BOOKS: Story of a priest's partisan life

Anthony Egan, SJ


CONVENTIONAL boundaries between the genres of political and religious biography take something of a tumble in this generally excellent new book by theologian and church historian Michael Worsnip. His subject is Father Michael Lapsley, priest of the Society of the Sacred Mission, an Anglican religious order. Lapsley is also a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of a few survivors of a death-squad assassination attempt.

A New Zealander by birth, Lapsley came to South Africa as a young monk in the early 1970s,was soon elected national chaplain to Anglican university students, was exposed to the harsh apartheid realities of the times and, although still a committed pacifist (as a schoolboy even refusing to do cadets!), was deported from South Africa after the 1976 students’ uprising.

Moving to Lesotho, he worked among university students in Roma (including young South African exiles) and with Anglican ordinands. He also joined the ANC, having come to the conclusion that pacifism in South Africa did not work. His work as spokesperson for the ANC became a source of tension for his church and religious order, and he was eventually moved from Lesotho.

After much discussion, often heated, he was allowed to move to the recently independent Zimbabwe, where he tried to combine pastoral ministry, graduate studies and ANC work. Controversy followed him - a dispute with the then bishop (Peter Hatendi) and his sharply critical account of Anglican “neutrality” under the Ian Smith regime made him unpopular in some circles.

He worked for the ANC mission and the Lutheran World Federation in Zimbabwe until 1990 when, on April 28, a bomb concealed in a magazine sent to him by an alleged comrade blew off both his hands and blinded him in the right eye. He recovered, returning to South Africa to work in Cape Town with the blessing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in early 1990 had strongly supported the Anglican synod’s decision not to allow priests to be members of political parties. Lapsley currently works as the chaplain to the trauma centre at Cowley House in Cape Town.

Within the framework of such a life, Lapsley’s biographer weaves a fascinating and moving account of what it meant to be a Christian priest within a liberation movement. Since Worsnip himself was for a while an exile in Lesotho, where he secretly joined the ANC and was later also ordained an Anglican priest, and is a good friend of Lapsley, one might describe the author’s approach to his subject in the anthropological terminology of a “participant observer”. This common ground both gives the book its depth and perhaps explains some of its weaknesses.

Worsnip has a clear, and partisan, view of church politics. He has no doubts as to the inevitable and even natural links between religion and politics. He and his subject share the same broad theological and political positions: both are adherents of the theology of liberation, which asserts that Christians should take the side of the poor and oppressed and work for a just, more equal distribution of power and wealth in human society.

Similarly, they see the local church as a basic unit of the religious community, whose interests should take precedence over the hierarchical structures of the church if a conflict of interests arises.

This reviewer would share this opinion,but the problem is that Worsnip perhaps takes it for granted that his readers both understand these presuppositions and/or endorse them. >From his tone, it is clear Worsnip is also trying to advocate such a position in the course of his biographical narrative. It is a pity that he doesn’t state his case more overtly.

This is but one broad example of an instance where advocacy (and I do believe that Worsnip is advocating a theological- political position throughout) is weakly handled. Other issues that deserved attention include the Christian “just war” tradition and the question of a priest’s partisan political alignment.

Alternatively, Worsnip’s position vis—vis Lapsley also gives us helpful insights into Lapsley’s personality and ultimately his faith. Worsnip manages to represent the realities and difficulties of being a monk today in a way a secular biographer might find difficult.

The nature of religious life, with its paradoxical - and to some people slightly weird - vows of poverty,chastity and obedience, is presented realistically. A vowed monk or nun is not (or at least shouldn’t be) a kind of “otherworldly superbeing” or even the comic parody of popular media, but a real person, with weaknesses and fears and strengths like the rest of humanity. This certainly is the picture one gets of Michael Lapsley.

Religious readers may also pick up from this book the elements of a spirituality, a way of living out a faith commitment. It is one which articulates a “service of faith and promotion of justice” (to borrow the terms of a 1975 document of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order) and, highly relevant to South Africa today, one that focuses on notions of repentance, truth and reconciliation. Amid much pie-in-the-sky dross that often gets presented as spirituality, this will be truly refreshing.

Much more could be said about Michael Lapsley -Priest and Partisan. More needed to be said about Lapsley - perhaps an autobiography is still in order. Despite its weaknesses, Worsnip has written a really engaging, readable and at times deeply provocative book that deserves a wide readership beyond the “politico” and “religious” circles.

Client Media Releases

UKZN student heads to FIFA Women's World Cup
NWU extraordinary professor discusses Global South