The old priests I knew wore tweed jackets, with leather patched elbows, in winter and even on nippy summer days.
Berets and paisley scarves were the fashionable hallmark of a clergy gent. Supreme amongst these stylists was Father Stanley Qabazi, one of the rector-kings of his day. Florsheim shoes, his head always clean shaven and the cuff of his trousers touching the heel of his shoes at just the right point.
The smell of pipe tobacco, Brut and whisky-spiced fart pervaded their studies where old, handwritten sermons were archived in lever-arch files, retrieved for eventual reuse because, as one sage informed me, “a sermon preached well once is worth preaching again”.
I visited him on Saturday afternoon and found him foraging through stacks of yellowed foolscap pages.
Occasionally he read aloud portions of precious sermons to me. One was a joke about a priest who, while on his huisbesoek rounds in his parish came across Mariam and Gamat reading the Bible.
“I thought you were Muslim,” inquired Father. “Yes, we are but I am unemployed, you see,” replied Gamat, “and that is why I am reading The Book of Job.”
Mariam interrupted him and said, “Father, you have come at the right time. I told Gamat, he’s looking in the wrong section. He is on disability, he should be looking under Chronicles.”
But these seasoned men of the cloth could also be curmudgeon-like, hearts high in the stagnant pools of tradition.
“In many ways,” mused an old friend Michail Rassool, in reference to the stoic Anglo-Catholic clergy we had known, “they were stewards of a culture they didn’t own.”
But oh, how I miss them, their parsonic posturing, their inconsistencies: Wise and fallible, fractured chalices in the hands of God and ever-remembered in the hearts of the people they served; celebrants of their foibled, irreverent saintliness.
A few weeks into my second curacy, I sat in our Monday morning staff meeting. Father Reggie Alexander, my rector, was troubled. “You know, I actually wanted that Trevor Steyn chap. He is very Anglo-Catholic.” I nodded in agreement. Trevor also did a good imitation of Mfundisi Qabazi and of Father Clive McBride.
“I thought you were Anglo-Catholic,” he queried in the tone of the conflicted. I said I was.
“Then why,” confusion and some anger in his voice, “did you raise your hands during the and “Our Father”?
“I was moved,” I muttered. The smell of incense, the clattering rustle of the raised, swung thurible, the ringing of the bells. The elevated host and chalice.
“Here at Saint Timothy, when we are moved,” he replied with a trace of irritation, “we make the sign of the cross.”
Father Reg had uncompromising views about how things ought to be done. I respected that.
Yet, there was an occasion when I was reported to the Parish Council for allowing the youth to do a worker skit on the Feast day of St Joseph the Worker. The councillor was indignant that they had been allowed into the sanctuary area, “to give a performance!”
I thought, “hie korre pak slae”. Instead Fr Reggie leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette and, with an occasional hint of the mellifluous cadence of Archbishop Selby Taylor in his voice, defended my creative interpretation of the theme. His rationale was premised, in part, by his understanding that the eucharist was a weekly and dramatic enactment of the Last Supper.
I understood his rebuke within the context of an Anglican Church fractured by Charismatic Renewal movement. Priests should aspire to be symbol of unity and my free-spirit lifting of my hands could have been offensive to some.
Paul in Romans 14 is also sensitive to “causing another to stumble”. Commentators would refer to the “tyranny of the weaker brother” in relation to that verse.
I learnt a lot from the old priests, the status I now enjoy, in the wrong ways in which they were right and the right ways in which we can hurt and judge one another.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.