because he believed in two commandments – to love God and to love one another.

He did these things to continue the Christian tradition that stretches back to before time began in the Big Bang, first to make the world and then to make it a better place.

“There are no second-class citizens in Heaven,” he would say.

 

He did these things with a mind that was always open, always probing, always challenging.

 

Philip loved words. Mostly he was a preacher, not a writer, but he was instrumental in reforming the liturgy – the content of a church service. He worked to make it more relevant to the modern day but still consistent with tradition.  He thought deeply about how words could be pregnant with meaning, how they could dissect the shades of grey – a far cry from the glib slogans and five-second sound bites so prevalent today.

 

He was a great builder. He played a key role in the design and construction of the new Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, in Pietermaritzburg, when Bishop of Natal. This was a move which simultaneously created a new cathedral and united the two main parishes in the city which had been divided since the 19th Century.

He was the driving force in the establishment of two residential conference centres – Koinonia in Natal and Waverly Hills near Port Elizabeth.

These were semi-derelict former hotels transformed into vibrant meeting places through volunteer labour and fundraising. In them, he saw the opportunity to bring together the denominations to a common cause, enlisting the Roman Catholics, Methodists and others to build, run and use them.

 

Ever the optimist, he was sure obstacles could be overcome.

 

He retained that optimism as he worshipped here in St Edwards. He loved the warm fellowship of this parish - and St Aidin’s - and was concerned by the grim situation of declining numbers and negative finances. As far as his failing mind could grasp, he was pleased with the window of opportunity that opened this month, to share this church in friendship with the local Chinese community.

 

He was a man of many qualities, a man of many names.

Phil to his mum, dad and brother, Philip to his wife.

Sergeant, lieutenant and all sorts of reverend – plain, very, right and most.

Your Grace – one of the terms he didn’t really like. And Bishop OneOne because he was the one who came before Tutu. And, finally, Archbishop Emeritus.

 

For the family, he was Daddy, Pater, grandpa and gramps. A man who always made time for us. He took us on family bicycle rides – I rode in a wickerwork shopping basket hanging off the front handlebars.

We went for long walks on the beach or climbed up mountains, instilling in us a love for the bush and the country that we in turn have passed on to the next generation.

A man who would get up an extra hour early to help with some schoolwork or take a break in the afternoon for a quick sunset swim – returning later that same night to the desk where his unfinished work was still waiting.

He was our guide and our guardian and we will miss him so.

 

For the grandchildren he was quick with a joke, teasing them until he found where their funnybone lay. Always up for a board game, playing Pooh sticks, or, as they got older, inquiring about their partners and what they wanted to be.

 

He relished being surrounded by family here in Adelaide after he realised it would be a battle to keep going on his own after Eirene died. He was after all, an old school man whose culinary triumph was an evening meal of orange juice poured onto cornflakes with a few good spoonfuls of sugar.

 

And what now for those of us who remain behind, who are gathered here to mourn.

Who are hit by those waves of grief that strike us unawares, belt us in the guts.

 

We go on.

 

We go on to tread further that new path broken open by Philip, his friends and forebears toward a better world.

 

We go on to challenge - again and again to challenge - our own thinking about what is right and wrong, about the views held by society, the structures of a Church.

 

We go on, secure in the knowledge that Philip died in faith - unafraid of death.

 

That he died steadfast in his belief in God and the goodness of humanity.

 

We go on – together, we go on.

Date Added: 2013-08-16

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