18 November 2015

Heroes of the faith: the Very Revd
Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh

Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh … an inspiring and heroic figure at an early stage of my faith development

Patrick Comerford

In our series of tutorial group studies of heroes of the faith, we have looked this semester at a variety of figures who have influenced each of us individually. They have included Brother Roger of Taizé, the missionary Heidi Baker, Pete Greig, founder of the 25/7 prayer movement, Erasmus and the late Revd Cecil Kerr of Rostrevor.

The chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … the beginning of a story of faith and discipleship (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

To conclude this series, I have chosen a hero of the faith who I have found inspiration since I was first inspired by his faith in brave action when I was a 19-year-old.

I had a wonderful, self-defining, existentialist moment at the age of 19, when one afternoon I first experienced the love and light of Christ being poured out on me in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield.

It is not a past moment … it is a present, living and lived experience.

That evening, I slipped into the stalls in Lichfield Cathedral for Choral Evensong. Afterwards, a canon asked me whether I had started coming to church because I was considering ordination. Canon John Yates (1925-2008) was the last Principal of Lichfield Theological College, appointed in 1966 in succession to John Fenton. He continued as the principal for the next six years, and in 1971 he was appointed Prebendary of Flixton in Lichfield Cathedral.

When he asked me that question, he can hardly have known that shortly beforehand I had that wonderful experience in the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital. Jean and John had remarkable social consciences. They spoke out against discrimination and they were deeply concerned for the poor and the marginalised. They kept an open house in the Close, and in the brief time I knew them I was welcome to drop in.

Later, he was a bishop for 22 years, first as the Bishop of Whitby from 1972 to 1975, the Bishop of Gloucester from 1975 to 1992 and the Bishop at Lambeth from 1992 to 1994.

Soon after that experience in Lichfield, I was deeply moved by the news reports about the Dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, the Very Revd Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh.

So, my adult experience of and formation in the Christian faith in its Anglican expression, my openness to the call to ordination, and my understanding of clear expressions of Christian discipleship, came together in a sequence of experiences that have formed me, my identity and my sense of being.

Gonville and Caius College is the fourth oldest college in Cambridge … Gonville ffrench-Beytagh’s father claimed descent from the founder (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh, who was born over 100 years ago, on 26 January 1912, was an Irish Anglican priest who attained international prominence in the 1970s for his uncompromising resistance to injustice and apartheid. Although he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, he found his office was no protection against the state security forces, or against solitary detention, trial and eventual deportation.

Although Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai, was a British citizen and was once classified as “Asiatic,” he still insisted on his Irish identity, and he was an Anglican by choice rather than birth. He was self-conscious when it came to his awkward combination of names, but proud that each part of his surname indicated his descent from two old Co Galway families: the Beytagh family, who lived near Cappagh, Co Galway, from the late 17th century, and the ffrench family of Castle ffrench.

In “a sudden attack of snobbery,” Gonville’s father, Leo Michael ffrench-Beytagh, hyphenaed his name after his children were born, to claim descent from the Revd Edmund de Gonville, co-founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The dean later also claimed kinship with Major Gonville Bromhead, who received the VC for his role in the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Boer War and who was portrayed by Michael Caine in the movie Zulu (1964).

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai … Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was baptised here when it was the Anglican cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai on 26 January 1912, the son of two much-married Irish parents. His father was an expatriate Irish alcoholic, a former seminarian, a lapsed Catholic, and an admirer of Michael Collins. He claimed to have fought in the Boer War, and by the time his children were born he was the managing director of a cotton company, living in the French Quarter in Shanghai.

Gonville’s mother, Edith (‘Pegs’ McIlraith), took her children to the Anglican Cathedral in Shanghai to be baptised, but he was sent to a French convent school. Family summer holidays were spent in Japan. By the age of five, Gonville’s parents were giving him gin to drink – “for medicinal purposes” ... “ostensibly because it was a preventative for malaria.”

The marriage broke up after Pegs left for South Africa with “a young Highlander,” taking her daughter Pat with her, and Leo moved in with his Australian “housekeeper.”

At the age of seven, Gonville and his half-brother, Michael Leo, a future RAF wing-commander, were sent to England in the charge of a remarkable “Auntie” Esylt Newbery, a vicar’s daughter and teacher who became their legal guardian. Apart from a brief encounter with Pegs during a stop-over in Bombay, Gonville would never meet his mother again until he was in his middle age, when a woman he was introduced to as Mrs Buchanan at a party – on hearing his name – exclaimed: “My God, you’re my son.”

Esylt moved to Weston-super-Mare in Somerset with Gonville, Mike and Pat, and tried earnestly to fulfil the role of mother. For the rest of his life – even in the days he regarded himself as an agnostic – Gonville kept a promise he made her to say every night the words of the Collect of the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee: Mercifully grant, that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He was sent to Monkton Combe (motto Verbum Tuum Veritas, ‘Thy Word is Truth’), an independent boarding school near Bath, and then to Bristol Grammar School. His experience in England of church, Sunday Schools, confirmation classes and summer camps left him determined never to attend church again. In January 1929, just before his 17th birthday, he left England for New Zealand to enrol at an agricultural course at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamuru, but was soon expelled after a midnight escapade. He then tried sheep farming, and would later claim that he was one of the few clergy who could preach on the Good Shepherd as he had been a notably bad shepherd himself.

Move to South Africa

After time spent roaming, sleeping rough and in casual labour, a chance encounter with a distant relative brought him to South Africa in late 1932. Although these were pre-apartheid days, he was admitted on the Chinese quota and, on his arrival, the immigration authorities initially refused him entry and classified as him as “Chinese” because he was born in Shanghai, before giving him a temporary permit as an “Asiatic.”

In South Africa, he was reunited with his mother and various half-brothers. He took odd jobs and was a clerk with a mining company before eventually finding an office job with Toc H in Johannesburg, where he helped with a boys’ club. He was still an irreverent agnostic, but at Toc H he soon became friends with Jonathan Graham, later Superior of the Community of the Resurrection (1958-1965), Bishop Geoffrey Clayton of Johannesburg later Archbishop of Cape Town, and Alan Paton, author of Cry the Beloved Country.

One night, on his way home from a riotous party, he was set on by muggers and was left with a broken jaw. In Johannesburg General Hospital, he was visited by Alan Paton, and those visits gave him the opportunity – as Paton put it – “to reflect on the nature and destiny of man and the nature and lack of destiny of himself.”

Once discharged, he started going to church, and almost immediately began thinking about ordination. He told his girlfriend: “You know, for God’s sake, I think I’m going to be a clergyman.” She laughed and laughed and laughed. On the following Christmas Eve, he attended Johannesburg Cathedral, where the dean had locked the door to keep drunken revellers from the Midnight Mass: “It was a hot night and as the doors had been closed, the air was completely still. I knelt at the communion rail, and as I knelt there I felt a very strong cool breeze – and that was all. I do not think that at the time I had any idea what the word ‘breath’ or the word ‘wind’ means to the Christian, or even that the Greek word for the Holy Spirit means breath. I did not even think of Jesus breathing the spirit on his disciples. All I know is that this breath, or wind, which I felt, had a meaning and a content for me which I have never been able to communicate to anyone else, and still cannot describe.”

He sent a postcard to Bishop Clayton, asking how to become a priest. “He asked why I wanted to be a clergyman and I replied it was the last thing I wanted. The bishop was convinced.”

In January 1936, at the age of 24 and a year after being mugged, Clayton sent him to Saint Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown. He later recalled: “The college turned out to be a rather mausoleum-like, dull, brick structure which to me had the psychological impact of a prison.” Clayton urged him to persevere, and ordained him deacon in 1938 and priest in 1939. The two would remain life-long friends.

Priesthood and ministry

Throughout his ministry, Gonville suffered intense bouts of depression, but found his spiritual support and comfort in a Catholic Anglican spirituality. He rose daily at 4.30 a.m. to say the office, and celebrated Mass daily for the rest of his life. He went on to develop gifts as a counsellor and adviser.

He served in a number of parishes in the Transvaal, including Springs and Germiston, with times as chaplain to the Sisters of Saint Margaret in Johannesburg and as the diocesan missioner. In 1952, he was made a canon of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and appointed priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s Mission for “coloured” people near Johannesburg.

At an early stage in his ministry he had not developed a political consciousness. At Saint Alban’s, with his first true contacts outside white society, “the utter nonsensicality of racial discrimination really hit me.” He grew increasingly disillusioned with the stealthy encroaches of apartheid. In 1953, he resigned his South African passport in protest at the passing of the Bantu Education Act.

A ten-year period from 1954 as the Dean of the Cathedral of Saint Mary and All Saints in Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) removed him from the growing maelstrom of South African politics. There he made lasting friendships, particularly with Alison Norman, and brought the cathedral building near to completion. But his reputation as an outspoken preacher and an opponent of racism was gathering pace, making him one of the most controversial figures in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia in the period preceding the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).

He returned to South Africa in 1965 as Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and Archdeacon of Johannesburg Central. There he found Alan Paton had his passport confiscated, and many white people he knew and trusted had been imprisoned or exiled for speaking out for freedom. He quickly became a prominent opponent of apartheid, condemning it as “blasphemous against God and man.” Gonville campaigned against the continuing house arrest of Helen Joseph, a member of the cathedral congregation, first met Winnie Mandela, and opened his cathedral doors – those same doors that had been kept closed at Christmas over 30 years earlier – to black protesters chased up the cathedral steps by police beating them with rhino whips and police dogs snapping at their heels.

In mid-1970, while he was on leave in London, he arranged with Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, chairman of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa and a leading figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, for the IDAF to send aid through Alison Norman, a mutual friend, to a humanitarian fund managed by the dean in Johannesburg to help black families in the townships around Johannesburg. The money would buy food and children’s clothes, pay rents and school fees, and help pay for prison visits, especially long journeys to places such as Robben Island.

A prisoner of apartheid

His Sunday congregations included black township residents, white people from comfortable suburbs, and spies from the special branch spies. The cathedral also included the black congregation of Saint Cyprian’s Church, originally established as a mission church for domestic workers. On weekdays, homeless black urchins, who “disappeared like smoke” if they were approached by any authority, would creep in and listen to the organist practising. The mixture of these groups gave the cathedral its particular character.

He was being watched closely by the South African special branch (BOSS) when, at Christmas 1970, he publicly called the “South African way of life” the “South African way of death.” He was arrested on 20 January 1971 and spent his fifty-ninth birthday in jail, where he was held in solitary confinement and brutally interrogated.

At first, he was accused of furthering the unlawful activities of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party, and of possessing their pamphlets, with titles such We Bring You a Message, These Men Are Our Brothers, Our Sons, The ANC Says No to Vorster and His Gang, and Freedom. Alison Norman was named as a co-conspirator. During his detention, demonstrations and vigils were held throughout South Africa, and the cathedral bells and the bells of many suburban churches were chimed each day in protest.

In prison, Gonville was shocked to realise fully the way in which white members of the security forces regarded black people as less than human. In solitary confinement, he was refused bread and wine, but he decided to celebrate a daily spiritual Eucharist in his cell. Each morning, he stood in front of a piece of wall between two barred and grilled high windows, and imagined himself before the cross. “I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass.” From that first morning, he said the Creed, prayed generally, made a short confession, said the Sanctus and made a spiritual communion. “This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it,” he recalled later. “But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.”

“And you know, it was a reality. ‘Therefore, with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ – I don’t think I have ever known the reality of the company of heaven as I did in that prison cell ... I’m no mystic. But I felt the presence of the Church, both in heaven and on earth. And then, when it came to the time of the consecration, I took – I didn’t have any bread or wine – I took nothing in my hands and I said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And again I took nothing in my hands and said, ‘This is the blood of the new testament which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this as often as ye shall drink it in remembrance of me.’ And I’ll tell you this ... the communions that I received there in that prison cell, without the means of bread and wine, were as real and as glorious and as triumphant and as magnificent as any communion I’ve ever received in my own cathedral, with the organ going and the incense and the bells and all the glory. Just as real and wholly as healing and as complete.”

His trial was postponed and he was released on bail on of 5,000 Rand. He appeared in court briefly again on 30 June, when the state pressed more sinister charges under the Terrorism Act carrying the death penalty and his bail was increased to 10,000 Rand.

When the trial opened in the Supreme Court in Pretoria on 2 August 1971, the main prosecution witness was Kenneth Jordaan, once one of the dean’s altar servers and confidants. Jordaan claimed ffrench-Beytagh had suggested he join the security police to keep watch on their tactics, but it turned out that he was a security police agent. He claimed to have heard the dean inciting the Black Sash – an organisation of middle class, white women – to commit acts of violence against the state, and alleged the dean was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the state by violence, saying revolution was justified under certain circumstances.

In his defence, ffrench-Beytagh said that, far from advocating violence, he had warned that apartheid would result in violence if it were not changed. Apartheid, he insisted, was “heresy – and damnable heresy.” Later, he described apartheid as “blasphemous against God and man.” It was alleged also he said a particular colonel in the security police ought to be shot. “They didn’t know I had said the same of several Anglican bishops,” he told The Guardian later.

On 1 November 1971, he was found guilty on three charges: inciting and encouraging members of the Black Sash to engage in violence; encouraging Jordaan to engage in violence against the state; and receiving 51,400 Rand from the IDAF through Alison Norman. The judge ruled that although he was in possession of ANC pamphlets, this was not an offence, and they may have been planted.

As Mr Justice Petrus Cillié, Judge-President of the Transvaal, sentenced the dean to five years in prison, women in the courtroom gasped and sobbed. As he left the court, they began singing Onward, Christian Soldiers. His conviction, which hinged “on what he had said rather than what he had done,” sent a warning to his outspoken Anglican clerical colleagues.

Exile in London

The Clergy House and Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster ... Gonville ffrench-Beytagh joined the staff in 1973 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He was given bail pending his appeal. He had to report to the police each week, but continued to officiate at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. His appeal was heard in Bloemfontein in February and March 1972, and on 15 April 1972, his sentence was set aside. But he left South Africa for London immediately and spent the last two decades of his life in exile in England.

One of his first meetings was with Archbishop Michael Ramsey at Lambeth Palace. But he found it difficult to get a parish in England until it was suggested he should apply for a curacy at Saint Matthew’s, Westminster, where Bishop Frank Weston had once been curate. Later, he recalled how he had made a pact with God – if offered sherry, he would refuse the post; if offered gin, he would accept. Both were offered, he refused the sherry and he accepted the post.

He had been an honorary canon of Johannesburg since leaving South Arica, and after joining the staff of Saint Matthew’s was made an honorary canon of Canterbury Cathedral in 1973. Saint Matthew’s gave him a base for an altar and a confessional, for spiritual direction and for prayer. But life there was difficult, and he alienated parishioners with his conservative liturgical practices and his refusal to celebrate the marriages of non-communicant couples.

He moved in 1974 to become Rector of Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, where until earlier this year [2015] the rector was the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, previously Dean of Residence in Trinity College, Dublin. Saint Vedast’s, a Wren church in the City of London and a parish without resident parishioners, gave space to concentrate on writing and spiritual direction. He retired from Saint Vedast’s in Christmas 1986, and went to live with friends, including Alison Norman, in an informal community in Tower Hamlets. He died in the London Hospital in Mile End on 10 May 1991, almost 20 years after his forced exile from South Africa.

The memorial in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, to the former curate, Bishop Frank Weston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A Man of Courage

The poet John Betjeman saw Gonville as something of a saint and referred to him as “the martyred Dean of Johannesburg.” Although not without his weaknesses and his eccentricities, his gifts were recognised by many, he was renowned for his ministry of spiritual counselling and some compared him with Padre Pio and the Curé d’Ars.

He had an abiding concern for prisoners of conscience and for the dehumanising effects of apartheid, and for the rest of his life had a sense of guilt about leaving South Africa. But after his death, Diana Collins, long a stalwart of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and CND, said: “Many persecuted families can be grateful for the courage of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh; among them his name will not be forgotten.”

Although he suffered from severe depression, he concealed it with courage yet wrote about it frankly and honestly, especially in Facing Depression (1978) and Out of the Depths (1990). His best-known book, Encountering Darkness (1973), describes his struggle against apartheid and his prison experiences. A Glimpse of Glory (1986) was a collection of meditations with an extended commentary on George Herbert’s poem, Prayer. Tree of Glory (1988) was a series of meditations on the cross and redemption.

Diana Collins said Gonville “belongs to that select band of men like Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Ambrose Reeves, who were not content simply to denounce the cruelties of apartheid, but were prepared to risk their reputations, positions, even their lives by trying to help the victims of the South African government.”

“The man is quite obviously a saint,” said the BBC broadcaster Gerald Priestland. He was “a truly saintly despite his penchant for gin, whisky, and cigarettes, and I must not forget those red socks he loved to wear,” said another friend, Wendy Bronfield.

I was deeply influenced by the practical Christianity of the dean during his trial: I was a 19-year-old, who had just had his first adult experience of God’s love in his life, and I wanted to know what a commitment to Christianity would mean for my future, to make the connection between faith and discipleship. His example has remained with me for the past forty years and more. His bravery and courage taught me the need to relate faith to action in the world; his fortitude in the face of adversity taught me not to fear the “cost of discipleship.”


Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, The Living Word (London: USPG, 1973).
–, Encountering Darkness (London: Collins, 1973).
–, Encountering Light (London: Collins, 1975).
–, Facing Depression (Oxford: Fairacres, 1978/1990).
–, A Glimpse of Glory (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986).
–, Tree of Glory (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1988).
–, Out of the Depths: Encountering Depression (Oxford: Fairacres, 1990).

Muriel Horrell, A survey of race relations in South Africa (University of California Press, 1972, 360 pp).
Gerard Irvine, ‘Good and fearless shepherd,’ The Guardian, 14 May 1991, p. 35.
‘South Africa: I won’t come out alive,’ Time, 15 November 1971.
Alan Paton, Towards the Mountain (London: Penguin, 1980).
Kevin Ward, ‘Beytagh, Gonville Aubie ffrench- (1912–1991),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol 5 (Oxford: OUP 2004), pp 630-631.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 18 November 2015. It draws extensively on a paper first published in Search: A Church of Ireland Journal, 35/1 (Spring 2012), pp 47-54.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much Patrick for posting this comment, which resonates with my own experiences of depression and faith. Regards, Peter