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Bishop Rubin Phillip comes full circle | News

On Sunday, November 1, Bishop Rubin Phillip will address the congregation of St Michael’s Church in Merebank, his last service as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Natal. This is the same place where the ninth bishop of Natal – and first black bishop of the province – was baptised and confirmed as a youngster.

“I will have come full circle,” said Phillip, looking back over a rich life as a church leader and civil rights’ activist.

Son to an agnostic father and Catholic mother, Phillip grew up in Clairwood with few material possessions but surrounded by an open, loving family.

“My father always allowed free discussion and debate, planting the seed of critical thinking that has stayed with me,” said Phillip. “Both parents were liberal, with a deep appreciation for the diversity of our country.”

When he was 17 years old, Phillip’s father died of an illness, aggravated by a lack of proper medical care denied to him because of segregation.

“I got home one afternoon and he was ill, so we took him to King Edward VIII Hospital. It was so full he had to lie on a mattress on the floor. I felt really angry that he wasn’t getting proper treatment and I believe he would have lived longer had he not suffered such inhumane conditions,” said an aggrieved Phillip.

This proved to be a turning point in the young man’s life, forcing him to question the injustices suffered by his countrymen and directing him towards the church.

“His death made me question the afterlife and I discussed these issues with the parish priest. Here I came to accept the reality of a greater being and the priest said he thought I should enter the church, even though I hadn’t shared the calling I had received with him.”

After a brief discussion with Bishop Vernon Inman, 19-year-old Phillip went on to study a three-year diploma in theology at the Federal Theological Seminary in the Eastern Cape. It was here, surrounded by people of different races and backgrounds, that his faith and the politics of the country crossed paths.

His first appointment as curate of St Gabriel’s Church, Wentworth, placed him across the road from the medical school. It was during this time that his personal and political life would be greatly affected by the meeting of two people; his wife, Rosemary, with whom he would have three children; and the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko.

“This was a time of critical personal development which led to the person I am today.”

Phillip was elected as deputy president of the National Union of South African Students, the portfolio of which included developing international relations with anti-apartheid supporters and fund-raising.

After a trip to Sweden and London in 1973, Phillip was apprehended at Johannesburg’s airport where he was beaten and threatened.

“I had to leave a week before my son was born so I hadn’t met him yet. The police knew my entire itinerary and threatened that I could ‘lose my son’.”

Although he was released, he was given a banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act which forbade him travelling, publishing documentation or addressing young people. However, after receiving special permission to continue preaching, Phillip risked his life by giving political insights during sermons and furthering the opposition movement.

After accepting the position as rector of Christ Church in Overport in 1977 – the youngest rector of that parish at 25 years old – the weight of the political struggle and constant stress was proving too much.

While studying in the Eastern Cape, Phillip had formed a strong relationship with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, even babysitting the Tutus’ children.

During this troubled time, Phillip turned to his old friend, and requested he and his family be sent elsewhere.

For three years, the Phillips enjoyed a happy time in New York where Phillip studied for a Master’s Degree in Theology while preaching about the church’s role in fighting apartheid. His wife, Rosemary, studied Early Childhood Development, later becoming a teacher and principal in South Africa.

“It was the first time Rose and I could take our children for a walk or go to a restaurant without looking over our shoulders. Rose also experienced the freedom of being a black woman in society without segregation.”

It was during this time that Phillip had a profound moment, baptising the baby of a young, white couple.

“I started to weep because I realised this is what Christianity is about. Not race or divisions, just a child and me united in Christ.”

Returning to his conflicted homeland in 1984, Phillip took up the role as rector at St Aidan’s Church in Durban for three years before being asked by the bishop to move to St Elizabeth’s in Westville.

“I didn’t want to work in a white parish and suffer the indignities, but it was an amazing experience.”

It was during this time that Chris Hani was assassinated and Phillip took the opportunity to tell Hani’s story in a sermon that was welcomed by the white congregation.

Having spent most of his life in KwaZulu-Natal, Phillip asked for a change and was sent to Pretoria where he became Dean of the Cathedral of St Alban the Martyr, however, this stay was cut short when he was nominated Bishop for the Diocese of Natal.

Conflicted about the decision, Phillip turned to Tutu for guidance. His response was quintessentially straightforward: “You foolish man, stop wasting my time! It’s not your decision. You have to say yes and then let the people decide.”

His role as bishop, originally as bishop suffragan, began in 1995. Throughout his time, Phillip has continued to speak out against injustices and is highly critical of the country’s leadership.

“I’m prepared to make allowances for the first 10 years of democracy because the previous government were not role models. But I feel our politicians have lost their way and forgotten about the people who fought for this country. They have put status, wealth and personal gain above what should be fundamental – serving the people. I am hopeful the next crop of politicians will discover this.”

Phillip said the biggest failing of the church, since the end of apartheid, had been its failure to talk out against injustices. He also spoke out against churches who profit off the congregation or instruct parishioners to perform bizarre rituals such as eating snakes.

“It’s a scandal and a disgrace. This is a terrible abuse of faithful worshippers and they are undoing the labour of the church. They are making a mockery of the gospel which speaks of freedom, healing and reconciliation.

“I think God will judge the churches more harshly than the politicians. Politicians don’t make claims of morality. The church does.”

He also called on the church to be more representative of black people and women, while acknowledging there has been progress. The inclusion of youth in the church is also pivotal.

“I am involved with our youth ministry and I hear what they say about needing to create a space for them and that we are living in the distant past. It’s hard for us to hear, but I will really miss interacting with the young people.”

When Dino Gabrielle, current Bishop of Zululand, takes over the reins, Phillip and his wife will move to their flat in Durban where he will spend time writing and with his grandchildren. He also plans to put his course in conflict mediation to use in South Africa and beyond, with plans already being worked on for a trip to South Sudan.

- Published in Independent Newspapers 16 September 2016.

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