Westminster Abbey: If you had only an hour to take in London, that’d probably be the place to go. Kings and queens, explorers and philosophers, artists and soldiers are buried there, their effigies made to resemble them as they were in life. Effigies of Mary Queen of Scotts, and Elizabeth I, who ordered Mary’s execution, lie in close proximity with this shared epitaph: “Consorts both in Throne and Grave, here we rest two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in hope of our resurrection.”
In another section, along a wall far beneath Gothic arches, is the tomb of William Wilberforce. His epitaph says: “His name will ever be specifically identified with those exertions which removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery.”
Of course, in other areas of the Abbey are the tombs of British colonizers who went to Africa with schemes and dreams in their hearts, imagining “heathens” who could be easily brought into bondage, and even accepting the idea that God had ordained African slavery in the Biblical account of Noah cursing Canaan to be a “servant of servants”(Gen. 9:25).
There are stained glass windows throughout the edifice, and two facing each other from either end of one of the abbey’s chapels, where religious services are conducted daily.
I attended the celebration of “The Ascension of Our Lord” there on May 13, 2010 at 5:00 p.m. The sermon was delivered by The Most Reverend Dr. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus from South Africa.
I watched congregants enter, some pausing to face the cross at one end of the chapel, bowing slightly, others simply taking a seat. I was in one of the first rows, and watched the choir boys in their white tunics march reverently up the aisle, then the procession of priests and Anglican presidents. One swung pungent incense. Another, wearing a gold mitre and carrying a gilded cross on a large staff—a metaphorical shepherd’s staff, I would imagine, made triumphant by that cross—looked solemn and regal.
At the end of the processional was Bishop Tutu, shorter than any who had gone before, wearing a scarlet cassock and matching cap.
I could not help but notice the sweetness of his face. I can come up with no better word. His face was both noble and child-like.
The choir sang, and we congregants joined in:
Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
Glorious to his native skies, Alleluia!
Christ, awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
Enters now the highest heaven! Alleluia!
The president of the Abbey pronounced the glorious phrase repeated on Easter morning throughout the world: “Christ is risen,” and we responded in unity, “He is risen indeed.”
There followed readings about the Ascension, more songs by the choir, and finally, the sermon by Bishop Tutu.
His theme was obvious from the beginning, and is indeed the theme of his life: The image of God is in every person. “Racism,” he said, “is not just a bad thing. It is not just evil. It is an act of blasphemy, for God has imprinted His image into every human being. We know that any division, any persecution based on race or ethnicity is simply balderdash, and we can say so forthrightly. Every human being is a God-carrier, and the human body a sanctuary for the Holy Spirit.” He reminded us that every Christian is called to liberate the oppressed and enslaved, to care for the earth, to serve humanity.
Bishop Tutu radiated love. I could feel it in waves of energy—one of the signs I have learned to recognize as an indicator that I am being spiritually moved. Spiritual communication activates the mind, invigorates the spirit, and calls our very cells to attention. I have had the experience in many places, within the LDS Church and in other settings as well. Bishop Tutu had that quickening effect on me, and I noticed later that any tiredness I had felt earlier was completely gone. I had been renewed.
I was seated only ten feet away from him, and looked over at him periodically before and after his sermon. The small smile never left his face. When it was time to invite congregants to receive either the Eucharist or a blessing (or neither, if such was their choice), I saw his smile get a bit bigger.
The choir boys came forward first. If they carried their program, it indicated they would receive a blessing but not the Eucharist. Bishop Tutu looked each one in the eyes and smiled with such tenderness that I had to wonder if the Savior looked just that way as he blessed the “little ones.” Were those the eyes? That the expression? Every twinkle saying, “I love you. Don’t forget who you are.”
The rest of us were called up next. I took my program with me, but I knew I wanted a blessing from Bishop Tutu. I know not all Mormons would do as I did, since our doctrine would not recognize his priesthood authority. I recognized his moral authority, however–his discipleship, and it is a rare thing for me to turn down a blessing from someone I know to be a disciple of the Lord I serve.
I came forward, looked probingly into his eyes, then closed them reverently as his hand came down on my head. So gentle. I looked at him again, then returned to my seat. I could imagine myself embracing him.
And so, since Thursday, I have been reading about Bishop Tutu. I knew quite a bit already. I knew he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, when murderers or tormenters were asked to fully confess what they had done, and many were granted amnesty. Almost all, said Bishop Tutu, faced the families of those they had blinded or killed or maimed, and begged forgiveness, though such was not required by the TRC court. Though there is a variety of opinion on how successful the TRC was, its intent was exemplary. And even the most vicious supporters of Apartheid—those who had permitted the political mandate to lead them into unthinkable darkness—were not demonized. As Wayne Northey quoted Bishop Tutu in the Catholic New Times on 10/6/02, “[T]he Good News of Jesus has a bias for sinners contrary to the normal standards of the world. No situation in this theology is irredeemable and devoid of hope…Love is much more demanding than law [and] we inhabit a moral universe. Good and evil are real and that they matter, [but] that love is stronger than hate; life is stronger than death; light is stronger than darkness; and laughter and joy and compassion and gentleness and truth–all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”
Before me stood Desmond Tutu, who had once run to a man about to be “necklaced” (executed in a prolonged, torturous way by having a kerosene-filled tire bind his arms and chest and set afire) and threw his arms around him to prevent the murder. The man was set free.
And yet there was nothing pretentious about Bishop Tutu. Even as a tearful woman waited at the exit to present him with some letters, he merely smiled–just as he had smiled at the choir boys. The woman turned to the rest of us: “Last July, he saved the lives of thirty-six people. These letters are from their families, thanking him.” Bishop Tutu smiled again. It appeared to me that the woman was about to kneel at his feet. He raised one arm and made the sign of the cross before her, as though to say, “Not I. I am not the Savior.”
As I left Westminster Abbey at 6:30 p.m., looking back to see Bishop Tutu’s face one last time, I saw the sun performing its glorious alchemy in the stained glass above me. Orange had become gold; purple had been transmuted to ruby, and indigo to sapphire. I had asked my husband, when we had toured the place a week earlier, who was in the center of that particular spread of stained glass. The figure was a bit androgynous, and I thought it might be Elizabeth I. “That’s Christ,” said Bruce. “They were Christians, you know.”
I have thought deeply about Bishop Tutu’s moral authority since that service. I believe moral authority is foundational to any priesthood authority. (See D&C 121:41-43.) Though surely not the same thing as the divine proclamation “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:13), it nonetheless reflects being as power, and righteousness itself as authority. Any who truly follows their ethics, even risking their lives to sustain principles they know to be right and good, has moral authority—whether or not the world recognizes it. In the case of Desmond Tutu, the world DOES recognize it, and his signature can save a life.
I listened to an interview with Bishop Tutu this morning (http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/tutu). I found one line particularly compelling: “I believe,” he said, “we have underestimated what Apartheid did to all of us.” Not just whites, not just blacks—to ALL of us. He went on to recount an experience wherein he started doubting the ability of two black pilots on his plane when they encountered some serious turbulence. He realized he had not really sustained faith in the very people he had helped to liberate.
As a Mormon, his declaration continues to resonate with me, though with other words than “Apartheid.”
I believe we have underestimated what the priesthood restriction did to all of us.
Did we persuade our brothers and sisters to doubt the imprint of godliness in their images and to imagine that some other figure (Cain, for instance) had usurped the divinity God had endowed them with? Did we give ourselves permission to engage in oppression and alienation in the name of the very one who found himself most at home with the poor and the downtrodden? Do we continue to justify ourselves in such thinking or to permit others to perpetuate it down to the next generation? Are we so fearful of acknowledging how wrong some of our past teachings were that we will not fully acknowledge what we did? Will we keep ourselves from “truth and reconciliation” for fear that others might doubt current prophetic authority–thus, ironically, losing some of our own moral authority?
Thankfully, any with real moral authority recognizes that (as the title of one of Tutu’s books suggests) there is “No future without forgiveness.”
Lest this post seem merely a condemnation of the LDS past, let me conclude with a quote from Bishop Tutu, who would certainly choose to be called HOPEFUL. He refers to “ubunto,” the process of forming and sustaining a community, and says that “ubunto” summons “a man regal in dignity, bubbling over with magnanimity and a desire to dedicate himself to the reconciliation of those whom apartheid and the injustice and pain of racism had alienated from one another.”
May we move forward to that kind of a world—fearlessly, and with a full willingness to receive the gifts and blessings of all “God-carriers” who surround us, and to bless them generously in return.