Mpilo: Life - Tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Tribute given at Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of the late Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu in October 2022

Mpilo Desmond Tutu. We’re used to a different ordering, one that gives priority to his English name. But English first names like Nelson and Desmond were really concessions to colonial practice, a painful realisation by indigenous Africans that an English name was perhaps a necessary if ambiguous step on a warped ladder of racial and cultural recognition. But Indigenous Africans name their children with purpose. Nelson Mandela was Rolihlahla, troublemaker. Desmond Tutu, Mpilo, life.

As we’ve heard already, life, aliveness, is famously seen by the Fourth Evangelist as one of the Gospel’s defining qualities. ‘Because I live,’ Jesus says in John 14, ‘you will live’. A better translation would perhaps reveal the dynamic exchange here: ‘Because I am alive you will be brought to life, you shall come to have my aliveness.’ Jesus is reinvigorating the ancient Deuteronomist’s invitation, choose life. John’s Jesus makes such liveliness the leitmotif of his gospel. Being fully alive is the defining characteristic for followers in the way. As the Creed reminds us, the third person of the Trinity – on whom the disciples are to wait – is the guarantor of all this – the Lord and giver of life. Mpilo Tutu was presciently named.  The glory of God is a human being fully alive, St Irenaeus famously opined.. The Arch, as he was affectionately known across South Africa, quite simply understood this divine mission better than any human being I’ve ever known.

Most remarkably, for a man whose speech could contain the strongest condemnation of injustice you might ever hear, his version of bringing people to life came with a lightness of touch that had the ebullience of the dancer he was seen so often to be in and out of worship.

There’s a famous series of photographs of him dancing outside Westminster Abbey following the service in 1994 that welcomed South Africa back into the Commonwealth. Visitors to each South African Embassy or High Commission across the world used, invariably, to find one of the series hung in the reception area. There in the background, much younger, and in standard issue Anglican linen suit, they might recognise yours truly, laughing helplessly, caught up in a moment where the Arch’s infectious energy, his characteristic yippee at South Africa’s transformation, has brought me alive too. Following one of his international trips the Arch sent me a postcard, one of many that I treasure. “Everywhere in the world I go you are upstaging me. Five embassies. In each one, laughing better than me. Hope you and my high fivers [that’s what he called our children] are well. Love Arch.”

On his first Sunday as Archbishop of Cape Town he went to preside at a Confirmation. The umfundisi, that’s the isiXhosa word for priest, no doubt trying to impress his new boss, had ensured a beautiful service, and put some pressure on his spouse to come up with the best possible spread. But the service was long. There were lots of confirmands. “I was famished,” the Arch told me. He got to the umfundisi’s home. The children were lined up like the von Trapp family singers. “They were clearly good at breeding,” the Arch confided. He greeted them. Everyone inexplicably waited. “I was so hungry,” he reiterated. “Eventually I said, ‘Let us say Grace.’ ” At this moment the umfundisi arrived home to a long silence that indicated to his new boss this was a household where grace was rarely said. The priest’s hopes of preferment were disappearing fast. He tried to rescue things. Speaking to his youngest daughter he whispered, “Say the prayer that mummy said this morning.” She solemnly clasped her hands together and intoned, “Dear God, why did we have to invite that terrible Archbishop this evening?” Of course, the Arch never forgot this story. For those of us who drafted sermons and speeches for him it was often deployed. We gave them numbers. This was number two, used to lighten a difficult message to a tricky parish, maybe one whose white congregation was not yet very far on the journey of transformation. “I used to be an Anglican, until I put tu and tu together,” was the graffiti one parishioner added to a church notice board when Mpilo Tutu became Archbishop. Another, spray-painted this outside the Arch’s Bishopscourt home, the residence for all archbishops of Cape Town. “I illegally occupied it,” he delighted to recount “I was a squatter,” he’d joke – because at the time it was in a whites-only area. He loved the fact that undergraduates of my generation referred to a lower second as a Desmond. “I have a degree named after me,” he’d say, “though not perhaps a very good one!”

Humour – especially when it’s genuinely self-deprecating – brings people to life because it makes the complex accessible, the difficult and seemingly unconquerable, somehow embraceable. A humourless church or society – or even a university – is a half-dead one. It will never be capable of addressing its systemic issues. Because it can never laugh at itself.

Mpilo brought his South African church and society back to life by making people laugh – even at the hideousness of racism.

One Saturday, after morning prayer, when the Arch was staying with us on sabbatical in London, he solemnly informed me that the phone had conked out. We had installed extra handsets so that wherever the Tutus were – with ancient hips and dodgy knees – he and his wife, Ma Leah, would be able to pick up a call nearby. I came home with him. I could see the receiver on the bottom phone was off the hook. I didn’t want to make him seem foolish so, as he headed up the stairs to Ma Leah, I feigned picking it up a few times and informed him that all was well. “Mama,” he shouted to Mrs Tutu, “I have been shown up by the white man again. I always knew that these British phones were racist. Only responding to white people.”

Of course, it was just plain funny at one level. But as I went off laughing to myself, I thought who on earth, given all that he had endured, all that he had to take upon himself of the pain of his fellow South Africans, could laugh at racism? Yet, only by laughing at it do people begin to see its idiocy. You cannot change people by berating them. You’ll only transform them by loving – and laughing – them into life. He was of course deadly serious about the impact of apartheid – a reality, let’s not forget, with roots in British colonial rule. But to get people to see the latter, for instance, he had to reframe their story for them. “The British arrived in the Cape,” he used to say. “We had the land, and they had the Bible. They invited us to kneel and pray to their God. We shut our eyes. By the time we were standing again, our eyes opened, they had the land and we had the Bible. But, the fools,” he’d continue, “they didn’t know the power of the gift they were giving us. They thought it was control. But it actually brought us alive. It was our liberation.”

More than anything, he laughed with people. And his laughter changed a nation, indeed a world. But his tears were also there in equal measure. Before Lazarus was brought to life, in one of the Fourth Evangelist’s signature stories for this, his favourite theme, Jesus stood at his friend’s grave and wept because, the evangelist tells us, he loved him so much. Mpilo loved so, so much. Most often his tears as well as his chuckles revealed this deep love. When indigenous South Africans were threatening to kill their own at the height of apartheid – to put tyres around people’s necks and set these alight – seeing some of their fellow Black South Africans as traitors or collaborators; or more recently, when Zimbabwean immigrants fled Mugabe’s tyranny only to be greeted by a new wave of deadly racism from their fellow Africans; or when a township mother testified to the reality that her husband and son had been killed by an apartheid policeman, who she now requested should come each week to her home, so that she could treat him as her son and pour out whatever love she had left on him, Mpilo wept with tears too deep for words. But more than this. Like the moment in the book of Numbers when a plague had begun and Moses sent Aaron with his censer into the midst of the people, Mpilo stood between the deathliness of racial oppression and the possibility of new democratic life, and the plague of apartheid ceased. His was not a ministry of self-deprecation designed somehow to manipulate or cajole – all safely delivered six foot above contradiction, or bleating from the side-lines. No, he stood among his people, in the middle of our world, and used his whole being, laughter, tears, body, mind and heart itself, to encourage people to choose life.

Whatever else Cambridge University is for – and however many competing truth-claims any contemporary university must rightly embrace – at its heart lies a universal call to bring people fully alive to their human potential. As the final report of the Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement makes clear, in this regard there is much prevailing inequality still to address in Cambridge. For many – like Mpilo Tutu – transforming systemic inequality has meant following a call to ensure that the divine image be recognised in each human soul. However we see this mission, whether as a sacred or secular duty, we may all surely agree that it is our duty and calling, and that from within the members of this University there’ve been few more distinguished exemplars of what bringing people fully alive means than Mpilo Tutu, follower and friend of the Lord and giver of life.

A postscript

When you love someone very much, it is tempting, frankly, to say too too much, if you’ll pardon the pun. You will be glad then for the pages shred in the writing of this tribute. But it did leave me with one thought. I think it belongs here.

Christians say that a good life consists in love of God, neighbour and self. Generally they admit they are better at the first two than the last. Perhaps they are – rightly afraid of the ego.  “I am very vain, “ Mpilo Tutu used often to say. But he wasn’t narcissistic or egotistical. Because he knew, for all his faults, God’s love, God’s delight in him, he’d learned how to enjoy, simply how to love being Mpilo Tutu. He was, as we say, comfortable in his own skin. And he’d have relished the irony of me using that of all phrases. Learning to love being yourself. Perhaps that’s his greatest legacy. It’s certainly the way to fullness of life.